REMARKS AT RALLY FOR MIGRANTS

Temple Israel was one of the faith communities that participated in a walk and vigil on Sunday, June 23, 2019. Here is a link to a news story about the event: https://www.wdio.com/news/migrant-policy-awareness-twin-ports-interfaith/5399983/

Various local faith community leaders were invited to share brief statements. Here is the statement that I shared:

 The Torah in Exodus 12:38 reports that when the children of Israel left Egypt to journey to the Promised Land “a mixed multitude went up with them.”  It’s hard not to see a parallel between the mixed multitude who wanted to join up with the Israelites in the time of the Book of Exodus and the mixed multitude of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who want to come to the United States in our own day and who seek a path towards citizenship. Once we get past the xenophobic tweets of those who would falsely brand them as rapists, terrorists and drug smugglers, we realize that most of those who yearn to come to our country are motivated by the same forces that brought so many of our own ancestors here: The search for a safer and better life. We in the Jewish community can identify with them because we too are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

Posted on June 26, 2019 .

THE ROADIES DON'T MIND

(Dvar Torah on Parashat Bemidbar, Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)

[I’m currently serving on the Board of Directors of my professional association, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Earlier this month I was invited to give the dvar torah for our Board meeting in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. Here’s what I shared with my colleagues]

            As you all surely know, the Israel and Diaspora Torah reading cycles are currently divergent because of 8th day of Passover having fallen on Shabbat this year.  In my congregation we are following the Israel cycle so we did Parshat Bemidbar last Shabbat and will do Parashat Naso this coming Shabbat.  But since Parashat Bemidbar is the official Diaspora reading for this week I’m hoping it will be okay for me to share some of what I wrote about for last Shabbat.

            When Parashat Bemidbar comes around each year I think of the singer Jackson Browne. In his classic album from 1978 entitled “Running on Empty” (and chas vechalilah[1] that any of us at the moment should feel that we are running on empty…)  --- in that album Jackson Browne has a song called  “The Load Out”.

            And what does “The Load Out” have to do with Parashat Bemidbar? Well, when I recite the lyrics to you right now, wherever Jackson Browne refers to “roadies” just substitute in your mind the word “Levites” and you’ll see what I mean[2]:

Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down
They're the first to come and last to leave
Working for that minimum wage
They'll set it up in another town
Tonight the people were so fine
They waited there in line
And when they got up on their feet they made the show
And that was sweet,
But I can hear the sound
Of slamming doors and folding chairs
And that's a sound they'll never know

Now roll them cases out and lift them amps
Haul them trusses down and ge t'em up them ramps
'Cause when it comes to moving me
You know you guys are the champs
But when that last guitar's been packed away
You know that I still want to play
So just make sure you got it all set to go
Before you come for my piano

But the band's on the bus
And they're waiting to go
We've got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago
Or Detroit, I don't know
We do so many shows in a row
And these towns all look the same
We just pass the time in our hotel rooms
And wander 'round backstage
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came

Now we got country and western on the bus
R&B, we got disco in eight tracks and cassettes in stereo
We've got rural scenes and magazines
And We've got truckers on the cb
We've got Richard Pryor on the video
We got time to think of the ones we love
While the miles roll away
But the only time that seems too short
Is the time that we get to play

People you've got the power over what we do
You can sit there and wait
Or you can pull us through
Come along, sing the song
You know you can't go wrong
'Cause when that morning sun comes beating down
You're going to wake up in your town
But we'll be scheduled to appear
A thousand miles away from here
[3]

 

So that’s Jackson Browne’s ode to the Roadies.

And here’s Parashat Bemidbar’s ode to the Levites: 

וְאַתָּה הַפְקֵד אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם עַל-מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת וְעַל כָּל-כֵּלָיו, וְעַל כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ--הֵמָּה יִשְׂאוּ אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֶת-כָּל-כֵּלָיו, וְהֵם יְשָׁרְתֻהוּ; וְסָבִיב לַמִּשְׁכָּן, יַחֲנוּ. 

And you shall appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of the Testimony, all its furnishings, and everything that pertains to it: they shall carry the Tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall tend it; and they shall camp around the Tabernacle.

 

            That’s what it says in Numbers 1:50.  

            Later in the parasha we have descriptions of the specific porterage duties of the three Levite clans – the Kohathites, the Gershonites, and the Merrarites.  

            The description of the duties of the Kohathite clan has a prominent place, since it forms the conclusion of Parashat Bemidbar.   

            Here’s what the Torah says about the particular job of the Kohathite clan within the tribe of Levi:  Their job is to carry on their shoulders all of the holiest objects in the Israelite camp whenever the camp would journey onwards (or, to use Jackson Brownian metaphors – whenever the band would be taking its show to the next town on its tour).  For Jackson Browne’s band that would include the amps, the guitars, the lights, the chairs and that holy of holies – the piano.  For the Israelites it would include the ark, and the tablets within the ark, and the furniture and utensils used in the rituals of the Tabernacle.

            Earlier in the parasha, the text had specified that the Kohathites don’t start transporting those holy objects until after Aaron and his sons have dismantled them and wrapped them up.

And now, in the very last verses of the parasha, Numbers 4: 17-20--- we get a couple of portentous warnings:

יז וַיְדַבֵּר יְ-ה-וָ-ה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר.  יח אַל-תַּכְרִיתוּ, אֶת-שֵׁבֶט מִשְׁפְּחֹת הַקְּהָתִי, מִתּוֹךְ, הַלְוִיִּם.  יט וְזֹאת עֲשׂוּ לָהֶם, וְחָיוּ וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ, בְּגִשְׁתָּם, אֶת-קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים:  אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, יָבֹאוּ, וְשָׂמוּ אוֹתָם אִישׁ אִישׁ עַל-עֲבֹדָתוֹ, וְאֶל-מַשָּׂאוֹ.  כ וְלֹא-יָבֹאוּ לִרְאוֹת כְּבַלַּע אֶת-הַקֹּדֶשׁ, וָמֵתוּ.  {פ}

Adonai spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from among [the rest of] the Levites. Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.

 

            We should first note here that the Hebrew phrase in Numbers 4:20 --- כְּבַלַּע אֶת-הַקֹּדֶשׁ (“kevala et hakodesh”) – translated in Plaut/JPS as “the dismantling of the sanctuary” could more literally be translated as “the swallowing up of the Holy.”  Others translate the verb in this context as “cover up” or “wrap up.”

What’s going on here?  Why can’t the Kohathites look at the holy objects while they are being dismantled or covered or wrapped or swallowed up?  Why is it critical that Moses and Aaron take special care to make sure that the Kohathites don’t get “cut off” from the rest of their fellow Levites?

            Traditional and contemporary commentators offer various explanations.  However, for me, the view of the 19th century German commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch resonates most strongly.

            Hirsch offers this explanation:

 

“If we are not in error, the intent of this prohibition is that the sacred things should remain to their bearers ideational concepts, not objects of physical perception, so that these individuals should be inspired all the more by the ideals the objects represent.  The spiritual contemplation of the sacred objects entrusted to the care of the Kehathites would seem to be an essential aspect of their duties, and a physical perception of these objects while they are being covered would distract the Kehathites from their spiritual contemplation and thereby in effect desecrate the objects themselves.”  [4]

 

            If I might put this into my own words, I think what the Torah and Rabbi Hirsch are talking about is the danger of cynicism when one is too much of an “insider.”

