Shabbat Shoftim: Yes, Be Judgmental – Justly

Parashat Shoftim begins with the description of the necessary supervision of an ideal community. First one must have judges, then those who carry out judgments. And of course, judgements must be just – as just as human beings can manage to be. Nuances of law, circumstances of context, and our own internal biases must all be clearly illuminated by careful and thorough thinking, listening, and testing.
Our tradition has developed fantastic teachings for our own every day judgements. On this Shabbat, the first in Elul – when we attempt to become more aware judges of ourselves – I offer you a few guidelines from Jewish ethical teachings:
1. Judges and officers you shall place at all your city gates (Deuteronomy 16.18) 

The human body is a city with seven gates—seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. Here, too, it is incumbent upon us to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out, and “officers” to enforce the judges’ decisions. (Siftei Kohen)

This insight reminds us to judge ourselves and our impressions justly. Are you about to condemn someone’s words or behavior? have you investigated justly (as you would wish to be investigated?
2. Judges and officers you shall place at all your city gates . . . (16.18)

Do not judge alone, for no one can judge alone but the One. (Pirke Avot – “Ethics of Our Ancestors,” 4:8)

Nothing in Judaism can be judged without two witnesses. In Jewish law, you can’t even turn yourself in. No one can be trusted to testify without corroboration.
3. Justice, justice shall you pursue (16.20)

Why does the verse repeat itself? Is there a just justice and an unjust justice? Indeed there is. The Torah is telling us to be just also in the pursuit of justice—both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just.  (Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa)

Our tradition insists that the world can be perfected, and that there are no short cuts, no exceptions, and that no one will be left out.
Jewish tradition urges us that our learning must be followed with action. On this Shabbat may we remember that action is also internal: before we can reach out to work on the world, we have to work on ourselves. May you find the support for the work you yourself must do among all of us, doing our work together to make the world, and ourselves, better.
Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Eclipse Torah: Martin Buber on the Eclipse of G*d

Such is the nature of this hour. But what of the next? 

Religion is essentially the act of holding fast to G*d. And that does not mean holding fast to an image that one has made of G*d, nor even holding fast to the faith in G*d that one has conceived. It means holding fast to the existing G*d. The earth would not hold fast to its conception of the sun (if it had one), nor to its connection with it, but with the sun itself.

In contrast to religion so understood, philosophy is here regarded as the process, reaching from the time when reflection first became independent to its more contemporary crisis, the last stage of which is the intellectual letting go of G*d.

This process begin with our no longer contenting ourselves, as pre-philosophical people did, with picturing the living G*d, to whom one formerly only called – with a call of despair or rapture which occasionally became its first name – as a Something, a thing among things, a being among beings, an It.

The beginning of philosophizing means that this Something changes from an object of imagination, wishes, and feelings to one that is conceptually comprehensible, to an object of thought.


…on the other side, in the development of religion itself….instead of understanding events as calls which make demands on one, one wishes oneself to demand without having to hearken. “I have,” we say, “power over the powers I conjure.” And that continues, with sundry modifications, wherever one celebrates rites without being turned to the Thou and without really meaning its Presence…..

One who is not present perceives no Presence.

…and now one who is seemingly holding fast to G*d becomes aware of the eclipsed Transcendence.

What is it that we mean when we speak of an eclipse of G*d which is even now taking place? Through this metaphor we make the tremendous assumption that we can glance up to G*d with our “mind’s eye,” or rather being’s eye, as with our bodily eye to the sun, and that something can step between our existence and G*d’s as between the earth and the sun. That this glance of the being exists, wholly unillusory, yielding no images yet first make possible all image, no other court in the world attest than that of faith. It is not to be proved; it is only to be experienced; we have experienced it. And that other, that which steps in between, one also experiences, today.


In our age, the I-it relation, gigantically swollen, has usurped, practically uncontested, the mastery and the rule….this I that is unable to say Thou, unable to meet a being essentially, is lord of the hour. This selfhood that has become omnipotent, with all the It around it, can naturally acknowledge neither G*d nor any genuine absolute which manifests itself to us as of non-human origin. It steps in between and shuts off from us the light of heaven.

Such is the nature of this hour. But what of the next? It is a modern superstition that the character of an age acts as fate for the next. One lets it prescribe what is possible to do and hence what it permitted. One surely cannot swim against the stream, one says. But perhaps one can swim with a new stream whose source is still hidden? In another image, the I-Thou relation has gone into the catacombs – who can say with how much greater power it will step forth! Who can say when the I-it relation will be directed anew to it assisting place and activity!

The most important events in the history of that embodied possibility called human begin are the occasionally occurring beginnings of new epochs, determined by forces previously invisible or unregarded. Each age is, of course, a continuation of the preceding one, but a continuation can be confirmation and it can be refutation.

Something is taking place in the depths that as yet needs no name. Tomorrow even it many happen that it will be beckoned to from the heights, across the heads of the earthy archons. The eclipse of the light of G*d is no extinction; even tomorrow that which has stepped in between may give way.

