Shabbat Matot-Masey: We’re In This Together

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,
On this Shabbat we read a double parashah, both Matot and Masey, and at the end of it we finish the Book BaMidbar, the account of much wandering in geography and in relationships.
And in this specific Torah narrative, part of the second year of the Triennial Cycle of reading, we begin with the story of two brothers who decide that they will better off if they separate from the larger family.
The tribes of Reuven and of Gad were herders, and they saw that the land on the east side of the Jordan river was good grazing land. So they said to Moshe, “this land through which we are traveling is good land for grazing. Rather than cross the Jordan river, we prefer to stay on this side and settle here.”  –BaMidbar 32.1-5, excerpted.
It seems a reasonable statement of intent, not unlike the act of the one who gets to camp first and chooses the best spot available for her tent, or the volunteer who joins the moving crew on behalf of a helpless older person but leaves when it suits him. We’re all part of the group, until the individual in each of us emerges to claim our individual status. And it’s all innocent enough, until the desire to take care of oneself becomes après moi le deluge, as King Louis XIV was supposed to have said: after I get mine, who cares what happens?
In times like ours, fear of personal danger or loss may cause us to feel something similar, to hesitate before joining a group to protest, or putting oneself at the front line of a cause. It’s a natural enough human desire, to stay safe and to keep those one loves safe with one – to circle the wagons against the common threat, but to look for the best and safest place among those wagons for oneself.
And so Moshe confronted the leaders of the tribes of Reuven and of Gad, saying “will you abandon your family now, when you are needed to help protect and defend the group? Will you betray the people of which you are a part because you have found a separate place to which to escape?” – BaMidbar 32.6, more or less.
Moshe’s point echoes that of Mordecai, the Jew in Persia who confronted the Queen his niece at a similar moment:
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. One the contrary, if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your family’s house wil perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained your royal position just for this purpose?” – Megillat Esther 4.13-14.
None of us can truly separate ourselves from what is happening all around us. Those people who are homeless are no different from us, and thus all our homes are less secure. Those children who are separated from their parents are our children, and the world of our children is less safe. Those immigrants, people of color, Muslims, trans people, and all other targeted human beings are us, and we are all in this together.
If we have position, privilege, and resources, now is not the time to hoard them, but to hear Mordecai’s question: what have you been given these blessings for? If we would leave the group because there may be a more comfortable reality that presents itself to us, would considering Moshe’s demand change our thoughts? Would you leave your people – your fellow Jews, your companions in Portland citizenry, those who are not your social class but who share your life with you every day?
During the Three Weeks period we are encouraged to reflect upon not our personal faults, as we do on Yom Kippur, but upon our communal failings. What part did each individual play in the fall of the Jerusalem Temple on the 9th day of Av, Tisha B’Av, 2000 years ago? What part does each of us play in the destruction we fear in our own lives?
Neither personal, nor local, nor national borders will protect us from the acts we allow, enable, or fail to stop. This is one of the first lessons of Jewish ethics: that which you do to another affects you as well. But let this also be a reason for hope: when each of us commits to each other, none of us need ever be alone.
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Shabbat Balak: Do You Know Where You Stand? Do You Know Why?

