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.



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. 


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!

Shabbat BeHukotai: House Rules

When chaos threatens, what rules still make sense?

Jewish time continues. Even this week, still heartbroken by the massacre of ten beautiful souls in Buffalo New York, and now reeling from the tragedy of the massacre of nineteen children and two teachers in Uvalde Texas, it’s going to be Shabbat again. 

Lately it’s Tevye, dancing despite the pain, who keeps coming to mind. Our ancestors were experts at this kind of strength – the ability to keep on keeping on, to sing in the face of sadness and celebrate Shabbat after a pogrom. But our grandparents and parents raised us as far away as they thought they could get from our needing to learn that secret of survival. Alas, the refuge they sought was fleeting. Even when they converted out of Judaism to save us, many of us still sought a way back to the identity we longed for.

This is who we are, as deracinated as we may have become. We are the Jews (and those who love them), and we have ways of holding on. The times in which we are living are those that test your grip.

On this erev Shabbat, while chaos swirls us into existential nausea, we need each other and we need to keep holding on. 

The parashat hashavua, the last one of the book of VaYikra (Leviticus) speaks to us of the insensibility of rules that we yet hold on to in order to live; the name of the parashah, BeHukotai, refers to the kind of rules – hukot – that are not necessarily amenable to reason, yet necessary. Turning to non-sense makes sense in a week when nothing makes sense, as people in elected positions prove their murderous hypocrisy by continuing to block meaningful gun control in the only country in the world in which there is a mass shooting nearly every day of the year.

We might call them House Rules, as in the old saying “House of Jacob, People of Israel” which can be understood as referring to female strength and male strength. That of women is considered more mysterious, as are the hukot. 

Hukot include counting the Omer, of which we are in the 41st day on this erev Shabbat, 26 Iyar 5782, May 27 2022. A new day, one that those murdered by white supremacists in Buffalo and in Uvalde, and in so many other places, deserved to see. We get to see it; we must treasure it and use it for good as we are able.

Hukot include lighting candles tonight at sundown in honor of Shabbat, logging off social and other media for a day, and baking bread, or gardening, or doing whatever it is that nurtures your soul and the world to which you are connected. Shabbat says to us that it may not make sense to us to let the world go on without our awareness for a day, but unless we learn to practice ignorance of this sort, we will believe that our knowing about it somehow matters. In truth, we are not built for 24/7 awareness, and finding out later about things you cannot affect hurts no one, and will help you.

The world in which we live is full of madness and pain; Shabbat and the community that keeps it is an oasis of sanity and the memory of goodness. Memory is necessary to hope; once upon a time you were not afraid, you were not sad, you were not troubled. For the sake of the work we must do to heal our world, hold on to our House Rules, and let them reassure you that the Rock of our people is still in place, and you can hold on in all this terror, and we will hold each other together, and help each other to notice that there is still joy and we must, we absolutely must, feel it.

Shabbat BeHar Sinai: What do kidneys have to do with Sinai?

חוֹקֵר כְּלָיוֹת חָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ

You, Examiner of Kidneys, we have sinned before you, have compassion upon us!

from the Selikhot prayers of the Edot haMizrakhi, the Jews of the Middle East


This week our parashat hashavua is BeHar Sinai, “on Mt Sinai.” It seems jarring to us and strange to see this reference to Mt Sinai long after the action there in the Book Shemot, Exodus. All the more necessary a reminder that the essence of all that we’ve been instructed comes from there. Sinai is the heart of it.

Or perhaps I should say, as ancient Israelites would, that Sinai is the kidneys of it.

As I recuperate from surgery to donate a kidney it has been delightful to delve a bit into the meaning of the kidneys for our ancestors. Interestingly enough in this week of being reminded of the source of all things, for the ancient Israelites, the kidneys are seen as the source of our own personal Mt Sinai. They are the seat of the human conscience.

כִּֽי־אַ֭תָּה קָנִ֣יתָ כִלְיֹתָ֑י תְּ֝סֻכֵּ֗נִי בְּבֶ֣טֶן אִמִּֽי׃

It was You who created my conscience (literally, “kidneys”);

You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.

(Psalm 139.13)

In other words, for ancient Israelites and others, one’s heart is the source of thought and feeling, and one feels the truth of right and wrong from the kidneys.  How does this understanding shed light on what we know about the way our ancestors offered sacrifices? For example in this case:

וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֗ אֶֽת־כׇּל־הַחֵ֘לֶב֮ הַֽמְכַסֶּ֣ה אֶת־הַקֶּ֒רֶב֒ וְאֵ֗ת הַיֹּתֶ֙רֶת֙ עַל־הַכָּבֵ֔ד וְאֵת֙ שְׁתֵּ֣י הַכְּלָיֹ֔ת וְאֶת־הַחֵ֖לֶב אֲשֶׁ֣ר עֲלֵיהֶ֑ן וְהִקְטַרְתָּ֖ הַמִּזְבֵּֽחָה׃

