Parashat Korakh: Uprising Time

Five days before this Erev Shabbat, summer time began with the solstice; the perfect balance of day time and night time.

Erev Shabbat Korakh is the 103rd day of Coronavirus Time. We don’t yet know what that balance will be.

Thursday night Portland saw the thirtieth day of street demonstrations, among the street gatherings that have taken place all over the world against the police violence and brutality that led to the murder of George Floyd and far too many others. 

Jewish tradition has a question of balance for us in this time of uprising. It is this: what is the meaning of your anger? What is the purpose of your actions?

Two thousand years ago in a discussion on our parashat hashavua, the Rabbis distinguished between uprisings such as the one led by Korakh, who gives our parashah its name. Not unlike those of us who harbor differing opinions about the nightly clashes between marching protestors and the overarmed and undertrained Portland police department, our ancestors looked to the motivations of the uprising.

Are those who lead the protest focused on forcing change for the good? Or are they looking only to their own need?

The Rabbis developed a doctrine called makhloket l’shem shamayim, which we might best call “disinterested argument” although that translation certainly lacks the charm of “a dispute for the sake of heaven.” Either way, the question here is whether the one disputing is using their leadership for a noble purpose or a base purpose.

How do we know? Personal motivation cannot be judged as clearly as actions. The Rabbis conclude that the truth will out:

כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם.

אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. 

וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ: 

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; 

But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. 

Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? 

Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. 

And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? 

Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation. 

Mishnah Pirke Avot 5.17

Our tradition has never condoned destruction for its own sake; neither in the police violence that has terrorized so many Black and Brown lives, nor in the responses of people who feel that they are unheard and dismissed, and so they turn to destruction. But how shall we judge those who decry vandalism of buildings or statues, and have yet to act to demand that Black Lives, human beings, must Matter more?

The commentaries and interpretations of the story of Korakh in our parashah recognize that the slogan of his uprising was a true statement: “all of the people are holy!” That is our banner as well, all of us who condemn murder at the hands of the police state.  Why then is Korakh’s uprising condemned?

Look closely. Korakh was already in power; a Levite of the Kehati family, already as close to the inner circle as possible, with enough access to the corridors of power that one has to wonder what more he could possibly have needed? The Rabbis see that Korakh wasn’t really leading a revolution; he only wanted access to even more power and prestige.

His was not a makhloket l’shem shamayim, and thus it was doomed to fail, even if there had been no spectacular, Biblical method of downfall. The cost of such a selfishly motivated uprising is, poignantly, the same as the good fight well fought: many innocent people are hurt in the process. 

It is inevitable that in a holy cause, a dispute for the sake of heaven, there will be some Korakh types involved. Our ancestors never made the mistake of condemning all uprisings simply because some are misguided, and all are painful. They knew that change does not come easily, and spoke of the hevlei hamashiakh, the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” which are inevitable when something is being born.

May we be clear sighted and compassionate despite the uproar, and learn to discern the holy within the tumult. It is there.

Shabbat Shelakh L’kha: Trust or Fail

In these days of many kinds of prayers, let us consider the nature of Jewish prayer. Jews pray in highly specific ways, teaching us by way of this mindfulness practice a Jewish ethics of existence.

The first kind of prayer we see demonstrated in our siddur, our makhzor and any other kind of prayer compilation is תהילה tehilah – praise. It is the expression of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called the “radical amazement” of being alive. The morning prayers, for example, remind us to be aware of and grateful for our body’s abilities, of just waking up alive.

The prayer of praise captures that moment when you stand on a mountain top and see the beauty of all that is, and know your place in it. That mountaintop is experienced in parenting, in friendship, in community, in love.

The second kind of prayer is בקשה, bakashah – seeking. It is to see the beauty from the mountaintop and seek the link to that beauty through the ethics and obligations of our days. The vision is wholeness, and the bridge we seek to build to it is the mitzvot of justice and kindness we are taught to fulfill.

Bridge-building is difficult and dangerous, marked by thankless effort, uncertainty and fear. This is true whether one lays bricks across a cavern or reaches out, step by step, to challenge injustice. The one unforgivable sin of this work is to undermine the most important building material of all: trust.

