Shabbat Nakhamu: The Courage to be Consoled

נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם

Nakhamu, nakhamu ami yomar Eloheykhem

“Be consoled, my people, says your G*d” – Isaiah 40.1

Last Saturday night we commemorated Tisha B’Av, a date on which we remember not only the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and our two-thousand year homelessness that followed. Jewish tradition also marks the 9th day of Av as a day of memorial for other catastrophes that our people have suffered – Inquisition, pogrom, crusade; the list is nauseating and surreal. By some horror of coincidence, the mass deportations of our cousins and siblings from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka also began on this day.

Now we are on the other side of this terrible remembering, and on this Shabbat Nakhamu we are encouraged as a people to find consolation. The Shabbat itself, on which we read parashat Va’Etkhanan, is known by the first verse of the Haftarah, taken from Isaiah. For the next seven weeks we are to set our faces toward hope, as we as a people follow our tradition’s rise from the nadir of destruction all the way up, up to Rosh HaShanah and a New Year.

We ourselves are caught in a terrible time of fear and uncertainty. Such a rising may seem at best incongruous, and at worst disingenuous. Yet our ancestors understood this emotional rising toward hope as a mitzvah, a sacred obligation. They knew the ancient Jewish teaching that to succumb to despair was the worst kind of idolatry of all, for it was to turn all of one’s belief toward meaninglessness and chaos. The holiness we are to seek for our lives requires us to believe, despite all and because of all, that meaning and purpose are still within our grasp – as is joy.

This isn’t a drill, and no time to take refuge in platitudes. We do not know if “it will all be okay”. The plagues that attended our people’s escape from Egypt loom in sharp relief, up to an including the trauma of the death of innocent loved ones. Now more than ever we might find ourselves amazed to be gifted with a tradition that survived catastrophe and yet could still dance upon the opposite shore. It is now up to us to find a way to join in that defiant embrace of life, despite everything, because of everything. 

“To make injustice the only /
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” – Jack Gilbert

On the Shabbat morning when news came to us of the terrible massacre of the Jews of Pittsburgh at prayer, we at Shir Tikvah were going ahead with our own prayer gathering.

We found ourselves doing two things: watching the door so as to watch over each other, and at the very same time, singing our Shabbat songs more loudly than ever before. 

Both are possible. Both are necessary. Without the singing, we cannot survive the fear. A wise Jewish tradition echoed in modern psychology is “fake it til you make it.” Begin the dance steps even though you feel sad; reach out to another even though you feel depleted. These are feelings, only feelings, and they are not the whole of you – or of us, you and me and them, together. 

As we open our hearts to hope, may they be filled to overflowing with hope. As we defy hate with love, may we feel love deeply, and may it comfort us.

shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

the full poem:

A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bomba

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.

We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Jack Gilbert

Shabbat Hazon: What We Have Done, and What We Must Learn

It is not up to you to finish the work, but you are not excused from your part in it – Pirke Avot

We begin our immersion into the Book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, this week. The first parashah of this book is always the prescribed learning for the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av.

Tisha B’Av, literally “the ninth [day] of [the Jewish month of] Av” is a designation similar to “Nine Eleven” in U.S. history. It is a date that everyone recognizes, and that we are urged to learn from, if we would live and thrive.

Even as Yom Kippur offers us a day to contemplate our personal behavior, Tisha B’Av exists to draw our attention to the behavior of our Jewish community. It is, then, no accident that the Rabbis who fixed the passages of our Torah Study chose the first parashah of Devarim, in the wake of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, to seek meaning for our own community.

In Devarim we find Moshe our leader inviting us to consider the long perspective of the Israelite wandering, from a place without agency to the challenge of free will and responsibility. There is no message more urgent for us right now, in the shadow of Tisha B’Av which begins tomorrow evening at sundown.

Even as our ancestors looked at the devastation around them wreaked by Rome (responding to the Jewish rebellion against that empire) and found inspiration in the sacred text, so we look upon the climate emergency, mass extinctions, and civil rights struggle of our time. The long perspective of Devarim asks us to consider what has come to be called the Anthropocene Epoch, defined as the time period of human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.