Martin Buber, from Eclipse of G*d, excerpted in The Writings of Martin Buber, ed. Will Herberg (1956)





Shabbat Re’eh: Blessing, and Curse, and Charlottesville

This Shabbat our parashah begins with words that are both simple and profound:
רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה. Look, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse:
אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה–אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתכֶם, הַיּוֹם. blessing, if you hold to the mitzvot of HaShem your God, which you are given this day;
וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם:  לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם. and curse, if you do not hold to the mitzvot of HaShem your God, but instead turn aside from the way which I show you this day, and go after other gods, which you don’t even know. (Deut.11.26-28)
Simple, because most of us can tell the difference between a blessing and a curse pretty quickly. Yet how difficult it is to understand why some see blessing in what others know to be a curse. Just looking is apparently not going to be enough, and so Moshe goes on to refer to a most interesting pedagogical ritual:
וְהָיָה, כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–וְנָתַתָּה אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, וְאֶת-הַקְּלָלָה עַל-הַר עֵיבָל. When HaShem your God brings you into the land you are about to enter, you shall set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal.  (Deut. 11.29)
The way that this works is an unforgettable visual and physical lesson. When the Israelites arrive in the Land of Israel, they are to travel to the area of the city of Shekhem, in central Israel. Nearby they will find two mountains, one called Gerizim and one Ebal. Half of the Israelites are to stand upon each mountain, with the Levites standing in between. The Levites recite the curses that will fall upon those who are not faithful to our people’s Covenant with G*d, and the people say amen, and then the Levites recite the blessings of holding fast to that Covenant, and once again the people respond amen.
What do these two mountains have to do with it? They are chosen because they are indelible visual images of blessing and curse: Mt Gerizim still today is lush and fertile, green and lovely, which Mt Ebal is barren, dry and rocky. And yet they are two mountains that are located right next to each other!
A student of the Rambam – Maimonides – traveled in the Land of Israel in the 14th century and reported that while Ebal was dry, “seventy springs of water flow from Gerizim.” The Hebrew word for a pool of water such as that formed by a spring is bereykhah. The word for “blessing” is berakhah. Gerizim was overflowing with the blessing of life-giving water.
That which overflows with life and sustenance, that which supports growth and beauty, is a blessing. Whatever is coming out of Ebal, big strong mountain that it is, does not support life, and sustenance and beauty do not grow from it. You can’t grow a blessing from a curse.
It is not clear how some of our fellow citizens assert that there is blessing where we most assuredly see a curse, how some can find sustenance in terror and murder, and somehow feel justified. But it is very clear that some of the elected leaders of our United States are causing curses to take root and spread where blessing would have been as easy to nurture – and insisting that they see nothing wrong.
Let’s be clear: what happened in Charlottesville was white supremacist terror inflicted on innocent people; it was a living, ugly curse. Those who opposed it asserted with beautiful courage the reality of blessing in our lives. They were a blessing.
Those who spread hate will in the end be as barren as Mt Ebal, and their names and acts will be as curses. Those who oppose hate will be remembered for blessing, as our tradition says: zikhronam l’vrakha, their memory is a blessing.
Charlottesville is not and will not be unique; but as many times as hatred shows itself, encouraged by irresponsible, cynical, evil people, just as many times you and I will rally against it. All of us, each in our own way, can and must hold fast to the mitzvot that keep us tethered to blessing.
The mitzvah of gathering as we did at City Hall last Sunday to remember and to rededicate ourselves to resistance;
the mitzvah of writing letters to Federal and State officials insisting on human and civil rights;
the mitzvah of looking out for each other, forgiving each other just because we need to magnify love, not anger, right now.


Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Voices From Charlottesville

I stood in a crowd while a mob advocating genocide pepper sprayed us and threw smoke bombs and rocks at us and the police stood by and calmly watched.

They murdered people in my city today. They committed acts of terrorism.

If I ever hear any of you try and derail this into a “free speech” debate or talk about how “both sides” should be accountable, not only will I consider you human garbage, it will become very apparent which side you are actually on.

One cannot be neutral about white supremacy and terrorism and genetic cleansing any more than one can be neutral about child rape. You are either against the Nazis or ok with letting them take over our society and kill me and nearly everyone I love.”

– Kali Cichon

“We are home and safe. The last 24 hours were intense. We initially went to Charlottesville to see Dr. West speak but when we got there, it was full. We ended up doing our best to hold space outside of the Rotunda. We managed not to get surrounded by the fascists with torches so that was good. We did make it down to the protest on Saturday and a got a little bit of yelling in. It was intense.
A few quick things:
1. If, after today, you believe one side is as bad as the other, I have nothing more to say to you ever.
2. I never want to hear anybody trash millennials again. I would estimate the average age of the group who held the space in the rotunda which I was not physically able to do was 25.
3. I lost track of the number of M.AGA hats and shirts I saw on fascists.
4. It turns out that militia members with semiautomatic rifles are the well behaved ones even if they are terrifying. I’m a little afraid this will change later tonight.
5. We have to stand up, even a little bit.