Thousands of years ago, a prophet appearing in our parashat hashavua, Bil’am ben Be’or, stood on a high place overlooking the tents of the people of Israel. He had been tasked with cursing the people, at the order of King Balak, who had hired him. Balak feared the presence of these immigrants at his border and it was Bil’am’s job to drive them away.
I write you this erev Shabbat email from the front line of @OccupyICEPDX, literally from the line of chairs set in front of the yellow police tape separating pro-immigrant, anti-ICE protesters from DHS police.
People on our side of the line are sitting in camp chairs, standing holding signs, reading, handing each other water. The poiice must stand next to the cars blocking the road, in full uniform, taking turns standing in the sun. This is now the second day of this confrontation. While the protesters and their tents were careful never to block the road or any access, even to the bike route, the Federal DHS has blocked the street with cars marked Federatl Protective Service Police. The word is that OHSU lawyers are working to force DHS to allow traffic through. For the meantime, the protesters are aware that those who need to commute to the south waterfront are losing patience with the situation, and they can’t help but blame all sides – as if all sides were equally at fault!
Why are the people depicted in this photo there? What inner sense of certainty does a person need to have in order to live in a protest encampment for over a week now? What kind of ethical clarity moves those of us who seek to support them? For that matter, what is the person in the uniform, wearing riot gear, armed with a gun, need to know with all his or her heart to be true?
Well, we might say, they are Americans – by which we mean citizens of the United States; there are many other Americans in South and North America. Many of us who oppose the acts of ICE would say that we seek to uphold the true values of the U.S., as enshrined in Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-toseed, to me. I lift my light beside the golden door.”
Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 into a large Sefardi Jewish family and well-educated from an early age; one of the early influences upon her life and beliefs was that of the Civil War. Although she wrote much poetry and was a social activist, it took the immigration of Jews from Russia, her people, to inspire her to her greatest work, and lead her to create the poem that sums up the special nature of the United States as a haven for immigrants.  (Read more about her here.)
Although she was very much a patriot and very much a citizen of the United States, it was only when Emma Lazarus deepened her sense of identity as a Jew and a member of her people that she was able to do her greatest work.
We find ourselves in a curiously similar state today. Many of us “just feel that we have to do something” as people who are citizens of the U.S. Like Emma Lazarus, we are lucky enough to also be Jews, and to have a strong and ancient tradition in which to ground ourselves. It is in this older, multi-valent tradition that we will find the certainly and ethical clarity that will root us when the controversy over how to be an “American” is violent and angry.
Jews can quote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with the best of them; thank G*d, we also have justice, justice you shall pursue (Deut. 16.18) and you shall not oppress the stranger (Ex.23.9). With the Jewish value on one hand and the U.S. ethic on the other, we can know more clearly where we stand, and where we should.
Some will march tomorrow morning, on Shabbat; others will study Torah, or daven. May we all know where we stand and why as clearly as possible, lest our attempt to stand for something be as misunderstood as poor Bil’am, who wasn’t even there because he believed in what he was doing, only because someone else invited him.

Shabbat Shelakh L’kha: There Are People Living There

Once again, the scouts of Sh’lakh-L’kha are left holding the bag.

Every year around this time we Jews who engage in weekly Torah study again reach this story, of the moment when our ancestors stood at the verge of the land they had traveled to find, the land of their ancestral home. Scouts sent ahead to reconnoitre come back from their mission and report in. Ten of them say this: the land does indeed flow with milk and honey.

But please know this: there are people living there.

The other two scouts discount the report; in their opinion everything will be fine, if the people will only trust in G*d.

Jewish tradition blames the ten scouts for calumniating the Land, and for causing the people of Israel to doubt, and then to rebel against, the leadership that had brought them to this point. Two thousand years of commentary has piled it on: they brought bias into what should have been a neutral report. They were guilty of cowardice. They aided and abetted idolatry! In short, their honest voices are covered in loud, angry blame. The two scouts that would have us close our eyes and trust are held up as the only appropriate model.

Those of us who have come to oppose Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory beyond the Green Line might sometimes feel like those ten scouts. Yes, we carry a difficult message, and we do get blamed, sometimes loudly, as a result. Jewish anxiety over Israel is profoundly deep, and we have good reason to fear an onslaught of anger that is out of proportion, and hurtful.

Rabbis have lost jobs, many Jews have suffered social ostracism and more, for speaking the message of the scouts aloud: there are people living there.