On this Shabbat Jewish tradition mandates: we will not contemplate solutions, and we will not yet entertain the encouragement of hope: that will come, next week. Instead we must make room for the contemplation of despair. Our ancestors learned that it is a dead end to pretend that nothing bad is happening. We must summon the courage to recognize that we have feelings of sadness, anger, and fear, and to understand that these emotions are natural. They must be honored and processed before we can truly move beyond them.

When one sees oneself as an isolated individual, cast in the Western mold of what sociologists call sovereign selfhood, there is no reliable Rock to which to cling when one’s own learning and reasoning processes break down. As the social psychologist Roy Baumeister teaches, the self is not meant to carry its own weight.

The message of personal participation in community behavior and fate is rather, as Jewish theology teaches, that we must see our individual selves as irreducibly communal. We will perish as individuals, or we will survive because we come to see that we are part of all of existence. It gives us our meaning even as we “till it and tend it,” as the first mitzvah of Genesis commands.

Shabbat Matot-Masei: Neither Here Nor There

“Not all who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

We’ve left the place we knew, the good and the bad of it, and now we don’t know where we are. That is as true of us as it was of our ancestors, who, having left Egypt, wandered in a wilderness for an entire generation of uncertainty.

In parashat Matot-Masei, the double parashah for this Shabbat, the Israelites look back and remember where they started:

וַיִּסְע֤וּ מֵֽרַעְמְסֵס֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן בַּחֲמִשָּׁ֥ה עָשָׂ֛ר י֖וֹם לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָרִאשׁ֑וֹן מִֽמׇּחֳרַ֣ת הַפֶּ֗סַח יָצְא֤וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּיָ֣ד רָמָ֔ה לְעֵינֵ֖י כׇּל־מִצְרָֽיִם׃

They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month. It was on the morrow of the Pesakh offering that the Israelites started out defiantly, in plain view of all the Egyptians. (Numbers 33.3)

Over a year ago, at Purim 5780, we began our COVID-19 journey together, optimistic about our ability to weather the pandemic with Jewish-inflected use of the gifts of common sense, kindness, and Zoom. After all, what choice did we have? Having suffered the myriad plagues of the 45th federal government administration, of which the pandemic was partially one, we knew that a journey through fundamental change had been imposed upon us.

Now, we just want to be there. Yet our tradition teaches that if we do not learn the lessons of the journey, we will not succeed in arriving whole.

We remember: in the incident of the scouts in parashat Shelakh-L’kha, the Israelites tried to overcome their fear of moving forward at the cost of cohesion of their community. We learned that it was not their fear, finally, but their dysfunctional response to it, that sealed their fate as wanderers. All that was left was to study that fate.

When the universe sends you a message, how do you learn to perceive it? The Israelites look back now on their journey, and every stop is recorded in this parashah. Our tradition seeks the meaning of our journey in the journey – every day, every move. There is no boredom of repetitiveness here; each place has its own memories and its own teachings. 

This, perhaps, is the lesson of our wandering as well. We may or may not be close to getting there, wherever “there” is. But we will not arrive whole unless we learn the meaning of these days of uncertainty.

Whole does not mean healed; that may be more than we can hope for. But it does mean that we know who we are, what we mean, and where we stand. As a Jewish people, our route to wholeness is by remembering each step of the way, and learning it.

“Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.” Theologian Walter Brueggeman

my heart is in the east and I am in the uttermost west

Manar Vosgueritchian, founder of the first Waldorf trauma-informed school in Palestine

During dark times, we who are the Jewish community are summoned to kindle light.


In solidarity with all of us who watch the violence exploding in Palestine and Israel, and can do nothing but worry from afar, I offer my thoughts as you consider your own:


My closest family and my closest cousins are fighting again. I feel helpless to stop it. They both are traumatized from too many generations of fear and scarcity. Nothing about the 21st century is going to make this better. I am pro Palestine and pro Israel; I love them all.

I will not take refuge in blanket condemnations nor in vilifying any human being. I will insist on nuance and history even when I am exhausted and tempted to make an exception and declare something completely evil or good.