In the parashat hashavua our ancestors had come so close to their vision of wholeness. Before they entered, scouts were sent ahead into the uncertainty. When they returned, they reported much beauty and promise, but also challenges and obstacles to overcome.

The great sin happened here: the people refused to make the effort to trust that the path they were on was worthwhile, that it would indeed lead to the beauty of the vision they longed for. Rather than face the difficulty with trust, they gave in to fear, and lost the moment. They never got another chance; it would be many years of wandering before that bridge would finally be built.

Only three weeks ago on Shabbat we marked Shavuot, the moment when our people stood at a mountain and saw, for once clearly, the meaning of their lives. That moment was marked by fire, by lightning and thunder and the blast of the shofar. It was probably terrifying. Such moments of naked exposure to truth probably always are.

From that mountaintop we have been privileged in these days to see a vision of justice for the United States. Dr Martin Luther King Jr taught us that the road is long and there are no guarantees that any one of us will get there. Not unlike the wilderness generation, many of us have not been taught to trust, and it is terrifying to recognize the might of the evil unleashed among those of us who are Black and Brown. 

On this Juneteenth of 2020, we are privileged to experience the presence of G*d in history and event. The building of the bridge to a better world has made some progress, and that brings us to our third kind of prayer: הודאה, hoda’ah – gratitude.

Little by little, each in our own way, we carry forward our people’s memory of the vision we had on the mountaintop: of community, of justice, and of wholeness. May we be true to it, and trust it in the uncertainty and fear of our days. 

Shabbat shalom and Happy Juneteenth!

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat Naso: Lift Every Face

We have passed thirteen weeks of social isolation now; a most disconsolate tally, longer than our Sefirat haOmer count and much more uncertain. We try to remain patient, and struggle to contain our fears of contagion into vessels of reasonable size. Shabbat comes again, once more without the chance of seeing our Torah in our sacred space. Yet many of us have realized that it’s actually seeing each other that we miss the most. Zoom is a blessing, but only a window into each other’s spaces of isolation. We can’t really see each other’s faces; not the way we used to take for granted.

We have passed more than one week of social upheaval now; all over the United States and beyond, the movement to mourn Black lives lost to police violence in the United States draws more people in one place than we have seen since early March. In the days since we have seen the faces of our neighbors suffused with fear and with righteous anger. These faces, too, we do not see well enough if we only see them through a television screen.

Our parashat hashavua for this week is called Naso. It begins with a directive from on high:

נָשֹׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אש  naso et rosh, “take a census” (BaMidbar 4.22). The idiom in Hebrew is “count heads,” or, literally, “lift up the head.” 

Rabbinic commentary understands this to mean that when we take note of people, it’s not enough to count the bodies in the room; we are to take account of each human being, each unique face – it is to look each person in the eye.

There is a longstanding superstition which states that Jews don’t count each other, that it invites bad luck. One might say in this case that all bets are off when it’s G*d telling us to count, yet perhaps there’s something deeper we can learn: perhaps the backlash only comes when we sofer u’moneh people, counting them the way that HaShem is said to count us on Yom Kippur. We are not G*d, after all. If we look from a distance, without locking our eyes on those of the other, perhaps we are, indeed, bringing something evil upon ourselves and those we count.

When we naso “lift up the head” and look into the face, we have a sense of common humanity, of shared spirit, of real connection, that we are learning we can never have on Zoom nor through any kind of medium that stands between us and another. It is an evil thing, our tradition tell us, when we forget that.

On this Shabbat I urge you to take a deep breath, turn off the news and social media, and spend some time looking at the people in your life, those whose lives are presented to you, who move you, whom you love, and whom you don’t.

First, take a moment to really see someone with whom you share your isolation. Either in your imagination or in reality, look them in the eye. Refresh your vision; turn your gaze to appreciation. Name something that you see now that you couldn’t see at first glance.

Second, consider the faces of those whom you would condemn, fear, or otherwise feel distanced from in your life. Remember that they also have eyes, if we learn how to lift up our own faces to meet theirs. 

