Friday, July 29, 2016

Pinhas and the Ocean's Waters

In ancient times sacrifices were offered on the heights of the Temple. On Sukkot especially the sacrifices reached their zenith. This week’s Torah portion offers details of the Sukkot sacrifices. (Numbers 29) 70 bulls were slaughtered on the altar, in addition to 14 rams, 98 lambs and seven goats. It was a bloody weeklong celebration. At the conclusion of Sukkot was the long since forgotten holiday of Simhat Beit HaShoeva, the water drawing celebration. Copious amounts of water were poured over the Temple and its altar.

In a land where water is so scarce it is remarkable to reflect on the central ritual of this holiday. At the conclusion of the dry season and prior to the beginning of the winter rains water is dumped as if it were a plentiful commodity. My teacher and the chair of Hebrew University’s Bible Department, Israel Knohl, offers two possible explanations. There was the practical and the philosophical. On the one hand this much water was required to clean the Temple. After so many sacrifices the Temple required a thorough washing. On the other hand what could be a better statement of faith than to dump out water before the winter rains (hopefully) began. It was if our people said, “God, we firmly believe that You will soon provide water for our crops.”

It is interesting to ponder the fact that whereas water figured so prominently in ancient times, it is no longer prominent in our rituals, especially in Reform circles. In traditional homes the mikvah, the ritual bath is still observed as well as netilat yadayim, the ritual washing of hands before eating. (It is important to note that we are still battling over these rituals. The Knesset recently passed a law banning Reform and Conservative Jews from using mikvahs for their conversions.) Still, we only add the prayer for rain to our liturgy, beginning at the conclusion of Sukkot. This additional line connects us to the seasons of the land of Israel. Is this single line enough?

When in Jerusalem I often set out on hikes to explore the streets of the city. It does not take long to be reminded of the necessity of always bringing plenty of water to withstand Jerusalem’s summer heat. It is no wonder that there water became central to our rituals. It is unfortunate that we take water for granted and no longer give such prominence to its preciousness. We drink it, bathe in it, play in it, but no longer pray with it.

It is hard to appreciate water living in an area where it is sometimes too abundant. It is true that our tradition assigns no blessing over the drinking of water. It is used in blessings, but we recite no blessing over it as we do with other foods and drinks. Why is there is no blessing? It is because water is a blessing. In Israel one appreciates better the blessing of mayyim hayyim, living waters.

According to the Talmud one has not experienced true joy until one celebrates Simhat Beit HaShoeva. What faith it is indeed to pour water over every inch of the Temple precinct at the onset of the rainy season. So with our ancestors let us dance and celebrate that God provides for us these living waters. And let us as well regain a better appreciation of mayyim hayyim, living waters.

Let us open our minds to the power and beauty of water and the majesty of the ocean's waves.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Balak, Favorite Poems and Enemy's Prayers

A few poems.


To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell:
to him I come, and without speaking or looking,
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a great fragment of thunder sets in motion
the rumble of the planet and the foam,
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea's lamenting in my awareness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the autumn’s castigation,
I may be there with an errant wave,
I may move, passing through the windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying “How can I reach the sea?”
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and of quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing,
the grey cry of sea-birds on the coast.

So, though me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shuttered heart.


However deep your
Knowledge of the scriptures,
It is no more than a strand of hair
In the vastness of space;
However important appears
Your worldly experience,
It is but a drop of water in a deep ravine.


At times ... I wish I could meet in a duel the man who killed my father and razed our home, expelling me into a narrow country. And if he killed me, I’d rest at last, and if I were ready— I would take my revenge!

But if it came to light, when my rival appeared, that he had a mother waiting for him, or a father who’d put his right hand over the heart’s place in his chest whenever his son was late even by just a quarter-hour for a meeting they’d set— then I would not kill him, even if I could.

Likewise ... I would not murder him if it were soon made clear that he had a brother or sisters who loved him and constantly longed to see him. Or if he had a wife to greet him and children who couldn’t bear his absence and whom his gifts would thrill. Or if he had friends or companions, neighbors he knew or allies from prison or a hospital room, or classmates from his school … asking about him and sending him regards.

But if he turned out to be on his own — cut off like a branch from a tree — without a mother or father, with neither a brother nor sister, wifeless, without a child, and without kin or neighbors or friends, colleagues or companions, then I’d add not a thing to his pain within that aloneness —  not the torment of death, and not the sorrow of passing away. Instead I’d be content to ignore him when I passed him by on the street—as I convinced myself that paying him no attention in itself was a kind of revenge.


And then in this week’s portion we discover these verses:
How fair are you tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water…
They crouch, they lie down like a lion,
Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?
Blessed are they who bless you,
Accursed they who curse you! (Numbers 24)


So said Balaam, the foreign prophet sent by Israel’s sworn enemy, the Moabites.  King Balak instructs Balaam to curse the Jewish people.  Instead the prophet provides us with a prayer.

Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov…  With these words we begin our morning prayers.

So records our Torah. 

