Thursday, June 30, 2011


Often ritual acts are performed in remembrance of long since abandoned, or even forgotten, practices.

We place a shank bone on the Passover seder plate.  We do so in remembrance of the Passover sacrifices offered in the ancient Temple.  The Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago yet the tradition insists that we continually remember its power and grandeur.  Likewise we salt the Shabbat hallah in order to remember that the sacrifices were salted.   Despite the fact that we continue to observe these customs few people explain these customs with words about the Temple and its sacrifices.

The rituals surrounding death and mourning offer even more examples.  We wash our hands after returning to the shiva house from the cemetery.  Its origins are found in this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat.  “When a person dies in a tent, whoever enters the tent and whoever is in the tent shall be impure for seven days…  A person who is pure shall take hyssop, dip it in water, and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there…  The pure person shall sprinkle it upon the impure person on the third day and on the seventh day, thus purifying him by the seventh day.”  (Numbers 19:14-20)

Once the Temple was destroyed we could no longer perform such intricate purification rituals.  Yet we still wash our hands following the funeral.  Often this ritual is given different meaning.  It is explained as a symbolic cleansing.  We wash to move from death towards life.  We no longer believe that death defiles or renders us impure.  Yet its presence requires restorative powers.  We summon our strength.  We rely on our rituals.

In this week’s Torah portion as well Moses buries both his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam.  I imagine that Moses had to summon all his strength in order to persevere after suffering these personal losses.  But how could he perform the rituals that would help him move from death to life?  His brother Aaron was the priest who alone was commanded to perform these purification rituals.

And Miriam as well was associated with water.  According to legend while she was alive wells miraculously appeared wherever the Israelites camped.  When she died the Israelites were without water.  In fact immediately following her death the Torah reports that the community was without water and complained against Moses.  How could Moses then mourn his sister?  How could Moses perform the rituals that would aid in his recovery?

Our situation is similar.  We no longer have a Temple.  Sometimes we no longer even recall why we perform these acts.  Yet they still help us move from death to life.  Water helps restore the soul.

Every time I walk through the doors of a shiva house past the pitcher of water (may such days be infrequent) I do not think of the ancient sacrifices.  I offer instead a silent prayer.  May the waters Miriam brought to her people bring healing to today’s grieving family.  May this family soon arrive to the day when their tears no longer sting their cheeks. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011


This week’s portion, Korah, details the great rebellion against Moses and his authority.  Korah and his followers gathered against Moses saying, “You have gone too far!  For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

One can understand their complaints.  It is easy to imagine what people might have been saying about Moses.  “Can you believe this guy? He keeps telling us he is talking to God and that everything is going to be wonderful.  The land is so beautiful he keeps promising.  But when are we going to arrive there?  Will we ever get there?  Day after day we eat this manna.  Day after day we schlep.  We keep walking and walking.  Every day is the same.  And then this guy Moses keeps changing the original plan.”

One can be sympathetic to their grumblings.  On the surface the criticisms appear legitimate.  Examine the Torah’s words.  Judaism does indeed believe that everyone can speak to God.  Our religion requires no intermediary.  Moses is not holier than any other human being.  Yet Korah and his followers are severely punished.  Why?

Midrash Tanhuma suggests an answer.  It imagines Korah asking Moses these questions: “Does a tallit all of blue still require blue fringes?  Does a room full of Torah scrolls still require a mezuzah?” In the rabbinic imagination Korah’s questions are brimming with disdain.  His words suggest that he questions the entire system.  It is because he is so disrespectful that he is punished. 

We often do the same.  We highlight inconsistencies in our religious systems, and political systems, not to correct but instead to mock.  It is of course far easier to poke fun and reject rather than affirm and improve. 

We appear to live in an age when too many have become Korah.  We seek to amuse.  We mock those with whom we disagree.  We even call those with whom we disagree: traitors.  Our culture measures an argument’s winner not by the merit of the ideas but by the reactions of the participants.  If someone is made to cry or stammer then they have lost the argument, even better if they are made to do so on TV.  We no longer debate ideas.  Instead we attack others.