Finally, look in your mirror. See your self. Look with compassion for the simple, flawed, lovable human being you see there. Take a deep breath. 

Every life is a unique, precious, irreplaceable spark of the holy in the world.

Shabbat Shavuot: community – a healing of spiritual exile

The mystical doctrine of the sefirot clearly shows that we are all connected. We just don’t always sense it. We spend our life learning through experience and observation that, contrary to the popular American slogan, we are not really “rugged individuals”, solitarily in control of our own fate. First we learn that others will tell us what to do, and we do not have a choice in the matter. Then we learn that we need others to validate our own sense of our existence. Finally, if we are lucky, we come to understand the depth of our interconnectedness with others, and we realize that we could not live without it.
In the ancient world, humans had a much better chance of survival if they banded together and depended upon each other for the fulfillment of common needs – water, food, safety. Today we see demonstrated in many positive and negative ways our dependence upon others and their choices, even as they are affected by us and ours. Thus, in ways we cannot even begin to understand, everything we do reverberates.
No matter what our degree of understanding, the Kabbalah indicates, we must always remember that no event in the universe lacks a specific purpose. In language and content that remarkably mirrors that of contemporary physicists, Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzatto of the eighteenth century observed, “The patterns and systems of all existence [are set up] in such a fashion that all of them are interconnected.” – Edward Hoffman, The Way of Spendour: Jewish Mysticism and Modern Psychology, 39.
For Judaism, to inquire into one’s own life is to engage in the three pillars of the world’s existence and stability: Torah, avodah, and g’milut hasadim – study, prayer, and acts which fulfill our relational responsibility.  Each of the aspects of this three-fold path to personal meaning leads us to other human beings: study is a personal experience of learning which is traditionally pursued in hevruta, a pairing which provides the benefit of the synergy of shared learning; the personal act of prayer (which includes meditation, self-assessment, and other modes) requires a minyan, a group, to invoke holiness; and acts which fulfill relational responsibility demand of us first that we engage the other, so that we might ascertain what is required of us in each individual situation.
We are individuals embedded in communities; we are herd animals, whose welfare often depends upon how others react to us, and we are isolated and lonely, trapped inside our own minds. Much of human history has demonstrated that we cannot exist without each other, yet the strong message of our modern culture is that each must learn to “be yourself”, “find yourself”, “fulfill yourself”. Carol Gilligan first drew our attention to the reality that our first state of existence is to be literally tied to another person, by the umbilical cord upon which each new life depends; yet we also know that to become a functioning adult, we have to separate from that nurturing source, so that we might learn to nurture in our turn.
The problem we’ve discovered in the celebration of individualism is that it is easy to over-emphasize, and there is much to lose by way of this imbalance of the value of the one over against the many.  Sociologist Kenneth Gergen summarizes the problem:
Most authoritative accounts of “the way things are” contain hidden values, the critics surmise, and one of the most problematic of these is the value placed on individualism.
Western culture has long placed a strong value on the individual’s self-determination (usually limited to the male). It is the good person, it is said, who makes his own decisions, resists group pressure, and “does it his way”. It is the spirit of individualism to which the culture pays tribute for economic prosperity, military victories, and a strong democracy. Yet, the critics point out, this same cultural value has many shortcomings. In particular, it invites people to think of themselves as fundamentally isolated, alone to ponder and create their own fate. Because cooperating with others means “sacrificing one’s own desire” to the will of others, individualism also discourages cooperation and the development of community. A me-first attitude is also invited, because if we are all isolated individuals then self-gain is to be preferred to the gain of others. Indeed, propose the critics, if individualism remains the dominant value, the future well-being of the planet is jeopardized. We now possess the means for annihilating all human life, and values that stress independence, self-determination, and self-gain militate against cooperation for the good of all. They foster a context for destructive conflict. – Kenneth Gergen The Saturated Self: Dilemmas Of Identity in Contemporary Life, 97-98.
Charles Guignon describes the challenge of balancing the self and the other in terms of living an authentic life. Considering the nature of human life before the advent of  the modern social emphasis placed on the self, he sees an individuality with much less well-defined boundaries.
The premodern regarded the self as extending into and inextricably intertwined with one’s wider context, “with the specific gods and spirits that inhabit that world, with my tribe, kinship system and family, and with those who have come before and those who are yet to come.”  – Charles Guignon, On Being Authentic, 18.
It is  very much in this spirit that, in the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites understand the moment when they accept the relationship of the community with God to be both a moment in which they participate as individuals, and also a reality which reaches far beyond the individuals who they were. Here the Israelites are seen as individuals who are “inextricably intertwined”, with kinship groups defined in the widest sense, including servants and those who are not kin, but have joined the Israelites in their journey:
You stand this day, all of you, before YHVH your God – your tribal heads, your elders, your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, then stranger in your camp, the woodchopper to the waterdrawer – to enter into the covenant of YHVH your God, which YHVH is concluding with you this day…as he swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I make this covenant not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before YHVH your God, and with those who are not with us here this day. – Deuteronomy 29.9-14