And so we are reminded: Torah is about more than just listening to our own voice.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

How to Stop Terror from Closing Our Hearts

Nice, Brussels, Paris and Paris again. Orlando, Charleston, Boston and Dallas. A litany of terrorized cities grows longer each and every week.

We are understandably afraid.

In this age of terror the ordinary and everyday can become terrifying. Going to work. Traveling on a plane. Walking through Times Square (or celebrating Bastille Day) can instill fear rather than offer the revelry for which these should only be known. This of course is the very goal of the terrorists who are bent on murder and destruction. They seek to upend the ordinary. They plot to terrify the mundane. Their very goal is to amplify fear....

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Hukkat, Complaints and Tears

Moses, the greatest hero in the Torah and perhaps the Bible, is not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Why? The answer is discovered in this week’s portion.

The people were once again complaining. This time they were screaming for water. “There is not even water to drink!” God instructs Moses to order a rock to provide water. Instead Moses twice hits the rock in anger. He shouts at the people, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20)

What was Moses’ great sin? How could his actions deserve the punishment of never crossing the Jordan and walking into the land of Israel? For centuries commentators have argued about Moses’ actions. The story affords opportunities for many different interpretations.

Some commentators, most notably the medieval scholar Rashi, suggest that Moses’ sin was that he did not listen to God’s instructions exactly. God told Moses to order the rock to provide water. Instead Moses hits the rock, not only once but twice. This episode proves, according to this line of thinking, that when God gives a command we must follow it to the letter.

Others suggest it was instead that Moses takes credit for God’s miracle when he said, “Shall we get water?” Moses, who is often praised for his humility, was anything but humble. Hubris was his sin. Still others, among them Nachmanides, suggest that he called the people “rebels,” thus widening the gap between the leader and his followers. Moses loses his patience and becomes angry at the Israelites who he is meant to shepherd and inspire. This story thus illustrates a failure of leadership.

I would, however, like to suggest an alternative interpretation. The opening verse of the chapter reads: “The Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Zin… Miriam died there and was buried there.” Miriam is of course Moses’ sister. The Torah here suggests a clue to understanding Moses’ behavior.

Moses is a mourner. And what do the people do in response? They complain. If we see Moses as a mourner and in the midst of mourning the death of his only sister, his anger becomes understandable, his hitting of the rock should become forgivable.

Shiva can often be extraordinarily demanding of mourners. For days mourners become guests in their own home. Strangers congregate in places where they remember eating and laughing with family members now gone. Their absence becomes palpable. It can appear as if strangers vie to take their place. People gather in the kitchen and dining room. They make small talk. They discuss the weather or a recent Mets or Jets loss (or the occasional win). One can see the look emerging on mourners’ faces. “My sister just died and all you want to do is talk about is how come there is not enough to drink.” The Torah affirms: “There is not even water to drink!”

No one from among the community offers even a word of compassion. No one asks Moses about his sister Miriam. No one tells stories about her, reminding him of the beautiful songs she sang when the people crossed the sea. No one even jokes with him about the time she criticized his wife Zipporah. In the moment of his grief he might have even welcomed that remembrance. He would have been receptive to hearing any story about his sister. Such stories add flesh to memories.

Instead they speak only of the mundane. They shy away from confronting the grief standing before them. Where is their rachmanis?

And so Moses gets angry. He is human. He hits an inanimate rock. Anger is the first stage of mourning. In order to move towards acceptance one must travel through anger. The stories friends offer help accompany the mourner as they journey through their tears, as they march away from anger. They take hold of any and all remembrances.

Perhaps these verses illustrates not Moses’ failure but instead the people’s, and even I dare say, God’s. Where is their sympathy? Where is the God of compassion? Where is the understanding? Our leader is in mourning. And all they can do is talk about food and drinks. And all God can do is offer strict judgments.

Where is the necessary rachmanis?

Perhaps the story is a reminder that only compassion can transform grief.

And out of rock flowed copious tears.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Who is Korah?

I am in Jerusalem again, studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute where I always find a refuge to recharge my spirit. I am grateful for this opportunity to learn in Jerusalem. I feel fortunate to live in a blessed age in which I can so easily visit the land of Israel. I recognize that my generation is unique in Jewish history. For generations, we only dreamed of such a reality. Now that hope is realized. And that alone is enough to stir my soul.

I come here as well because the view from afar is rarely an accurate portrayal. From a distance the State of Israel too readily becomes a caricature of preconceived notions. For some Israel can do no wrong. For others it is rarely, if ever, right. Israel is either idolized or demonized. It is of course neither. Israel must never be reduced to mere talking points. It is a remarkable and complicated place. Dreams never mirror reality. Prayers cannot be squared with the here and now.

Israel is a human creation. It is not fashioned by God. It should not be governed by heavenly dreams. And yet it forever stirs my heart.  Here my people’s dreams are palpable. Here as well those dreams become intoxicating.

Soon after arriving we made our way to the Western Wall...