We have become Korah.  And for this we should ask forgiveness and mend our ways.  If we are ever going to make it to the promised land and improve our society we must not attack each other.  We must instead debate and argue about the ideas that might change our world. 

What Korah failed to understand we as well fail to grasp.  We are all in this together.  And we are all in the wilderness.   We had better master debating the ideas that matter without seeking to undermine the entire system.  We had better figure out a way to argue with each other while not shouting words of hate.

Of those who left Egypt only two made it to the promised land.  I do not wish to be standing alone in the land.  I do not wish to remain in the wilderness.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Shelach Lecha Sermon

Given this week’s news, and last week’s, and perhaps even the week before, I have been thinking about how incredibly disappointing people can be.  People really have the remarkable ability to disappoint.  This of course was the theme of my weekly email message.  I am not going to retell that Talmudic story and its sordid details at services, but here is the question for this evening: what is the meaning of being human?  As human beings we are capable of untold depths, but also of course great heights.  People can indeed disappoint, but also surprise.

We find this theme in the week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha.  It tells the story of the spies who are sent to scout the land of Israel.  Twelve spies are sent; two different reports return with them.  Ten report the following: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them.”  (Numbers 13:32-33)  Joshua and Caleb however say, “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land…  Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but the Lord is with us.  Have no fear of them!”  (Numbers 14:7-9) 

It is a remarkable contrast: the same experience yet entirely different responses.  Some spies see only the challenges and difficulties.  Joshua and Caleb see instead possibilities.  Joshua and Caleb see only milk and honey.  The other spies see giants; they imagine mythic figures who will overpower them.  For this good report Joshua and Caleb, and they alone, are rewarded with being able to enter the land of Israel.  They are the only two of the generation who leave Egypt allowed to enter the land.  It was of course the same experience for all twelve spies, yet they offered different responses and therefore discovered different outcomes.

There was an interesting article in The New York Times about this week’s events.  It made the claim that male politicians are far more likely to be felled by sex scandals.  Women politicians by contrast are not so frequently embroiled in such things.  The reporter suggested that this was because women better understand how precarious their achievements are and therefore don’t want to jeopardize these hard earned positions.  Sheryl Gay Stolberg also made the claim that men go into politics to be somebody and women by contrast go into politics to change things. 

I thought this last point was an interesting claim.  I am not going to weigh in on this male-female dichotomy, but I am sure it will make for interesting debates at home between husbands and wives.  Instead I wish to focus on the claim that the goal is not to make something of ourselves but instead to make something of the world.  I believe, I have always believed, that this is our God-given task.  And so I guess in the Time’s reporter’s estimation, my belief shows your rabbi’s feminine side.  We are called upon to improve our world, to make things better, even if only a little bit.

Now I am not usually a fan of CNN or the TV news in general, especially this week.  It is not just because of CNN’s biased reporting about Israel.  It is instead that TV is actually no longer news.  It all seems to be approaching reality TV, and even Jersey Shore.  It is because TV reporting spends far too much time talking about people’s mistakes and foibles.

But CNN also has this wonderful program called, "Everyday Heroes".  It showcases ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  Here is one such story. Yuval Roth, is an Israeli whose brother was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists in 1993.  Since then he has become active in a group that brings together Palestinians and Israelis who have both suffered loss, whether by terrorists or the IDF’s weapons.  (The result of course is the same even though the moral legitimacy is clearly different.)  In this group Yuval discovered a need.

Many Palestinians require medical attention in Israel but can’t afford to get to Israeli hospitals. So Yuval created an organization that now comprises some 200 volunteers.  These volunteers help transport Palestinians to and from the West Bank.  One young three year old Palestinian girl requires frequent dialysis and has been driven some 500 times by the group.  In 2010 the group drove 90,000 kilometers helping Palestinians traverse Israeli checkpoints and reach medical care in Israel.  Yuval said the following: “I lost my brother, but I didn't lose my head.  This activity gives me an essence for life. I have learned the price of the conflict is a lot more than the price of making peace. We are all human beings.”

