Israel and Palestine: Come and Learn

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Shabbat Hukkat: I Have Seen Outrage

This parashat hashavua, this Torah reading of the week, chronicles a time of terrible crisis for our people. The leaders we rely on are disappearing; the path is lost in a cloud of doubt and fear; the G*d of justice feels very far away.


The relevance of parashat Hukkat is profound and somewhat unnerving to those who believe that human nature forces us to repeat our mistakes unendingly. I’m grateful that Judaism offers a more hopeful answer to our existential questions: we are capable of learning from the past, and doing better.


In this parashah, Miriam dies, shortly followed by Aaron; in between, Moshe makes the fatal mistake that dooms him to die before the end of the journey. For the people of Israel, we are losing our parents. In these moments we see them for who they really are – flawed and precious human beings – and realize that it is now our turn. Old certainties die with the elders who knew more than we, and we see that there is no one else to lead us forward in these times but us.


And these times: the Psalmist offers a striking description of our situation.


Listen to my prayer, do not ignore my plea

I sway and moan

From the crushing force of the wicked

My heart quails within me

And death-terrors fall upon me

Fear and trembling enter me

And horror envelops me

I say “would that I had wings like a dove

I would fly off and find rest.”

I have seen outrage and strife in the city

Day and night disaster upon the walls

Guile and deceit never far from the square.

Tehillim 55.3-12 (excerpted)


In these times there is no one who can say with a voice we innately trust, as a parent might, that everything will be all right; many of us find ourselves following one voice, then another, as if jumping from rock to rock to cross a stream. This, too, is progress of a sort, and it can even be constructive, if we are choosing well where to put our feet.


Our Jewish tradition offers support for our feet as well as our tired hearts in an obscure story at the end of our parashah. It records that our people found themselves in a wilderness called by the Torah’s narrator Be’er, a word for “well” in Hebrew.


The people sang a song to the well:

Spring up, O well – sing to it!

The well which the leaders dug,

Which the generous of the people started

With their own hands.

BaMidbar 21.17-18


For Jewish tradition, a well is a common symbol for Torah. Even as water is life, for Jews, Torah is life-giving. Not the scroll itself, but what it represents: the Jewish community gathered around it to together puzzle out our responses to the mysteries of our lives; the source of the Jewish ethics and history that reassure us that we are not the first to struggle.


The leaders we seek – the leaders we must ourselves become – are those who dig for that sustenance; they are those who are generous with their time, the fruit of their study, and their resources that support our Torah study. Each one of us has a role to play in making sure that we all have access to life-giving, passionate Torah – the supportive source of that which sustains our ability to survive in these times of wandering and fear.

Shabbat Korakh: A Time To Rebel

There is a time for every purpose under heaven – Kohelet 3.1


This week’s parashah recounts a familiar place to we who are living the nightmare of what the United States has become. As our ancestors in parashat Korakh, we find ourselves in the middle of a long wandering. As then, we are lost, with no clear end to the frightening uncertainty in sight. Friends are irritable with each other, fights break out, people use unkind words. Those with selfish motives take advantage of the confusion.


Out of the general misery, some step forth and offer the clarity of their leadership – and just as now, our ancestors were faced with the question of whose voice to heed. Was it right to continue to follow Moshe, Miriam and Aaron? Or was another Levite, their cousin Korakh, correct in his assessment that those who led us out of Egypt had lost their way?


The Rabbis of antiquity experienced the oppression of the Roman Empire, out of which Jewish voices such as that of Bar Kokhba, the leader of a great rebellion against Rome, promised release. Then as now, rebellion against unjust power may be called for, but how are we to discern the best way, the proper time, the reason and the rationale?


They developed an effective way to judge which of the charismatic voices clamoring for our attention might be the right ones to follow:


Makhloket l’shem shamayim, “strife for the sake of heaven,” according to the Talmud, refers to honorable dissent. Its opposite, makhloket which is not for “the sake of heaven” is that which is self-centered, indulges in ad hominem attacks, and is doomed to fail.


Korakh is the classic case of the wrong kind of strife, teach the Rabbis: he failed because his words showed that, in essence, he did not care about the best leadership for the Israelite people. He simply wanted to be leader himself, and resented having been relegated to a supportive role in the community structure.


The doctrine of makhloket l’shem shamayim is still a Jewish ethical ideal today, encouraging us to engage with our opposition respectfully when we disagree. We are commanded to use just weights and just measures in our communal interactions with each other; just ends require just means.


As for the right time, and the right way, to rise up against power, rabbinic Judaism teaches that the highest value is that of preserving life: both the lives of the oppressed and the life of one who would act for justice. Martyrdom is not a Jewish value; living to fight another day is.


You are not required to complete the work, yet neither are you exempt from doing your part. – Pirke Avot 2.16


The wandering is long and uncertain; the work is piecemeal and slow.


True voices of justice are full of patient compassion, true arguments leave room for learning and growth, and true leadership rallies the best of the entire community. May we find it within ourselves to step up with our best when we can, despite the stress of fear, and may we never forget that kindness toward each other is the only firm grounding upon which we may expect to build a more just world.