I believe that every child born should grow up in love, joy, peace and safety. There is no reason I should have to choose between peoples to work for this. Demonizing a person or a people is lazy, does not create meaningful community, and in my spiritual tradition is a sin.

Milad Vosgueritchien of House of Hope

Milad and Manar of El Azarayiah, Fa’iz from the West Bank and Fatma of the Beduin village of the Negev, Na’amah in Netanya and Itay from the kibbutz, Biti the mom in Jerusalem and Eli the business owner in Tel Aviv – I love you. I will continue to work for a world in which you can be safe living together, without the machinations of politicians and the military industrial complex that uses you for its own wealth and power.

People are good at heart; people will choose to live in peace until forced to act otherwise. Is the culprit nationalism, colonialism, climate crisis, mass brainwashing? I don’t know, and it’s likely very complicated. But love is not. I will keep on growing my capacity to love.

I support those who seek to live together in peace as the only way to fight those who seek division and hate to gain power. Don’t just protest. Support organizations that work for peace, mutual dignity and co-existence:  

Roots/Shorashim/Judur  https://www.friendsofroots.net/

@omdimbeyachad https://www.progressiveisrael.org/standing-together-omdim-byachad-against-injustice/

@WomenWagePeace https://womenwagepeace.org.il/en/

@peacenowisrael https://peacenow.org.il/en/about-us/who-are-we

@theIMEU https://imeu.org/

@AdalahEnglish https://www.adalahjusticeproject.org/

@NewIsraelFund https://www.nif.org/our-issues/palestinian-citizens-of-israel/

Just as in efforts to reform policing in Portland, where I live, and elsewhere, protests are part of a larger effort: protests alone only express our outrage. They must be followed up by real efforts to support the positive that we see lacking in the world. Believe in a better world? Help to grow it.

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

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat Pinkhas: The Three Weeks

חָנֵּנִי ה’ כִּי אֻמְלַל אָנִי רְפָאֵנִי ה’ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ עֲצָמָי וְנַפְשִׁי נִבְהֲלָה מְאֹד ואת ה’ עַד מָתָי

Heal me, for I am very low. I am chaos within. My soul is in very great chaos, and you, HaShem, how long? Takhanun 

Today a man will be buried who died in the heat wave this week. Herb Weinstein ז״ל was a special human being who maintained Jewish community ties across the spectrum, from Shir Tikvah to Chabad. May his memory be a blessing and an inspiration to us all.

When we stand at a graveside or when we remember a loved one, now gone, during Yizkor prayers on the Festivals and Yom Kippur, we often encounter this passage:

There is a time and purpose for every human experience:

A time for being born and a time for dying, 

A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted

A time for weeping and a time for laughing, 

A time for wailing and a time for dancing;

A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, 

A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces,

A time for loving and a time for hating; 

A time for war and a time for peace.

 (Kohelet 3)

The tragedy of Herb’s death because of a heat wave, along with at least sixty other victims, demands that we consider the place in our lives for anguish, for fear, and for apprehension. These Three Weeks are exactly meant for that purpose. 

The Three Weeks are observed in Jewish practice as a memorial to our ancestors who were massacred in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. In contemplating the catastrophe the Jewish people found a way to bring meaning to so much otherwise senseless death by asking 

What is the cause of this horror?

What might we have allowed to be done that contributed to it?

What can we do, within our human capacity, to ensure that this never happens again?

This kind of spiritual empowerment allows us not to be enervated by what is otherwise senseless tragedy. As we follow the daily horror of the building collapse in Seaside Florida, the natural response is to find someone to blame. Yet the more powerful and effective response urged upon us during this Three Weeks of contemplation is to allow ourselves the full learning, as we consider the three questions our tradition asks about our own ancient tragedy of Tisha B’Av.

There is a time for dying, yes, but tragic death should bring us to seek out the lesson implied. The ancient wisdom of Kohelet demands that we consider the climate emergency with all the urgency that the young leadership of the Sunrise Movement demand. 

There is a time for weeping over that which is tragically lost.

There is a time for throwing stones, which is to say, to determine what is at fault in our society and to act to change it.

We must give ourselves time to mourn, to feel the natural responses of apprehension and despair. The lesson of the Three Weeks is that we are not helpless: once we have gone through the necessary stages of mourning and of contemplation, there is a time to act upon our learning. There is a time for uprooting that which we have planted, or allowed to be planted. 