Many people might understandably look at this situation and make a different choice.  Many people might again understandably allow grief to turn into anger.  But Yuval demanded of himself something different.  He chose instead to make something of this world.  He did not set out to make a name for himself.  He chose instead to transform his small piece of the world.  Whether or not he helps to make peace in the Middle East is not the point.  He is helping to bring healing to others.  To a greater or lesser extent each of us is faced with a similar choice.

We have to decide.  We can look in the mirror (forgive me, I cannot resist) and say like our former congressman, “Wow don’t I look fine?”  Actually in case this is unclear, you are not supposed to say that.  You are also not supposed to say with the ten spies, “I am but a puny little grasshopper.”  Or we can say what we are supposed to say, “What good can I bring to this world?”  What can I make of this world?  What can I change?  What healing can I bring to others?

In the end Anthony Wiener’s sin was not that he tweeted a picture of himself, however lewd and salacious it might have been.  His failure was one of leadership.  The moral issues are only between him and his wife.  His sin was instead that he actually thought it was all about himself.  Leadership, and politics, are supposed to transcend the self.  His failure to see this was his great undoing, and our shame.  It is never supposed to be about ourselves.  Ok, maybe that is an impossible ideal.  It is not supposed to be only about ourselves.

Try thinking about others first.  Try thinking about what the world need you to do first.  Because the more of us who live by Joshua’s and Caleb’s example the better.  That is, the better the world will be for it.  Thinking about others and our world is really supposed to be our most important job.  It is all of our jobs.  But it is especially the job of our leaders.

Below is the CNN video clip of Yuval Roth.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Shelach Lecha

I have been thinking about a famous Talmudic story.  I have added a few embellishments and modern idioms, but the salacious details are the Talmud’s.  Such stories are not new to the Twittersphere.   They are part and parcel of our Talmud, and even our Bible as well.

Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the mitzvah of tzitzit, heard of a certain prostitute in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred dollars for her services.  He wired her the four hundred dollars and scheduled an appointment.  When the day arrived he came and waited at her door, and her attendant came and told her, “That man who sent you the four hundred dollars is here and waiting at the door;” to which she replied, “Let him come in.”

When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold.  She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked, seductively motioning to the man to climb to the top, golden bed.  He quickly climbed the silver beds in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of sudden the four tzitzit of his tallit struck him across the face as he climbed on top of the golden bed; whereupon he jumped off the bed and sat on the ground. 

She followed him off the bed and sat on the ground next to him and said, “By the Roman Capital, I will not leave you alone until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.”  He replied, “By the holy Temple, never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you; but there is one commandment which the Lord our God has commanded us, it is called tzitzit, and with regard to it the expression ‘I am the Lord your God’ is written twice, signifying I am the God who will exact punishment in the future and I am the God who will give reward in the future.  Now when the tzitzit hit me in the face they appeared to me as four witnesses testifying against me.”

She said, “I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, the name of your school in which you study the Torah.”  So he wrote all this down on piece of paper and handed it to her, returning to his town.  She then arose and divided her estate into three parts; one third for the government, one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand; her sexy lingerie, however, she retained.

She then came to the school of Rabbi Hiyya, and said to him, “Master, give instructions to me that you might make me a convert.”  He replied, “My daughter, perhaps you have set your eyes upon one of my disciples?” She thereupon took out the handwritten note and handed it to the Rabbi.  Rabbi Hiyya said, “The two of you should go and get married.”

And that very lingerie which she had spread out for him for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully.  And so this is the reward of the mitzvah in this world; and as for its reward in the future world we do not know how great it will prove to be.  (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 44a)

The Torah portion states: “That shall be your tzitzit; look at them and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.” (Numbers 15:39)

Whether it is Twitter, Facebook, sexting, or a gold bed, our eyes do stray.  It is not a sickness to be treated or a disease to be cured.  It is instead human.  Rabbi ben Zoma states: “Who is a hero?  The person who conquers his, or her, evil inclination.” (Pirke Avot 4:1)  I am forgiving of human weaknesses.  I am unforgiving when people’s mistakes, and sins, are excused as addictions.  When we err, we have no choice but to admit our errors and change our ways.  When we face addictions, as difficult and painful as it may be, we have no choice but to conquer them. 