For rabbis, I believe that we must remember that we are ordained not rabbi for a town or a community, but “rabbi in Israel”. Of what purpose is our work if we do not honor the primary relationship we share with all the history, the people, and the land of Israel by acting with all the integrity of which we are capable? As Rabbi Israel Salantar, the founder of Musar (an early modern school of Jewish ethics), said, please pardon his gendered language, “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is not really a rabbi, and a rabbi who fears his community is not really a man.”

I believe it to be an essential part of my rabbinic duty to respectfully and clearly share my thoughts, concerns and hopes for Israel in ways that teach Torah. I’ve encountered rabbis who share my views but are hesitant to speak out about them to their constituencies, worried about offending anyone or failing to maintain impartiality. Yes, there will be strong and negative feelings from some, but others welcome the chance to hear more than one honest rabbinic opinion about the best way forward for our beloved Israel.

Jews with right wing views tell me that they feel a passionate responsibility to speak out for the sake of Zion. Jews with more moderate views feel that responsibility just as keenly, do they not? Further, as a citizen of the United States, I know that healthy discourse requires more than one thoughtful, caring perspective. We do ourselves and our people a disservice when we allow one viewpoint a monopoly on public opinion. My silence might lead those who hear me to believe that their only options are to be hawkish or stay silent.

We are Jews, and we must seek out Torah. We are not required to be political experts, but we should be learning every ethical Jewish text we can find about Israel, from Jeremiah, to Kamtza and bar Kamtza, to the simple Torah text that commands us to help our enemy raise the mule that has fallen under its load.

The most sensitive issues are where our learning is most needed.  An end to the occupation and a peaceful resolution to the conflict are vital to safeguarding Israel’s future. We dare not allow ourselves to turn away from our people’s homeland, and so we need to re-learn, and insist upon, makhloket l’shem shamayim, the art of talking honestly, openly and respectfully about the challenges Israel faces. We can’t let raised voices deter us from our duty to guide our people in the moments when they most need our support.

For Zion’s sake I will not be silent.  – Isaiah 62.1

(This d’var Torah appeared in the Times Of Israel in 2016 as an op-ed.)

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: Lift It Up

Last week the parashah began with the command to lift up every face; this week, the word beha’alot’kha, “in your lifting up” refers to raising up the lights of the menorah, the seven-branched lamp designed by G*d, according to Jewish tradition, to illuminate the holy place.
To lift up the face is to see the eyes, and to take account of each human soul. To lift up light is, literally, to raise a light and to cause it to shine far and wide. The two parshiot together summon us to an act both lovely and heroic: to look each other in the eye, and to lift up the light we find in each eye so that our combined light can illuminate the darkness. What more relevant message could the Torah bring to us in our time…
Nishmat adam ner HaShem – “the human soul is G*d’s light,” says the Psalmist. Each of us has a soul like a firefly, briefly, blinkingly, lighting up our surroundings. Seven of us – the count in a menorah – shed a bit more light. How many menorot might it take to light up the despair some of us might feel on any given day, these days? Jewish tradition says that the critical mass is a minyan of ten. We know there is strength and support in numbers (and indeed, we are in the Book of Numbers).
The wisdom of our ancestors offers us two linked lessons on this Shabbat, derived from the juxtaposition of last week’s and this week’s parashiot. First: every pair of human eyes bears the light of a human soul. To forget this, and to demonize any human being, is to lose hold of the spiritual path that we follow and that supports us. Second: each one of us who so chooses can light up the world, just a little bit, by standing up in a place of darkness to share our light.
That might mean intervening in lashon hara’, when you hear someone speaking in a way that dehumanizes any other person; it might mean a donation in support of causes that shed light; and it might mean joining me, if you are in Portland, this Sunday June 3 downtown (do you remember how we gathered, so many of us, last year on Sunday June 4?) to declare that we will not cede our public spaces to those who preach hate and exclusion.
The great human being and rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr marching in Selma. Afterward he said that he felt that his legs were doing the praying at that time. This Shabbat, we will pray to remind ourselves of the values we seek to raise up by the way we live. On Sunday, pray with your legs if you can, and join me in raising up the light of those values in the public spaces of our city, that so badly need the light of love that values every human soul.