To compare the premodern approach to the modern attitude toward religious belonging is to trace a very long, from the perspective of history, pendulum swing between the self and the community. On one side, the self subsumed by the community through which the individual finds definition. On the other, the self seeking radical separation from the community, again in order to define itself. The modern stance toward the community is that one must separate from it in order to “find oneself” and develop a true sense of one’s selfhood. The community is seen as limiting, even diminishing. Yet in a premodern religious sensibility, interestingly, the sense of individual insignificance which can proceed from a feeling that one belongs to a whole which is far greater than the self, is not necessarily disempowering or negating of the self. Guignon points out that such a sense of the vastness to which one belongs may be what develops the human capacity for awe.
The conception of the self as inextricably tied to a wider context also makes possible the ancient virtue of reverence, a way of experiencing things that includes an awareness of the intricate interwovenness of all reality, the dependence of each person on something greater than him- or herself, the consequent sense of human limitations that comes from such an awareness, and an experience of awe before the forces that lie outside human control. – Guignon, 19.
In the modern period, we are steeped in the supposition that our lives should be dedicated to individuality and independence. We are meant to be autonomous, and no one outside of ourselves can command us. We freely choose, and we can choose to distance ourselves from anyone who does not agree with us or support our choices.
Comparing Guignon’s descriptions of premodern religious thought about personal existence to our own modern assumptions about our God-given selfhood can be an arresting experience. As we have already noted, for modern humans, there is a sense of sovereignty about the self which overturns traditional obedience to religious practices which are undertaken despite personal feelings or willingness. In marked contrast, for premodern religion, “we have an obligation to shape ourselves in order to measure up to an external criterion”:
what is important is not how you feel at any given moment, but rather that you cultivate your feelings so that you will come to feel the right way about the right sorts of things at the right time. Feelings are not givens we have to deal with. They are raw materials we have to work over and discipline in order to make them properly functioning components of a self that is itself a properly functioning component of something greater than itself. – Guignon, 21.
The premodern experience of time is communal; “in this way of experiencing time, there is ‘a sort of mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites’.”
With each periodical festival, the participants find the same sacred time – the same that had been manifested in the festival of the previous year or in the festival of a century earlier; it is the time that was created and sanctified by the gods….in other words the participants in the festivel meet in it the first appearance of sacred time, as it appeared ab origine, in illo tempore (at the origin, in that time]. – Mircea Eliade, cited in Guignon, 22
One of the most central commandments of Pesakh is that “in each generation, one must see oneself as if one personally came out of Egypt, bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, in those days at this time.” (Haggadah Shel Pesakh)  The movement of the people from slavery to freedom was the greater context within which each individual found a meaningful path because each knew herself to be part of a greater meaning. One’s commitment to that path, defined not by oneself but by the community, might be seen by some moderns as limiting of the freedom to choose one’s own way; or it might be seen as ultimately freeing oneself from a nightmare of existential anxiety in which one cannot make meaningful decisions about how to live because one first must daily decide who one is!
The power of the ancient story of the Israelite Exodus to lift human beings out of existential gridlock and into a life suffused with meaning and depth in every activity is such that it has reached far beyond its original cultural context; the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s drew form for its passion, and passionate rhetoric, from the Jewish redemption story. On the day before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. defined the meaning of his life not by his own quality or length of life, but by the life of the people of which he knew himself to be an integral part:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! Www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm
Here is a sense of being at home in the world despite what happens to oneself, because one knows with whom one belongs. Guignon describes the perspective of the pre-modern person who knew the group in which she belonged:
given such an outlook, it was possible to have a fairly strong sense of life’s meaning – an ability to feel oneself to be part of some overarching scheme of things that ultimately (if not evidently at any particular moment) made sense. In such a worldview, you just are what you do. A person just is what he or she does in performing socially established roles and carrying out the functions necessary to the smooth functioning of the wider context of the world. – Guignon, 24
We of early 21st century America do not live in that world. In our modern world, the idea of the self has expanded, and now people are admired who are “individualists”. The modern human being considers herself to be autonomous, deciding for herself what she will do, who she will be. Conformism with groups is derided, and the creative loner is romanticized. Why is it, then, that in this wonderful world of self-celebration, we find ourselves feeling much more alone?
Part of the problem, in Yom Kippur terms, may be found in the imbalance of the self vis-à-vis others, and vis-à-vis God.
The worldview that emerges with the rise of modern science is anthropocentric to the extent that it treats the human self – understood as the knowing subject who objectifies, knows and controls – as the center of the universe….At the end of this transition what is left is a world consisting of raw materials at our disposal; nature is encountered, in Heidegger’s words, as a giant filling station supplying energy for our needs. – Guignon 32-33