            The Kohathites might metaphorically “die” in the sense of being spiritually disillusioned by seeing the holy objects swallowed up or in a state of disarray.  Sort of like Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ peeking behind the curtain and seeing just an ordinary person playing with sound effects. 

            If your passion is music, maybe you might get disillusioned by getting too much of an insider’s view of the business side of contract negotiations and labor disputes.  (Hopefully, that hasn’t been the case for Jackson Browne’s roadies.)

            If you’re a legislator you might get disillusioned by the messy “sausage making” deals involved in passing laws.

            If you’re a school teacher or academic you might get disillusioned by turf wars and budget battles.                  

            For us as rabbis, and for any of our fellow clergypeople, we might get disillusioned by congregational or agency politics.

            I think what the Torah is saying --- when it warns Moses and Aaron to wrap up the holy objects so that the Kohathites don’t see those objects in their dismantled state is this:  We need to safeguard our idealism through our own conscious efforts to avoid cynicism. In this sense, we are like the Kohathites of old.  We have to consciously work at not being cynical.

            At the same time, we hope to be shielded from cynicism by the support and mentorship of others who can help protect us from disillusionment.  Such was the role of Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons with respect to the Kohathites.  In this sense, we are like Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons for those who look to us for mentorship.  One of our jobs as rabbis is to model idealism and to put up roadblocks against cynicism for those who look to us as mentors.

            Ideals are by definition illusory in the sense that they are not yet reality. 

            The Torah took care that the Kohathites would not suffer the death of being swallowed up in cynicism and disillusionment.  As for us, may we be blessed with the capacity to retain our ideals while guarding ourselves from such a fate. 

For we are a people who are called upon to choose life. 

           

© Rabbi David Steinberg 5779/2019


[1] Traditional exclamation roughly translated as “Heaven forbid”

[2] To hear the song go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vk7mFRWt-sY

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Running_on_Empty_(album)

[4] (The Hirsch Commentary, edited by Ephraim Oratz, translated from the original German by Gertrude Hirschler, New York, The Judaica Press, 1986, p. 526)

 

Posted on June 10, 2019 .

THE VALUE OF A LIFE

(Thoughts on Parashat Bechukotai - Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34)

[Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday 5/24/19]

Earlier this month the renowned teacher and writer Avivah Zornberg visited us here at Temple Israel to deliver this year’s Silver Interfaith Memorial Lecture.  The subject of her lecture was the Book of Ruth, the Tanakh’s great story of a one-time stranger joining a new community.  Indeed, subsequent Jewish tradition sees Ruth the Moabite as the paradigmatic example of the ger tzedek or giyoret tzedek – the righteous proselyte who, while not being born Jewish, chooses to join our people. 

We read in Ruth 1:14 that Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi tried to convince Ruth to go back to her native land --- וְר֖וּת דָּ֥בְקָה בָּֽהּ׃  “BUT RUTH CLUNG TO HER” – and two verses later Ruth further declares to Naomi: 

“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Eternal do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” [1]

The Book of Ruth is traditionally read on the festival of Shavuot, which arrives just over a week from now.  One obvious reason for this is to remind us that, even for those of us who were born into Jewish families, we all in our own ways choose how we will inhabit our Jewishness.  Just as Ruth chose to join the Jewish people, so in our sacred story did our people as a whole choose to accept God’s Torah on Mount Sinai – an event we commemorate on Shavuot. 

But still, there is something special and auspicious about a person deciding for themselves to convert to Judaism.  As my colleague Rabbi Goldie Milgram beautifully expresses it:   

“It is not easy to become a Jew; we don’t have instant conversions.  There is a process of admission involving extensive study and serious ritual.  Not everyone is meant to be Jewish in this life.  If your soul needs it, however, it is my experience that nothing will stop you from finding your way in.” [2]

One of the key rituals involved in conversion to Judaism, representing the end of the long process of preparation, is immersion in a mikveh – a ritual pool that contains so-called 'Mayim Chayim,' ---  living waters --- which are connected to a gathering of natural rainwater.  Emerging from the mikvah is compared to emerging from the waters of the womb, in effect a new birth.  Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Christian traditions of baptism also often involve similar metaphors of being born again.

We at Temple Israel are particularly appreciative of how our congregation has been enriched by the presence of many gerey hatzedek – many Jews by choice.  Indeed, tomorrow morning one such individual, who completed her process of conversion earlier this week, will be called to the Torah for the first time, and our Shabbat kiddush lunch tomorrow is being sponsored in her honor. 

In the course of my career as a Rabbi I have worked with quite a few conversion candidates.   And it used to be the case for me that  ---  whenever I would be in the situation of having worked with a conversion student for many months  ---  and when I would finally hear the sound of their head coming back up to break the surface of the water after their first immersion   --- on such occasions I would think to myself – wow --- I guess the way I feel is somewhat akin to what it must feel like to give birth – to deliver a new soul into the world.

Well, in recent years I have stopped invoking that metaphor.

Why?  Because women friends of mine who have ACTUALLY given birth to new human beings --- Jewish or otherwise – have politely but firmly assured me that I  -- as a person who has not physically given birth to a human being --- HAVE NO IDEA – AND CAN’T POSSIBLY HAVE ANY IDEA --- OF HOW IT FEELS TO GIVE BIRTH OR OF WHAT CARRYING A CHILD TO TERM WITHIN ONE’S OWN BODY FEELS LIKE.

Yes, I am duly humbled by this.

I guess new Dad Prince Harry said it well a few weeks ago when he humbly admitted –

“How any woman does what they do is beyond comprehension”[3]

Yes, humility is definitely in order for anyone who would purport to impose controls on a pregnant woman’s control of her own body as she deals with a process that is indeed “beyond comprehension” for someone who has not experienced it themselves.

And yet, we see an increasing trend of state legislatures in this country seeking to limit a woman’s right to make her own choices regarding whether to carry a pregnancy to term.  It is true that some of the proponents of stricter limitations on abortion are themselves women, and, indeed, it was a woman -- Alabama Governor Kay Ivey -- who last week signed that state's controversial near-total abortion ban.[4]

However, many of us will agree that the bigger picture is one of men subjugating women by attempting to take away from them choices that should ultimately be for pregnant women themselves to make.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a broadly-based organization whose affiliate members include both the Union for Reform Judaism and Reconstructing Judaism, issued a statement on this matter last week which reads in part as follows:

“Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) condemns Alabama’s new law banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest, as well as other extreme anti-abortion bills in various states. These measures undermine women’s reproductive freedom, endanger women’s health, and criminalize women who get abortions and doctors who perform them.

“Though Alabama’s new law is the most extreme so far, other states, such as Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi, have adopted or are close to adopting bills that effectively ban abortion, including “heartbeat” and other similarly restrictive laws. Many of these new bills criminalize women obtaining abortions and abortion providers, who could serve life in prison.

“We are deeply concerned about the growing effort to overturn Roe v. Wade and limit women’s reproductive health care access. Courts should immediately enjoin these bills, as they clearly violate settled Supreme Court precedent.

[…]

“JCPA is committed to safeguarding and strengthening the spirit and impact of Roe v. Wade. For decades, we have advocated at the state and federal levels, joined amicus briefs, and adopted policy resolutions in support of women’s reproductive freedom. The decision to end a pregnancy is a difficult and personal one that should only be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor and others she chooses to involve.”[5]

How did we get here?  That’s a far bigger question than can be answered in a brief dvar Torah.

But I have no doubt that this mindset of trying to control women’s autonomy is an age-old problem.  We need look no further than this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34) .