Shabbat Naso: Look Me In The Eye

The word that identifies this week’s Torah text is naso, part of the idiom naso et rosh, is correctly translated “take a census,” or, more simply, “count heads.” The actual Hebrew wording is more beautiful; it literally says “lift up the head.” In other words, for our ancestors, to count someone was to look that person in the eye, and to take account of that specific human being.

This parashah begins innocuously enough with a description of the work assigned to different Levite families: Kehat, Gershon, and Merar. Each family unit had a special job in connection with erecting or dismantling the Mishkan and carrying it as well. Only Levites could come this close, and they had to regularly watch to keep themselves free from tum’ah in order to fulfill this duty.

It’s as logical a segue as we will ever find that the Torah’s next subject is that of keeping the Israelites’ camp clean. Anyone experiencing tum’ah or capable of transmitting it to someone else was to be sent outside the dwelling area until the tum’ah could be cleared.

What is tum’ah? It’s a subject we come back to again and again in the Torah. We moderns come to it influenced by interpretations that call it a form of impurity (cue the caricature of the person calling “unclean!” while walking through the village). But if we  meet the ancients on their ground the reality is more nuanced.

It seems likely, according to the academic scholarship on the matter, that most Israelites were tam’eh most of the time, and that was no problem since the only time one needed to be tahor (the opposite condition) was in order to take part in ceremonial aspects of Israelite ritual. To be tam’eh, then, has something to do with one’s ability – or, in this case, inability, to participate in community engaged in ritual.

You are tam’eh if you have just buried someone, or if you have just given birth, or if you experience unusual flow from your reproductive organs. You are tam’eh if you have been in the presence of someone else who is tam’eh. And, interestingly, by virtue of juxtaposition, it seems that you are tam’eh if you wrong one of the people with whom who share your community. According to our text,

When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a companion, thus breaking faith with HaShem, 

The next case brought by the Torah – and we are still informed by the principle of juxtaposition, which indicates that this is somehow related to what just came before – this next case describes the situation in which any one of us has wronged another in our community. Note that to do so is much more than simply wronging a fellow human; the Torah insists that to wrong the other in our midst is to ‘מעל בה – literally, to betray HaShem. This is an utterly powerful statement. To wrong another person is to wrong G*d.
It’s interesting to note that here, as in every other case of tum’ah, nothing can be done about it until the state of being – the tum’ah – is recognized. As the verse goes on:
and that person realizes his guilt, that person shall confess the wrong s/he has done. S/he shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who has been wronged. (Numbers 5.7)

Healing the situation is straightforward, the law is clear and easy, but it can only happen after a person realizes that a wrong has been committed. Until this is done, the person who committed the wrong is tam’eh, and is unable to take part in the religious activities of the community. The person wronged is unable to fully participate as well, due to the damage done to that person.

What would our communities be like if we were as careful to sweep tum’ah from, as it were, the midst of our camps, by focusing upon, and righting, the wrongs done among us, each to each other?
Would our U.S. community be required to pay reparations – the value plus one-fifth – to all wronged by our government’s policies – African Americans enslaved, Native Americans slaughtered and robbed, the stranger among us persecuted and oppressed?
Would our Portland community be required to readjust budgets and future planning to pave streets in poor neighborhoods, restore the potential of innocents punished as guilty and people of color sidelined, repair the lives of the marginalized people that should have been protected and served?
What would our own community need to do? How can any of us discern whether we have wronged another in our midst, thus driving the Presence of G*d from us? The way our parashah urges us to take is here in the opening verse: look into the eyes of our companions and really see them, in the sense taught to us by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber: to see the other as a presence, deserving of our respect and attention, not a projection of ourselves who ought to already understand us.
Here is one act: our congregation has endorsed a national Jewish campaign to stand up for Trans people at this time of vulnerability for our Trans sisters and brothers. Take a look at all you can join in learning and doing in support of righting this wrong, and sweeping this tum’ah out of our midst: Kavod Akhshav: Dignity for Trans Youth. May it bring the Presence of G*d closer to us all.