“Where before our goal on earth might have been seen as finding our place in the cosmos or compliance with God’s will, the new aim is seen as attaining power and mastery over nature.”  This reminds us of more ancient words: p’ru ur’vu umil’u et ha’aretz v’khivshuha, “be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it.”  While this would seem to indicate that it is God’s will that we impose our own will on all other forms of life and the planet itself, we also find, not long after, that God put the human in the garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah, “to work it and to guard it.” (Genesis 2.15)  And so we see that the promise of mastery over nature, our opportunities to take for ourselves of its riches, comes with the responsibility to use our power to preserve and guard the world which sustains and enriches us. Like everything else we shall explore, there is a balance here, between the appetites of this moment and our ability to envision what may yet be. Eyzehu khakham?  haro’eh et hanolad, “who is wise? one who can see what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9)  When we make what we think are individual choices, what is the impact upon the world of which we are a part? Who would have thought that, by exploring our own potential, we might tip the balance too far in the other direction, and lose track of the way back, or forward, to go home again?
We have left the Garden of Eden, as a place where we knew exactly who we were and what we were to do – and not do. The resulting exile in which we find ourselves is like that of the first humans; they left not the only home they had ever known, but also the certain nearness of God’s presence, with all its implications for covenant, commitment and belonging. Faced with the aimless freedom of that perspective, Pascal wrote, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” (Cited in Guignon, 42)  Our modern predicament is that we have reasoned ourselves into the realization that
We are finite beings who face an end that will define the whole of our being once and for all. It is entirely up to us what that life amounts to, what it adds up to in the end. We are the authors of our fate. Moreover, the meaning and value of that life depends not on our outer accomplishments, but solely on the condition of our inner self: the decisions and commitments we make in shaping our own souls as we traverse life’s path….You have but one life to live. This is not a rehearsal. The clock is ticking; time runs its course. It is up to you to make something of your life. You have only yourself to turn to.  – Guignon 40
We have struggled to free ourselves from external coercive forces, but unfortunately for us, those forces are implicit in a meaningful connection to one’s home, family, and community. In disconnecting from external impositions on our freedom, have unmoored ourselves. The Jewish paradigm for this reality is the call to Abraham: lekh l’kha m’artzekha, mimoladet’kha umibeyt avikha, “leave your land, your home and your family”. (Genesis 12.1) In this command, and in Abraham’s response, we see the uneasy balance of the individual and the need for community: Abraham, accompanied by his wife Sarah, follows the call he hears, which takes them far away from home. But the first thing that the couple does, according to the medieval teacher Rabbi Shlomo Yitzkhaki (better known by his acronym Rashi) is to begin to invite others to join them. Their journey as the first Jews can only be meaningful if they create a community.
This is the deeper spiritual meaning of exile: it occurs when we are distanced from a sense of belonging, and from a sense of home. We are in exile from each other when we trust less and less in our neighbors and even those with whom we join in community groups, to the point that not everyone is willing to have their name and address listed even in a synagogue’s internal directory of members. We are in exile from each other when we insist on our own individual rights over the common welfare, making personal choices which detract from the common good. And we are in exile from each other when we cling to the belief that we are actually independent individuals, ignoring complex human networks of production, distribution and social organization upon which we depend every time we turn on an electric light, drop by the store to buy bread, or proceed through a green light in our automobile, confident that the traffic at the crossroad has stopped.
And we are painfully in exile from each other when we lose touch with old friends because someone moved away; when we cannot find the time to nurture friendships because everyone is so busy; when we lose family connections after a harsh word or a misunderstanding is allowed to go unhealed. We will not become ourselves without clearing up tangled connections between us and those others upon whom our physical and psychological well-being depends – and we will not find clarity until we learn that we are not  and cannot ever be alone.
It is paradoxical to consider that to become ourselves as individuals, we must be willing to reach outside the self and commit ourselves to the others with whom we interact in our every day lives, those who make up our community. Yet, as Carol Gilligan  pointed out in her In a Different Voice, the real paradox is that we consider ourselves first and foremost individuals, when our first existential reality in the world is one of ultimate connectedness – the umbilical cord and the breast, upon which we depended, once upon a time, for our very lives.
The longing in human nature which is understood by psychology to be a desire to return to the idyll of early childhood, characterized as it is by the certainty of being safe and cared for by others, is expressed religiously in terms of gan Eden, the primeval garden of wholeness and peace that we remember in our past, and search for in our future, throughout our lives.
We will not be happy there alone: lo tov heyot adam levado, “it is not good for the human being to be alone.” (Genesis 2.18) Judaism envisions the future garden as a place we work toward together, within the covenant relationship with share with God, into which we entered together. It requires of us our full presence, our full commitment to the journey, “with all your intellect, with all your passion, with all of what you are”.  (Deuteronomy 6.5)