In Leviticus 27 – the last chapter of Leviticus --- in a sort of appendix to what is in many respects is the most problematic of the five books of the Torah --- the Torah sets out a framework for determining the value of a person. 

Basically, this was a practice by which a person desiring to make a special donation for the upkeep of the Tabernacle (or later, the Temple), could do so by making their donation in an amount that was determined to be equivalent to the economic value of a specific individual.  However, the valuation of a woman of any particular age was always set at significantly less than that of a man of the same age. 

As it says in the opening verses of Leviticus 27:

“The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When anyone explicitly vows to the Eternal the equivalent for a human being, 3 the following scale shall apply: If it is a male from twenty to sixty years of age, the equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight; 4 if it is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. 5 If the age is from five years to twenty years, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female. 6 If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a male is five shekels of silver, and the equivalent for a female is three shekels of silver. 7 If the age is sixty years or over, the equivalent is fifteen shekels in the case of a male and ten shekels for a female.”[6] 

One can argue that the Torah was only reflecting the lived social realities of its time in saying that women were worth less than men as an economic measurement.

But, is it really too much to argue that, if we truly valued women as much as men, then we wouldn’t consider restricting a woman’s autonomy over her own body?   

There are moral gray areas in all of this.  People may differ concerning the personhood of a fetus at various stages of its development.  And people may differ concerning society’s interest in protecting not only existing life but potential life.

However, women I know have in recent days been expressing visceral fear and anxiety about these latest legislative efforts to take away from them their right to make their own choices about their own bodies.

And, as Jews who believe in the value of treating each person as btzelem Elohim/ in the image of God --- and who believe in particular that – as it says in Genesis 1:27 that this characterization of btzelem Elohim goes for both women and men  -- we cannot let this threat to women go unchallenged.

The inequities in the valuation scale in Leviticus 27 remind us that inequities exist to the present day in the way we treat one another.  Sexist attempts to take away from women the fundamental right of bodily autonomy should concern us all, even – and perhaps especially – when they stem in part from aspects of our own religious heritage and of that our fellow citizens.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg (Iyar 5779/ May 2019)

 


[1] Ruth 1: 16-17

[2] Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice: Holy Days and Shabbat, 2004, p. 133.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/06/world/europe/meghan-markle-baby-boy.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer

[4] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/alabama-abortion-law-governor-kay-ivey-signs-near-total-ban-today-live-updates-2019-05-15/

[5] https://www.jewishpublicaffairs.org/jcpa-is-committed-to-protecting-womens-reproductive-freedom/

[6] Lev. 27: 1- 7

 

Posted on May 28, 2019 .

A GENEROUS GIFT

(Thoughts on Parashat Metzora for Shabbat Hagadol 5779/2019)

Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 4/12/19 

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol/ “The Great Sabbath” – our tradition’s nickname for the last Shabbat before the start of Passover.

This Shabbat is also the second of two Shabbatot when the weekly Torah portion deals with “tzara’at.”  Old translations of the Torah translated the Hebrew word “tzaraat” as “Leprosy,” but Jewish commentators throughout the centuries have been clear that whatever “tzara’at” is, it’s not that.

What exactly is it?  If a person is “Metzora” which is to say, if a person is afflicted with “Tzara’at” what does that mean?  The Jewish Publication Society translation that we follow translates tzaraat as an “eruptive plague”, but it’s still difficult to figure out what that means, since the term “tzaraat” in the Torah is applied to various seemingly unrelated phenomena including skin conditions, discolorations on articles of clothing and --- in this week’s Torah portion – colored streaks in the walls of brick houses. 

With respect to the latter phenomenon, the Torah introduces the topic in this weeks Torah portion, Parashat Metzora, at Leviticus 14: 34-38 as follows:

34 When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, 35 the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, "Something like a plague has appeared upon my house." 36 The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become unclean; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house. 37 If, when he examines the plague, the plague in the walls of the house is found to consist of greenish or reddish streaks that appear to go deep into the wall, 38 the priest shall come out of the house to the entrance of the house, and close up the house for seven days.

What shall we do with such a weird law?

Well, for one thing, there’s a teaching in the Talmud that says we should treat this all as a symbolic allegory.  As we learn in Tractate Sanhedrin 71a:

 -----------------------------------------

בית המנוגע לא היה ולא עתיד להיות ולמה נכתב דרוש וקבל שכר

“A house inflicted with plague never occurred and never will occur in the future.  So why is it written?  To study it and to be rewarded for studying it.”

------------------------------------------

But that still begs the question:  What are we supposed to learn from studying it?

One traditional response comes from taking a closer look at the language of Leviticus 14:34. The Jewish Publication Society translation of this verse says:

 “When you enter the land of Canaan and I INFLICT an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess….”

But the original Hebrew says “VENATATI” which doesn’t literally mean “and I inflict.” The literal translation of “VENATATI” is “I will give!”

And, according to some of the classic commentators , the expression VENATATI – “I WILL GIVE” (from the root nun-tav-nun) implies “MATANAH”  a gift (That is to say the words “venatati” and “matanah” are derived from the same Hebrew root)….

But how can a plague be a GIFT?

Rashi quotes an old midrash that says that when the Israelites would enter the Land of Israel and occupy houses abandoned by previous inhabitants, that the plague in the walls would lead them to  knock down the walls and that when they did so they would find buried treasures of gold.

I guess this is another way of expressing the well-known idea that even our worst tragedies can have a silver lining. 

But that’s still hard to accept when one is in the midst of a crisis or in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy.  Sometimes it just takes time before we can find the gift, the blessing, in the challenges that life places before us. 

Another interpretation of tzaraat as a gift is found in the Talmud in Tractate Arachin where the plague is considered a “gift” in the sense that it serves as a timely warning of one’s own character flaws.   Just like the pain one senses when touching a burning stove is a gift in the sense of alerting us to pull our hand back before it gets even more hurt. 

Here’s what the Talmud in Tractate Arachin says about this:

אמר ריש לקיש מאי דכתיב (ויקרא יד) זאת תהיה תורת המצורע זאת תהיה תורתו של מוציא שם רע

(Arachin 15b)

“Resh Lakish said:  What is the meaning of the verse: “This shall be the ritual concerning the metzora”.   (Lev. 14:2) It means “this shall be the ritual concerning “motzi shem ra” (one who speaks calumny)”

In other words -- one who speaks ill of another, one who engages in lashon hara/ evil speech.

Rashi says that the divine warning to watch one’s tongue first appears in the walls of one’s house, then, if not heeded, appears in one’s clothing and finally, if not heeded, on one’s body.   All to try to tell us to be more sensitive regarding the way we speak to or about others.

That seems especially important in times like these when ideological battles divide our country to an extent that we have seldom seen in modern times.  As candidates start gearing up for next year’s national elections it still remains to be seen whether the winning candidate will be the one who manages to mobilize their own hyperpartisan base or whether it will be the one who manages to reconcile at least some of the divisions that distance us from one another. I, personally, am betting on the latter.

Another moral lesson that the Torah gives us in Parashat Metzora concerns the importance of being charitable and generous.  For this interpretation, the Talmud in Tractate Yoma focuses on the language used in Leviticus 14:35.

The JPS translation that I read you a few moments ago for this verse renders it like this:

35 the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, "Something like a plague has appeared upon my house." 3

However, that translation smoothes out the Hebrew, which, if translated literally, is a little clunkier.  The beginning of the verse doesn’t actually say “the owner of the house shall come.”  Rather it says – 

וּבָא אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ הַבַּיִת

 “The one that to him is the house” comes and says to the Kohen --- Something like a plague, it seems to me is in the house.”