On this Shabbat, in a world in which so many are wronged, where the earth itself is crying out its pain, consider that real caring community starts among us, and begins when we lift up our own heads to meet each other’s eyes, so that each of us can say to the other, here, come in: sit down. Share my bread and wine. Let us walk together. Only then can we begin to let down our protective walls and be seen, and only then can we truly see each other. That’s the clean, safe, happy camp the Israelites were trying to create. May we learn to live so in our own days, and may we understand that it is the first step toward the better world we pray for.

Shabbat BaMidbar and Shavuot 5778: Into The Wilderness

Our parashat hashavua is called after the name of the book it opens, BaMidbar, “in the wilderness.” The first verse is both simple and completely mysterious:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai (1:1)
This is the Shabbat before Shavuot, the Festival on which we commemorate the day when the people of Israel stood in G*d’s presence and received from that moment the heart of the Torah, the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words. I invite you to join me in considering that simple, and profound, idea.
First: “G*d spoke to Moshe.” what does it mean to say that G*d spoke?
 
Second: a human being, Moshe, experiences a sense of connection with G*d. We are so used to it in the Torah that we read blithely over it, looking for the action, forgetting as we humans do to be awed by the thought of what it means to be in the Presence of G*d. 
 
Third: what is the content of the davar, the word that G*d speaks? In Jewish tradition, that content is Torah, writ large: our tradition considers all learning that leads to spiritual wholeness to be Torah, not just the five books we keep in a sacred scroll.
Ancient wisdom tells us plainly that such Torah is not heard, or received, easily. We don’t get it on the couch watching television, nor even simply hiking through the woods. It comes when we know that we are standing in the Presence.
 

By three things was the Torah given: by fire, water and wilderness. By fire, as it is written (Exodus 19:18): “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G‑d descended upon it in fire.” By water, as it is written (Judges 4:4): “The heavens also dripped, yes, the clouds dripped water.” And by wilderness, as it is written (Numbers 1:1): “G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai.”  (Midrash Rabbah)

Fire – This morning I as you awoke to the news of another school shooting. As I write, the news is that ten human lives have been violently ended by gunfire in Santa Fe High School outside of Galveston Texas. This is the twenty-second school shooting since the beginning of 2018, an average of more than one per week. And our hearts are heavy for the violent deaths of all those caught up in violence everywhere: Palestinians in Gaza, Arabs in Syria, Rohingya in Myanmar, African Americans in the United States.
What Torah must we learn by this fire?
Water – The arrogance of modernity caused us to dismiss ancient warnings that link our social ethics to our ability to thrive on the earth; one prominent example is that second paragraph of the Shema: “Take care, lest you become confused and turn away and serve other gods, and HaShem become angry and shut up the the heavens so that there will be no rain, and the ground shall not yield to you, and you will perish.” (Deut.11.16-17) But today we see a divine anger – the earth’s righteous anger, which is just another way of knowing HaShem – expressed in the climate change that we have brought upon ourselves through turning away to worship the gods of convenience, of wealth and power.
What Torah must we learn by this water?
Our Torah was given in the wilderness, we are told; wilderness, chaotic and unsettled, unknown and undefined. We do not receive it in the comfort of our convictions and in the safety of our agreements, but only in the chaos and uncertainty of learning and spiritual growth.
What Torah must we learn in this wilderness?
On this Shabbat in the wilderness, on this Shavuot that commemorates awareness of the Presence found only within that wilderness, may our fear and sadness and anger lead not to despair but to an active desire to brave the uncertainty and plunge in to the unknown, that we might be in the Presence, that we might know the Awe, that we might seek the davar, the Word that heals and helps us to learn, and helps us to do.