Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shelach Lecha

How much can an idealist know about the world and still not be defeated by it?  Consider love: blind love is surely an inferior sort of love—the expression of the fear that the object of love may not be sufficient to justify it; but hope, too must face the problem of ignorance.  With too little knowledge, hope may be a delusion; with too much knowledge, hope may be destroyed.  To some extent, idealism is always a defiance of the facts—but defy too many of the facts and you court disaster.  People who wish to change the world have a special responsibility to acquaint themselves with the world, in the manner of scouts or spies. (“Flaking Paint and Blemishes,” The New Republic, June 10, 2013)
Herein we gain insight to the sin of the spies detailed in this week’s portion.  Moses commands twelve spies to scout the land of Israel.  Ten bring back a negative report.  “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people that we saw in it are giants…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”  (Numbers 13:32-33)

Really?  Every single one of the inhabitants was a giant?  And you were tiny grasshoppers? 

The Hasidic master, Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, teaches:
Did the spies lie?  Did they make up what they told the people?  Obviously not; they told the people exactly what they had seen….  The truth is not necessarily as things appear, but stems from the depths of the heart, from the sources of one’s faith.  Truth and faith go hand in hand, and a person does not acquire truth easily and by a superficial glance.  What is required is hard work and effort, wisdom and understanding.  The spies did not work at finding the truth in God’s word. 
Two spies return with a positive report.  They do not deny the challenges ahead and the battles that will confront the Israelites.  They are also imbued with confidence and seek to inspire the Israelites about their mission.  These spies were Joshua and Caleb.  “Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, ‘Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of [the land], for we shall surely overcome it.’” (Numbers 13:30)  For this reason Joshua and Caleb are the only people among all the Israelites who were born in Egypt as slaves who were allowed to cross into the freedom that would be found in the land of Israel.  The people who followed them across the Jordan River were born in the wilderness and not in slavery.  Can a slave ever see freedom?  Their eyes could only see giants.  Those who only see giants blocking their path can never truly achieve liberation.

Joshua and Caleb did not offer the people an unrealistic assessment.  They did not suggest an overly optimistic appraisal.  Their message was the proper mixture of reality and hope.  You can only lead a people to a better future if it is a realistic future.  You can only change the world if you know the world.

I recall a modern example.  Years ago, in March 2002, I was in Israel at a rabbinic convention.  It was during the height of the second intifada and there were daily terrorist bombings in Jerusalem.  One morning we gathered to hear Shimon Peres.  The night before the Moment CafĂ© was bombed and eleven people were murdered.  One of the young women who lost her life worked in the Foreign Ministry with Shimon Peres who was then Foreign Minister.  He spoke to us about her life, and her funeral that he had just returned from, but then turned to his vision for a new Middle East in which Arab states and Israel would share trade and commerce in a manner similar to the European Union.  I thought to myself, “Is he blind?  How can we build a new Middle East when suffering daily terrorist attacks?”  I want a new Middle East as well.  I want a Middle East at peace.  My dreams must be tempered by present realities.

Ideals cannot ignore reality.  Then again dreams are how we move forward.  Visions are how we change our destiny.  Allow reality, allow terrorism and fear, to obscure your ideals and the world will indeed never change.  Allow dreams to blind you, so that you only see visions of perfection and not present threats, and you will never find security and quiet.  Going about our everyday lives is indeed dependent on being unafraid.  Building a better future is secured by continuing to hold ideals in our hearts.

I turn to Wieseltier’s insights: “The world may thwart our efforts to improve it, but it cannot thwart our conceptions of it improved; and that is our advantage over it.  We can always resume the struggle.” I rely on Hasidic intuitions.  Truth and faith must go hand in hand!

Thursday, May 23, 2013


An intriguing verse is found in this week’s portion: “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 at!’” (Numbers 11:4-6)

What is so great about cucumbers that would cause people to weep?   Obviously it is not about the objects themselves but instead a longing for the past, even when it was one of slavery.  We tend to mythologize the past.  As soon as we confront struggles and challenges with the new direction we have chosen, or for that matter were dragged into, we long for the past, even when that reality was not in our best interest.  How else can we explain the Israelites craving leeks and onions?  I certainly doubt they were making chicken soup in Egypt!  Now that they are confronting hardships and difficulties they long for the past—even when it tasted terrible.

This week I discovered another lesson about these foods.  In next week’s portion, the scouts travel the land of Israel and bring back a report.  They speak of the foods of this new land.  In the land of Israel there are to be found for instance grapes, figs and pomegranates.  David Arnow points out that these are perennials.  By contrast the foods of Egypt are annuals.  They have to be replanted every year. 

