1) We shake the lulav and etrog in all directions when we enter the sukkah. As a Hebrew school student, I learned that this is because God is in all directions, and God's blessings are everywhere. We can feel God's blessing in every area of our lives. This is true, and a great lesson. But I like to think that another reason we shake the four species in every direction is to remind us that each of *us* can radiate blessing and goodness in every area of our lives. We don't have to wait for God to give it to us. We can give it to the world.Read More
Five Jews are sitting on a park bench.
"Oy," says the first.
"Oy vey," says the second.
"Oy vey iz mir," says the third.
"Oy gevalt," says the fourth.
The fifth says, "Can we just this once stop talking about the Iran deal?”
Tonight's service is named for this prayer that we heard toward the beginning of our service. Kol Nidrei is so powerful, so important, so meaningful - that we stand during its threefold recitation. In fact, it is only during the singing of Kol Nidrei that we take all of our Torahs scrolls out of the ark and stand before their holy words, messages and inspirations. You may not know the name of Moses' wife, you may not know the difference between the Mishna and the Talmud, but I bet that you can hum the beginning of the haunting melody of Kol Nidrei.Read More
I've always wanted to be on Jeopardy.
I love everything about it - its competitive spirit, the display of lightning like intellectual and physical reflexes that recall all matters of intellectual ephemera, and the sometimes witty banter between contestants and Alex Trebek.
Several friends of mine have applied to be contestants. One, a reform rabbi in New York City, even made it on earlier this year. I've learned that if you completely ace the tryout questions, you will most likely not be asked to continue to the next steps of the tryout process. In other words, if you are perfect, you're not good enough.Read More
High School. First kiss. Graduation. College. First job. Marriage. Yesteryear. The good ole days.
Nostalgia is a booming business.
In recent years, social media has popularized what has come to be known as 'tbt' - throwback Thursday. On Thursdays, it takes one quick glance on Facebook to see pictures of friends with that crazy hair from high school, or a gorgeous wedding portrait from over 40 years ago. We use our present technologies to go back to the past. Apps, services and Web sites try and tap into our yearnings for yesterday.
There's a bad joke incoming, but nostalgia is just not what it used to be.Read More
On this Shabbat, we begin the 5th book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. The name of the book derives from two sources, one Hebrew and one Greek.
The first line of Deuteronomy is: Eleh ha-d'varim - These are the words (that Moses spoke to all of Israel). Each of our 54 Torah portions are named after a word that occurs very close to the beginning of the portion. Each of our 5 books of the Torah are named after the first portion contained within; B'reishit, Sh'mot, Vayikra, Bamidbar, and now, D'varim.
Deuteronomy has a second etymological source; Greek. Deuteronomium means second law. The book of Deuteronomy relates to Moses' re-telling of the Israelites' history. Most of the book is a recapitulation, a summary, as Moses recounts his peoples' remarkable journey.
But these D'varim, these words that Moses addressed to all of Israel are not a repeat of everything that has happened before. If we read closely Moses' recapitulation of what happened, we see that he gets some things wrong.
In this sense, Deuteronomy is a kind of revisionist history. It contains inaccuracies, inconsistencies, changes of timeline ... so much so, in fact, that when the 10 commandments are repeated, they are different!
Deuteronomy is indeed a second law, as Deuteronomy comes from Moses' words ... Moses' perspective. Perhaps Moses did in fact remember events in this manner. And perhaps, he needed to remember events in this manner, so that he could be at peace with his life and his choices. Each of us undoubtedly has several powerful memories that are also Deuteronomical in that they probably did not happen exactly as we remember.
Deuteronomy is the textual counterpart to Picasso's cubism. Taken from our secular Torah of Wikipedia, In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.
The book of Deuteronomy is one viewpoint. The narration of the previous books is another.