The Talmud asks – why does the Torah use that awkward locution?  Why does it say “the one that to him is the house”-- or, more specifically, what does the language “to him” imply: 

And it gives the following answer:

“Why then ‘to him’? [That means to say that] if one devotes his house to himself exclusively, refusing to lend his belongings by pretending he did not own them, the Holy One, blessed be God, exposes him as he removes his belongings. Thus ‘to him’ excludes [from the infliction of the house plague] him who lends his belongings to others.”[1]

This refers to a midrash:

It is written, "The produce of his house will disappear, they shall flow away in the day of His anger" (Iyov 20), they will flow away and be found.  When? On the day that the Holy One arouses His anger against that person.  How does this come about? A person says to his neighbor, "Lend me a kav of wheat." The neighbor replies: "I have none." "Then a kav of barley?" "I have none." A woman says to her neighbor: "Lend me a sifter." She replies, "I have none." "Lend me a sieve?" She replies, "I have none." What does the Holy One do? He brings a plague on the house, and when the man is forced to take out all of his belongings, everyone sees and they say, "Didn't he say that he had nothing? Look how much wheat he has! How much barley! How many dates there are here!" (Vayikra Rabba 17)

And so what we learn from this midrash is that we should be generous in our dealings with others.

It is in that spirit that we also concern ourselves with the poor and needy in our society.

And it is in that spirit that we will say at our Passover seder tables next week:

“All who are hungry, let them come and eat.  All who are needy, let them celebrate Passover with us.”

Shabbat Shalom.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg

Nisan 5779/ April 2019 

 


[1] Yoma 11b

Posted on April 15, 2019 .

A GOOD AND PLEASANT VISION

Thoughts on Tzav (5779/2019)

(Lev. 6:1 – 8:36)

We often open our Shabbat evening services with the beautiful words from Psalm 133, “Hiney Mah tov umah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad” ---  which our Friday night siddur, Mishkan T’filah translates as “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!”

But that’s only the first verse of Psalm 133.

Here’s the whole psalm:

 

א  שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת, לְדָוִד:
הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים--    שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד.

1 A Song of Ascents; of David.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is that brothers (and sisters) dwell together in unity!

ב  כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב,    עַל-הָרֹאשׁ--
יֹרֵד,    עַל-הַזָּקָן זְקַן-אַהֲרֹן:
שֶׁיֹּרֵד,    עַל-פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו.

2 It is like the fine oil upon the head
running down onto the beard, the beard of Aaron, that comes down upon the collar of his robe;

ג  כְּטַל-חֶרְמוֹן--    שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן:
כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהוָה,    אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה--
חַיִּים,    עַד-הָעוֹלָם.

3 Like the dew of Hermon, that falls down upon the mountains of Zion;
for there the Eternal commanded the blessing, everlasting life.

These latter verses of Psalm 133 come to mind for me because this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tzav, includes a detailed description of Aaron’s ordination as Kohen Gadol or High Priest.   This ordination ritual includes the detail at Leviticus 8:12 about Moses pouring the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head:

יב  וַיִּצֹק מִשֶּׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה, עַל רֹאשׁ אַהֲרֹן; וַיִּמְשַׁח אֹתוֹ, לְקַדְּשׁוֹ.

12 And he poured of the anointing oil upon Aaron's head, and anointed him, to sanctify him.

We might wonder – What does all of us dwelling together in unity have to do with this apparently messy anointing ceremony?  Rashi explains that this refers to a teaching in the Talmud, in Masechet Horayot where the sages discuss the meaning of the words of Psalm 133: 

Our Rabbis taught: It is like the precious oil … coming down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard, etc., two drops like pearls hung from Aaron's beard. R: Papa said: A Tanna taught that when he spoke they ascended and lodged at the root of his beard. And concerning this matter, Moses was anxious. He said, 'Have I, God forbid, made an improper use of the anointing oil?  [By having applied too much (Rashi Ker. 5b).] A heavenly voice came forth and called out, “Like the precious oil …like the dew of Hermon; as the law of improper use of holy objects is not applicable to the dew of Hermon, so also is it not applicable to the anointing oil on the beard of Aaron.” Aaron however, was still anxious. He said, 'It is possible that Moses did not trespass, but I may have trespassed'. A heavenly voice came forth and said to him, [Hiney Mah Tov Umah Naim, shevet achim gam yachad] Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity;  just as Moses is not guilty of trespass, so are you not guilty of trespass.  (Horayot 12a)

So, basically, Moses and Aaron were each worried that they had messed up the ordination ceremony by being sloppy with the oil, and God said – don’t worry it’s all cool.

How might we apply that teaching to ourselves?

I guess we might say that what it means for us “shevet achim gam yachad” / “to dwell together as brothers and sisters in unity” is that we should all chill out a bit and not be too tightly wound up with concerns about ceremonial details.  So maybe Moses and Aaron were each a little klutzy with the oil. Maybe sometimes we ourselves are socially inept, or physically uncoordinated. We should do our best – put our hearts and souls into what we’re doing – and not beat ourselves up --- or beat up one another over our imperfections.

This reminds me of one time when I was in rabbinical school and we were having some sort of student-run program.  One of the moderators made a request of all of us.  The request was that when someone was making a presentation, we should make a conscious effort to “beam support” to the person making the presentation. 

When we “beam support” we’re thus like the heavenly voice that gave assurance to those two brothers in our Torah portion, Moses and Aaron, that they were doing okay.  That they needn’t worry about making a bit of a mess with the anointing oil -- that they were getting the important things right.

But what about that other simile in the Psalm  -- that the “shevet achim gam yachad” / the “siblings dwelling together in unity” is not only like the oil spilling down from Aaron’s head to his beard and his clothing --- it’s also “ketal Chermon sheyored al harirei Tziyon/  “ like the dew of Hermon that falls down upon  the mountains of Zion.”

“Hermon” (חרמון ) , of course, refers to Mt. Hermon.  Nowadays, we think of Mt. Hhermon mostly in the context of its strategic location in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, on the border of Syria.  It’s also the locale of a popular ski resort.  The entire Golan Heights area, including one side of Mt. Hermon, was seized by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967.  Prior to that, Syrian forces had periodically used the Golan Heights as a vantage point from which to attack Israeli communities in the Upper Galilee region located below it.[1]

Coincidentally, just yesterday, President Trump “tweeted” the following message: 

After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!

A Twitter message does not constitute formal governmental policy, so we will surely continue to hear lots of noise about this from all sides of the political spectrum in the coming days until some other story overshadows this one in the news cycle.[2]  At the moment, as with Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem, a number of commentators are saying that this apparent policy shift is for political purposes – both to shore up Trump’s base in the States, and to help out Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current re-election campaign.

However, as a matter of “facts on the ground,” no one really expects Israel to be leaving the Golan Heights.  And no one really disagrees that Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights is of critical strategic and security importance to Israel.  And no one really disagrees that Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights enhances regional stability given the ongoing chaos and Iranian incursions in neighboring Syria.

As for the significance of Mt. Hermon in classic Hebrew texts, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler in the JPS Jewish Study Bible suggest that when Psalm 133 refers to Mt. Hermon, the psalm might be hinting at hopes for the reunion of the tribes of Israel --- with the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel being symbolized by Mt. Hermon and the two remaining tribes of the southern kingdom of Judah symbolized by the Mountains of Zion.[3] 

As you may know, following the reign of King Solomon the ancient Israelite kingdom had split in two, and the ten northern tribes had been lost to history following the conquest of the north two centuries later by the Assyrian Empire.