Grapes, figs and pomegranates produce for many years, although they take several years to mature and bear fruit.  They of course require care and nurturing, but they remain a long-term solution to hunger.  The lesson becomes clear.   It was not only Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites but also the very foods of Egypt.  These they had to plant year after year.  Still they long for the familiar.  They long for the very tools by which they were enslaved.

I wonder to what foods are we enslaved.  In our modern society where we are far removed from the processes of planting, growing and harvesting our foods have we become chained to certain foods?  Would our gullets shrivel without sugar or corn syrup, chicken or steak?  There is growing evidence that many of the foods of modern culture pose health dangers, especially in the quantities that we eat them, yet we continue to claim that we cannot do without.

I am left wondering.  Are we once again languishing in Egypt, dependent on yearly crops that do not promise a better long-term future?  Is it possible to look beyond the yearly cycle of planting and harvesting and instead plan not only for our children but even our great grandchildren’s future?  Can the very foods we eat become part of a grander dream?

The prophet proclaimed a messianic vision:  “And every man shall sit under his grapevine and fig tree and no one shall terrify him.”  (Micah 4:4)

Friday, May 17, 2013


This week’s Torah portion contains the priestly blessing.  “The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel.  Say to them: The Lord bless you and protect you!  The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!  The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!”  (Numbers 6:22-26)

In ancient times the priests uttered this blessing on a daily basis.  In Sephardic synagogues as well the priestly blessing is recited during the morning prayers.  In Ashkenazi synagogues, however, it is only recited on Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  This priestly ritual, known by its Yiddish name dukhanen, is re-enacted by those who trace their lineage to the ancient priests. 

Among those who attend Reform synagogues, this threefold priestly blessing is associated with the blessing the rabbi offers at weddings, baby namings and b’nai mitzvah.  On these occasions it is offered not to the Jewish people as a whole but to an individual or couple.

In its traditional formulation it was a blessing offered for the Jewish people.  “Thus shall you bless the people of Israel.  Say to them…”  But the grammar is then incorrect.  The “you” of the blessing is in the singular not the plural.  Why would a blessing directed to “them” be formulated in the singular?

Rabbi Simhah Leib, a Hasidic rebbe, comments: “The priestly blessing is recited in the singular, because the most important blessing that the Jewish people can have is unity.  This was attained at Mount Sinai, where our Sages tell us on the verse, ‘and Israel camped there’—and the word for ‘camped’ is in the singular—that ‘they were as one person with one heart.’”

People often mistake unity for agreement.  A group can be unified but not always agree.  Disagreements, passionate debates, are part of any marriage or community. There must, however, be a unity of purpose and mission.  Sometimes I wonder if the Jewish people have lost this unified vision.  Do we continue to share the belief that the purpose of leading a Jewish life is not only to teach Jewish observance to our children and our children’s children, to make sure that each and every child has a bar or bat mitzvah, but instead as Elie Wiesel once said, “to make the world more human?”

That remains the vision I hold before my eyes.  “The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.”  Perhaps this is why unity is our most important blessing and prayer.  Can we ever fulfill such a grand vision if we remain divided? 

Unity must remain our most fervent prayer.  “…May the Lord grant you peace.”

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Forgotten Holiday

What follows is my May-June newsletter article.

One would think that a holiday that offers cheesecake as its required delicacy would be among our most popular.  On Shavuot it is customary to eat dairy foods so cheesecake and blintzes are its traditional foods. 

Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  Contained in the Torah are the laws for slaughtering meat.  Thus we can only eat dairy until the time we receive these specific laws.  In addition the Torah is likened to milk and honey.  It is as sweet as honey and as pure as milk.  It is for these reasons that we eat dairy.

Still, despite these favorite foods, Shavuot remains the forgotten holiday.  It could not of course be more important in its message.  So why is it neglected?  Perhaps this is because its primary observances are not found in the home, like the seder of Passover, but instead in the synagogue.  At Shavuot services we read the Ten Commandments.  In addition it is customary that we stay up all night studying Torah in a Tikkun L’eil Shavuot. 

Sometimes I wonder if this holiday is better suited for college students with their late night study habits.  Purim, with its wild parties and drinking, and Shavuot with its similar last minute, all night cramming for an exam, should be most appealing to college age students.  Then again the reason for Shavuot’s neglect can also be found in the Torah.  The Torah does not in fact delineate an exact date for the holiday. 

Instead it is calculated in relation to Passover which is accorded the date of the fourteenth of Nisan.  We are commanded to count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot.  Shavuot’s name means “weeks.”  The Omer period connects the freedom from Egypt with the revelation at Sinai.  The Jewish contention is obvious.  The freedom celebrated on Passover is meaningless if not wedded to the Torah revealed on Shavuot.