Everyone does err, and even stray.  Our tradition teaches that rituals help to focus our attention towards our divine purpose.  It is always helpful to have reminders.   It can be the mezuzah on our doorposts, or the tallit on our shoulders.  The intention is that they help to bring out the best in us. 

And when we think of veering, rituals can help to redirect our thoughts—and we hope and pray as well, even guide our actions.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Behaalotecha Sermon

Some brief words of Torah before we conclude this special Shabbat service and celebrate this year's confirmation students.

Have you ever walked around the cocktail hour at a bar/bat mitzvah party and said, “What no lamb chops?”

Our Torah portion states: “Then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.  Now our gullets are shriveled.  There is nothing at all!  Nothing but this manna to look to!’”  (Numbers 11:4-6)

It is remarkable that people are so often ungrateful for the many blessings they have.  The Israelites had just earned freedom, and yet all they wanted to do was go back to Egypt.  They complained and complained and said at least there they could cucumbers and melons.  

Freedom is of course an enormous blessing.  It is part of what we celebrate as we mark confirmation this evening.  But freedom comes with enormous responsibility.  At times this responsibility overwhelms the blessings.  We rebel under the weight of the responsibility.   We complain, “I have so much to do…”

Abraham Joshua Heschel called this the “insecurity of freedom” in his book about our responsibility to speak out against injustices.  Freedom is not about doing whatever you want.  It is about doing what you need to do.  Moreover it is about doing what the world needs you to do.

My hope and prayer on this Shabbat is that we look more at what we have than what we don’t have.  I pray that we affirm all our blessings each and every day.  And not curse the few things we have not yet achieved.  My hope and prayer is that we live up to the responsibilities of freedom.

Then we will never say, “What where are the lamb chops, or the cucumbers or the melons?”  You can look at the world like the Israelites did in our parsha.  Or you can look at the world and the many things you do have and count your blessings.  I believe they are always plentiful.  Our blessings are especially plentiful when you look at all the things that you must do and see them as blessings.  You can look at the world and say, “Wow look at the many blessings I can achieve by virtue of the responsibilities I have.”

Then nothing is a burden and everything a blessing.

The 19th century poet and minister, Phillips Brooks, wrote (I thank Rabbi Marc Gellman for bringing this poem to my attention):
Do not pray for easy lives;
pray to be stronger men [people].
Do not pray for tasks equal
to your powers; pray for
powers equal to your tasks.

Then the doing of your work
shall be no miracle, but
you shall be a miracle.

Every day you shall wonder
at yourself, at the richness
of the life which has come to
you by the grace of God.

Amen v‘amen!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Partition - for Zionism's Sake

Partition - for Zionism's Sake - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News
Ruth Gavison writes:
In the history of the Zionist movement, there were those who saw its goal as re-uniting the Jewish people with its historic homeland, and those who emphasized the idea that the objective of Zionism is the political rebirth of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Yet on every occasion when the leadership of the country's Jewish community, the Yishuv, faced a choice between having a Jewish state in part of the land or clinging to the dream of a Greater Eretz Israel, it selected, by a large majority, the option of having political independence in part of the land, where there would be a stable Jewish majority, and allowing the Arab minority to enjoy rights and equality. 
The same holds true today. A strong majority of the Jewish population in Israel wants to end the occupation and create a reality in which a stable Jewish majority is preserved in a State of Israel that does not rule over another people, whose members lack civil and political rights. The debate is not about liberating ourselves from Zionism, but rather, about creating the basic conditions crucial for Zionism's realization.

The validity of this goal and its advancement are not predicated upon the Palestinians' intentions or ambitions. Ostensibly, even the prime minister understands this and declares it to be his objective as well. Yet, neither he nor his government have shown consistent support of it, nor are they doing enough to promote it. They put the keys for advancing toward its realization in the hands of the Palestinians. 
As much as we may wish to retain the West Bank and as much as we rightfully can do so, withdrawing from the territories might be required in order to ensure the survival of the Zionist dream.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Naso Sermon

My sermon from Friday, June 3, follows.

