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Showing posts from June, 2022

Greatness Is an Aspiration

This week we read the story about Korah’s rebellion. He, his followers and 250 leaders, gathered against Moses and Aaron. They said: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy.” (Numbers 16) At first glance their complaint appears legitimate. They seem to say that no person is greater than another. Every Israelite is holy and can have a relationship with God. They appear to suggest that while no one is Moses, every person can aspire to his level of holiness. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the great Israeli philosopher, finds meaning in the words “are holy.” The rebels believe they are holy, that they have already achieved greatness. Leibowitz teaches that holiness is about striving for greatness. Korah and his followers say in effect, “We have achieved everything. Nothing more is demanded of us.” The Torah teaches the contrary. Holiness must never be a present boast, but instead a future goal. Leibowitz continues to say that there are people like Korah in every generation. In eve

Self-Esteem Is the Secret

At the conclusion of a recent family get together we stood for the requisite photo. The twenty somethings among us said things like, “I want to be on the left. This is my better side. Let me stand in the middle. I look better in that spot.” To be honest, I have no idea which is my better side, despite the fact that photographers often move me around for better angles. Unlike prior generations, our children are keenly aware of how they appear to others. They are also the most photographed, and catalogued, group of people in history. What a monumental task to sift through the innumerable digital files we collect in order to stitch together a montage. Today, because of social media, most especially Instagram, people are intensely aware of how they look to others. The spies returned from scouting the land of Israel and reported, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13) How did they know how they looked to the land’s inhabitants? I won

Unexpected Turns Make for Great Stories

Imagine the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. They moved from camp to camp and from location to location throughout their wanderings in the Sinai desert. They were led on this forty-year journey by God. When the cloud remained over the tabernacle they stayed in camp. When the cloud moved, they broke camp. The Torah reports: “Whether it was two days or a month or a year—however long the cloud lingered over the tabernacle—the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp.” (Numbers 9) And I am lingering on those opening words: “whether it was two days or a month or year.” How unsettled is the Israelites’ lot. They did not know which way they were headed or how long they would stay once they got there. Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno who lived in late fifteenth century Italy comments: This is now already the fifth time the Torah belabors the subject of these journeys, something totally unprecedented. It alerts us to how sometimes the

Going It Alone

The first king of Israel, Saul, was threatened by the brash and charismatic upstart, David and so he did what kings frequently do. Saul tried to kill him and chased David into the wilderness. There, in hiding, David found sanctuary in the beautiful and majestic oasis of Ein Gedi. And there, alone and afraid, he composed the psalm’s words: My soul is depressed, for they set a trap to ensnare my feet; they even dug a pit to capture me, but they themselves, fell into it, selah. My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready; I shall sing and chant hymns of praise. Awake, my glorious soul. Awake, lute and lyre, for I shall awaken the dawn. I shall acknowledge You among the nations, Adonai; I shall sing of You among the peoples of the world. (Psalm 57) Sometimes the most heartfelt, and beautiful, prayers are composed in moments of existential crisis. Spiritual longing is often solitary. The quest is singular. David is terrified Saul is going to kill him and attempts to prepare himself for de

The Meaning of Shavuot

Recently, I opened one of the many Torah commentaries that line my shelves, and found these words, “My Haftorah can be find [sic] on pg. 509 in the larger Hertz Chumash.” Forty-five years ago, I read those words before chanting the prophet Amos on the Shabbat when I became a bar mitzvah. As I looked over the pages, I could even decipher transliterations over a few select Hebrew words. I had opened this Bible in search of an alternative translation of a curious Hebrew phrase. In our weekly class, we were transfixed by an unusual verse and grappling with the meaning of some of the Torah’s words. More often than not, I rely on other commentaries, but on this occasion, I searched for another interpretation. Mysteriously, the Bible opened to my Haftorah. And when I saw my handwriting and the introductory words scrawled above the Haftorah Amos, I stumbled upon my thirteen-year-old self. I wondered. “Why did the rabbi instruct me to scribble those words in the chumash?” I tried to j