Shabbat BaMidbar: Now It Gets Scary

Have you begun to ration your news consumption yet? Many of us are finding it the only way to get through a week in these strange and stressful times. Just scanning headlines can feel as if one is absorbing blow after blow of disappointment, concern, anger, and yes, of fear.

One source of guidance – I do not say consolation – in these days is the knowledge that our ancestors have been down this path before. Somehow, those who came before us developed the discipline, the courage, the ability to continue to give Shabbat all the respect of focused Jewish practice in the face of worse situations than ours. In fact, it becomes a kind of special Jewish resistance to refuse to let the fears of the moment overwhelm the legacy of a lifetime.

The fourth book of the Torah, which we begin to read again this Shabbat, is called BaMidbar. The parashat hashavua is therefore also called BaMidbar, since the name is derived simply from the first recognizable word of each section of text.

BaMidbar is translated “in the wilderness.” (The Hebrew is so much more evocative than the English name “Numbers.”) In this endlessly repeated paradigm of Jewish existence, something compels us to leave the encampment at the foot of the mountain where we have taken refuge since leaving Egypt. We set out into an unknown future, heading for a destination that it turns out none of us will reach. The uncertainty of each day is compounded by emotional blows: repeated outbreaks of violence, fueled by the unrelenting stress of fear.

Our ancestors wondered as they wandered in the wilderness of Sinai: Who to believe? What path to follow? How to stay safe? And how to survive the blows of chance that will continue to fall? Later generations have had reason to ask the same questions, and now it is our turn.

The time of their wilderness wandering did not at first seem that it would be long. Geographically, the land of their dreams was not a long journey away. But things don’t always work out as planned. There’s an old Yiddish (of course) expression for that: mensch trakht, Gott lakht, “human beings make their plans, and G*d laughs.”