Deuteronomy forces us to look at these different perspectives, and also to form our own Deuteronomy - our own 're-telling.' After all, this is the entire point of Torah, to make it ours - to take the Torah into our hearts and lives. We see how Moses made it his. What is yours?
Earlier this week, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum criticized Pope Francis for getting involved in scientific matters. In the past year, the Pope has urged his more than one billion followers to act more responsibly toward our earth and our resources. Santorum, a Catholic himself, was quoted as saying, The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists.
It's certainly true that religion continues to sometimes place a stumbling block before the progress of scientific advancement. One needs to only refresh their memory of high school science to wince at the treatment of thinkers such as Socrates, Galileo ... Einstein.
Given these historical realities, is it the case that religious thought operates under a completely different paradigm than scientific thought? Should religious thinkers completely excise scientific discourse from their thinking and writing?
In a twist of irony, it is the case that Pope Francis is a scientist, as he received a Masters degree in Chemistry prior to becoming a priest. But regardless, the question still stands: Do religion and science belong in two different worlds, and never the twain shall meet?
This week's Torah portion has something to say about this.
B'haalot'cha begins with God instructing Moses about several accoutrements to be found in the tabernacle. One of them is the Menorah: When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lamp stand. This menorah that stood in the temple had six branches, with a slightly raised seventh branch in the middle. This Menorah is of course a bit different than the menorah we light on Hannukah, the Hannukiyah.
The Menorah has become one of the most recognizable and powerful symbols in Judaism. This seven-branched m'norah is the seal of the State of Israel, symbolizing faith, determination, strength, knowledge and tradition.
One of my favorite teachings refers to this Menorah. It comes from Isaac Luria, a 16th century scholar who is considered to be the founder of Kabbalah. He taught that the six branches of the Menorah represent rational, scientific thought and observation. The center light represents the light of the Torah.
Maimonides thought similarly. He used the philosophical teachings of non-Jewish thinkers like Plato and Aristotle in constructing his Jewish world-view. Luria and Maimonides teach us that a life of Torah must explore outside of the words of Torah.
When he was persecuted by the Catholic Church, Galileo wrote a letter. He said that God wrote two different books. One is the book of creation and revelation. The other is the book of science and observation. Since God wrote both books, he argued, they are both equally important and, what's more, they both must be 'read' together.
Religion and science do indeed speak to each other.
As Luria's teaching suggests, Judaism challenges us to constantly incorporate modern life into our Jewish lives, replete with its scientific discoveries and technological advancements, with Jewish thought and theology.
But we must also remember that without the Torah, all of our rational and scientific discoveries are just unlit candles. It is the spark of Torah that ignites them. The spark of wonder, of community, faith, hope, tradition ... Only together do these create the beautiful Menorah.
One month ago, a family in Brooklyn started to celebrate Shabbat. Gabriel Sassoon, father of eight children, was at a Jewish conference away from home. His wife Gayle was taking care of their children. I imagine that they lit Shabbat candles and had a beautiful Shabbat meal before Gayle tucked her children into bed.
As is customary in traditional homes, Gayle was using a hot plate on her stove to warm food for the continuation of Shabbat on Saturday. Commonly called a blech, this hot plate allows Jews to have hot food on Shabbat without violating the prohibition of lighting a fire on Shabbat. If you have ever experienced a traditional Shabbat afternoon meal, it is often a very thick and hearty (and delicious) stew called cholent.
Shortly before midnight, the hot plate malfunctioned and caught fire. Unimaginable tragedy ensued as Gabriel & Gayle lost seven of their eight children to this horrific accident. Thousands continue to mourn with them in their tight-knit community of Midwood.
This recent incident bears a painful resemblance to our Torah portion this week, Sh'mini.
Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire-holder, and they put fire in them and set incense on it. They brought forward unfitting fire, which God had not commanded. Fire came out from in front of God and consumed them, and they died in front of God.