This week’s Torah portion is Naso.  It is the longest of all the weekly portions.  It details a number of items.  There is the census of the Levites, the tribe assigned to priestly duties.  There is the Nazarite vow, pledging those adherents to God and setting them apart from the people by insisting that they abstain from drinking alcohol (rather un-Jewish if you asked me) and by refraining from cutting their hair (oops).  Hence the most well known Nazarite is Samson who when he is seduced into cutting his hair loses all his strength.

At the conclusion of this chapter about the Nazarite’s vow occurs one of the most familiar blessings in the entire Torah, the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the light of the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may you always find God’s presence in your life and be blessed with shalom, with peace.”  The final chapter then offers the last bit of preparations for the tabernacle’s use.

I would like to focus on the opening chapter.  To my mind the theme of this chapter is keeping the community whole.  It discusses several different circumstances when one’s place in the community is called into question.  It opens with what situations make someone ritually impure.  Then it discusses the strange sotah ritual which was the subject of this week’s email.  This is the ritual for determining the guilt of an adulterer.  The suspected wife was made to drink a mixture of bitter water and earth.  If her belly grew and her thigh sagged then she had sinned.  (I know a bizarre ritual.)  I don’t believe this ritual ever worked to prove or disprove adultery.

But I do believe it worked to keep the relationship intact.  It managed to assuage a husband’s jealousy and anger.  It allowed a husband and wife to return home together.  It kept the relationship whole.  This appears to be the overriding concern of this chapter: how to keep the community whole; how to keep relationships intact.

Unlike the contemporary ethos of truth will set you free, or the truth at all costs, truth was not the Torah’s primary concern.  Take another example from this same chapter.  “When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done.  He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.”

Think about this law.  All of us would agree that some wrongs require more payment than others.  Which requires more payment: an insult or theft of property, an injury or damaged reputation?  Whether or not someone is wronged is a subjective evaluation.  Our chapter does not detail what the wrong is.  It says instead, “When someone commits any wrong…”  To make it right you have to do two things: confess and make restitution plus 20%.

If this was about truth and about rebalancing the scales then you would pay back an equal amount.  But the Torah wants to make the community whole.  The Torah recognizes that in order to create shalom, peace in relationships you have to go farther, you have to add 20%.  You have to make an effort to correct hurt feelings.

It is not just about fairness.  It is not about you lost $1,000 so you must get back $1,000. The Torah appears to recognize that it has to go beyond full payment.  It is not even about the truth of who was right and who was wrong.  It leaves that question aside.  This truth can be sacrificed for the sake of peace, for the sake of shalom.

Take these two examples together. The sotah and the confession of wrong and you have a whole community.  In the sotah ritual, the tradition is bent so that the relationship can be made whole.  A ritual is invented so that a relationship can be repaired.  In the confession of wrong, the individual bends to repair the mistake and the relationship.  The overriding concern is that we must go to great lengths to keep our community whole.  Much can be sacrificed to keep us together.  That has always been the most pressing Jewish concern.

Who is right and who is wrong is not what is most important.  It is instead that we sit together.  Rabbi Hillel said, “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur—don’t separate yourself from the community.”  We must never separate ourselves from the community.  We must never separate ourselves from each other.

The community, relationships, always takes precedence.  Peace is always worth an additional 20%. 


Since the exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union there has been a proliferation of pork stores in Israel.  Now in the holy city of Jerusalem one can easily buy ham.  Russian Jews, who now comprise twenty percent of the Israeli population, apparently love pork.  And so they have brought the food they grew to love in Russia to the State of Israel.

“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.  Now our gullets are shriveled.  There is nothing at all!  Nothing but this manna to look to!’”  (Numbers 11:4-6)

Too often people are unable to recognize the blessings that they have.  The Israelites were recently freed from slavery in Egypt.  Within months they began complaining.  True they were stuck wandering the Sinai wilderness.  But they were free.  They were their own people.  No longer were they forced to build palaces for Pharaoh.  Water was plentiful.  Manna was abundant.  Still they longed for the familiarity of Egypt.  They longed for the foods of their slave owners.   