Still, in this lack of a fixed date we discover Shavuot’s true meaning.  One day alone cannot be assigned to Torah.  This must be our occupation each and every day. 

The fulfillment of being granted freedom is only discovered when married to something greater.  We may be free to do whatever we want and whatever we please (and of course eat anything we desire).  But meaning and fulfillment are only discovered, and revealed, when tied to something.  On Shavuot we receive the answer.  Torah is how we discover this meaning.

Shavuot grants meaning to Passover.  Torah lends fulfillment to freedom.


The holiday of Shavuot begins this evening.  It marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  Each of the major holidays has a megillah assigned to them.  On Passover we read Song of Songs.  On Sukkot we read from Ecclesiastes.  On Shavuot we read from the Book of Ruth.  This fascinating story tells the tale of Ruth, a Moabite, who marries into the Israelite family of Naomi.  Sadly their husbands die and so Naomi urges her to return to her own country.

Ruth refuses and pledges herself to Naomi and her people.  “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 Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

And with these words Ruth pledges herself not only to her mother in law but to the Jewish people.  Why is this story assigned to Shavuot?  One reason is that just as the Jewish people choose the Torah so too does Ruth.  Her personal choice is mirrored in the people’s communal decision to accept the Torah’s privileges and responsibilities. 

There is, however, another reason hidden within the tale.  Ruth is a Moabite.  The Moabites were Israel’s enemy.  She is therefore the stranger par excellence.  No one can be more distant from the Jewish people.  Yet she still chooses to wed herself to the Jewish people.  Even more significantly she is welcomed into the communal fold.

When Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem, one of the city’s leading citizens, Boaz, treats them with compassion.  Boaz lives by the Torah’s command: “When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow—in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.” (Deuteronomy 24:19)  The Book is therefore a test of society’s ability to live by the commandments of the Torah.  Ruth is a stranger.  She is an orphan.  She is a widow. 

These categories represent the powerless in ancient Israelite society.  They lack a protector.  Boaz rushes, without hesitation and doubt, to Ruth’s defense. “When Ruth got up again to glean, Boaz gave orders to his workers, ‘You are not only to let her glean among the sheaves, without interference, but you must also pull some stalks out of the heaps and leave them for her to glean, and not scold her.’” (Ruth 2:15-16)  The fact that Ruth and Boaz are later married, and live happily ever after, is secondary.

Boaz welcomes the stranger, the orphan and the widow.  His act reminds us of our own obligations.  The Book of Ruth calls us once again to the demands of a life wedded to Torah.  As we celebrate the giving of the Torah we must also ask about its central obligations.  The Book of Ruth spells out these obligations.  Always reach out to those in need. 

Each and every year when we read this book we are asked by its story if we are living up to these demands.  Are we treating with compassion the weakest and most vulnerable in our society?

Boaz and Ruth have a child and a measure of joy is restored in Naomi’s heart.  She is told, “Blessed be the Lord who has not withheld a redeemer from you today!” (Ruth 4:14)  And then we read the most unlikely of epitaphs.  Their great grandson is King David.  From David’s line, the tradition teaches us, the messiah will be called.

The redemption of the world does indeed begin with one act of kindness.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


There is an interesting, and perhaps even strange, verse that concludes this week’s Torah portion.  Its meaning, and understanding, is dependent on how we translate its words.  “But let them not go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.” (Numbers 4:20)

In ancient times the Israelites traveled through the wilderness, carrying with them the portable tabernacle and its sacred objects.  Their sanctuary was portable.  It was the job of certain members of the Levites to dismantle this tent of meeting as they journeyed from place to place.  In essence they had to break down camp and pack it up.  Apparently no one else could witness this task.  This could diminish the power of the sanctuary in their eyes.  To see it as it was dismantled could lesson its holiness.

All of us have attended concerts, shows, or even weddings and b’nai mitzvah.  There is a certain majesty that is of course absent when you see the empty room before it is set up for the ceremony or performance.  The magic is not yet there.  It is even more disheartening to see all of the trappings of the pomp and circumstance dismantled, or (and I find this especially disquieting) the leftover food discarded in trash cans.  The excitement and enthusiasm of the celebration are now behind us.  They linger only in our memories.  The Torah suggests that to see the sanctuary taken apart diminishes these memories.

Perhaps this is the message that Jackson Browne sings about.  Sing it with me!  “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…”   Such appears the plain meaning of the text.

But the literal translation of the verse offers another interpretation.  The verse is literally rendered: “Let them not come and look at the sacred objects even for a moment, lest they die.”  Here it is not the dismantling that causes problems but instead just looking at these sacred objects.  How could looking at an object lead to death?  There must be spiritual message that we can uncover.  How we look at objects and the meaning we invest in them is now our question.

In our basement are piles of forgotten things.  There can be found old toys, discarded furniture, even computer hard drives.  Over the years we have accumulated too many things.  To wander in our basement is to tour our family’s history, from cribs to toddler beds to now (and years behind schedule) a new queen size bed.  Shira’s bunk bed was only just given away to our neighbor’s young daughter.  (May she enjoy many happy sleepovers underneath its covers!)  We seem to find it difficult to discard these once precious objects.

We should take counsel from our tradition.  Judaism views objects as tools.  They do not have meaning in and of themselves.  We invest meaning in them.  An ordinary piece of jewelry becomes a wedding band, a silver goblet a kiddush cup.  How are these ordinary objects transformed and invested with holiness?  It is by our use.  It is how we use them day in and day out that gives them meaning.  It is also of course how they were used by generations prior to us.  In fact our most precious kiddush cup is rather plain.  It is treasured because it was given to us by Susie’s grandparents who in turn received it from their grandparents.  It is for this reason that many couples use a grandparent’s wedding band at their wedding ceremonies.  

Other times we invest too much meaning in objects.  Our children believe that they must have the latest iPhone or iPad, the best sneakers or lacrosse stick.  Is your computer running Windows 8 or perhaps Mountain Lion?  Are you playing basketball in the sneakers that Lebron James recommends?  We are led to believe that our gadgets and clothing must be the most up to date and contain the latest innovations.  Advertisements prod us with suggestions that we can buy greater meaning, and of course better athletic prowess, by purchasing ever-newer products.  We come to believe that meaning is immediately seized as soon as we take hold of these objects.  In truth it is always how we use them.  We grant meaning to them.

And here we discover the greater lesson contained in the Torah portion.  When we look at objects, and fail to see the people grasping them, when we invest life saving or life altering qualities in this gadget or another, then a spiritual death creeps into our souls.

We invest meaning in the objects we hold.  They can never confer meaning to our lives.

Friday, May 3, 2013


The Torah is quite literal in its understanding of human events.  It proposes the following: if you do good then you will receive many blessings.  If you do bad then evil will befall you.  This week’s portion proclaims: “If you follow My Laws and faithfully observe My commandments…you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.…  But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments …  I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you—consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and body to languish…” (Leviticus 26)

This theology does not of course comport with reality.  Each of us can name any number of righteous people whose lives were sadly cut short.  Far too many people who fill their lives with noble pursuits are not blessed with a fair allotment of years.  We can also name others who never, for example, gave a penny to tzedakah yet who still live a long, healthy, untroubled life.  The equity and justice that the Torah promises is never apparently realized or matched by our everyday experiences.

Our tradition offers many explanations for this discrepancy between the Torah’s promises and our observations.  I favor the suggestion that what we read in the Torah is not so much theology but instead a prayer.  Who among us would not pray that everything be perfectly measured and fairly balanced?  I pray that the world and our lives could be measured by such perfect justice.  Such is not our reality.  But it remains my prayer.

Yet in one regard the Torah’s literalism appears to match recent, contemporary experiences.  The Torah also declares: “You shall faithfully observe My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in vomit you out.” (Leviticus 20:22)  The Torah is of course speaking in particular about the land of Israel.  That land remains the place to which we lavish the most concern.  The Torah contends that continuing to reside in that land is intimately tied to our behavior. 

Still this phrase has been whirling in my thoughts these past months.  Our experiences of this past year suggest even more that nature has a temper.  My hometown is, for example, once again besieged by record breaking floods.  Our own Long Island is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Sandy.  High school students in the Rockaways only just returned to their school on Monday.  Why is there still debate?  Scientists agree that many of these changes are caused by global warming. 

We are indeed responsible for these changes.  We have failed to live up to the Torah’s mandate “to till the earth and tend it.” (Genesis 2:15)  We are stewards of God’s nature.  While Judaism clearly teaches that we can use nature for our own benefit we also have a responsibility to care for it and ensure that our children and grandchildren can derive the same benefit.  There are not an infinite number of natural resources to forever be exploited.

We have failed to live up to this challenge.  The hurricanes signal our failure as much as they indicate nature’s fury.  Yet there is time to mend our mistakes and fashion a different future for our descendants.  There are opportunities to renew our commitment to this biblical command to be stewards of the earth.

Only one time does the Torah state that God will remember the land.  It occurs in this week’s portion: “Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.” (Leviticus 26:42)  What prompts this remembrance by God?  It is our repentance.  It is our recognition of our failures.  God is moved by our repentance.  We need only change.

I wonder.  Is it possible that the Torah is correct and that our present reality is the realization of its prophecy?  Is it also possible that God could be moved by our repentance and that we can once again live in harmony with the land?