Aaron was the high priest, the Kohen HaGadol. He was a righteous man, following the laws that he learned from his brother Moses. He made mistakes ... when Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 day, Aaron coordinated the building of the golden calf. But this is to say that he was human. Leaders make mistakes. But what is the mistake of his sons? All the Torah says is that they brought eish zara, strange fire. It also says that God did not command this fire. But taken at face value, isn't it possible that Aaron's children were trying to imitate their father? They, like their father, were trying to be role-models. Even if they did make a mistake, what could be so egregious as to deserve death?
I could spend the six weeks between tonight and Shavuot talking about the various rabbinic midrashim concerning this portion. The rabbis go through all manner of intellectual gymnastics to make Aaron's sons sinful, prideful sons that wanted to wrest power away from their father and uncle so that they could wield it themselves. I talked about this last year when I explained the concept of Tziduk HaDin. Rather than display anger toward God, there are instead various justifications of God's actions that create stories blaming Nadav and Avihu. This is Tziduk HaDin, the justification of God's actions.
The Sassoon's have experienced their share of Tziduk HaDin as well. On Facebook, many friends and colleagues implicitly blamed them for this tragedy, if not explicitly: If it weren't for the antiquated rules of Shabbat, some said, the tragedy would have been avoided. Some people wrote things like, This is why I am not Orthodox.
I shudder at such comments.
It's probably true that all of us drove here tonight. I'm guessing that some of us will turn on TV's in the next twenty-four hours, shop, turn on lights in our homes, cook, write, build things, and so on. But, as we discuss quite often in adult education, the way that we live our Jewish lives is sometimes antithetical to Jewish law. It is ... strange fire.
The Sassoon children did not die because they lived an Orthodox lifestyle. They died because they did not have a working smoke alarm on one of the floors in their home. I have been neglectful of protective measures like this, and I guess the same goes for many here. Jewish observance did not cause this tragedy. Orthodoxy did not cause this tragedy.
Ultimately, the story of Nadav and Avihu reminds us that sometimes, there are no words, no explanations, no logical reasoning. Creation is filled with randomness and pain, with the same chaos and void - Tohu VaVohu - that even God had to contend with. We may want to come up with rational explanations of Tziduk HaDin, but instead, let us mourn. This is not only the right response, it is the Jewish response.
After Aaron's sons die, Aaron is told to stand silently. When I learned this as a child, I thought that this added even more pain to an already unbearable situation, as Aaron must be suffering torment, especially as he has to continue with his responsibilities as high priest. But now I read it a bit differently. Perhaps this is my own Tziduk HaDin, but so be it.
He is silent because sometimes, words, explanations and rationalizations do not help. We can only be one community standing together, facing each other, and ultimately, helping each other cross the Red Sea into the promised land.
The beginning of this portion, Ki Tissa, starts with a census. God commands Moses to count the heads of the Children of Israel.
This census is interesting, especially when compared to the two previous Torah portions.
Starting in T'rumah, God commands the building of the Tabernacle - the Mishkan. God proceeds to delineate very concrete and deliberate specifications with regard to its construction. Cubits, thread, stone, ink ... all are discussed. The portion almost reads like an architectural digest at times.
But despite its lengthy measurements of building and painting and constructing, the ultimate goal is not the place itself. The sanctuary is not an end to itself, just as our beautiful building here at 115 Dudley Drive is not an end to itself.
The construction of the Tabernacle is so that we can better feel God's presence dwell amongst us. As was discussed in adult ed last week, it is not God that needs or desires the Mishkan. It is us. We need it. We need a specific place that is special and beautiful, a place dedicated to the worship of our God and the learning of our religion.
Here in the beginning of Ki Tissa, we can understand this more, as God has Moses count the Israelites. It's important to realize that this census occurs after the specifications of the previous two portions, because it shows us that people. matter. More than the gold, more than the fine linens ... Even more than the Torah itself. It is the people. It is us.
There is a very strange line in the second verse of this week's portion.