So, Psalm 133 represents a fervent hope for the future that someday our estranged tribes would come together once more as in days of old.

And we do indeed live in a world of estranged tribes.  This Shabbat, we are still reeling from the massacre one week ago of fifty Muslims at the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.  And it’s only a couple of months since the terrorist attack on a Roman Catholic church in the Philippines in which twenty Christians were killed.  And five months since the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh in which eleven Jews were killed.  And, lest we forget, twenty-five years since the Purim Day massacre by a twisted hate-filled American-born Israeli Jew of twenty-nine Muslim worshippers at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron – the site venerated by both Muslims and Jews as the burial place of our common ancestor Abraham, also known as Avraham, also known as Ibrahim  

But let us not despair of our world.  Let us keep hope alive through our prayers, and through our reaching out to one another both within our community and across cultural lines --- as we seek to actualize the psalmist’s vision – “Hiney mah tov u’mah na’im” -- that “good and pleasant” vision ---  of a peaceful and harmonious world.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg

Adar Sheni 5779/ March 2019


[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-21/why-golan-heights-matter-to-israel-syria-and-trump-quicktake

[2] Note:  a few days after I wrote and delivered this dvar torah, President Trump followed up the tweet with an official proclamation:   https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/27/trump-officially-recognized-israels-annexation-of-golan-heights.html

[3] JPS Study Bible http://www.amazon.com/The-Jewish-Study-Bible-Publication/dp/0195297547   , p. 1432

Posted on March 27, 2019 .

LETTING GO (Dvar Torah by Elyse Carter-Vosen)

[The following dvar torah was given by Temple Israel member and College of Saint Scholastica faculty member Elyse Carter-Vosen on 1/18/19 at our special Shabbat Shirah service for the week of Torah portion Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16).  Kol Hakavod, Elyse!]

This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, “when he let go…” refers to Pharoah releasing the children of Israel into the desert. But I’d like to reflect more broadly on the idea of letting go, and its implications for justice work, for I have found this theme of release central to both human relationships with the natural world and to the transformative power of song.

 In order to draw people together, to work in harmony with each other and especially with land, requires a deep well of energy and optimism, strength and resiliency. Working toward economic and environmental sustainability as well as social equity and cross-cultural respect can be an exhausting and sometimes paralyzing task. What I have realized is that one must first know and free oneself from oppressive mindsets. The most dramatic part of the Beshalach occurs in this way:  

“And Pharaoh will say about the children of Israel, They are trapped in the land. The desert has closed in upon them.” And the children of Israel, feeling trapped and frustrated, cried out to Moses, questioning him:  “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? “ Why didn’t you just leave us there? They wondered. The known oppression was better in that moment than the unknown wilderness. 

But Moses said to the people, “Don't be afraid! Stand firm and see the power that God will wield for you today,” And God told Moses that if he raised his staff and stretched out his hand, the sea would part, and the children of Israel would somehow miraculously go through to the other side. Then Moses and the children of Israel sang to God, and later Miriam, the prophetess, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with dances.

For me, the image of the parting sea that includes looming, gargantuan walls of water on either side has never particularly spoken to me. As a very sensorily-oriented person, I imagine what it would feel like, and I cannot embrace it because my fear takes over. My chest feels like it’s crushing in and I start to panic.  I’m deeply claustrophobic. I get that from my mom. And there is another legacy she passed along to me: a deep curiosity and desire for adventure and discovery, and especially a deep yearning for closeness with land, with its openness and its possibility. 

I was seven when we moved onto our thirty acres of pine and birch, with the loons and the deer, the warm sun on fallen logs and the soft dark mystery of the mossy swamp. I knew immediately those woods were the place for me. I loved wandering in them with my mom. I soaked up her knowledge, wanting to know every plant and every tree. Sometimes I pretended to run away into the woods, and imagined what it would be like to live there, but what always held me back was that feeling of aloneness. I ultimately needed other voices.  I ventured out but then I had to turn back home.

My very first year of college, Spring Break came, and there was an opportunity to travel across the country from Minnesota to go rock-climbing in Joshua Tree national monument. I picked up the phone to call my single mom and I thought, “I’m prone to heatstroke. I could fall off a cliff. There’s no way she’s going to say yes to this.” But she said, “Go.”

Having never spent time in the desert, I was mesmerized by its stark beauty. We each spent an afternoon on a solo hike, and I remember that feeling of being completely alone with my thoughts, for hours. As someone who keeps my mind busy with thoughts from morning until night, I imagined it would be overwhelming, but when I got out there, I stepped calmly away from a rattlesnake, watched the sun slowly creep up the canyon wall, and I felt surprisingly free.

The summer after my sophomore year, there was an internship possibility in Bangor, Maine As I picked up the phone, I thought, “Ok, she let me do this once, but this time, I know no one. I don’t have a car, I don’t have a place to live.” And she said, “Go.” When I roommate took her car every weekend and went home to New Hampshire, I wandered the Maine countryside walking five, eight, ten miles at a time. I wandered through farmers’ hayfields and got lost in the woods. 

Years later, my mom went on a 10-day solo trip to New Zealand. My dad couldn’t get away from his work in Australia, so she just booked herself a tour, and she went. She had been living with her life-threatening autoimmune disease for a couple of years, and I think it focused her. She started taking more time to breathe, but also taking more risks. She didn’t know a soul, but she went. She traveled with new people, learned about Maori culture, and drank in the power of the lush green mountains. Throughout my whole life, I was inspired by her adventurousness and courage, from the life of survival she created for us in the woods and her backbreaking work in the mines, to living through her health challenges and ultimately facing cancer, to this trip she took on her own in her sixties. Her curious, artistic spirit and openness to other people have left me a path to follow.

So perhaps it is no surprise that when the opportunity came last year as an ethnomusicologist to pursue fieldwork in the Berkshires of Connecticut, the woods of upstate New York, and the Mohave Desert, I went. I went to Boston and Philadelphia too, seeking Jewish communities where I’d never been before. In the West Philadelphia neighborhood of the Jewish Farm School and Reconstructionist congregation Kol Tzedek, I saw people taking beautiful risks, reaching out across their differences. There are partnerships with the local mosque, with the local branch of Black Lives Matter, with churches on immigration issues, and with a whole range of urban farmers that host Philly Farm School volunteers to ameliorate food insecurity in West and Northeast Philadelphia. Kol Tzedek shares its worship space with two churches, and the Jewish Farm School share an office and learning space, which hosts Shtetl Skills workshops and a nigun collective.

I spent a Shabbat at Kol Tzedek in West Philly, at a gathering called Let My People Sing. Its founders believe in “the liberatory power of song and the importance of vibrant Jewish singing communities.” The creators of these weekends of song are all graduates of the Adamah farm fellowship, which immerses a cohort of 20-35 year olds in a three-month intensive experience of work, prayer, and study on a six-acre organic farm at Isabella Freedman, also home to Hazon, the headquarters of the Jewish environmental movement in Connecticut. I spent Sukkot and Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, drinking in Torah study, hikes, food grown on the Adamah farm, prayer, and song. I spent a day at the farm at Eden Village Camp, getting sunburned and dragging a rake through muddy soil, helping prepare fields for planting. While we thinned tiny carrot plants, I got to talk with a set of college students doing a summer fellowship at the camp’s farm.  I sat down and talked with the camp director about his philosophies of creativity, which encompass growing food, kids, hands-on learning, and artistic expression.