May we in our personal spiritual journey, and in that which intersects with our larger circles of belonging, make room for true wailing, so that there may again, HaShem willing, be dancing.

Shabbat Shalom, and may you find consolation along with all those who mourn

Listen to Palestinian Voices

Last week I was privileged to be part of a panel discussion organized by VACA House of Hope in El Aziriyah Palestine. The other panelists included Milad Vosgueritchian, co-founder and director of the trauma-informed kindergarten, and Aziz Abu Sarah, his close friend and leader of Mejdi Tours, as well as a pastor from Eureka CA.

In the wake of the recent murderous hostility between Hamas and Israel, we were all asked the same question. How do we go on, continuing to try to hope, to build for peace, to believe that the work of our hands will be enduring?

If you listen to U.S. voices, you will hear much confusion of anger, pain, frustration, and outrage, in words that are often not accurate, and sometimes more emotional than rational. If you listen to Palestinian voices on the ground in Palestine, you will discover more nuance, more maturity, and more compassionate courage.

Finding Salaam After the Shattering is on YouTube here.

It is a privilege to learn from those who live the reality. They have much to teach us if we will listen to their voices.

How not to be like Korakh: the wisdom of humility

Do not separate yourself from the community – Hillel, Pirke Avot 2.5

This week’s Parashah records a paradigmatic moment of leadership disagreement. While most Israelites are consumed with the daily challenges of life – the tent is tilting, we have to pack for the move, where is the goat? – leadership is comparably, appropriately engaged with the logistics and messaging of moving the Israelites forward on their journey.

One of the leadership, a Levite named Korakh (a cousin of Moshe, Miriam and Aaron), declares that the rest of the leadership is irreparably compromised. He challenges Moshe in front of all the people. The people take sides. Moshe loses confidence in himself and his ability to lead.

It’s an important question for meaningful, intentional community: when should we step forward with confidence in our own, lone voice? When should we learn the humility of submitting our own ego needs to a greater cause?

Korakh’s story ends with his argument invalidated in a rather spectacular way, for which HaShem is usually charged with heavy-handedness. I want to suggest another reading, based on a comparison with a famous story from the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 2.9). In it, two Rabbis who are both significant Jewish community leaders have disagreed on the proclamation of the New Moon, thereby affecting the date of Yom Kippur. 

Upon hearing that Rabbi Yehoshua had challenged his ruling, Rabban Gamliel sent a message to him: I decree against you that you must appear before me with your staff and with your money on the day on which Yom Kippur occurs according to your calculation; according to my calculation, that day is the eleventh of Tishrei, the day after Yom Kippur. 

*To travel with one’s staff and money on Yom Kippur is forbidden. Rabban Gamliel, who is the titular head of the Jewish people, is inviting Rabbi Yehoshua to make a choice: either defy his authority publicly (and cause a split in the Jewish people), or submit to Rabban Gamliel’s ruling.

Rabbi Akiva went and found Rabbi Yehoshua distressed that the head of the Great Sanhedrin was forcing him to desecrate the day that he maintained was Yom Kippur. In an attempt to console him, Rabbi Akiva said to Rabbi Yehoshua: I can learn from a [Torah] verse that everything that Rabban Gamliel did in sanctifying the month is done, i.e., it is valid. As it is stated: “These are the appointed seasons of the Lord, sacred convocations, which you shall proclaim in their season” (Leviticus 23:4). This verse indicates that whether you have proclaimed them at their proper time or whether you have declared them not at their proper time, I have only these Festivals as established by the representatives of the Jewish people. 

*The ingenious Rabbi Akiva, who can interpret things other people cannot even see, teaches his colleague that “you shall proclaim” can be understood to indicate that whenever the Jews proclaim the holy day, that is the proper time of the holy day, even if it’s demonstrably wrong, even for HaShem. 

Community cohesion is more important that being right.