It was as if they said, “At least when we were in jail we ate three meals a day.”  Even when immigrants are grateful to leave their countries of origin and even when they have gained freedom in a new found home, they continue to long for the food their parents served them, or for that matter the food their taskmasters provided them.   It was as if Russian Jews looked at all of Israel’s successes and said, “There is nothing but this falafel and hummus!”

Many times people are unable to see the blessings that stand before them.  They always want more.  People are too often unhappy with the gifts they have.   We fail see our freedoms.  We are unable, for example, to see the many blessings of our American democracy.  Instead we focus on our country’s problems.  Instead we focus on our gluttonous craving.  We only see what we left behind.  Rabbi ben Zoma teaches: “Who is rich?  Those who are content with their portion.”

But how can we be content when we face so many struggles and challenges?  The Israelites were unable to do so.  They were wandering through the desert.  It was beginning to look like their trip was going to take much longer than planned.  Perhaps it is understandable that they wanted to go back to Egypt.  Perhaps it is understandable that they wanted to taste the familiar. 

Immigrants make better lives for themselves here in this country, as well as in Israel, and enrich our country in the process.  Even though they desperately wanted to leave their home countries, they still long for the familiar sights, sounds and especially tastes of their youth.  Recently when driving through Queens I saw Indian and Pakistani immigrants playing cricket.  I thought to myself, “Why would they invest so much time and energy in the sport of their former British overlords?”  And then I realized that they were not playing a British game but the game of their youth.  People always long for the familiar.  They will always love their home country’s cooking.  Comfort food is whatever one grows up eating.  Why?

It is provided for you.  Life is much harder when you have to provide for yourself, when you have to cook for yourself.  There are moments when we long for the past, even with its limits, even when it represents a time when decisions were made for us.  We ask, how can we move forward through challenges and struggles while still seeing the blessings that lie before us?  How can we move forward while still holding fast to our youthful past without allowing it to rule our lives?

Perhaps it is helpful to savor the food with which we grew up.  Even when it is the food of the country we were thankful to leave, its taste gives us strength to fight the challenges of today.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Shavuot is among the most important of Jewish holidays, yet the least observed.  It marks the revelation at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the liberation from Egypt.  Thus the holidays of Passover and Shavuot are connected by the counting of the Omer.  Judaism believes that our freedom must be wedded to Torah in order for our lives to have meaning. 

Many people think that a life devoted to Torah is a life scrupulously bound to Jewish rituals.  An observant Jew is one who lights candles 18 minutes before sunset, keeps a kosher kitchen, fasts on Yom Kippur, sleeps in a sukkah, prays three times a day and much more.  These rituals are important to be sure.  Rituals can bring great meaning to our lives, adding a measure of holiness and helping to focus our thoughts on what is important and lasting.

But it is demeaning of Judaism and the gift of Torah to define a religious life in terms of rituals alone.  Torah is even more importantly about ethics and how we behave towards each other.  One cannot be religious and cheat in business.  One cannot be observant and scream words of anger to those we are supposed to love. 

If our freedom from Egypt is going to have lasting meaning then it must be tied to how we treat each other.  Torah must bring healing to our world.  On this Shavuot I would like us to rededicate ourselves to the ethical meaning of Torah.  I would like us to allow Torah to influence our actions.  I would like to dream that the gift of Torah can transform our world into a better place.

That is a dream I cannot fulfill alone.  Join me in devoting ourselves anew to the gift of Torah.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


This week’s Torah portion, Naso, contains the curious, and bizarre, sotah ritual (Numbers 5).  Although its practice was long ago abolished by the rabbis, its meaning and purpose are worth pondering.  Here is the ritual.  If a husband suspects his wife of committing adultery he brings her to the priest.  (This ritual and its accompanying laws were decidedly one-sided.)  The husband brings a meal offering.  Then the priest has the woman come forward and stand before the altar.  He makes her drink bitter waters.  The priest then offers an incantation saying, “If you have committed adultery then may these waters make your belly distend and your thigh sag.”  She responds, “Amen, amen!”  If these words come true then she has broken faith with her husband.