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Shelach Lecha, Dreams and Likes

How many times, after posting a picture to Facebook or Instagram, do you go back and check to see how many likes you have accumulated? How often do you read the comments that friends add to your posts or secretly wonder why this friend or that one did not comment on your recent picture? Think for a few moments about how important those likes and comments have become to your day’s mood.

Another example. Airbnb and Uber are built on mutual reviews. Both the driver and the apartment owner rate their experience and impression of the consumer. Leave too many apartments unkempt and you might find it more difficult to rent another Airbnb, or you might be thrown together with apartment owners who likewise don’t clean up. Such is the magic of algorithms.

Likes and stars govern more and more of our lives.

Big data drives the shared economy. That might very well be good for business, but I worry about its effect on people. I worry that our personalities are increasingly shaped by the likes and comments of others. We appear to be building a culture, and society, driven more by what others think of us than what we, ourselves, aspire to be.

This week, in Parashat Shelach Lecha, we read about the spies who Moses sent to scout the land of Israel. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, returned with a positive report. Ten came back with negative impressions. These ten spies whipped the people into a frenzy. The people became consumed by fear and were then unable to gather the strength to move forward to the Promised Land.

In that moment, and on that day, they lost sight of their dream.

God, in turn, became so angry with them that God decreed the people would wander the wilderness for forty years: one year for every day the spies scouted the land. Then, and only then, a generation born in freedom would feel empowered to cross the Jordan into the land of Israel. Then they could realize their dream.

Throughout the generations commentators argued about what was the great sin of the spies. Was it that they incited the people and sowed fear? Was it instead that they lacked faith in God and God’s power to lead the people to victory? Was it that their impression of the land, and its inhabitants, was in fact false? Were the Canaanites indeed mighty warriors and the Israelites feeble soldiers?

The ten scouts reported: “All the people that we saw in the land are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33)

The Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, comments: “That was the sin of the spies. One can understand their statement, ‘we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,’ for that was the way they really saw themselves. However, what right did they have to say, ‘and so we must have looked to them’? What difference should it make how we appeared to them?”

Indeed, what difference should it make how we appear to them.

When our self-image is driven by how many likes we accumulate, how many followers we amass, and how many like-minded comments we garner, we lose sight of our aspirations. We lose focus on our true inner selves. We take leave of the dreams that animate the heart. We become more about how others see us rather than how we wish to see ourselves.

The Torah reminds us.

Better one dream than a 1000 likes.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Want to Change the World? Learn from Your Kids

We learn many things from our parents: how to eat properly, how to brush our teeth, and, I hope, how to greet strangers. Others we learn through observation: how to love, how to care, and even how to mourn.

Jewish tradition speaks at length about parents’ and elders’ obligations toward children and the young. The Talmud, for example, instructs parents to teach their children Torah, in essence, by modeling proper values. The ancient rabbis expound upon this obligation, adding that parents must teach their children a trade and, according to some, also to swim.

In fact, religious wisdom, adheres to the principle that older is better, and the closer the words are to Mount Sinai, the more revered and wiser they are. It lives by the ideal that older generations must impart teachings to younger generations, that decades of accumulated wisdom count for more than newfound knowledge. It often distrusts the new, the innovative, and especially that which veers from thousands of years of tradition. It looks askance at what we can learn from our youth and contemporary society

The tradition does not imagine the values we might learn from children...

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Behaalotecha and World Refugee Day

On Monday’s World Refugee Day 37 refugees became citizens at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. They fled to this country from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Liberia, Mauritania, Nepal, the Philippines, Russia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Vietnam. There, in our nation’s capital, in the Holocaust Museum, they stood and pledged their allegiance to the US.

It was a remarkable testimony to what it means to be a nation of immigrants. It was especially fitting that the ceremony took place at the Holocaust Museum. We know too well that the nations of the world, including the US, were silent in the face of the Nazi genocide and by and large turned their back on fleeing Jewish refugees.

These new citizens were embraced and welcomed by Holocaust survivors....

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Spiritual Power of Saying "I Don't Know"

This is Marsha’s story. It is also my story.

It is a story that illuminates the meaning of Torah.

Although we traditionally define the Torah as the opening five books of the Bible, we should not limit it to that in our minds. It should instead be thought of as the wisdom one gains when walking through life in conversation with sacred texts and tradition. For me that discussion begins with my Judaism, its books and its teachers. And so this is that story of my journey.

Twelve years ago I received a phone call from a good friend who said the following, “Rabbi, my next door neighbor is dying from brain cancer...."

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Orlando's Fire

The world is on fire.

And I feel the need to write.  All I can do is write.

Yet our words feel so inadequate in the face of the massacre in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.  All responses appear to fall short. Every word misses the mark. 

49 people were murdered.  We must be more specific in our remembrances.  When giving voice to memory we must avoid abbreviations.  49 young, primarily Latino, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, queers, or questioning, and perhaps straight, human beings were massacred.  49 souls were taken from their families, from their friends, from their community.  And 53 were injured.

All by one person....