The most important: Black & Brown people are being terrorized every day. I could escape back into whiteness.”

– Lee Ann Kinkade


Lee Ann’s friend who acted as a medic Friday night is in the ICU. This was a horror show.

2 of my friends were there. “You will not replace us , JEW will not replace us” is what they were chanting. One friend , who is Jewish and disabled, was there as the torches poured into the U of V and circled them. She has Cerebral Palsy , and cannot move quickly or with stability . She was with her husband and one other friend who helped her actually run. Lee Ann does not have a body meant for running and she’s gonna be in bed all week. But they feel lucky to have gotten out before the circle of torches completely closed around them.

People had assault weapons with live ammo. Thank god she says the ones with the biggest weapons actually behaved less violently. Lee Ann Kinkade is her name. she said the Kiddush as they were being circled. It was the only prayer she could remember at the time. She wanted to tell me that she held Jewish space and gave Nazis the finger. She felt silly for saying the kiddush. I said she put aside space to be holy , a Jewish space, and it didn’t matter that she was so scared she probably forgot her own name. It was a victory.

The friend in the ICU goes by the name of Star. Can you add their name for a mi sheberakh? She is in surgery now and is expected to live. I just found out.

                                                                        Michelle Levin

MAGA, a Requiem 

I know she told somebody
She’d be careful today.
Before the world broke open and
that Dodge Charger
Dragged down 4th Street looking
For the biggest crowd of black bodies
Still in town.

Call it what it is, sir.
While they wear your hats and chant your name.

Lee Ann Kinkade


Shabbat Ekev: Can You Hear the Footsteps?

Our parashat hashavua, the part of the Torah we study this week, is called Ekev. The word refers to a certain sense of causality: “it will happen that all will be well with you because you follow the divine law” says Moshe to the Israelites: as a result of your devotion to this path, you can expect G*d to be devoted to you, as well, in the Covenant relationship you as a people have sworn to uphold.
The word עקב – ekev – infers the sense of something that follows on the heels of something else. The word ekev also means “heel.” Jacob was named Ya’akov because he was born holding on to the heel (ekev, ya’AKOV) of his twin brother Esav. This is not about coincidence but one thing happening because of another.
The Book Devarim, Deuteronomy, is full of a growing sense of urgency, as the people Israel stand on the edge of the river and wonder what the next steps might bring for their lives, veiled by water and roiled by the uncertainty of the future as they are. Our ancestors have responded to this sense of suspension – between the known “here” and the unknown of the מעבר – ma’avar, the transition they face. As they dive down below the level of פשט pshat, the “surface” level of understanding, their מדרש midrash digging down to deeper levels of seeing derive different insights at different times through different contexts.
Some interpretations are for our personal consideration:
Rashi interprets the use of this word ekev as an allusion to those mitzvot which a person tramples with her heels—the Torah is telling us to respect all the mitvot equally, even those that seem less significant to our finite minds.
Ibn Ezra interprets it in the sense of “in the end” (i.e., “in the heels of,” or in the sense that the heel is at the extremity of the body)—the reward of a mitzvah following on the heels of the mitzvah.
Some interpretations are philosophical, or mystical:
Rabbeinu Bakhyah sees suggestion that we understand and experience only the “heel” of a mitzvah, and cannot appreciate its full measure and worth.
The Baal HaTurim gives a gematriatic explanation: the word ekev is used because it has a numerical value of 172—the number of words in the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Utterances we heard at Sinai.
Some interpretations are national:
 the Tzemach Tzedek sees the use of the word ekev as a reference to ikveta d’meshicha, the generation of “the heels of the Mashiakh.” It is taught that the last generation of the Exile is called “the heels of the Mashiakh” by our tradition for two reasons. First, because human beings will reach their lowest spiritual level before the End of Days comes, and second, paradoxically, it is also the generation in which the approaching presence of the End of Days will be most felt – the footsteps of the Mashiakh will be heard.
There is much in Jewish tradition that speaks of the End of Days with apprehension. “Let the End of Days come, but I do not wish to witness it,” said one Talmudic Rabbi. It will be a time when the center will not hold, when chaos will not seem like an enjoyable variation on a boring life but a maelstrom in which nothing is reliable, and no one is dependable.
“Repent one day before your death,” our tradition urges. Of course, we cannot know that day; but perhaps under the teaching is a sense that when you are afraid of your death, aware of your mortality and its limits, feeling not at all empowered or able to meet the chaos of a day, one remedy may be to do a mitzvah. Every mitzvah brings with it, after all, some small sense that one is still capable of acting meaningfully in the world – the reward, however small it may seem, that follows upon its heels.
And then, even in the face of chaos, of fear, and of meaninglessness – all of which carry death in their wings – in the aftermath of any small mitzvah, any little candle in the wind, we will still be able listen for the steps of hope.