And thirty years after my first trip to the desert, I found myself back in the desert again.  This time my travels took me near Death Valley, celebrating Passover with Wilderness Torah. It was a long plane trip, an even longer drive through LA traffic on 12-lane freeways. Incredibly, the rush of traffic gradually narrowed to 8 lanes, then 4, then 2, and then, almost impossibly, I found myself on dusty dirt roads with no more phone signal, outside the ghost town of Ballarat in the Panamint Valley. There a small village of tents had been constructed of steel poles weighted down by sand, with canvas tops and sheer black mesh walls so the wind comes through, adorned by large batiked cloths and filled with colorful, vibrant people of every age, gender, and Jewish ethnicity.

On Shabbat morning, we chanted the morning blessings, sang some psalms, and then walked out into the desert for an extended silent Amidah.  For me, it was anything but silent, especially at first, because I was surrounded by the clamor of thoughts in my head.

In Hebrew, Egypt is called Mitzrayim. According the mystical text of the Zohar, the name is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits” or “from the narrows.”  The children of Israel came through that narrow strait and went out into the midbar, the wilderness. And it was there that they wandered until they found themselves.

My “narrow place” is being devoured by my thoughts and worries.  I know I am not alone in this constriction. Many of us drive ourselves too hard, succeeding, producing. Carrying so deeply about so many things has its price: we carry a cacophony of critical voices and fears in our heads.

Sitting in the desert, I was struck by the fact that being in touch with earth, in whatever form that takes, forces us to encounter the world directly through our senses.  I made a list of all of the sounds I heard:  the rush of the wind, the peeping song of a single bird, a fly buzzing by, an insect rustling a twig as it crawled over it. And here was I, quiet enough that I could listen to the beat of my own heart. Hineni.

I looked around and saw colors. The orange canyon, the ridged red rocks, pink and white quartz, charcoal basalt, green sage, deeper green creosote bushes with bright yellow flowers, tiny white flowers in a gray dried bush, smooth cream and beige mountains, and some deeper brown mountains with smooth wrinkles like an old person’s face.

After three hours, at the sound of a shofar blowing, one by one we wandered back to the Tent of Meeting. We sang “Esa Einai” and “Ma Norah HaMakom Hazeh” (how awesome is this place). And it was. We sang the same song on Shabbat morning this fall at the Reconstructing Judaism convention, once more in the heart of Philadelphia. It was a rich, harmonious sound. We were invited to turn around and look around us, to take in all of the beautiful, imperfect people who were a part of this beautiful, imperfect place.

For me, the greatest gifts are gratitude and quiet, and they are both hard-won.  I have recognized that this yearning for openness of my soul is shared by many people of several generations I have encountered during this past year. We feel weighed down by anxieties, pulled in many directions by responsibilities, and at times trapped by the narrow places of wanting so badly to solve the world’s injustices, all the while pushing ourselves to ill health. The incidence of anxiety and depression has skyrocketed during the past two generations. According to psychologists, up to 33% of all adults in our country over age 18 has a diagnosed anxiety disorder. The youngest generation speaks frequently at how overwhelmed they are at all of the choices and problems in the world. 

 

It’s messy, seeking freedom. The sea doesn’t open up neatly and make a path. As David Teutsch notes in a commentary in Kol Haneshamah, the divine-human partnership, the process of becoming, is messier than a retreat in the wilderness because we have to do our lives every day. He notes, “in the rabbinic imagination, the ancient Israelites slog through mud up to their knees, their waists, even their chests. It falls to us to continue the task of redemption—to face the contemporary morass and find the resolve to wade through it with waves threatening to submerge us on either hand…The hint of the Promised Land is in our loving moments.”

What I am finally starting to come to, nearing age 50, is this realization of needing love not only others but oneself deeply enough to connect to that deeper love and healing that permeates the world.  We have to seek those moments of wholeness in the midst of all of the forces trying to pull us apart. For me personally, I find the same feeling of quiet and healing in sitting and singing, hearing other voices just as I do in hearing the wind or the water, cataloguing the ancient colored rocks and absorbing the wisdom of the mountain’s face, digging my hands into the soil and pulling out weeds. In all of these things is a focus, and a feeling of purpose. Not just idle singing. Not just idle digging. Both are for healing the illnesses of ourselves and the world. 

My mom, spent a lot of time working to heal other people. She supported and cooked and nurtured and problem-solved. She was a bartender, so she listened to a lot of people’s daily struggles. She was a union steward who represented maintenance and cleaning staff in positions of lesser power. She took care of her dying mother. And she fought cancer.  I am acutely aware of the stress in her life and if there is still time left, I want to try to find better health. I am so grateful for the seeds of light and joy my mom sowed, even in the course of her struggle with the messiness of everything life threw at her. As physically and mentally tough as she was, she never stopped being vulnerable to other people. She never stopped building community and creating beauty around her. I took her spirit with me on so many of my adventures this year. 

As we move from Martin Luther King Day toward Passover off in the distance, and as we come to the place in the Torah this week where Miram and the women sing and dance on the muddy bank of the river, I hope we can embrace the value of getting dirty in all of its forms. We need to slog through the mud of our own shortcomings and then find ways to let go.

All week I’ve been carrying around a song in my head which I think gets at the cost of the stress of injustice on our bodies and hearts, and also at the healing power of song, breath, connectedness, and also surrendering to something larger than ourselves. It’s from a Let My People Sing composer named Aly Halpert, and it’s called “Loosen.”

Loosen, loosen baby / You don’t have to carry / The weight of the world in your muscles and bones / Let go, let go, let go

            Holy breath, and holy name / Will you ease, will you ease this pain         

Surrender is something I am continuing to work on, and I want to keep finding places to encounter it, whether through nature, community work, or song. We as humans are awed by the immense beauty of creation, and are humbled by our own imperfection. We know we cannot do things all by ourselves. We work together to rebuild structures that are constraining and oppressive. We express joy and celebration at overcoming our struggles. The fight for justice goes on and we extend it beyond ourselves. These are Jewish values.

Posted on January 23, 2019 .

STRANGERS NO MORE

Thoughts on Bo (5779)

(Exodus 10:1 – 13:16)

[dvar torah given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 1/11/19]

The climax of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, is the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt – yes, that same yetziat mitzrayim that we mention in the third paragraph of the Shema every morning and every night – and that we recall in the Kiddush over the wine or grape juice every Shabbat and Festival – and that we recount in the Haggadah at the Passover seder each year.   

But according to our parashah, it was not just the Israelites that left Egypt on that fateful day.  As it says at Exodus 12:38 ---   

  וְגַם-עֵרֶב רַב, עָלָה אִתָּם...

And a mixed multitude went up also with them…

(Vegam eyrev rav alah itam…)

Who was this eyrev rav?  This “mixed multitude?”

Rashi (11th century France) identifies them as “ta’arovet umot shel geyrim.” (“an ethnically mixed group of converts”).  

For most of Jewish history, the Jewish people have not sought out converts.  In part this reflects the political circumstances of living under various Christian or Muslim regimes past and present where to do so was a capital offence.  However, surely more importantly, Judaism has never held itself out to be the only acceptable religious path for humanity.  Instead, Judaism asserts that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.