Rabbi Yehoshua then came to Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinas, who said to him: If we come to debate and question the rulings of the court of Rabban Gamliel, we must debate and question the rulings of every court that has stood from the days of Moses until now. As it is stated: “Then Moses went up, and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the Elders of Israel” (Exodus 24:9). But why were the names of these seventy Elders not specified? Rather, this comes to teach that every set of three judges that stands as a court over the Jewish people has the same status as the court of Moses. Since it is not revealed who sat on that court, apparently it is enough that they were official judges in a Jewish court. 

 *Rabbi Yehoshua is not yet sure, so he goes to another valued colleague, who makes the institutional argument: don’t undermine the authority, because if you do, you undermine the entire system.

Community cohesion is more important that the personality and behavior of the leader.

When Rabbi Yehoshua heard that even Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinas maintained that they must submit to Rabban Gamliel’s decision, he took his staff and his money in his hand, and went to Yavne to Rabban Gamliel on the day on which Yom Kippur occurred according to his own calculation. Upon seeing him, Rabban Gamliel stood up and kissed him on his head. He said to him: Come in peace, my teacher and my student. You are my teacher in wisdom, as Rabbi Yehoshua was wiser than anyone else in his generation, and you are my student, as you accepted my statement, despite your disagreement.

The two leaders here demonstrate makhloket l’shem shamayim, disagreement which is for a greater cause than their own feelings, and which does not hold grudges, for the sake of the larger community they both serve. Thus the entire Jewish community observed Yom Kippur on the same day. A community already in turmoil after the trauma wreaked upon them by the Roman empire’s destruction of Jerusalem was not further exacerbated. 

Korakh could never see beyond his own sense of outrage: he was right, even if he caused damage to the identity formation of the Israelite people at this delicate stage. And, fittingly, he himself was literally swallowed up by the undermining of order – the chaos – that he invited.

Truly, Rabbi Yehoshua was wise. Perhaps he was thinking about Korakh. May we learn wisdom from both Gamaliel and Yehoshua, whose disagreement did not swallow up innocent people and destroy community morale; it encourages us to believe that we can learn to disagree deeply, yet love and respect each other as we wish ourselves to be loved and respected.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Shelakh: Trust

Perhaps the undermining of the idea of trust began for many of us with the cultural saturation in the U.S. of the slogan “trust, but verify.” Or perhaps it is an internal result of the persecutions Jews have endured for many centuries. No matter the cause, the lack of ability to trust – to suspend suspicion and cynicism – is inimical to spiritual life. It is also directly destructive of Jewish community.

In our parashat hashavua we see the effect of anger, discomfort, and fear on the first Jewish community’s ability to trust. That is to say, they couldn’t. Poised on the edge of what they said they wanted, the Jewish people were unable to find within themselves what it took to take a step together, in trust that they would be all right in the uncertainty of the step. 

From that day to this, life keeps sending us the lesson that spiritual life demands trust. Yet so little in our daily life encourages it! Yet we are not the first to face such a challenge. One of the rewards of being part of a community is to learn about others who have struggled to learn trust – both in ourselves and our capacity, and, relatedly, in those who share our path with us.

To be unable to trust, our parashah shows us, is to remain in Egypt. It is to be a slave: to one’s fear, to one’s past patterns, to one’s isolation. 

The opposite of spiritual slavery is not safety; it is not making it “home.” It is knowing that one is not alone even when one is unsafe, wandering in uncertainty, afraid of tomorrow. The opposite of spiritual slavery is the kehillah kedoshah, the community that becomes holy because those who are part of it are able to trust each other with their lives and the meaning of their lives.

Without trust in ourselves and each other, we cannot sustain meaningful community.

Trust, correctly understood, is not about passively expecting a Divine presence to care for us. It is also not about assuming that the other with whom one disagrees is correct. It is about letting go of the mistaken idea that one can control the world – when, truly, all we can control is our response to it, as the Talmud teaches:

One who has enough to eat today and worries about tomorrow has no faith. 

– Talmud Bavli Sotah 48b

Bitakhon (“security” in modern Israeli Hebrew) is an important ethic in Judaism. Learning the power of trust in oneself and one’s capacity, when it leads to trusting others appropriately within one’s community, is also a source of strength.

This type of confidence was so important to Rabbi Yosef Yuzel Horowitz, the founder of the Novardak school of Mussar (19th-20th century, Lithuania), that he would give his students drastic challenges so they could grow in bitakhon

One student was afraid of the dark. Rabbi Yosef Yuzel instructed him to spend the night in the cemetery saying psalms. Another student was afraid of being humiliated. To him, the rabbi gave the challenge of going into a bakery and asking for nails and into a hardware store and asking for bread. 

The point of both these challenges was to condition the students to have bitakhon and realize that nothing harmful would happen to them if they faced their fears. The students of Novardak went on to found over 100 yeshivot throughout Eastern Europe, withstanding tremendous opposition and threats from Russian authorities. (Bitakhon) https://images.shulcloud.com/428/uploads/PDFs/bitachon-for-participants.pdf

Trust is not easily learned when one has been hurt. Thus community life is difficult, often marked by disappointment. Those who engage in community organizing and relationship development know that the unforgivable sin of this work is to undermine trust, because it is the most important connective tissue of all.

In the parashat hashavua our ancestors came 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. They remained slaves.

The spiritual path is not one of arrival, but of one day at a time. May we learn to wander not alone, not enslaved by our past fears, but together, with trust in each other. The wandering will still be uncertain, but the path will be so much more beautiful.

Shabbat B’Ha’alot’kha: None of Us Can Do This Alone

The self is not built to carry its own weight.” – Roy Baumeister, social psychologist

The Jewish people are hard to please. Apparently against all odds they have escaped from Egyptian slavery, as is described in the Torah narrative of Exodus. Having had a time to rest and recover from that fearful event all during the book of Leviticus, they are now invigorated – and complaining. 

There isn’t enough food.

The food isn’t good enough.

There isn’t enough water.

The water isn’t good enough.

Are we there yet?

Let’s go back to Egypt.

Bless him, even Moshe Rabbenu was not always up to the task of staying positive in the face of the real challenges of leadership. And so in this week’s parashah we see him telling HaShem 

לֹא-אוּכַל אָנֹכִי לְבַדִּי, לָשֵׂאת אֶת-כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה

“I cannot by myself alone bear all this people.” 

– Moses, BaMidbar 11.14

After Nirvana, the laundry, goes the Buddhist saying. If we are able to maintain the same equanimity in both situations, all will be well. But for most of us, the valleys of life where we spend most of our time cause us to quickly forget the moments of peak experience. After the giving of the Torah, the Israelites are saying, what have you done for us lately?

And they’re right. Leadership requires constancy, and respect for the vagaries of human existence. And Moses is right: no one person can fulfill all of another human being’s needs. 

This moment of extremis for Moshe does not cause him to back away from leadership, though, but to envision a different kind of leadership. Seventy of the Israelites, those who have demonstrated their own capacity for leadership, are called forth and 

וַיָּאצֶל מִן-הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו, וַיִּתֵּן עַל-שִׁבְעִים

HaShem drew upon the spirit that was upon Moshe and shared it with the seventy. 

BaMidbar 11.25

Moshe is called the humblest of leaders, and this week we see why. His servant Joshua protests that others, even outside these 70, are acting as if they have divine authority along with Moshe. The true leader’s response is not Joshua’s – to restrict access to the divine – but to recognize it where it is true, and lift it up:

הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים

“Don’t worry about my authority. Would that all the people were prophets!” 

BaMidbar 11. 29

May we come to understand Torah’s teaching here: that none of us is expected to lead alone, and that all of us may be possessed of something that others will respond to. It is the people as a whole who carry the Presence of HaShem, not any one of us.

It’s up to us together to create the holiness of a community. May we learn to respect the complaints and the compliments along the way as necessary learning, as we learn what it means to truly be a meaningful, intentional, blessed community.

Shabbat BaMidbar: Wilderness of Doubt

שָׁל֨וֹם ׀ שָׁל֜וֹם לָרָח֧וֹק וְלַקָּר֛וֹב אָמַ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה וּרְפָאתִֽיו׃

peace, peace to the far and to the near – Isaiah 57.19 

This week our parashah records the beginning of the wandering of the Jewish people – for the Torah, the wandering lasted for 40 years, but in a real way, it has never ended. We wander in a wilderness of words, of beliefs, and – most of all – often of terrible, existential doubt.