God spoke to Moses, saying, when you add up the heads of the children of Israel, each of them shall give a ransom for his life to God when counting them, so there will not be a plague among them when counting them.
What?! Did we read that correctly? As we see later, Each Israelite must pay a half-shekel so there not be a plague? What is going on here?
Our Torah commentary points out that in the book of Samuel, David takes a census of his people. What follows is a plague upon the people.
It's understood that counting people is not a positive thing. We see this superstition today: When counting men to see if there is a minyan of 10 present, some Jews count by using a Hebrew phrase that has 10 words, rather than count from 1 to 10.
Here, there is an even stronger sentiment. Counting people can help to give a leader control over his people. As Dick Friedman points out in the footnote, conscription, forced labor and taxation are some ways where counting can be used a means of subjugation and authority.
The Torah goes to extra effort to show us the opposite. We should not count people. Rather, we must make sure that people count. Therefore, each person contributes a half-shekel, displaying both ownership and leadership in the continuity of our people.
We construct the Mishkan, yes, but what is more important is that we continually construct ourselves and our community. When each of us shows ownership and leadership here in our community, God indeed dwells amongst us in our Mishkan.
The past week has been a difficult one. In the span of a few days, terrorists killed 17 people in France. The four Jewish citizens at the kosher grocery store were buried in Israel for fear that their graves would be desecrated, yet another fearful sign of Europe's growing anti-semitism. In Nigeria, two *thousand* people were killed because of hatred, and intolerance, a fact even more bothersome because it's quite possible that many of you are hearing that for the first time right now. The world is in mourning.Read More
So how do you spell Hannukah?
There actually is a correct way: Chet, nun, vav, kaf, hey. But in English, there's disagreement. Some prefer to spell it phonetically, starting it with a "ch." Some, like myself, like the simplicity of a sole "h" to begin the name. But there are so many variations even beyond that; One or two n's? Do you use a solo "k" or do you need a "ck" combinationt? And how do we end the English nomenclature of our Festival of Lights? With an a? an ah? A friend told me that she learned that you can spell it any way you want so long as the word has 8 letters.Read More
When Emily walked down the aisle at our wedding one week ago, our guests saw me collapse into a ball of emotion, tears rolling down my cheeks. I’m guessing that most assumed it was because of the power of the moment, seeing my bride for the first time in her wedding dress. As a matter of fact, friends of mine had an ‘over/under’ bet as to how long it would take until I lost it. Most put me at about 3 minutes. ‘Under’ was the way to go.
Yes, Emily was amazingly beautiful. Yes, I was full of emotion as I gazed out onto friends and family. But there’s more to the story. If you’ve ever seen the movie Cocktail with Tom Cruise, you may know what I mean when I tell you that she ‘spooked’ me. She got me good. Real good.
To explain, I need to talk about wedding planning, and our choice of first dance.
Emily and I had an idea to put the first dance up to a vote for our guests. Each of us would pick a song that was a surprise to the other, the guests would vote, and the DJ would play that song.
I picked The Luckiest by Ben Folds, and she picked For the Longest Time by Billy Joel. Her and I are a bit competitive, and we both were sure that we had the winning song. We asked a few close friends what they thought (without telling each other the song), and without question, everyone picked Emily’s. Another one lost. Sigh.
Months later, we went to see the movie About Time.
It’s a romantic comedy with a beautiful message, and without giving away anything, the end gets very emotional. As is typically the case during such moments, Emily looked at me, gently teasing me … Are you crying again?
As the last few minutes of the movie played, Ben Fold’s The Luckiest played underneath. And I lost it. Completely. I explained to Emily that this was the song I had picked as our first dance, and it makes me think of her, and it’s beautiful … etc, etc …
Fast forward to more wedding planning:
I am in a klezmer band in Athens, and our violinist is also a marvelous vocalist. She sings an absolutely gorgeous rendition of Erev Shel Shoshanim, a traditional Hebrew love song. It is often sung as the bride walks down the aisle. For months Emily said that she didn’t love that song, and would prefer if the band sang another song.
Finally, she gave in, knowing that I really love the version that my band sings. I was so excited as I visualized Emily coming down the aisle to this beautiful melody.
Just three days before the wedding, I practiced with the band, as I would be rapping to Emily (Rabbi’s Delight, a take on Rapper’s Delight) in between a marvelously energetic 40-minute hora. At that practice, I mentioned how excited I was to hear Erev Shel Shoshanim on my wedding day.
Unbeknownst to me, Emily had surreptitiously gotten the band to switch out Erev Shel Shoshanim with The Luckiest.
I realized something was amiss when I noticed that the words sung were not in Hebrew. It took me a few seconds, but all eventually came clear. And then, enter afore-mentioned collapsing.
Here are the words to this beautiful song. I will forever think of them and my even-more beautiful bride. I am indeed The Luckiest.
I don't get many things right the first time
In fact, I am told that a lot
Now I know all the wrong turns
The stumbles and falls brought me here
And where was I before the day
That I first saw your lovely face?
Now I see it everyday
And I know that I am
I am, I am the luckiest
What if I'd been born fifty years before you
In a house on the street where you live?
Maybe I'd be outside as you passed on your bike
Would I know?
And in a wide sea of eyes
I see one pair that I recognize
And I know that I am
I am, I am the luckiest
I love you more than I have
Ever found a way to say to you
Next door, there's an old man who lived to his 90's
And one day, passed away in his sleep
And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days
And passed away
I'm sorry, I know that's a strange way
To tell you that I know we belong
That I know that I am
I am, I am the luckiest
With the war in Gaza hitting a fever pitch, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum wrote a prayer for peace. Within the prayer, she recited the names of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children. She urged her congregation not to *harden our hearts* to suffering, wherever it occurs.Read More
Tonight I ask, what is behind this curtain, the *parochet* that opens to reveal the insides of our holy ark?
Lawrence Kushner, the fantastic kabbalist and author, tells a story from his days as a pulpit rabbi at Congregation Beth-El located in Sudbury, Massachusetts.Read More
If you have ever studied Roman mythology, you may recall the god, Janus. Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions. He is also known as the god of doorways and time. Our secular month of January serves as his namesake, and of course January is the month when we celebrate a different kind of new year.Read More
Our struggle is not the absence of miracles. Our struggle is our inability to recognize the miracles that surround us. But on this day of Rosh Hashanah, we rail against this perceptual blindness. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are our religious prescription lenses by which we look out and see the world.Read More
A poor woman had two children, and all of them were starving. One morning, the woman came upon a perfectly round egg. The children squealed with delight, excited that they would finally eat.
The mother said, "Now children ... we musn't be hasty! If we wait, the egg will hatch and it will be a chicken. And we won't cook the chicken, because if we wait, the chicken will have more eggs, and then we'll have a bunch of chickens. And we can go to the market and sell the chickens for a cow. And then, we'll wait some more, and we'll trade the cow's milk for chickens and goats and hens ... and we'll have a whole farm and enough food to feed all of us so that we'll never go hungry again!
And in her excitement, wouldn't ya know it, the woman drops the egg ....
So it is with us - all of us have good intentions. Most of the time, we WANT to do the right thing. We want to work out, we want to eat healthier, we want to be nicer to that one person that gets on our nerves ... But as we all know, there is a gap between the loftiness of our intentions and our ability to bring those intentions to fruition.
This week's Torah portion teaches the same lesson.
The parsha of Pinchas starts with God saying to Pinchas, Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.
Earlier, we read that Pinchas snuck into the tent of a fellow Israelite, and his new Mideonite bride. Mideonites were not well respected ... Pinchas, upset that his clansman married a non-Jew, decides to take matters into his own hands. He kills the Israelite man and his wife.
Now, this is highly problematic. Pinchas kills two people, and for THIS God reflects that Pinchas turned back God's wrath from the Israelites?
The story also troubles me for its implicit harsh judgement of intermarried couples, many who make up the backbone of congregations across the country, including our own.
So why praise Pinchas to the point of having an entire Torah portion named after him?
I think it's because unlike the old lady in our story, Pinchas did not deliberate. He acted. and as God later tells him, he acted zealously.
There are many elements of Pinchas' action that are objectionable to one degree, or downright horrid to another. But, he teaches us a few very important lessons regarding Judaism.
1) It is a religion of action. We have 613 mitzvot, 613 laws. A VERY small majority of these commandments relate to how we should feel, or what we believe. The vast majority revolves around visible actions that we do with our body. As a matter of fact, I once learned that the reason that some Jews "shuckle" while davening, is to remind themselves that after prayer is over, they need to actualize the words of prayer. We do that with our bodies - through action.
2) You are enough. In Judaism, there are no theological intermediaries, such as in Catholicism. You can be your own teacher, your own rabbi. Now, that should be balanced with a healthy dose of intellectual rigor and community discourse, but as a Jew, YOU decide how to live Jewishly.
3) Judaism is intensely emotional and personal. Larry Hoffman, one of my favorite professors, said to us time and again, "Theology is autobiography." Judaism is filled with intellectual activity. We have the Torah, the Mishna, the Talmud, the commentaries, the Midrash .... There is always more to learn, another class to take, a book to read. But more to the point, it's not a religion to be learned, but to be lived. Pinchas' zealousness shows that Judaism is not just about the rote recitation of prayer, or the habitual practice of commandments. It is about meaning, spirituality, passion ... zealousness.
I do want our beliefs to be filled with joy, spirituality and warmth. But more importantly, I want our lives to be filled by the actions we take. Then, we will never be hungry again.
This has been a difficult week.
Last Shabbat, we prayed for the safety of three Israeli teens. On June 12, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach disappeared after leaving their yeshiva. World jewry came together in solidarity as we prayed for their safe return. Their bodies were discovered on Monday.
Two days later, tragedy struck again. 16-year-old Mohammad Abu Khieder was kidnapped near his home in East Jerusalem. A few hours after this kidnapping, police found his burnt body.
While planning for their sons funerals, the three Israeli families requested that there be no talk of retribution or revenge. However, during the funeral service for these three lost sons, hundreds of Jewish nationalists marched in Jerusalem, shouting "death to the Arabs." As one of my colleagues remarked, This is not my Israel.
Naftali Fraenkel, the uncle of one of the slain Israeli boys, renounced this sort of retribution and revenge: There is no difference between Arab blood and Jewish blood.
The three Israeli students belonged to a yeshiva headed by the renowned teacher Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Steinsaltz said, Our boys were killed because they were Jews. Therefore, to best honor their memories - indeed, to confront evil, we must act always as proud Jews, in our deeds and through our lives.
This week's Torah portion contains a poignant parallel to these recent, painful events.
The prophet Balaam is hired by Balak to curse the Jews. Balaam is the most renowned prophet in the land, and Balak knows that the curse that tumbles forth from Balaam's mouth will transform into a harsh reality for the Israelites.
I'm going to summarize an amazingly fantastic story, but when the time comes to curse the Israelites, there is a startling occurrence. There he is, looking down upon the Israelite nation, his enemy ... and instead of cursing the Israelites, his words are something else entirely: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya'akov - How good are your tents O, Jacob, and your dwellings, O Israel.
Every morning when Jews gather together in friendship and prayer, we sing these words that first came out of the mouth of a sworn enemy of the Israelites. The beautiful blessing that we recite was meant to be a curse.
Deuteronomy tells us: tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice, justice you shall pursue. The word for justice, tzedek is repeated twice. Our rabbis teach that the word's repetition is there to remind us that when we pursue justice, it must be done with justice. with mercy. with love.
In Judaism, the ends do not justify the means. Revenge and retribution may satisfy our baser instincts, but they are not the right thing to do, and certainly not the Jewish thing to do.
It is my prayer that both Arabs and Jews recognize the painful futility of escalating violence and hatred. It is my prayer that we mourn the lives of these four boys by heeding Rabbi Steinsaltz advice and live proud, authentic Jewish lives.
When experiencing these feelings of rage and anger, hurt and hopelessness, it is easy to join the cacophony of voices that contribute to the edifice of curses ... of hatred and revenge. or retribution. Or, we can pursue justice with justice. If we all did this, we too would turn our curses into blessings. May this be God's will
Tonight, I'm going to talk about Korach. Korach was a first cousin to Moses and Aaron. He challenged their authority, claiming that the priesthood should belong to him. The story ends with the earth swallowing up Korach and his 14,000 followers. Korach does not display violence. He doesn't threaten his Israelite community.
Is it a small thing that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you lord it over us as well? Besides, you haven't brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey or given us possession of field of vineyard.
Korach is a political dissenter. He doesn't like how his cousins Moses and Aaron are leading the people, and he thinks that he can do better. Incidentally, many elements of his speech are used in modern political discourse. Korach accurately reflects that Moses has not yet brought the people to a land flowing with milk and honey. He mixes a truth into his argument in his attempt to persuade the Israelites.
This tale of Korach is a disturbing portion in our Torah. It is another story in which a punishment seems to vastly outmeasure the crime. Moses forces Korach to compete in an elaborate test that will show who indeed has God's favor. The test ends with the earth opening up to engulf Korach and his followers. Making things even more problematic, it was not just Korach's followers that died; the households and families of Korach's supporters befell the same tragedy.
We've talked in the past about the Jewish concept of Tzidduk HaDin, the judgement of God. A better understanding would be 'the rationalizations of God's judgments.' Rabbis create midrashim and backstories in order to justify a divine action that would otherwise seem cruel, harsh, unfair, unethical, or irrational. These are examples of Tzidduk HaDin. And there are many such examples that relate to Korach.
But tonight let's look only at the passage from the Torah, and not from rabbis' later commentary. At the worst, Korach is arrogant and full of hubris, but I don't think that he deserves to die. Kol v'chomer, all the more so, 14,000 of his followers and their families certainly did not deserve to die.
So, what do we do?
I'm not going to even attempt to fit this story into our notions of what is right and what is wrong. It's a problematic text. Last week, God punishes an entire generation of Israelites, telling them that only the next generation can enter Israel. He does this because after sending twelve leaders to scout the land, ten of them come back filled with fear and anxiety. Time and again large groups of people are punished for the actions of a few.
But this is the message - well, actually the meta-message - that I want to leave you with tonight. The problematic nature of these stories are intentional. They aren't there to necessarily make us fear God. These stories aren't there to make us think that God is cruel. And although others would argue with me, they also aren't part of the Torah as a catalyst for our observance of Mitzvot. They are there to make us talk about them. They are there to make us question. To inspire us to converse, discuss, argue, comment ... to learn.
Our Torah is filled with these problematic tales not because we have a jealous, angry, capricious God, but because God wants us to think about them. God wants us to think about our morals. These stories help to create our Jewish identities precisely because they are problematic and difficult.
The Torah is not a "feel-good" book. There are certainly stories of comfort and inspiration, moments of tenderness and love, relationships that display compassion and selflessness.
Taken as a whole, however, I think that the Torah is problematic. I apologize in advance for this pun, but the Torah being problematic is not a problem. In fact, it is exactly what makes it so precious. The problematic nature of our stories, whether they be Korach, the story of the 12 spies, Abraham sacrificing Isaac or God flooding the Earth, causes us to look inward for our own interpretations. They also cause us to look outward so that we can learn from others' perspectives. Put another way, our written Torah leads us to both find and create a different Torah.
During every single evening service, Jews recite the Hashkivenu prayer. Within the service, we recite it between the Mi Chamocha and the Amidah. It is a petitionary prayer in which we ask God to be able to rest peacefully through the night and wake up to life the next morning, renewed. On Shabbat, the last line of the prayer is lengthened. Tonight we ended the prayer with the words, Who spreads the shelter of peace upon us, upon all of his people Israel, and upon Jerusalem. On Shabbat, quite possibly the holiest holiday in Judaism, we specifically pay special attention to the protection of Jerusalem and to Israel.
This Sunday evening is Yom Hazikaron, and Monday evening marks the beginning of Yom Ha'atzmaut. The first is the Israeli Day of Remembrance, and the second is the Israeli Independence Day.
Yom Hazikaron is not like our American Memorial Day. It is not a day for vacation travel or for enjoyable socializing. Almost every high school in Israel has a "memorial room" where they can pay tribute to alumni that lost their lives fighting for their country. Schools have special assemblies, everyone dressed in white shirts and blue pants.
A siren blasts throughout the country at 11:00am, marking the beginning of a two-minute standstill. All activity comes to an end. Drivers slowly stop their vehicles and stand on the side of the road to observe this two-minute silence. Radio and television stations broadcast stories of Israeli soldiers and heroes.
In Israel, almost every Israeli knows someone that has been killed while serving their country. This day of Yom Hazikaron is not only nationalistic and patriotic; it is intensely personal.
And as the afternoon hours turn into the evening, a shift happens. The mood changes from somber to celebratory, as the nation turns away from the painful memories and toward the celebration of statehood. During Yom Ha'atzmaut, the entire country celebrates its pride in being Am Yisrael.
These days are a time for us to reflect upon our relationship with Israel.
It's true that Jewish attitudes toward Israel are different than they were in 1948. Just within our Jewish communities in America, there is divisiveness and anger regarding different opinions on Israel. There are lots of Jews today that do not sense a connection between their strong Jewish identities on the one hand and Israel on the other. In recent years, liberal and conservative jews have had problems with the Israeli orthodox establishment. The issues surrounding the Women of the Wall have highlighted gender inequalities that prohibit women from expressing their Jewish selves.
A relationship with Israel is not simple. It can be complex, problematic and frustrating. But as with any other meaningful relationship, these difficulties should not and can not cause us to separate.
The holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote this about God, but it pertains perfectly to Israel:
For a Jew to believe in God is good. For a Jew to protest against God is still good. But simply to ignore God - that is not good. Anger, yes. Protest, yes. Affirmation, yes. But indifference? No. You can be a Jew with God or you can be against God. But you can not be a Jew without God.
We can not be Jews without Israel.
My relationship to Israel makes me a stronger Jew. For those of us who have been blessed enough to be able to travel there, one feels a deep sense of spirituality and connection... We hike Masada, pray at the Western Wall, watch the awesome array of stars in the Negev desert amidst the Bedouins ... these are more than tourist activities. They are a part of our history and our homeland.
The name of our homeland, Israel, is of course taken from the name that God confers upon Jacob - Yisrael. It means one who struggles with God. As we know all too well, Israel is a place of struggle. Jacob was given this birthright because he struggled with God until daybreak. I remind myself of this story when I think of the tensions and struggles regarding the land of Israel.
Like Jacob, we too receive blessing by facing these issues. Visit Israel. Talk to Israelis. Read the news. Open yourself up to the messy, difficult, beautiful and holy country that is our homeland of Israel.
Our liturgy tonight has various references to Jerusalem and Israel. Israel is never far from our hearts. We may not physically live in its land, but it is a part of us nonetheless. We are Am Yisrael. Am Yisrael Chai - the people of Israel shall live.