Those who DO convert to Judaism are highly respected in our tradition.  There is even a special mention of Jews by choice in the thirteenth blessing of the weekday amidah, where we ask for God’s blessing “al gerei hatzedek”   [The Mishkan Tefillah Reform siddur translates the phrase “al gerei hatzedek” as “toward those who choose sincerely to be Jews.” ]

Further, anyone not born Jewish who chooses to convert to Judaism is supposed to be treated as equal in every way to those who are born Jewish. Jews by Choice are traditionally seen as having mystically already been present at Sinai.   Jews by Choice are  entitled (according to no less an authority than Maimonides) to use the traditional prayer formulation  “eloheinu veylohei avoteinu”/ “Our God and God of our Ancestors,”  which traces our Jewish ancestry back to the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. 

As Maimonides says in his famous “Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte,” – “no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you.”  (A Maimonides Reader, Isidore Twersky, editor, Behrman House, 1972, p. 476).

And, as this week’s parashah emphasizes soon after the mention of the mixed multitude -- “Torah achat yihyeh la’ezrach velageyr hagar betokhekhem”/ “There shall be one law for the ezrach and the ger who dwells among you.”  (Ex. 12:49).  Both those words --- “ezrach” and “ger” are multivalent. “Ger” means “stranger” but also has traditionally been understood to refer to converts to Judaism.  “Ezrach” can mean a Jew who was born Jewish –-- or, more broadly, it can mean a citizen who is a native of the country in which he or she claims citizenship. 

It’s hard not to see a parallel between the mixed multitude who wanted to join up with the Israelites in the time of the Book of Exodus and the mixed multitude of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who want to come to the United States in our own day and who seek a path towards citizenship. 

Once we get past the xenophobic tweets of those who would falsely brand them as rapists, terrorists and drug smugglers, we realize that most of those who yearn to come to our country are motivated by the same forces that brought so many of our own ancestors here: The search for a safer and better life. We can identify with them because we too are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants

We learned in Parashat Shemot a couple of Torah portions back, that Moses named his first child Gershom.  If you split up those two syllables into two separate Hebrew words you get “Ger” “Sham” --- literally “a stranger there” –

As it says in Exodus 2:22 --

וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ גֵּרְשֹׁם:  כִּי אָמַר--גֵּר הָיִיתִי, בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה

(Vayikra et shemo Gershom ki amar, gar hayiti be’eretz nochriyah.)

“and he called his name “Gershom” for he said – I was a stranger in a foreign land.”

I am reminded of the evocative title of American author Adam Haslett’s short story collection published in 2002.  The title of that book is “You are not a stranger here.”  

And that’s really our vision for our own people as well, is it not?

As a wise person said this week: “The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a thirty-foot wall.”[1]

And like the mixed multitudes of the Jewish people through the millennia – and like the mixed multitudes of this sweet land of liberty in which we currently dwell, we ask – in the words of the siddur --  Barkheinu Avinu Kulanu ke'echad b'or panekha – “Bless us, O source of being, all of us, as one, in the light of the Divine presence"    

Shabbat shalom.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg

January 2019/ Shevat 5779


[1] https://twitter.com/ABC/status/1082894520398811137



Posted on January 15, 2019 .

GREAT EXPECTATION

Thoughts on Parshat Vayechi  (5779/2018)

(Gen 47:28 - 50:26)   
(Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel, Duluth on Friday evening 12/21/18)

This Shabbat, with Torah portion, Vayechi, we come to the end of the Book of Genesis.  And more specifically, we come to the end of the Torah’s narratives about the patriarchs and matriarchs.  Our parasha this week features Jacob’s deathbed blessings for his twelve sons, and for his two grandsons from Joseph, and finally the death of Joseph himself.  The very last word of the book is “bmitzrayim” meaning “in Egypt” --- one of the many literary touches that transition us into the story of slavery and exodus that we’ll begin reading next week.

In reviewing the parasha this time around, I find myself drawn to a mysterious verse that comes in the middle of Jacob’s series of blessings of his twelve sons.  In Genesis 49: 18, after Jacob has blessed seven of his twelve sons: Reuven, Shimon, Levy, Yehudah , Yisachar, Zevulun and Dan --- and before he blesses the remaining five of his sons:  Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Yosef, and Binyamin – it seems like Jacob suddenly switches gear and blurts out an emotional prayer for himself.  He exclaims:

לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

In the Plaut Torah commentary this is translated as “I wait for your deliverance, O Lord”.  We could also translate yeshuatkha as “your salvation”.  And we could also translate “kiviti” as “I hope” or “I expect” or “I long for.” (That verb “kiviti” has the same grammatical root as the word “tikvah” / “hope” --- as in the title of the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah”/ “The Hope”

So what’s going on here with this verse:  לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

“I wait for Your deliverance, Adonai!”

How are we to understand these words?

Depending on how you deliver the line, I suppose it could be a statement of utter faith and confidence:  “I expect your salvation, Adonai”

Or it could be a statement of utter despair and anguish:

“I long for your deliverance, Adonai”

In the Etz Hayim Torah commentary, one of the explanations offered for this verse is that it “could be a prayer uttered by Jacob who, in a sudden moment of weakness, calls for strength to finish the testament.”   

Let me read you the verse in the context of the verses that surround it so that you can get a sense of how jarring it sounds.  Remember that we are in the middle of Jacob’s deathbed blessing of his twelve sons.  We pick up the text with the blessing of Zevulun at Gen. 49:13:

Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore; He shall be a haven for ships, And his flank shall rest on Sidon. Issachar is a strong-boned ass, Crouching among the sheepfolds. When he saw how good was security, And how pleasant was the country, He bent his shoulder to the burden, And became a toiling serf. Dan shall govern his people, As one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the road, A viper by the path, That bites the horse’s heels So that his rider is thrown backward.

I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord!

Gad shall be raided by raiders, But he shall raid at their heels. Asher’s bread shall be rich, And he shall yield royal dainties. Naphtali is a hind let loose, Which yields lovely fawns.[1]  

--------

It does seem to come out of nowhere, doesn’t it?

How does it feel when we encounter the verse in our Torah portion ---

לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

“I wait for Your deliverance, Adonai!”

Not only for Jacob, but each one of us as well  – when we are tired and depleted, when we feel immobilized by fear or depression or grief or simple physical exhaustion ---- it is a natural reaction to look to God, however we may understand God, to help us persevere.   Jacob seems to be doing so because he is near the end of his life --- and his life has been a hard and stressful one.

And this sense of deliverance is available for us as well.  Whatever circumstances we find ourselves in at the end of each week, Shabbat provides a respite, a taste of redemption that, if we let it, can stay with us throughout the week and even in our most difficult times.

לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

I wait for Your deliverance, Adonai!

Alternatively, a number of commentators both traditional and modern, see the verse not as a separate aside by Jacob, but rather as part of Jacob’s previous blessing for Dan. In one interpretation[2], Jacob is prophetically channeling a prayer that Samson, from the tribe of Dan, would utter as he – Samson -- prepared to topple the walls of the pagan Temple and kill himself and the Philistines gathered there.

In another interpretation[3], when Jacob says “yeshuatekha” “your salvation” --  Jacob is himself addressing the future tribe of Dan.  In other words when he says “yeshuatekha” your salvation -- he means “your” with a lower case “y”,  praying that the future tribe of Dan will find deliverance through God’s help.  Later in the Tanakh the tribe of Dan has as its designated territory the Mediterranean coastal region that now includes the city of Tel Aviv.  Indeed, “Dan” is the name of the municipal bus system in Tel Aviv today. 

But in the book of Judges in the Tanakh, the tribe of Dan was unable to secure its designated territory and so they had to wander to the farthest northern reaches of the land of Israel to establish themselves there.

How does all this apply to our day?

Trying to make political commentary based on biblical texts is an impressionistic game at best. 

But when I think about Samson bringing down the pillars of the pagan Temple – creating what some see as havoc and some see as deliverance –  I can’t help but think of the chaos of international relations today – and of the foreign policy twists and turns that change by the minute as we follow news reports and scroll through our social media accounts.

Are the walls tumbling down on us?

Difficult to say.

And I don’t know about you, but I for one am glad for the peace of Shabbat and for the deliverance and salvation that comes from having a little faith in God and in ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi David Steinberg
© Tevet 5779/ December 2018


[1] Gen. 49:13-21

[2] https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.49.18?lang=bi&with=Rashi&lang2=en

[3] https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.49.18?lang=bi&with=Chizkuni&lang2=en

Posted on December 28, 2018 .

MANDELA AND THE MACCABEES

(Remarks given at the closing ceremony for the Duluth Nelson Mandela Committee series of programs marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela.  The event was held on Sunday, December 2, 2018 at St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church of Duluth)

Good Afternoon!

Our celebration today of Nelson Mandela’s centenary year coincides with the approach of Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights that begins less than three hours from now.

In the second century before the Common Era, the Jewish people under the leadership of the Maccabees secured their freedom from a tyrannical regime and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem.  They commemorated the victory with an eight-day celebration, a practice that continues to be observed by Jews around the world to this very day.

The Maccabees’ victory over the Seleucid dynasty was not accomplished without the use of physical force.  But ultimately, the Jewish sages enacted that we would emphasize the spiritual component of this freedom struggle.  And so we read in synagogue the message of the prophet Zechariah:

לֹ֤א בְחַ֨יִל֙ וְלֹ֣א בְכֹ֔חַ כִּ֣י אִם־בְּרוּחִ֔י אָמַ֖ר יְהוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת

Lo bechayil, velo vekhoach, ki im beruchi amar Adonai Tzeva’ot

“’Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit’ – says the Lord of Hosts.”[1]

Similarly, the long struggle of the people of South Africa against the evil tyranny of the Apartheid regime was not achieved without acts of armed resistance.  But, ultimately, it was the spiritual force of non-violent struggle led by Nelson Mandela that brought about the democratic society that exists there today.

In his inaugural celebration address in 1994, as President of a newly free South Africa, Nelson Mandela said:

“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”[2]

May it be God’s will that Nelson Mandela’s legacy continue to be a model and an inspiration for all of us in the ongoing struggle to achieve freedom, dignity and justice for all peoples.

Amen.


[1] Zechariah 4:6

[2] https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Inaugural_Speech_17984.html

Posted on December 4, 2018 .

THOUGHTS AFTER PITTSBURGH AND JEFFERSONTOWN

(Note: Temple Israel convened a memorial service which took place November 1, 2018, in the aftermath of the shootings in Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Over 500 people attended. Speakers included Duluth’s Chief of Police Mike Tusken, Dr. Nik Hassan from the Islamic Center of the Twin Ports, and Rev. Robyn Weaver of Glen Avon Presbyterian Church of Duluth.  Pastor Robyn grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. My own remarks follow:)

Thank you, Pastor Robyn for your poignant recollections of Squirrel Hill.  Your words help us be more present to the tragedy of what occurred there last Saturday morning.  I also have some connections to the area.  I lived in Squirrel Hill for several months in 1986, during the summer between my second and third years of law school.   I had a summer clerkship that year in a downtown Pittsburgh law firm and was subletting a room in an apartment in Squirrel Hill.  My recollections are a bit hazy at this point, but I don’t think I ever went to the Tree of Life Synagogue.  Rather I attended services at one of the other synagogues in the neighborhood on most of the Shabbases that I was in the area.  But I do remember the vibrancy of the Jewish and general cultural life in Squirrel Hill and I loved going running in the two huge city parks – Schenly Park – which bordered Squirrel Hill on the west and Frick Park which bordered Squirrel Hill on the east.

In addition to knowing that my friend Pastor Robyn had Squirrel Hill connections, several of my colleagues in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association grew up in Squirrel Hill, including one colleague in particular who was a cousin of the two brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, who were killed in last week’s attack.  So, it all hits pretty close to home.

As we all gather here tonight, I know that for many of us our emotions are still swirling and we are still stressed out and upset --- not only over the anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, but also over the racist attack at the Kroger’s Supermarket in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, and also over the politically partisan pipe bomb attack attempts last week --- and also over the generally horrific depths to which civil discourse has fallen in our country lately.

That is why the words

of the President of the United States

have been so healing

and restorative

and supportive

and inspiring to me and to so many others….

I refer of course to the words of President George Washington.

Here’s what our first President wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790:  These words remind us of how fortunate we are to live in this great country:

Gentlemen:

While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington[1]

Of course, we know that back in 1790 just as today, our country is still far from being a perfect union.  The events of last week remind us only too well that racism, anti-semitism and general xenophobia and intolerance remain powerful forces.  We have to be ever vigilant, not only for our physical safety but also for our political liberty.

Neighborly support of one another is imperative.  Civic engagement is imperative --- if you haven’t taken advantage of early voting opportunities already, please make sure you vote on election day this coming Tuesday!

We in the Jewish community are particularly shaken by the fact that the Pittsburgh dead were targeted specifically because they were Jews.  This is not unprecedented.  Anti-semitism has been a repugnant societal evil for centuries and millenia. 

But we will refuse to be intimidated. 

And we are ever grateful for the friendship and support of our friends from beyond the Jewish community – including those of you who have joined us here this evening.

Yesterday, one of our Temple Israel congregants, Robin Washington, and I were interviewed by Henry Banks on his Wisconsin Public Radio program “People of Color.”  One of the things Robin talked about was how he is impacted by being part of two groups that have been the target of hatred and violence – being both Jewish and African-American.  And I talked about the impact on me of being part of two groups that have been the target of hatred and violence – being both Jewish and gay.  Each form of hatred has its own unique historical background and expression but ultimately it all comes down to whether or not we truly see ourselves and our fellow human beings as btzelem Elohim – in the image of God.  That’s the charge that’s set out for us in all of the great faith traditions --- to treat others as we would have ourselves treated.  To see the good in each person.  To love our neighbor.  To love the stranger.

The lectionary reading in Jewish congregations around the world this week is Parashat Chayyei Sarah.  This Torah portion opens with an account of Sarah’s death.  But towards the end of the parasha, in Genesis 24 verse 67, when Rebecca unites with Sarah’s son Isaac, Torah teaches:

וַיֶּֽאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַֽחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ

“And he loved her and thus Isaac found comfort after his mother’s death.”

Similarly, may those who lost loved ones in Jeffersontown, Kentucky and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania find comfort in their time of loss.

And as for us, we who are profoundly shaken by these deaths though we are not the designated mourners ourselves, may we stay hopeful and resilient as we work together towards what the American Framers called the formation of a “more perfect union” and what the Jewish Sages called “tikkun ha-olam”/ “the repair of the world.”[2]

So that the memories of

Vickie Lee Jones

Maurice E. Stallard

Joyce Fienberg

Richard Gottfried

Rose Mallinger

Jerry Rabinowitz

Cecil Rosenthal

David Rosenthal

Bernice Simon

Sylvan Simon

Daniel Stein

Melvin Wax

and

Irving Younger

may truly be for a blessing.

Amen.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg

November 2018/ Cheshvan 5779

 

 


[1] http://tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/gw-letter

[2] http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/

Posted on November 2, 2018 .