Far from us, rockets rain down on Israelis and Palestinians alike this week, and we watch from afar, horrified at the senseless violence and the loss of precious lives.  All too often at a moment like this we see the terrible things human beings do to each other, and some of us may ask how G*d could allow such suffering.

Close to us, Israel is attacked in ways that sometimes veer from legitimate to antisemitic, undermining both our sense of loyalty to our Jewish community, and our ability to join with those we usually seek out to work together for justice. Must we be anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, to be good, ethical Jews?

From afar it may seem easy to see the path to peace: condemnation without nuance is the refuge of the exhausted, impatient, and ignorant. It’s the close up peace that is far more difficult to envision and to engage. When you know and love people it’s much harder to dismiss their feelings, their lives, their experiences.

The Jewish community is fortunate to have built-in resources for these moments. The only question is whether or not Jews will use them. Those resources are community connection and support, a tradition of learning which is fearless and compassionate, and an eternal injunction not to despair.

We, all of us who follow the Jewish path of meaning, are about to stand, once again, at Sinai.

Na’aseh v’nishmah, our ancestors proclaimed at Mt Sinai, that make-or-break moment of commitment to the spiritual path we still follow. “We will do and we will shema.” This singularly important word in our Jewish tradition, shema, should not be translated “hear” in a passive sense; our ancestors when they used it meant to listen, to pay attention, learn…and to obey the ethical impulse within and without.

Not to be passive, to obey, means to engage. To continue to learn, not to turn away and close our eyes: to pay attention to and defend those nuances where compassion and empathy still live.

The lesson of Sinai which we will contemplate on the Sunday night and Monday morning of Shavuot is that we must commit to continuing to learn, and to do. If there is anything that the last four years should have taught us, it is that as Jews (and those who love them, and walk that path with us) we are gifted with a strong prophetic ethical tradition. It supports us when we wander in doubt, by reminding us that doubt is not the enemy of truth, but that which clears away the dross that obscures it.

It’s not easy. We have learned in the past four years that antisemitism is real, and alive, and a vital link in the growth of white supremacy. 

It is not news to us who are students of modern Jewish history that criticism of Israel is often shaded with antisemitism. It is not an unfamiliar feeling to be uneasy, feeling caught between our ethics and the fact that we are sometimes cudgeled with them unethically.

On the mountain we are summoned:

“Choose life, if you would live, by dedicating yourself to Eternity, holding fast to that which is true and enduring.” – Devarim 30.19-20

In these final days of the Omer count,within the days of preparation for the holy day of Shavuot,

come and learn once again that we are partners with the Holy One in the ongoing work of creation. Rededicate yourself to mitzvot that keep you from wondering what you can do to assert and strengthen your choosing, ethical self. We don’t have answers, but we do have the ethical imperative to stay focused on the Image of the Divine within each human being – and that is already a profound response to suffering far from us, and that which is near.

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Further learning:

A remarkable teaching in the Babylonian Talmud (Nedarim 20a) reads: a person who has no shame, such a person’s ancestors did not stand at Sinai. I don’t read this as genealogical research, but as ethical teaching. To be heirs of those who stood at Sinai, to stand ourselves at the foot of the mountain, means not only to affirm identity. It means to take responsibility. Acts of senseless violence perpetrated in the name of Judaism are acts of desecration, to be decried and resisted, not enabled and tolerated.  

– Rabbi Michael Marmur, Rabbis for Human Rights, Israel

I’m reminded that in that workshop with JFREJ and Cherie Brown, she mentioned that Harvey Jackins, founder of Co-Counseling, once drew a diagram of anti-Semitism as a loose noose. Perhaps the Jews in the US are safe for good. Or perhaps now is a time of loose nooses for us. Or maybe, they’re not so loose after all.

– Yotam Marom, Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion

Though we know not what we will do, our eyes are upon You. 

Remember mother-love and merciful kindness, for they are eternal. 

May that kindness for which we yearn be upon us. 

We are brought very low….

have compassion, HaShem, have compassion. 

– Tahanun, Miles Hochstein, By The Shore of a Western Sea