Take all the fat that covers the entrails, the protuberance on the liver, and the two kidneys with the fat on them, and turn them into smoke upon the altar. (Shemot 23.18)

The Psalmist sings that understanding and justice belong to HaShem; the Priest carries it out by giving the liver, seat of divination, and kidneys, seat of conscience, to HaShem. The Jewish mystics of Sefer Yetzirah, the first known expression of theurgic mysticism in Judaism (attributed to Abraham!), show how the human being physically echoes and is linked to the cosmos, kidneys included:

המליך אות ט’ וקשר לו כתר וצר בו אריה בעולם ואב בשנה וכוליא ימין בנפש. 

The Letter ט Tet was set up to rule

And given its crown

Through it the constellation Aryeh (Leo) is formed in the world

The month of Av in the year 

And the right kidney in the human.

המליך אות י’ וקשר לו כתר וצר בו בתולה בעולם ואלול בשנה וכוליא שמאל בנפש.

The letter י Yud was set up to rule

And given its crown

Through it the constellation of Batulah (Virgo) is formed in the world

And Elul in the year

And the left kidney in the human.

(Sefer Yetzirah 5)

The research is ongoing but for this Shabbat we have this much: two kidneys, both the seat of conscience and of consciousness of right and wrong, revered in all creatures and, as I’ve found, a highly sought-after organ to transplant –  a mitzvah of the highest order. that of piku’akh nefesh, saving a life, for those of us fortunate enough to be able to undergo the process. On a personal note, what kind of amazing coincidence is it that I now only have a right kidney, and that I was born under the constellation Aryeh?

What a useful counter to our too-intellectual ways of approaching our spirituality in our own day! As well, here’s another reason to learn enough Hebrew to recognize the letters, so that you are able to see all the places where a body part is replaced in the translation with “mind” or something similar, such as in Jeremiah 17.10.

אֲנִ֧י יְהוָ֛ה חֹקֵ֥ר לֵ֖ב בֹּחֵ֣ן כְּלָי֑וֹת וְלָתֵ֤ת לְאִישׁ֙ כדרכו [כִּדְרָכָ֔יו] כִּפְרִ֖י מַעֲלָלָֽיו׃ (ס)

I HaShem probe the heart,

Search the mind

To repay everyone according to their ways,

With the proper fruit of their deeds.

We are told that we only need the functional capacity of one kidney to live a perfectly healthy life. May you on this Shabbat feel that the abundance of your capacity to know right and wrong, and to do what you can to act upon it, is healthy, and strong!

Shabbat Kedoshim: What Does It Mean to Be Holy In This World?

On this particular week in the 21st century, from the perspective of the east side of Portland Oregon in the U.S. in the western hemisphere of planet Earth, a small planet in a mid-sized galaxy in a Universe beyond our understanding, much has occurred. So much that is beyond our ability to embrace with our brains, useful as they are; so much that causes the heart to gasp.

I have long believed that the answer to distress is to immerse oneself in Torah, in a communal learning setting; one may approach it desperately seeking answers, and through the very act of diving in one is slowed down to the level of thinking, of wondering, of curiosity, and of the give and take of the hevruta (learning with others) – and from there, to a willingness to make a space in our hearts for the inevitability of contradiction, conflict and mystery.

So dive in with me. In this week’s Torah parashah we are told to be holy, as HaShem is holy. How might this idea be relevant to us, even supportive, as we try to make sense of this week?

It’s difficult to catalogue the full challenge under which our hearts labor in just this one week:

  1. Nationally, the leaked Supreme Court document which destroys any lingering hope that the Court is beyond bias or reproach;
  2. And the idea that powerful people would devote so much time and energy to controlling other people’s capacity to give birth
  3. Locally, the vandalism of our Commons linked to that of the Muslim Community Center on MLK Blvd, bringing us fully, regretfully, into the hate crimes arena 
  4. And the idea that one who does not know an other nevertheless would cause that other pain and fear
  5. Internationally, the painful twinning of joy at the State of Israel’s 74th birthday and horror at the ongoing cruelties of the Occupation
  6. And the reality that Jews are like everyone else: some are good, and some are not.

I could go on. But the number 7 is sacred to us for rest and reconciliation, and so I stop here and go on to the point: if we are to be holy, what does that mean in these days and in these circumstances?

“You shall be holy as I – HaShem – am holy.” (Leviticus 19.2). One thing we know is that Torah urges us to grow toward the ideal of perfection, even as not only humans but HaShem are repeatedly shown not to be – or, at least, our experience of HaShem is not of perfection.

Our understanding of HaShem is as partial and problematic as our understanding of our own existence – and that of others as well. The great struggle for us in a week like this is perhaps to be reminded that all of creation is linked in a great Oneness that is not at peace, not whole – and yet, also not doomed to evil.