What a strange ritual indeed!  We belong to a tradition that rejects such magic.  The purposes of rituals are to add holiness to our lives and focus our thoughts on proper behavior.  They are not to work magic.  Ask me to pray for the sick.  And you might be granted extra strength.  Ask me to hold your hand.  And you might gain added comfort.  Beg me to lay my hands on your head and scream, “You are healed!”  This is beyond human abilities and foreign to our tradition.  Miracles can instead be found in the ordinary. They stand before us each and every day.  Magic by contrast is the stuff of charlatans, and not believers.

Why then would the Torah offer this uncharacteristic ritual?  The medieval commentator, Ramban, remarks that only in the case of this sotah ritual is a judicial decision dependent on such magic.  The suggestion is clear.  This ritual was intended not to render justice but to avoid judgment.  According to the Torah adultery is a capital crime.  The renowned biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom notes that the Bible stands apart from other ancient Near Eastern legal traditions in not allowing the husband to commute the death sentence against an adulterous spouse.  He can’t simply say, “I forgive you.”  Here is the underlying theory.  If it is a crime against God then only God can unravel the judgment.  This is the purpose of the sotah ritual.

It is a ritual devised to circumvent the law.  Judgment is not always the best medicine.  Perhaps magic and potions can bring healing to broken relationships.

Today people get divorced for many different reasons.  Judaism recognizes its necessity.  Sometimes the best medicine for the couple, and the family for that matter, is divorce.  Still Judaism wants people to fulfill the Torah’s wish, “It is not good to be alone.”  In this week’s portion it appears as well to be making the remarkable claim that at times adultery can be overlooked, that the relationship might be more worthy of preserving than even this truth of “breaking faith.”

When the sotah ritual is examined one realizes that the intended result is that the couple is made whole again.  The ritual stands in direct contrast to today’s news reporters and gossip columnists who pursue such truths and thereby destroy countless relationships.  The priest does not run around the community searching for witnesses in order to prove or disprove the husband’s claim of infidelity.  Instead he makes the wife drink a potion.  Did these waters of bitterness ever make any woman’s belly distend or thighs sag?  I suspect not.  

And so then the priest could say, “Let your jealousy be quelled.  Return home together.”  In our age we might say, “How arcane.   What superstitious nonsense.” Then again we might do well to ponder the extraordinary lengths our tradition travels to preserve relationships.  Time and again Judaism sacrifices truth for the sake of peace.  Shalom bayit, peace in the home, takes precedence over most else.

Here it invents a ritual so that a husband and wife can again look each other in the eyes and say, “I love you.”  That is the message of the sotah ritual.  Helping couples say these words is its intent.  Helping couples say “I love you” is worth renewed effort.

It is even worth resorting to magic potions. 

Newsletter Article

What follows is my newsletter article from the May-June 2011 Newsletter.

A few more questions from our Religious School students.

How was the first person made?
According to the Torah there are two stories about the creation of human beings.  In the first God creates a human being (adam) just by saying, “Let there be a person.”  Then God divides this person in half and makes the first man and woman.  In the second God creates adam out of adamah (earth).  In this story God is more like an artist who is fashioning a clay pot.  Then God realizes that something is wrong.  Adam is really lonely.  So God creates the first woman, Eve, out of his rib so that they can keep each other company.  So in the first version God creates the first people and in the second God creates the first couple.

Why do we only believe in one God?
Is this a trick question!  The answer is because there is only one God.  I know it is really hard to think about something or understand something that you can’t touch or see, but that is what we believe.  I believe we can see God when we see beautiful things or when we see people do really wonderful things.

Do you keep kosher?  What are things that kosher people do?
Yes.  I really like keeping kosher.  It makes me think about being Jewish even when I am eating.  Keeping kosher is about only eating meat that has been killed in the least painful way.  It is about not mixing milk and meat and it is also about only eating those animals that God says in the Torah are permitted.  But keeping kosher is not only about food.  It is also about doing the right thing.  The word kosher means fitting or proper.  So the most important thing is always to do the right thing.  That is what a kosher person is supposed to do!

Will another Holocaust start?  Please say “No.”
I wish I could say no, but unfortunately too many have already happened since the Holocaust we learned about in Religious School.  This is why we have to focus really hard on making the world a better place and doing kosher things.  If everyone tries to do the right thing then another Holocaust can’t happen. 

Recently Annie Bleiberg, a Holocaust survivor, came to our sixth grade class.  The following quotes are what some of our students wrote after listening to her story.  Their words give us hope that no more Holocausts might happen!

“When she said how all the people were dying for no reason at all and it just occurred to me how all the people just probably fell asleep and never woke up.  Also when she said how they were freed from the camps and ghettos and they were crying tears of joy.”

“What I remembered most was when she was telling us about how she got the number on her arm.  This stood out to me most because of the way it happened and what happened when it occurred. “

“This is a picture of when she jumped off the train and fell on the snow.”

“It amazed me how Annie never gave up on life no matter how tired or how hungry she was.  She kept fighting for freedom and life.”

“Annie said to us, ‘Don’t give up.  Life is worth fighting for.’”

Amen.  Annie always says it best!

Have a great summer!  Thanks as always for your questions.

New Yorker Editorial

O’Bama and Netanyahoo’s Duelling Speeches : The New Yorker
My worry begins with this week's editorial by Henrik Hertzberg. He concludes with these words:
Nearly as appalling as Netanyahu’s intransigence was the mindlessness of the senators and representatives, Republican and Democratic, who rewarded him with ovation after standing ovation. This had less to do with studied convictions about the issues than with the political salience, actual and perceived, of certain Jewish and evangelical constituencies. (For many in the House chamber, the two-state solution is their own plus Florida.) But Middle East diplomacy is always distorted by short-term domestic politics. At the moment, Israel-accepting Fatah has its untested d├ętente with Israel-denying Hamas; Netanyahu has a cabinet stocked with ministers openly determined to keep every inch of the West Bank; Obama has 2012. The President has put down some markers but has no discernible plan to make them stick. Time is short. In much of the Arab world, public opinion is supplanting the whims of malleable tyrants. Palestinians are beginning to discover the possibilities of nonviolence, which Israel, with its ethical and political traditions, would find far harder to resist than rocks and rockets. The longer the occupation lasts, and the larger the Arab and Palestinian populations grow in territory under Israeli control, the more untenable Israel’s future as both Jewish and democratic becomes. And a tsunami approaches. “There is an impatience with the peace process, or the absence of one, not just in the Arab world—in Latin America, in Asia, and in Europe,” Obama told the AIPAC delegates. In September, the United Nations may consider a Palestinian request for admission as a sovereign state. Such a resolution would not make Palestine sovereign, of course. But it would damage Israel’s legitimacy in unprecedented ways, and probably threaten its economy. In Europe last week, Obama sought support to head off such a U.N. resolution, or, at least, to avoid having to veto it in isolation. If he is to succeed in even that limited task, he’ll need a lot more than the luck of the Irish.
The Zionist vision was the creation of an independent Jewish state.  I worry that Israel has become far too dependent on American aid and support.  Israel should be able to go it alone.  It should be able to decide what is the best course of action and how to guarantee a peaceful future.  On the other hand the state should have a deep and abiding relationship with world Jewry.  It should be sensitive to the concerns of those Jews living outside of the land.

This of course is fanciful thinking.  As I read The New Yorker's editorial I grew increasingly worried that Israel is isolating itself from the Western world and from many diaspora Jews.  Most Jews living in this country in particular are more sensitive to the pulls of democracy than those of Jewish history and tradition.  They feel more American than Jewish.  As Israel's democratic character falters they will lose sympathy with the Jewish state.  Much of the Western world, in particular Europe, has already lost faith with the Jewish state.  With each instance when Israel's democracy is challenged and when Israelis fail to live up to democratic values, American Jews lose faith with the State of Israel. 

I feel the pull of Jewish tradition and the tug of Jerusalem.  I fear however that many do not.feel similarly.  While I agreed with much of what Netanyahu said I wonder with how many others did it resonate.  How many instead feel more kinship with the sentiments expressed above?  If the majority feel like minded then Netanyahu was indeed speaking to the wrong audience.  He should not be speaking as much to those who are cheering, but to doubters and critics.  He already has me in his corner.  I will always be on Israel's side.  How will he gain more supporters to the cause?