I imagine a G*d laughing not derisively at our naïveté but sadly, the way that Jewish humor is a form of laughter through and despite bitter tears. We make our plans, we look forward to a happy, sunny, or at least safe future for ourselves and those we love.

We who take refuge in plans, we don’t like uncertainty. It is anxiety-provoking and unpleasant. The wilderness of BaMidbar is difficult and fearsome, and seems to take a lifetime to traverse. Whether it actually did or not, it felt like an unending horror. 

The discomfort of uncertainty is nevertheless necessary if we are to move. The anguish of frustration and fear is the spur that we need if we are ever to arrive at that place which is the other side of the wilderness. And, just like love, we cannot avoid uncertainty, anxiety, and fear if we would live a full, meaningful life.

Where are we going? On an endless, uncertain, frightening journey. We don’t know where it will lead. 

We cannot have the reassurance that our plans will be realized. All we can have is the eternally present experience of our ancestors which flows through us all, whether we were born or chosen into this people. 

We can only hold hands (masked and gloved for now!) and step forward together, into the uncertainty, into the future. 

We are taught that for our people, the way forward is together: kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh , all Israel stands in support of each other. (Babylonian Talmud, Sh’vuot 39a) 

And we are taught that in this struggle we Jews find our greatest meaning: if the uncertainty never ends, so also our Torah – source of the meaning that supports the structuring of a life – will also never end for us.

Why was the Torah given in the wilderness? 

To teach us that if one does not surrender oneself to the wilderness, 

one cannot understand the words of Torah. 

And to teach us that just as the wilderness is endless, 

so is the Torah without end. 

(Pesikta d’Rav Kahana)

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat BeHar-BeHukkotai: The Torah of Tokhekhah

COVIDלֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃

You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart. Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of them. – VaYikra 19.17

On this Shabbat we come to the end of the book VaYikra, Leviticus, and we are confronted by a difficult section of the Torah called the tokhekha, “reproof.” We already learned a few weeks ago the mitzvah above, that rather than be angry or condemning of another person because of their behavior, one should find a way to speak up.

This has been called the most difficult mitzvah of the entire Torah, and not for the reason one might immediately infer. Yes, it is difficult to confront someone whose behavior is causing distress to oneself or to others, but that is not the worst of it. The worst of it is if your attempt to repair a breach causes one which is greater.

In these days of frustration, of anger – even rage – at the politicization of so much that should not be, one of the greatest challenges is that of remaining loyal to the vision we each have for ourselves as ethical human beings. 

When we are confronted with official callousness towards deaths caused by COVID-19 or by state violence, when against our better judgement we tune in and watch a presidential press conference, when reading the news about some group that protests its inconveniencing blindly using high-sounding rhetoric, it is difficult not to run afoul of the mitzvah of tokhekhah. 

We might find ourselves wanting to descend into hating those who hate, and dismissing as worthless those who seek power and profit at the expense of many lives. And here is the real challenge.

Judaism teaches that every human being is born holy. Each one of us reflects the light of the divine. When we deny that, we undermine our own ethical strength in these days.

A story:

A Jew, badly used by her employer, fell into the self-serving trap of complaining endlessly to everyone she could about the bad behavior from which she suffered. Finally one day her interlocutor responded: “He must be in so much pain to be so cruel.”

She was brought up short. A new perspective opened before her. Rather than sinking to the level of responding to negativity with her own negativity, she began to reflect upon the possibility of feeling sorry for the boss who had caused her so much grief. His behavior was, after all, pathetic. She realized that it was a two-way dance, and that up to that moment, she had been, all unwittingly and feeling the victim, willing to play her part in it.

From that day, even though she continued to work for him, her boss never again hurt her the way he had. His behavior did not change; her willingness to accept it did.

The real danger of evil people is that they drag us down, slowly and by self-righteous degrees, to their level of human interaction. This is the failure of tokhekhah. The only way to rebuke someone without failing is to cling to the standard we’ve set for ourselves, no matter the temptation to “fight fire with fire” or to “give as good as you get.”

Stay focused on the pure, clean light within you. Let it seek out the spark of light in all life that surrounds you. This is the ethical work of our days.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel