Oklahoma Tornado, the Pope and the Boy Scouts (Beha'alotcha)

Shabbat is a time to reflect on the week that has passed. It is through reflection that we process our life experience, whether they be social encounters, work experiences, news stories, ephemera culled from the Internet, or the enjoyment of a beautiful Spring Day. It's always struck me as a misnomer to call Shabbat a 'day of rest.' In many ways, it's quite the opposite. We take these hours of prayer and reflection so that we can integrate all of the above with ourselves, and with a vision of our future selves. This actually takes work. Put another way, we rest not to retreat from the world, but to better interact with the world.

And on this Shabbat, I'd like to us to reflect on three events of the past week.


A massive tornado swept through Moore, Oklahama this past Monday. 24 people were killed, and hundreds injured. This category 5 tornado was more than one mile wide, and wreaked indescribable devastation. Many of its 24 victims were school-children, adding even more to the pain and suffering.

Judaism teaches us that sometimes we can see the brightest of lights in the depths of darkness. Shortly after the tragedy, Twitter, Facebook and news outlets were ablaze with stories about heroism and selflessness.

Rhonda Crosswhite, a sixth-grade teacher, felt debris striking her back. Immediately, she dove on top of two of her students, sheltering them from the tornado's wrath. Thankfully, her and these two children were saved.

Once the tornado hit, 15 children ran into the bathrooms. In the midst of the chaos and fear, the children responded by singing, You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.

Outside of Oklahama, people everywhere responded with prayers and contributions. Kevin Durant, the NBA star of the Oklahama Thunder, donated $1 million dollars to the local Red Cross. Rather than take credit and glory for his contribution, he is asking others to donate.

Our own URJ, Union for Reform Judaism is collecting funds from its 900 synagogues. These funds will also go directly to the Red Cross of Moore, Oklahama. I sent an email with instructions on how to contribute, and ask that you consider making a donation.

56,000 people live in Moore, Oklahoma. It represents an incredibly small population of our United States. And yet, our country was exactly that - united. This event is worth our reflection this Shabbat for two reasons: The tragedy will hopefully motivate us to do something. It also motivates us to become something.


In elementary school, I was a Boy Scout for several years. Embarassingly, I don't remember the last badge I earned. Despite my active participation, I still can't light a campfire, and don't even get me started on my inability to tie knots.

I've never been the stereotypical 'man's man,' and I appreciated the chance to bond with other young men, learning, playing and growing. There's no question that the Boy Scouts of America continues to enhance the lives of millions of young men, and thousands of adults who continue to mentor, teach and inspire.

In 1990, 23 years ago, our Reform movement voted to accept homosexuals into the rabbinate. At the time, it placed Reform Judaism amongst a small handful of denominations to actively accept gay members into the clergy as a matter of national policy. In fact, whenever a URJ congregation searches for a new rabbi (which I hope does not happen for quite some time,) the congregation must agree not to discriminate a candidate based on a number of things, sexual orientation being among them.

The Religious Action Center, or RAC, is a branch of our Reform Movement, and it continues to lobby Congress and educate us concerning issues important to Reform Judaism. In 2000, the Supreme Court decided that it was in fact legal for the Boy Scouts to exclude members based on sexual orientation. Following that decision, the RAC issued a memo to all URJ congregations. The following is taken from a RAC press release entitled The Reform Movement Position on the Boy Scouts of America:

The Reform Movement and the Boy Scouts of America have long-standing ties. Many leaders in the Reform Movement have been and continue to be leaders in the Boy Scouts, and congregations across the country sponsor Boy and Cub Scout troops.

However, the discriminatory Boy Scout policy clearly goes against Reform Jewish policy and beliefs on homosexuality. The Reform Movement has strong positions in support of human rights, including the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. We believe that all people have basic rights, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Just yesterday, the Boy Scout made a watershed vote on the ban against gay Scouts. An official statement mentioned that The Boy Scouts of America will not sacrifice its mission, or the youth served by the movement, by allowing the organization to be consumed by a single, divisive and unresolved societal issue. I am relieved and proud that the Boy Scouts will now be a welcoming place for all young men. As many have correctly noted, gay adults are still prohibited from being troop leaders or adult volunteers, and so, there is still work to do.


I'd like to win an award for best non-sequitor of the night, so here goes. Let's talk about the Pope.

On Wednesday, Pope Francis said something that is nothing short of absolutely remarkable: Even the atheists are redeeemed. In his homily, he said that performing good works is not the exclusive domain of people of faith. Doing good can be done by all, he said, because God has made us in his image and likeness. Sound familiar?

While reporting on the devastatstion in Oklahoma, CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviewed a survivor. She recounted her harrowing escape from the storm, and Blitzer responded with a question: Do you thank the Lord? Blitzer pressed the question after the woman didn't answer. After a moment, she said, I'm actually an atheist.

Soon after the interview, the comment. I'm actually an atheist went viral. I saw headlines reading: There are atheists in foxholes. The feedback on Twitter was rampant. There were many responses with the hashtag #prayfor Oklahama. Following this interview however, there were also many who added the hashtag #dosomethingfor Okahoma. Prayers are not enough. And Pope Francis seems to be alluding to the fact that faith is not enough. Good actions however, are enough. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the Talmud, attributed to God: Better they forget about me, than forget about my laws. The good works of Mitzvot trump everything else, including even belief in God.


Each of these stories are interesting, thought-provoking and powerful. They illicit powerful emotional responses, and I certainly do not deign to assume that each of us has the same opinion about them.

But I bring them up because they demonstrate two foundational elements of Judaism.

Pirke Avot teaches us this dictum, attributed to Rabbi Tarfon: It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.

In each of these three examples, work has been done that is in line with our notion of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. And in each, there is still much work to be done.


Secondly, each of these stories remind us that there is holiness in every human being. These news-worthy stories from the past week challenge us to see the divine in everyone, even if they live in a small city far away from us, even if their behaviors may be different, and even if their spiritual beliefs are different. Judaism teaches us to love the other as ourself.The commandment is interesting ... this rule of loving your neighbor as yourself. It's often taken as the right thing to do, the menschy thing to do. But there's something else to it. Each of us was created with the divine image. There is divinity within each human being. An interpretation of this verse suggests that when we do not treat a person with the love and honor that they deserve simply because they are human, we do not only hurt them and insult them, we insult God. And by insulting God, we are hurting ourselves. Just as God is inside the 'other,' God is inside us. The commandment to love thy neighbor as yourself teaches us something far greater than we often thing ... It teaches us that there is no other. We treat the neighbor as ourselves because each person shares a piece of creation along with us; even though we are different, we are the same.


And this brings me (at long last) to our Torah portion, Beha'alotcha. In its first two verses, God speaks to Moses to tell Aaron the following: When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.

These lamps are to be continually lighted by the priests - it is not a one-time event.

As I read this portion and do my job to reflect on it and integrate it within my life, I find that it challenges me to continue lighting lamps where I can. We can't light all of them, and perhaps we can't even find all of them, but by loving our neighbor as ourself, I have no doubt that we'll create enough light for others to see, inspiring ourselves and everyone else to continue doing the work ... for there is work to be done.

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