The great Talmudic Rabbi Meir was repeatedly attacked by the ancient equivalent of white supremacists, and so he prayed for their deaths. His partner Beruriah remonstrated with him: “it is written that we are to seek the death of evil, not evil doers. Pray for them to repent, not to die.” And he did. (BT Berakhot 10a)

Whether they did is not certain. Nor is it important. We must continue to maintain our humanity as we understand it through the teachings of our Torah and its Jewish ethics. Sooner or later, what matters is that we maintain our holiness – not perfection, but dedication to a specific purpose and ideal: that the practice of חסד Hesed, the practice of love in the world, matters in and of itself. Not because it means you will be well-treated in return. That may not come. But because that which is most holy must never be dependent upon conditions.

May we continue to hold on to what we know is love even in the face of hate. May we continue to recognize and lift up the holy in ourselves and in the world.

Shabbat Pesakh ‘ח – Remember

The weeklong Festival of Pesakh (with an 8th Diaspora day) is a powerful way to start a year. Beginning with the metaphor of becoming, as our ancestors experience what the rabbis called the “birth pangs” of Egyptian suffering and then transitioning through the “birth canal” of the parted waters of the Sea, we find ourselves on these final days of Pesakh just beginning to open our eyes and look around.

The primary learning of the Passover experience is about what it takes to be born. There is travail, there is struggle, and there is difficulty – and there is community. Mark Twain famously said that “a self-made man is about as possible as a self-laid egg,” and it’s no mistake that much of the theology around our birth as a people sees that which births us as mothering energy. 

The Passover story as told in Exodus emphasizes mothers, midwives and nurses, and the people of Israel are depicted as children who need to learn how to become. One of the first lessons we have to learn is that which every preschool mandates: hold hands, and walk forward together.

This is the central mandate of Passover unto this day. No one is to be alone for the Seder if we can possibly help it. Our special Passover Torah reading develops the theme: everyone is to attend the Passover celebration together. No one of the vulnerable categories of ancient Israelite life is left out: the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the needy. 

Consider what the Torah indicates to be the most important aspect of our celebration:

שָׁל֣וֹשׁ פְּעָמִ֣ים ׀ בַּשָּׁנָ֡ה יֵרָאֶ֨ה כׇל־זְכוּרְךָ֜ אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י ׀ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ בַּמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְחָ֔ר בְּחַ֧ג הַמַּצּ֛וֹת וּבְחַ֥ג הַשָּׁבֻע֖וֹת וּבְחַ֣ג הַסֻּכּ֑וֹת וְלֹ֧א יֵרָאֶ֛ה אֶת־פְּנֵ֥י ה’ רֵיקָֽם׃

Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths—all your zakhur shall appear before ‘ה in the chosen place. Do not appear before ‘ה empty-handed (Deuteronomy 16:16)

I have deliberately left the word זכור zakhur untranslated because I dispute the typical translation (“males”). To me, the form of the word suggests a much more intriguing possibility: a parallelism with the name HaShem gave Moshe at their first meeting:

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ ע֨וֹד אֱלֹ-ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כֹּֽה־תֹאמַר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ ה’ אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֗ם אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק וֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם:

HaShem declared to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: ‘ה the God of your fathers’ [house]—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you:

זֶה־שְּׁמִ֣י לְעֹלָ֔ם

This shall be My name forever,

זֶ֥ה זִכְרִ֖י לְדֹ֥ר דֹּֽר

This My zikhri for all eternity. (Exodus 3.15)

The eternal Name of that which we seek is referred to here as zikhri, memory. In our Torah reading for this Shabbat of the last day of Pesakh, we are reminded that we must bring our zakhur, that which has marked us in memory, if we are to find that which we seek – and not show up empty-handed.

If we are to obey the command to see ourselves all together in this journey, we must be more willing to challenge any understanding of the sacred text that seems to leave any of us out as contrary to the will of all that is holy.

We are to arrive in the chosen place together, just as we started the journey when we left Egypt. The command to stay together, to journey together, to refuse to leave anyone behind, is an existential obligation – which is the only way to understand the real meaning of mitzvah. Any mitzvah that does not imply what Emmanuel Levinas called “the sovereign Other” is incomplete.

To remember this is vital. To remember where you came from, and that you were not alone: someone other than you birthed you, someone other than you raised you, someone other than you was your companion and your guide. To remember this as a people is to know this as part and parcel of one’s personal spiritual journey. We did not come out of Egypt alone, and we do not add our link to the Jewish chain of being alone.

To translate zakhur as “memory” is to discern that bringing your memory to the moment is the only way to suffuse it with holiness – with wholeness. And who can remember everything? Memory is not complete unless all of us, every one of us, is helped to be there, so that our story can be remembered as fully as possible.

Shabbat Shalom and hag sameakh!

“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.” ― Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères