Rabbi Ilana’s One Minute Torah commentaries are on the weekly Torah portion, and change each week.
Every time I think I understand something about Chanukah, I discover a deeper layer with an opposing meaning. And then, I find another layer under that one. In this sense, it is the perfect Jewish holiday — the holiday of dialectics.
An example is the popular songs, “Mi Yimalel Gevurot Yisrael.” You can hear a recording of it here. It is a beautiful song, and it sounds very spiritual, doesn’t it?
Guess again! It’s true that the opening line is a direct reference to Psalms 106:2. But the verse in Psalms reads, “Mi yimalel gevurot Adonai, who can voice the heroisms of God, declare all of God’s praises?” The song-writer, a musician name Menashe Ravino, replaced the word “God” with “Israel”. Ravino is suggesting that we are the true heroes, not God.
In case we missed the message, the second verse makes it clear. Shma! Listen! That word can refer to only one thing: the Jewish declaration of the oneness of God. The immediate next phrase quotes the blessing recited over the Chanukah candles: “Blessed are You, God. . . who did miracles for our ancestors, in days past, in our own day.” But the song deletes the words about God and miracles. It declares instead: “In days past, in our own day, a Maccabee rescued and redeemed us.”
Menashe Ravino moved from Eastern Europe to Palestine in 1924. He wrote Mi Yimalel in the 1930s, as he watched the Nazis prepare to roll over Europe. “And in our day, all the people of Israel will unite, and rise up, and be redeemed,” he charges in his song. Don’t just sit there and wait for God – do something!
Today, a quick search on You Tube for “Mi Yimalel” gives a broad selection of singers: men in kippot with long beards, school children ranging from liberal to Orthodox, Israelis and Americans, even Christmas carolers who chose this as their token Jewish song. I suspect few of them realize that the words are a challenge to the glory of God.
Even knowing what the words mean, I am touched in a spiritual way by the song. It feels like a prayer to me. In our generation, few of us still expect heroics from God in the form of supernatural miracles. And so, for the most part, the rebellious anger at failed expectations is gone. What remains is the genuine hope that we can unite and bring redemption to this world. Working together, we can bring light into the dark.
President Trump announced this week that the United States formally recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Jerusalem. Yerushalayim. City of Peace. City of light. City of yearning.
When the world first condensed out of the void, it began at a single point and spread. That first point of creation later became the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It is the point on earth closest to God, like a wormhole that sucks through to another spiritual plain. Jerusalem is built on the place God chose for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. it is the place King David chose for his capital and King Solomon chose for the Holy Temple.
We have been praying for a rebuilt Jerusalem for 2000 years, at least. The plea is part of the grace after meals and the blessings before the morning and evening Shma. It is the repeating point of the Amidah, recited morning, afternoon and night.
During the Passover seders of my childhood, the climax was a three word song: “L’shanah Ha’bah B’Yerushalayim” – next year in Jerusalem! In the giddiness that comes after exhaustion, coaxed with a little too much alcohol and sugar, we would sing our hearts out. I felt I was singing to the Jews of the past: “Look, it’s come true! Jerusalem is rebuilt. We could easily celebrate there next year if we wanted, with at least ten five-star, glatt-kosher hotels to choose from.”
As I grew older, I became aware of a guilty undercurrent beneath the exuberance of that song. “Why am I singing here, in Skokie, IL? My ancestors would have given anything to celebrate one Passover in Jerusalem. I could so easily to choose to be there now, and I’m rejecting it.” Sometimes, a different guilt tinged my celebration, as I’d think of those big, beautiful homes that once belonged to Arab families and are now occupied by Jews. And sometimes, with my all-out singing I was throwing it in the face of everyone who continues to reject us. Jerusalem is rebuilt, but no one but the Jews recognizes it as our capital.
I remember when, as a teenager, I first learned that the US embassy is in Tel Aviv because America did not recognize Jerusalem. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed so crazy.
Now that recognition has come. And I am not rejoicing. I am too worried.
What would Joseph say, if he lived today? The young Joseph of this week’s parshah, VaYeshev, is about to learn that truth is not adequate justification for offensive pronouncements. Joseph never bragged falsely. Those dreams of the stars and the moon and the wheat of the field bowing down to him- they were real. Ultimately, they came true. So why did his brothers react violently?
President Trump said on Wednesday: “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality.” That’s true. The Knesset (parliament) building, and the Prime Minister’s residence, are both in Jerusalem. It IS the capital. But is stating this particular truth out loud, formally and publicly, the “right thing to do”? Already the next day, violence has started.
Joseph pays a severe price for his oblivious statements of truth. He falls as low as a human could go: a slave in an Egyptian prison cell.
But Joseph never gives up. His story combines cunning and self-reliance with an unwavering faith in God. Ultimately he even forgives his brothers the violence they did him. Whatever the days, months and years ahead have in store for Israelis, for Palestinians, and for Jews and Muslims worldwide, may we not forget the role model of Joseph. Out of the depths we can rise up strong, and in strength create peace and forgiveness.
Our family took a private tour of the Hopi reservation in Arizona last week. First stop was the home and studio of a silver smith. He crafted a bear-claw earring as a demo, and sold the pair to us for $95.
The silver smith lived and worked in an old mobile home, propped up at the edge of a mesa. Indoors, it was a shabby space, but I thought the view out his front window made up for it. That is, until my daughter asked to use the bathroom, and was directed to an outhouse 20 yards away. He was living without running water.
It turns out that 40% of Hopi homes don’t have running water, but I didn’t know that yet and was curious why a successful artisan couldn’t find a better place to live. How had he chosen this particular spot? Who actually owned the land he was perched on?
The silver smith’s responses were vague. Later, our tour guide explained more. Hopi land is owned exclusively by the women. It passes from mother to daughter, or to the closest female relative. Land may not be sold or purchased. When a man marries, he moves into his wife’s home. If they divorce or the wife dies, the man must return to his birth family’s land holding. Our silver smith did not choose that remote, picturesque spot to plunk down his trailer. It was the space that his sister made available to him.
“The women have a lot of power,” I observed.
“That is a white person’s way of thinking,” our guide responded, his voice gentle, but not enough to blunt his meaning. “It’s not power, it’s responsibility.”
Power and responsibility: everyone knows they go together. But which one is primary?
When our forefather Jacob tricked his father into giving him Esau’s blessing, it was clear which was primary in their minds. “Be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you,” Isaac offered (Genesis 27:29). The immediate impact of that blessing was its opposite. An enraged Esau swore to kill his brother, and Jacob fled for his life, arriving penniless in his mother’s hometown.
Twenty-one years under his uncle’s tough supervision changed Jacob’s emphasis, from power to responsibility. In this week’s parshah, VaYishlach, Jacob and Esau are reunited. This time, Jacob makes no attempt to control Esau. He sends his brother gifts, he bows before him, he refers to Esau as “my master.” Most importantly, he divides up his camp, and places himself between his wives’ and children’s camps and his brother. Still fearing Esau’s anger, Jacob’s primary concern is to protect his family.
Our parshah also includes an uglier story, of the affair between Jacob’s daughter, Dina, and Shchem, the son of a local prince, (Genesis chapter 34). Verse 2 suggests a rape (ויענה), but verse 3 says Shchem “spoke to the girl’s heart.” Consistent with the latter verse, Shchem then asks Jacob’s permission to marry Dina.
Whether or not the relation was truly consensual, in ancient middle eastern society marriage was the best outcome a girl could hope for in such a situation (see Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Jacob knows this, but he also knows that a foreign woman married to the son of a prince might be treated as a concubine– essentially a sexual slave. So he holds out for evidence that Shechem will treat Dina as a respected wife, from a family of equals. His terms for the marriage: Shechem, his father, and all their men must be circumcised. Astoundingly, they agree.
But Dina’s brothers, burning with the indignity of the premarital relationship, decide to show Shchem who is boss. When Shchem and his men are weak from surgery, two of the brothers – Simeon and Levi — enter the town and slaughter them. Jacob is furious when he hears of this. He is responsible for his family’s welfare, and Simeon and Levi endangered them all with their violence (see Genesis 34:30).
Since our visit to Hopi land, every time I read the news I’m struck by our society’s understanding of power. We promote young Jacobs, eager for personal gain. We are governed by Simeons and Levis, obsessed with their personal reputation. And we foster men like Shechem, who use their power to take what they want — even when what they want is another human being.
There is another way. We can look instead to the elder Jacob. We can strive to be like the women of the Hopi. We can shift our perspective, to see whatever powers we are given as serving our responsibilities.
“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.“
This week’s parshah is Toldot (תוֹלדוֹת), from the same root as יֶלֶד, child, and roughly translates “genealogy”. “This is the genealogy of Isaac.” Isaac had two children. The bookish Jacob, and the hairy Esau.
This is our story, and Jacob is our ancestor. Jacob is the smarter son, future CEO material. The Torah describes Jacob as תָם, a straight-shooter. He’s not like that brutish Esau, who’s always out shooting animals, and is ready to toss away a position of honor for a bowl of lentils.
But Isaac loves Esau. So Jacob let’s their mother convince him to fool the elderly patriarch. While Esau’s out hunting wild game for their dad, Jacob slaughters a goat from their flock, Rebecca prepares the stew, and she covers Jacob’s hands and neck with the animal’s hairy hide. In this way, Jacob comes before Isaac to steal Esau’s blessing.
“The voice is the voice of Jacob,” Isaac says to himself. Isaac hears our voice, right? The voice of the people of the book, the ones with the true values, who appreciate blessing.
“But the hands are the hands of Esau.” Now everything is confused. Jacob is supposed to be the honest one, Esau the one you can’t trust. Whose hands are these, anyway?
The story of Jacob and Esau should challenge us everyday. Are we saying what we mean? Do we own up to our opinions, gently and respectfully engaging when we disagree? Or do we hide behind snarky comments, faceless emails, indirect criticisms- goat hides that protect us from conflict and from the possibility of creating real change?
Your innermost voice is the true voice of Jacob. Respectful, smart, honest. Let that voice guide the hands you extend to your family, our community, our world.
Parashat Chayei Sarah
Years ago, I was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva and writing an article about the binding of Isaac, and I reflected to my study partner a common, modern interpretation that Abraham failed God’s test. He should have resisted God’s demand for a sacrifice.
My study partner smiled indulgently. He was a father of three Israeli sons, all of whom would someday serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). “Don’t all parents take risks with their children?” he asked.
Wow. I’d never considered it that way. “Aren’t I lucky to be American?” I thought, a little guiltily. But my partner pushed me harder. “Don’t you make decisions for your children that carry obvious risks?”
I thought about the difference between our Israeli lifestyle and our American one. That year in Jerusalem, we made do with relatively little. We line-dryed our clothes. We had no car, and walked the hills to school. But at home, my kids spend most of their transportation time sitting on their behinds listening to music — pushing both our planet and our own bodies closer to who-knows-what trauma.
Navigating life is complicated, because no path is free of risk. What was Abraham to do, obey God and risk the health of his family, or disobey and risk the relationship that had been the entire purpose of his life? Abraham chose the knife, all the while hoping that God would be compassionate and release him. “God will show us the sheep for sacrifice,” he reassured Isaac as they walked together to Mt. Moriah.
At first, God did seem to show compassion. An angel called out to Abraham to stop, and a ram was caught in a nearby thicket, sent as a replacement sacrifice. But then, in this week’s parshah, Abraham returns home from the sacrifice to find Sarah dead. His soul mate, who had followed him through all the crazy changes in his life, who had stood by his side preaching their shared ideals, dropped dead of shock when she learned what he had done to their son.
Abraham cries for his beloved wife. Then he picks himself up, and strikes a deal on a burial plot at the cave of Machpelah. Cool and collected, he refuses to accept a gift. He is staking the first land claim for Sarah’s descendants. If Sarah was furious about the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, I imagine that, proud mother that she was, she would at least have been pleased with Abraham’s purchase of that cave.
But that’s not all Abraham did. He saw that Isaac was still lost, and so he sent away for a wife for his son. We know these two parts of are parshah, because the Torah tells us so explicitly: Isaac brings Rebecca to Sarah’s tent, and only then is he comforted after his mother.
Where did Abraham find the strength to do everything he needed to do? He did not carry the illusions so many of us have: that life should be easy, and that we are in control. If Abraham ever had that illusion, God cured him of it right at the start, when he told him “lech lechah” get yourself up and go, and I’m not telling you where; it will be the land that I will show you. He knew that life is full of risks and unknown consequences, and he made the best choices he could and then was prepared to deal with the uncertainties.
In the famous words of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, a descendant of Abraham and Sarah’s 30 generations later, and a genius at creating hope out of despair:
כל העולם כלו גשר צר מאד The entire world is a very narrow bridge.
The first step is to see the narrowness of the bridge, to recognize the risks, that at any moment we might fall off.
והעקר לא לפחד כלל Only then, when we’ve seen how narrow the bridge we walk, can we begin to feel no fear.
I took a bike ride through Stanford campus this morning. I haven’t been there for a while, and was struck anew by the beauty of the place. It’s not just the buildings and the landscape, but also the students: lying on the grass, walking together and alone, cutting me off on the bike paths. I felt this rush of nostalgia for college, those glorious years when I got to spend my days doing little but growing my mind, when my skin was smooth and my hair dark and the worst thing I had to worry about was multi-variate calculus.
I had to remind myself that college didn’t seem glorious when I was in it. Those things that I long for now, I took for granted at the time, hardly appreciating the privilege of it all. And that multi-variate class really was stressful, and worrying all the time about how I fit in and who I was, was more stressful still.
In an interview this week on Fresh Air, writer and comedian John Hodgman caught my attention when he said about not being young: “You realize that no one’s really thinking about you as much as you worry they’re thinking about you. Most people are just thinking about themselves all the time. So why not just be who you are and not worry about what you do or what you’re wearing or what you’re saying or the poses that you’re stealing or the ideas that you have? …that is a relief.”
The glorification of youth in our culture mystifies me. Every time I hear a snide comment about getting old, I wonder: do you really want to be young again? Our 4th grade students study the mitzvah of “kovad la’zkenim”, honoring elders. This mitzvah does not fall into the category of chesed, compassion. Acts of chesed are driven, at least in part, by pity. A “zaken”, an elder, in Jewish literature is a wise person and a leader. They are not pitied; they have earned their honor.
When, in this week’s parshah, our matriarch Sarah is told she will conceive a son, she laughs. Her husband is already “zaken”, she says, and here the word is a pejorative. God rebukes her. She is seeing only the limitations, and not the potentials, of growing old. Sarah swallows her laughter. “I did not laugh,” she claims. “No, but you laughed,” God shoots right back.
I’m solidly middle-aged now, and I like myself better every year. I do not miss the intense emotions, the insecurities, the strivings and competitiveness of youth. And yet, I cannot pretend the nostalgia is not there.
When Sarah gives birth, they name the child Isaac, Yitschak, which means “he laughs”. Who is laughing, and how? Sarah says, “God has made me laughter, all who hear will laugh.” Are they laughing, with her or at her? Has God given her laughter, or made her into a laughing stock?
The choice was Sarah’s, as it is ours. The very first Jewish baby was born to elderly parents. Our Torah makes it clear that pleasure and creativity – gifts we often associate with youth – are accessible at any age. As we grow older, we can focus on what we are no longer, or we can rejoice in the new insights and different capacities that come with each new year.
“What’s funny?” my children’s nanny asked.
“The world is burning down around us, and I’m worried about a dance party,” I said.
Several times a day, I stop to shake my head at how normal life seems here in Silicon Valley. Our daily priorities have barely shifted, if at all.
But that normalcy is a thin membrane. Poke through it, and I find a thick, protective layer of cognition underneath. We are thinking, thinking, thinking, looking for a handhold on this thing. One person is analyzing which is more damaging, water or fire. Another wants to know how the fires are started, could it be terrorism? Myself, I am thinking about warnings I had read several months ago that this was likely to be the worst year of fires yet. Apparently, the past winters’ spectacular recovery from the drought was not enough to undo the damage. The link to global warming is ominous.
Shove a thumb through that layer of cognition, and a deep reservoir of fear wells up.
The word “apocalyptic” is being used a lot lately.
This week’s parshah recalls a past apocalypse. The way we teach the story to our children, the God of Noah’s time hurled the rain down to earth, drowning the people in a fit of anger. But read the original text more carefully. Professor Jon Levenson, in his book Creation and the Persistence of Evil, God does not create evil in the theology of Genesis. Nature is inherently chaotic, and God is the force holding it back. When God wishes to punish, he simply removes his attention, and nature wells up. “All the springs of the great deep broke open…and the waters overcame” (Genesis 7).
Humanity is created in the image of God.
I’m writing this on my cell phone, from Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa. In collaboration with IsraAID and others, they are running a daycamp for children impacted by the fire. Here, too, I am amazed by how normal everything seems- happy kids, running around and playing. Godly layers of doing and thinking hold back the terror.
Layers of doing and thinking allowed Noah to build an ark, knowing his world was about to be destroyed. And they are allowing an extraordinary rescue effort here. Just think about the number of people who needed to be moved and cared for, and how few casualties there’ve been!
They are allowing us to keep going about our lives, even as the smoke is so bad we won’t allow our children outside to play. They keep us from inundating the victims with useless help — NPR reported that trucks loaded with unwanted donations of used clothes were being sent back — and allow us to support in practical ways.
For the moment the Somrei Torah day camp is well staffed, but email me if you’d like to be called when they next have need. On Monday, our religious school students are making sandwiches for Samaritan House, and next Sunday our synagogue is serving breakfast at First Steps homeless shelter, because genuine need persists down here as well. You can help with that effort by signing up here.
Donating money remains the most practical way to help. To help fire victims, I recommend the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers. And for supporting victims of more severe disasters abroad, I recommend IsraAID.
Ultimately, in the divine image of the Creator, we will recreate order in places of destruction.
When I first moved to California 15 years ago, I was visibly pregnant with my first child. I knew no one out here, but by good fortune, one of the first people I met through the Jewish community was a midwife named Leila VanGelder. Perhaps driven by a slight feeling of desperation, I had the chutspah to ask Leila if she would attend my child’s birth: not as a professional — Leila was no longer delivering babies at that point in her career — but as a support. Lelia hesitated for a fraction of minute. She barely knew me, but, God bless her, she said yes!
I had it in my head that I wanted a “natural” childbirth. Looking back, if not for the knowledge that I actually did it, the idea that I planned to birth a baby without pain relief would seem preposterous. I’ve led a very gentle life. At that point, I’d hardly experienced anything more painful than a blood draw, and I really had no idea what I was in for.
As the first contractions started, I told myself, “I’m going to be strong!” I assumed a karate stance: my image of toughness, remembered from the semester in graduate school when I studied karate.
After about an hour, I thought I was about done for.
Then the doorbell rang and Leila came in. She took one look at me, and started singing a Hebrew song. I immediately stopped my ridiculous karate stance (I was probably doing it wrong, anyway!) and joined her. I love singing, and we spent the next seven hours, almost right up until the delivery, singing folk songs in Hebrew and in English.
I learned an important life lesson that night. Real strength does not come from denial. I could not fight the pain; I had to accept it. Only after I accepted what was happening, then I could work with it.
The climactic moment of the High Holiday service is the Netaneh Tokef. “Who by fire, who by water?” we ask. These are real fears. At this very moment, a fire blazing in southern California has already consumed 2000 acres and is only 45% contained. From the other side of the country, images of raging hurricanes haunt us. And the likely possibility that we are complicit, as our planet warmed by our carbon emissions rages with storms and fires, terrifies.
“Who by sword, who by beast?” These are real fears, too, if not literally than metaphorically. Loss of dignity, loss of confidence, loss of friendship, can sometimes come swiftly, like the slash of a sword. And sometimes, it can feel that we are being torn apart from all sides, as if by tooth and claw.
We have reason to be afraid.
But, in the very next line of the Netaneh Tokef, we remind ourselves:
Teshuvah (repentance, returning to God). Accept the failures of the past. Admit what you did, and what you did not do, and then let it go.
Tefilah (prayer). Do not try to control it all yourself. Accept that powers much greater than you are at work.
Tsedakah (charity) – when we have accepted our fears, admitted and let go of our failings, and accepted the power that is greater than ourselves, THEN we must engage in action, to do our part to fix this world.
The period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is called “The Ten Days of Teshuvah.” Teshuvah is usually translated “repentance”, but that’s not quite right. Acknowledging your wrongs, apologizing, committing to do better – all of that is a necessary part of teshuvah. And then, how often do we make commitments that we can’t keep, falling back to the same patterns of harmful behavior? Teshuvah literally means returning. Full teshuvah means that after the repentance, we must to return to something else.
Imagine your worst self. This should be an easy exercise. Maybe your worst self yells too often, is out of balance, sees the world turned against you, is panicked, frozen, wastes time, is dismissive of others. The list goes on and is painful to type, because I know each of these patterns so well. Some I live myself, others I see in the people I love.
Now imagine your best self. Effective, calm, loving and loved, generous, patient. Maybe you’ve only gotten there for a brief moment once in rare memory. Maybe you never remember getting there. Even so, teshuva means returning to that self.
The word teshuvah is powerful. It means that to become our best selves, we do not need to reinvent ourselves. We are returning to something that was inside of us all along, even if we had lost awareness of it.
Our parshah this week, Nitsavim, promises us we can do it. “It is not spectacular, or far from you. It is not in heaven…or over the seas. It is very close to you, in your mouth and in your hearts to do it” (Deut. 30:11-14). None of us needs to do it alone. Our tradition offers wisdom and tools for this work. Mussar is the branch of Judaism that teaches focused soul work, to help us become our best selves. As a community, we support each other in this work. CBJ will be offering several Mussar classes this year, with an experienced facilitator and teacher, Greg Marcus.
When we take the first step, God meets us part way. “Return to Ado-nai your God…and Ado-nai your God will bring you back” (Deut. 30:1-2).
Parashat Ki Tavo
When Immigration Enforcement officers pick-up people for deportation, they move them quickly to a distant facility. For a long time, deportees from Chicago were moved to Gary, Indiana, about a two- hour drive from JRC, the synagogue where my friend and colleague, Kate Kinser, works most days of the week. Kate knows, because she made the drive often.
Kate is one of a group of clergy who see it as their obligation to pray publicly for the welfare of every deportee on the day of their deportation. Often the families are there, and the clergy hold them as they cry. The deportees themselves do not get to talk to the clergy, can barely see them through the fence. But they can hear the sounds of the prayers, and Kate believes this matters. She wants them to hear a compassionate voice from America. She wants them to know they are not forgotten.Deportations from Gary happen early in the morning. For a time they were at 6:00 am, then it was shifted to 4:00 am with little warning. For Kate, and for the families of most of the deportees, that meant leaving the house at 2:00 am.
It happened one September that a deportation was cancelled, then suddenly rescheduled for 4:00 am on Yom Kippur morning. None of the Christian clergy were able to shift their schedules to be there. Kate had no public High Holiday obligations that year, and of course she was not working that day. “Well,” she thought, “The mitzvah of Yom Kippur is to ‘afflict’ your body. Waking up at 2:00 am to drive two hours seems to qualify.” So she went.
Arriving at the deportation center, in the dark, on an empty stomach, was a surreal experience. The place is made of concrete slabs, surrounded with barb wire. She stood alone in the dark, the prisoners shuffling past her on the other side of a wall as she called out prayers for their welfare.
Our parshah this week, Ki Tavo, is one of the darkest in the Torah. It warns of what will happen if we fail to “serve God with joy and with goodness of heart” (Deut. 28:47). It describes a world turned upside down. “In the morning you will long for night, and at night you will long for day, out of the terror of your heart,” (Deut. 28:67). “You will be scattered to the ends of the earth”, and living amongst strangers “you will find no rest,” (Deut. 28:64-65).
The ancient rabbis saw clear references to the Roman devastation of Jerusalem, and modern readers often see the expulsions, pogroms and ultimate destruction of European Jewry. Susannah Heschel wrote a powerful piece yesterday for the Forward, “My Father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Was a Dreamer, Too.” Before Abraham Joshua Heschel became one of the most influential and inspiring rabbis of our times, he was a deportee. His daughter writes: “I grew up hearing with horror the word “deportation”… What we needed more than anything was to know with certainty that this would never happen again.”
Our parshah mocks that basic need for certainty. How do you live with the constant fear of arrest and deportation? It is unimaginable to me. I have come to believe that I am secure in this country. My people are no longer foreigners here. But our parshah warns that no people can dominate another forever. Foreigners will become owners, and masters will sink low (Deut. 28:43).
That Yom Kippur day, Kate got back to Chicago in time for the “Avodah” service, the part when we recall the High Priest’s ritual in that ancient Temple that was later destroyed by the Romans. The shofar sounded several hours later, and her affliction ended. But for the people she had seen that morning, by then arrived back in a country they had previously fled, the affliction was just beginning.
Parashat Ki Tetze
I drove over the San Mateo bridge this week, for the first time in years. I’d forgotten how on this side, the start of the bridge seems to disappear into the clouds, like a ramp up to heaven. A moment later, we’re down almost level with the water. I could imagine stepping off, gently dropping into the depths. But Houston has been shaping my sub-thoughts all week, and for a panicked instant I imagined instead the waters rising-up, our car swept away. I pictured myself fumbling with seat-belts, trying to heave the door open and escape.
“Calm down,” I thought. I looked out at the soft greens and browns of the hills on the bay. We live in paradise, I reminded myself. Our air temperatures are always within the comfortable range, and our ocean waters are too cold to storm. Hurricanes don’t touch the Pacific.
The great tsunami of 2004 was far more devastating than Hurricane Harvey, but to most of us it was a distant tragedy. Katrina, in 2005, was closer to home, but it, too, felt remote to me. Harvey should also feel remote, but it doesn’t. I feel vulnerable.
This year it was Houston. Who will be next? Washington DC? Boston? New York? Somewhere inside, I am imagining people and places I love swept into the Atlantic, and it is shaking my soul.
The opening verses of this week’s parshah, Ki Tetseh, take us to a different type of devastation. Even amidst the insanity of war, we are commanded to place rules and limits. If you take a woman captive, you must treat her humanely. You must take a trowel along with your war implements, so you do not defile your camp with feces.
The parshah goes on to unrelated topics. When you harvest a field and drop some of the produce, do not go back to collect it. Leave it for the poor. When you are out in the woods and find a bird’s nest, shoo the mother away before taking her eggs. The Torah doesn’t explain why: is this an act of compassion to the mother, or is to ensure the survival of the species?
The list of laws is long and eclectic, but there’s a common theme: civilizing the beast. You think your produce is yours to do whatever you want? It’s not. The land and its produce belongs to God. You think the eggs are yours, because you found them? They, too, are God’s.
When hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes strike, that lesson is thrown in our faces. The land never was ours.
But the Torah does not ask us to renounce property, or even desist from war. It asks us to place limits on ourselves, and to see ourselves as beholden to a greater entity. We are not to throw it all up to God, and pretend that we have no influence on the outcome of events. Nor are we to give in to the hysteria, and imagine that because disasters might happen, that means they will.
If climate change is causing an increase in natural disasters, then what we must do is clear: reduce our energy use. And prepare for disasters. And then trust that the worst will not come. For statistics do not give prediction. They simply describe a landscape, through which the ball of time is rolling. Only God can see where it will actually go.
“For this is like the waters of Noah to me,” God tells the prophet Isaiah in our Haftarah this week, “I swore to you after the waters of Noah left the land…If the mountains shift, and the hills fall; my compassion will not shift from you, and my covenant of peace will not fall.”
This week we read the “Law and Order” parshah. The timing could not be better.
“Establish for yourselves judges and police, shoftim v’shotrim,” the Torah commands. Shoftim, judges, is the name of this week’s parshah. “Do not pervert judgement, or show favoritism. Do not take bribes.” Rashi warns that if a judge has a stake in a case, his judgment will be biased, even without his awareness. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – pursue justice, justice.”
Why does the word “justice” appear twice? Rebbe Simchah Bonim taught, “Pursue justice with justice. The pursuit must not be done with falsehood.”
We live, thank God, in a time of justice that far exceeds anything our ancestors could have imagined. Less than 100 years ago, racism was the cultural norm in this country, and Jews were being slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands in Europe. When I turn on the TV and hear of neo-Nazi marches, I worry that the peace we know today is a blip. When our government fails to unequivocally condemn the racism, my worry deepens.
Rabbi Shelly Lewis, one of my teachers and the author of “The Torah of Reconciliation”, points out that of all the values promoted by Torah, there are only two that we are told to pursue: justice and peace. Both are elusive.
The Talmud taught that one mitzvah leads to another, and one wrongdoing leads to another. The Hebrew is mitzvah goreret mitzvah, which literally means “a mitzvah drags a mitzvah”. When we surround ourselves with justice, justice abounds. All forms of goodness are pulled into the circle. Rabbi Yehudah Leib saw our verse, “Pursue justice, justice,” as hinting at this idea. But when we surround ourselves with hatred, fear and anger, then ugliness spews forth from all corners.
Do not let the hatred pervert you. When we speak in generalizations about people – “The Trump supporters say this,” “Democrats do that,” “Liberals are all this,” “Conservatives are all that” – we let wrongdoing drag forth wrongdoing. When we turn ideological differences into personal attacks, we magnify the worst of what we hear around us.
Ours is still a generation of unprecedented justice, and we can only pursue justice with justice.
At the edge of MITs campus is a graduate-student apartment building called Eastgate. My husband David and I lived there for two years. We were so involved in our studies at that time, I can only remember one conversation with the couple that lived right next door. In that brief conversation, I learned they were from Beijing. Then the wife said they had a two-year-old girl back in China. Their daughter was living with her grandparents for now, but they hoped to bring her over in a couple years.
They told me this so matter-of-factly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could they let go of their child? It was unfathomable to me. And then it hit me: my great-grandparents had done the same thing to my grandmother. They had left her in Warsaw at a young age, in the care of her oldest sister, while they sought to establish themselves in New York. They sent for her three year later.
I wish now that I had taken the time to get to know those neighbors in Eastgate, just as I wish I had known my great-grandparents. What did they feel more keenly, her suffering or their own? What drove them, their own aspirations or their hopes for her future? I did know my grandmother well, and I have a good sense of the consequences she bore. Her professions of love- for her deceased parents, her children and her grandchildren- were profuse and grasping. She was never happy, but she did establish herself comfortably in New York, and all her descendants are fully American.
In this week’s parshah, VaEtchanan, Moses reveals that he had pleaded with God to allow him to enter the promised land. But God silenced him sternly. “Enough! Do not talk to me about this anymore. Go up to the mountain and raise your eyes. Look all around, because you will not cross the Jordan. Command your student Joshua, strengthen him. He will cross over at the head of the people, and bring them to the land which you will only see. (Deuteronomy 3:26-28).
Moses held his pain. Maybe he realized that it can’t be otherwise, that this is what it is to be an immigrant. You leap as far as you can go, but it is rarely far enough. Then you push your children ahead of you, and hope that they will go farther.
I envy the superstars of language, those people who are masters of their tongues as an athlete is master of his body. They know when to dodge, when to be silent, and when to respond. They seem able to speak without reflecting and their words always hit their target.
Most of us struggle with words. We talk too much or we say too little. We speak too harshly, we assume too much. We try to foist ourselves into the world with our words, and the world is not always ready to receive us.
This week we begin a new book of the Torah: Devarim, which means “words”. The opening sentence is: “These are the words (Elah HaDevarim) that Moses spoke to Israel.” The entire book is one long speech, Moses’s parting words to his people, reviewing the events and moral lessons of their 40 years in the desert. In English, the book is called “Deuteronomy”, from the Greek root “deuter”, meaning “second”. Deuteronomy is a second telling. But the Hebrew title emphasizes not the review, but the speech. Moses the stutterer has become an orator.
The preceding book, Numbers, in Hebrew is called, B’midbar, “in the desert”. B’midbar is desolate. The generation of the desert is pathetic, and their God is angry. The excitement of the book of Exodus past, they’ve escaped Egypt but arrived in a wasteland. The entire book of Numbers is filled with failure, recrimination, and violence, and at the center is Moses, unable to create reconciliation. Moses has the rare gift of speaking to God, but human speech eludes him. During the most intense conflicts he literally falls on his face in despair.
A slight change of vocalization, and the letters of midbar, desert, spell, medaber, speak. (Recall that in Hebrew the vowels are not written out, so the two words are spelled identically.) Sometimes, we must go into the desert to find our capacity for speech.
You’d expect Moses to begin his oration with the glory days: the ten plagues, the Red Sea, Mt. Sinai. But he doesn’t. He starts almost right off with the breakage– the story of the twelve scouts. Moses retells the incident as a conversation between himself, Israel, and God, with each of the players speaking past the others. “I spoke to you and you didn’t listen (Deuteronomy 1:43)”, Moses recalls, and then a few verses later, “You returned and cried before Ado-nai, and God did not listen to your voices (Deuteronomy 1:45)”. The failure on both sides was not just in the harshness of their words, but in their unwillingness to listen compassionately to the emotions that lay beneath those words. The outcome was tragic. This Monday night begins the fast of Tisha B’av. The rabbis taught that Tisha B’av is the anniversary of the scouts reporting back to the Israelites. The Israelites cried on that night, and God decreed they would cry for generations.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in his poem Expanses of God, wrote “My whole being aches from the pain of expression.” Words are hard. We say one thing and mean another, and often we don’t even recognize the emotions that propel the wrong words from our mouths, or that trap all words inside.
The Israelites failed God, God failed the Israelites, and Moses failed both of them and himself. But we can learn from their failures. We can actively work to be tolerant and forgiving. When someone talks too much, talks down, seems greedy, is overly critical, or is just plain annoying and you can’t explain why — remember that Moses was a stutterer.
I did my PhD in the Biology Department of MIT. It was an intense place, with a Nobel Prize studded faculty and students contending to be the next of their generation, each absorbed in their own piece of the scientific endeavor. Some labs stood out as extreme pressure-cookers. One professor was notorious for assigning multiple students to the same project, and having them compete against each other. But a few labs stood out for their camaraderie. They managed to build a sense of loyalty and friendship, despite the systemic challenges of doing so.
Later I realized that the Biology Department was a microcosm of the human world. Many companies have a cut-throat culture, but some companies are made of people who value and support each other. Schools, medical practices, non-profits: any brew of people coming together can easily ferment a competitive feeling. Even among synagogues, gossip and tearing people down can be the norm; I have found CBJ to have a culture of open dialogue and working together.
School teachers have the extraordinary opportunity to watch miniature communities from the outside. Sometimes a class will develop an unspoken leader, and that student will often poison the atmosphere of the class. On rarer occasions, I’ve seen one student’s openness and warmth spread through an entire class. In either case, I’m always amazed by the power of one personality to shape the interactions of a group.
This week’s parshah, Matot-Masei, provides a model or language for thinking about communities and the cultures they develop. “Do not pollute the land in which you live, for I (God) shochen (dwell) in the land; I am Adonai, shochen (the One who dwells) within the Israelite people” (Numbers 35:34). A harsh criticism, a selfish grab for credit or territory, words and actions that push others down to pull yourself up – these chase the Shechinah (the divine presence that dwells in this world) out of a community. When the Shechinah is gone, the emptiness is felt by everyone, and the worst parts of ourselves claw out of the darkness into the void. When a community is blessed with Shechinah; Her presence is felt in encouraging smiles, words of meaningful praise, offers to work together, a sense that we are all part of a shared endeavor.
When I arrived home yesterday, Janae, our children’s nanny, announced: “Yaara defended me at the park today.”
“Uh-oh,” I thought. Yaara, my 3-year-old, is very devoted to her nanny. Janae is African-American, and her work with our family often puts her in social environments where she is the only black person. Janae has been targeted more than once in the two years I’ve known her.
If Yaara was “defending” her, I was sure that meant they’d had an unpleasant encounter.
Janae shared yesterday’s story. “We went to the Magical Bridge park, and Yaara met a new friend, Morgan. Morgan’s caregiver was holding a baby, so I started pushing both girls on the swings together. While they were swinging, Morgan said to me:
‘Usually, I’m afraid of black people’
‘Why?’ I asked her.
‘Because they’re different,’ she said.
And then Yaara said, ‘My nanny and her family are chocolate, and that’s ok.’”
Janae wasn’t upset at all. She was mostly amused, and maybe a little pleased, that Yaara described her as “chocolate”.
Janae and I often discuss racial issues. Some parts of her experience resonate with my experiences as a Jew. She knows all the black and biracial children in Yaara’s preschool (there aren’t many). She grapples with family and friends who view her choice to date a white man as a threat to their own black identity.
But Janae’s experiences have an intensity that I only know second-hand, from my grandmother’s stories of life as a Chasidic girl in Warsaw, and from reading between the lines of old rabbinic texts. As a white Jew in America, I can remove my kippah and slip-in easily with the white majority. Janae can never escape her difference. She grapples with self-hatred (“I’m not black black,” she once told me) and black pride, in ways that remind me of Jewish experiences in other times and places.
This week’s parshah, Pinchas, bristles with the complexity of racial identity. The Israelite men were tempted by the Moabite women. Pinchas is a zealot, and becomes violent in his defense of Israelite pride. Assimilation tenses against Jewish pride, self-hatred against hatred of other.
Also in this week’s parshah is the story of Tslophchod’s daughters. At a time when only males inherited land, Tslophchod had no sons. His daughters dared to stand before Moses and the circle of male elders, and challenge law and custom. “Why should our father’s name be removed from his family because he has no son? Give us a land holding amongst our father’s brothers,” they demanded (Numbers 27:4).
Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg sees a profound inspiration in these women. The book of Numbers tells the repeated story of a people rejecting their identity. “Send us back to Egypt,” is their ongoing lament. The daughters of Tslophchod are the first to stand up and say: “Yes! We want the land! We want Israel, we want God, we want Judaism!” And God smiles back at their desire: “Ken bnot Tslophchod dovrot (Numbers 27:7)” which might be translated as “The daughter’s of Tslophchod speak correctly,” but literally means: “Yes, the daughter’s of Tslophchod speak.”
The last time Janae had a racially charged encounter in our neighborhood, a woman approached her out of nowhere, shouting threats and obscenities. Such experiences shrink the soul, tear the “Yes!” from the heart. I wish for her an abundance of positive experiences, to return the “Yes!” to her heart. May her chocolate color be as sweet to her as it is to Yaara. And may our Jewish identity be every bit as sweet to us.
When my husband David and I bought our first car, we were living on a tight budget. We managed not to buy another car for 14 years, by which time we had a comfortable income and the second car was not a financial stretch. Even so, buying a car requires some haggling, and for David, getting the lowest price on the car was a big game. He comparison shopped, then played the dealers off each other, trying to negotiate each one down.
In the last moments before he sealed the deal with a place an hour’s drive from us, the local dealer who was not going to get our business said: “I’m sorry, David, I can’t match that.” There was defeat in his voice, and a deep exhaustion. The tone of voice hit David hard, and he realized that for the dealer, this wasn’t a game. It was his livelihood.
Nothing changed. We bought from the dealer with the better price, and I don’t think anyone would criticize us for that. Yet the memory of that other dealer lingers. He has come to symbolize for me all the people I interact with, directly and indirectly, with whom I have no relationship. The staff at Safeway, Walgreens, and all my regular stores, the policeman who pulled me over this morning for rolling through a stop sign, the security guards at my children’s school, whom I’ve smiled at every morning for years but have only spoken to a handful of times. It can’t be otherwise in our modern world, and yet I fear that through all these impersonal interactions a piece of our humanity is lost.
In this week’s parshah, Chukat, after 40 years in the desert the Israelites are ready to enter Israel. Their most direct path crosses the red-tinged hills of Edom, land that belongs to the descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau. They send a message to their Edomite cousins, asking for peaceful passage. “Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, and we will not drink well-water. We will walk on the king’s road, we will not stray right or left until we’ve passed your border.”
Rashi, the 12 century Torah scholar, made a fascinating comment on Moses’s promise not drink from the wells of the Edomites. “This is what Moses said: ‘Even though we have in our hands mannah to eat and a well to drink from, we will not drink from our own well but we will buy food and water from you, for your pleasure.’ (Any hotel) guest should (take an example) from here, that even if he has his own food he should buy from the proprietor, to please his host.”
Rashi’s medieval world was much smaller than ours. People knew each other. The experience of doing business with a stranger, routine in our times, in Rashi’s time was unique to travelers. Rashi’s comment is a reminder to see the humanity in the stranger, and to look for opportunities to bring joy to people we do not know.
Martin Buber described transactional relationships as “I-It”, and relationship in which souls connect as “I-Thou”. He wrote, “Man’s communal life cannot dispense…with the It-world—over which the presence of the Thou floats like the spirit over the face of the waters. Man’s will to profit and will to power are natural and legitimate as long as they are tied to the will to human relations and carried by it.” In other words, we live in a world of “its”. This cannot change. But we can and must remain connected to the world of Thou. Seek the humanity in people who are usually “it” – a waiter serving you in a restaurant, a store clerk ringing up your bill, the physician’s assistant taking your blood pressure, the physician examining your body– if only for a brief moment, through a genuine exchange of heart.
Our political climate is making me read this week’s parshah on its head, and it’s unsettling.
The parshah is named for Korach, the Levite who was dissatisfied with his lot. Parshat Korach follows Parshat Shlach, in which the Israelites received the decree that they will wander for 40 years. “Your corpses will fall in this desert,” God spat at them. The people are miserable and scared, and now Korach and three co-conspirators see their insecurity as an opportunity. They feed the discontent, gathering enough followers to challenge Moses and Aaron publically. “Rav lachem,” they say. “You have too much. All the congregation is holy…so why do you put yourselves above the community of God?”
Moses first falls on his face, then rallies God’s support and throws Korach’s words right back at him. “Rav lachem bnei Levi,” he says. “You have too much, sons of Levi…Is it insufficient for you that God separated you from the congregation of Israel to bring you closer to Him?”
Korach is the archetype of vanity. He is the anti-hero of Moses who, the Torah says, is ish anav, a humble man. Korach created a rift in the Israelite camp. He inflamed God’s wrath. His dramatic death, along with the deaths of hundreds of his followers, imprints on our memories the dangers of egoism.
Moses’s righteousness seems unassailable. In the climactic moment, Moses declares: “If God creates a new creation, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them (Korach and his conspirators) and all that is theirs, and they go down alive to the land of the dead, you will know that these men are striving against God.” God is on Moses’s side, and Moses knows he is in the right– with a certainty that is disturbingly familiar.
I see such certainty all around me these days, and increasingly in myself. When I read the news, there are moments when the political reality seems so clear I cannot understand how anyone can see it otherwise. I try hard to put myself in the mind of the other camp, and sometimes I just can’t get there.
Last Friday, the New York Times published a front page article entitled “House Divided: How We Became Bitter Political Enemies.” It documents the extreme divide over the past ten years between Democrats and Republicans – not the politicians, but the rest of us. For example, in a 2016 study 68% percent of Republicans and 64% of Democrats said they chose their party affiliation because of the harm the other party’s policies posed to the nation. If you affiliate with one of the major parties and are certain that the opposition is misguided or dangerous, it might give you pause to realize that they feel exactly the same way about you.
Still more disturbing are studies that show partisan prejudice paralleling racism. Psychological tests that measure subconscious bias show prejudices against the opposite political party have become stronger than racism. Already in a 2010 study, 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats said they would be upset if their child married someone from the opposite party.
The ramifications on the national scale smear our headlines every day. The consequences for our local communities are also insidious, but in a different way. 75% of voters in San Mateo county chose Hilary Clinton in 2016. Republicans around here are a small minority, and many feel like they’re carrying a dangerous secret; if I tell people, what will they think of me? Jewish Republicans here face a double-whammy. According to the 2015 Pew study, 70% of Jews nationally “identify with or lean toward the Democratic party.” Put those two statistics together, and Republicans are a very small, often beleaguered minority in most non-Orthodox synagogues in the valley. A few Republicans at CBJ have told me they feel alienated when people assume everyone in the room is a Democrat.
Korach and Moses each pointed at the other and accused: Rav lachem, You have too much. You have claimed too much status, too much power. Moses was certainly right. Korach was dangerous and self-serving. But what if Korach was right, too? What if Moses’s surety of his own righteousness belies the Torah’s claim of his humility? Korach only used words, after all. It was Moses who called for violence.
This reading of the parshah makes me uncomfortable. I am a traditionalist, and I don’t like to interpret the Torah against the grain. But right now, I need to practice sitting with foreign ideas. I need to work on seeing the other side. I invite you to look for opportunities to do the same.
Parshat Shlach Lchah
During my drive this morning, Michael Krasny was interviewing a colleague about yesterday’s shootings at UPS headquarters. As I listened, I felt my shoulders grow heavy, my hands loosen a little on the wheel. As Krasny’s colleagues described one of the victims – an outgoing guy whose colleagues called him Big Mike – I was listening to every word, and shutting down inside. In a moment I would launch into the details of my day, the problems of this world far too immense for my little self.
It’s a good thing I had to write a dvar Torah today, or I might not even have stopped to realize that this feeling is too familiar. The helplessness, followed by numbing and distancing, I experience it far too much.
In this week’s parshah, Shlach Lchah, Moses sends 12 scouts to tour the promised land. They return with reports of paradise. “It’s a land of milk and honey,” they say. But, “Efes”, it’s nothing, irrelevant, forget it. Because that beauty is inaccessible to us. “We are like grasshoppers in our own eyes.”
The Israelites felt as helpless and numb as I did this morning. But they did not have the luxury of distancing themselves. This was their lives, not some stranger’s on the radio. And so they broke down and cried.
The power of “I cannot” is immense. I see it everywhere, at every scale. I know children who do not achieve at school, because they do not see themselves as achievers; institutions that never rise above mediocrity, because their leadership cannot see beyond immediate limitations; women trapped in abusive relationships, because they cannot see a path to escape; individuals trapped in poverty, because the way forward is overwhelmingly hard. Those of us who are blessed with privilege can shut down and turn away. And those who are hit by hardship are simply frozen, stuck in their helplessness.
This morning, Krasny moved on to discuss yesterday’s other horrible shooting, at the Republican baseball practice. He read a comment from a listener, who said (paraphrasing slightly), “Columbine made no difference, Sandy Hooke made no difference, San Bernadino made no difference, and there will be no change now, either.” Krasny’s guests objected. These public shootings make a huge difference, he said, because they bring the problem to a place where people can’t ignore it. “With public shootings, you can’t dismiss it as something that happens to people who are not like yourself, or in places where you don’t go.”
Last night, I was listening to an interview with a congressman who had been there during the shooting. I was distant as I listened, and not even aware that I was feeling disconnected. Then suddenly, the congressman broke down crying. His tears pierced my shell, and I choked up, too.
God was furious with the Israelites. God wants us to believe in the improbable, to see change as possible. Moses responds to God’s anger by calling on God’s compassion, drawing empathy like the congressman’s tears. God relents, and gives the Israelites a second chance.
It will take them forty years of wandering to be ready to step forward and begin making change. But they will get there.
It happened once that my daughter used her baby-doll to whack her brother, so I took the doll away for the rest of the day. That night, as I was tucking her into bed, she said to me:
“Ima, usually I love you, but today I don’t love you.”
I suppressed a puzzled smile. “You don’t love me today? Why not?”
“Because you took my baby away.”
Suddenly, I understood something.
I flashed back to my own childhood, and my grandmother’s visits on the holidays. My grandmother, of blessed memory, always carried Lifesavers in her purse: those tightly packed rolls of red, orange, yellow and green candies. She doled these out freely along expressions of love, and I easily responded “I love you, too”. Until one day I worried, “Do I only say that because she gives me Lifesavers?”
Young children love us with a selfish love. The sages called this “love that is dependent on something,” and Jewish mystics call it “lower love.” It is a love that is fickle. When I took the doll away, my daughter thought she no longer loved me.
As we mature, lower love should give way to a capacity for higher love. Like the love we give our children, higher love is not based on what you do for me, but on what I do for you. Yet, as with everything in the realm of human emotion, the boundaries between lower and higher love are rarely clean.
The relationship between God and the Israelites began healthy and nurturing in the book of Exodus. God provided food, drink, shelter and safety: the things that feel so good to provide a young child.
In the book of Numbers, that relationship goes awry, starting with this week’s Parshah, B’Halotchah. Perhaps the Israelites were meant to grow-up in the desert, but were infantilized by their total dependency on God. They are sniveling, and God has become easily irritated. Even Moses gets fed-up with the Israelites’ neediness: “Did I conceive this entire nation, did I give birth to him? How can you say to me ‘Carry him in your bosom as a nurse carries a suckling infant?'” (Num. 11:12)
In the struggles of the Israelites and God, I see reflected familiar patterns of human relationships. I think of teenagers resentful of their dependency on their parents, and parents responding with hurt, confusion or rage. I see marriage as a constant push-and-pull of interdependency, and I’ve seen many strain or break when the two partners’ needs became out of balance.
The rabbis of the Talmud fantasized of a higher love that was “not dependent on anything”. This kind of love is not based on what you do for me, nor on what I do for you, but on the beauty I see in your soul.
Yet, love and relationships of every kind bring dependency. This week’s parshah, and the next several parshiot to come, paint a depressing picture of love dragged down into violent fights when the two sides have not come to terms with their interdependency.
The biblical story does not end here, blessedly. Ultimately, the Israelites and God find each other beautiful again, and are ready to entered the promised land together. In this reconciliation is a model for all relationships.
“Stand up and be counted!”
“Your vote counts!”
“You’re just a number.”
“You’re just a statistic.”
A slight shift in perspective, and what it means to be counted has opposite meanings.
The book of Numbers opens with a census of the Israelite men, one of several in the Torah. The census at the beginning of Numbers came up with the identical number to one recorded in Exodus: 603,550. To explain the seeming coincidence, HaEmek Davar (19th C, Lithuania) suggested that this number was the required retinue for the King of Kings. Before God and Israel could begin their travels through the desert, they counted the men up to 603,550. “From then on, even if many more boys came of age they were not counted — unless someone died or left the camp for another reason, then they would fill the retinue with others.” God counted the people much the way I count my forks before setting the table.
Rashi (11th C, France) had a different take. He claimed the two censuses were taken close together in time, and the population had not changed. “Because (the Israelites) are so beloved, (God) counts them all the time,” wrote Rashi on Numbers 1:1. On Exodus 30, he wrote that God ordered the census after a plague, for the Israelites are “like sheep who are beloved to their master”. The Holy One apparently has something in common with my grandmother, of blessed memory, who loved to enumerate the birthdays of her children and grandchildren: “In May have your mother and Maynard, in June I have little Tamar, in July I have Ted…”
Though Rashi and the author of HaEmek Davar lived eight centuries apart, their opinions are printed on the same page of my Bible, and together they fulfill a chasidic saying: “A person should have two pockets. In one (should be written) ‘The world was created for me (Sanhedrin 4:5).’ In the other ‘I am dirt and ashes (Genesis 18:27).’”
In the age of science, we need those pockets more than ever.
I know more secrets of creation than Moses himself could have known. I can search the sequence of the entire human genome on my computer. A few keystrokes, and Google maps can show me any point on earth, most of which Moses never knew existed.
When we feel this powerful, it is easy to forget that a few milligrams of cholesterol in the wrong location and I would be gone. HaEmek Davar’s commentary reminds us: my disappearance would matter little to God, so long as another person could fill out the numbers. And with a world population of 7.5 billion and counting, filling out the numbers should be no problem.
How could my life possibly matter to the Rock of the Universe? Our galaxy alone contains 100 thousand million stars, and the universe contains millions upon millions of galaxies. What matters one planet on one little star, let alone one life on that planet?
But Rashi reminds us that the Holy One counted the people one at a time, treasuring each and every one. Who am I to claim a limit on how high the Infinite One can count?
Our family lived in Jerusalem in 2010-11. I had the blissful experience of studying at the Conservative Yeshiva full time. My husband was working at the Weizmann Institute, one of the top five places world-wide in his area of physics. Our daughter was enrolled in a local kindergarten, a nurturing one-room school run by the municipality. Our son went from the calm of a suburban Jewish Day School here in California to the chaos of an urban public school, and that was a shocker.
Eventually we had to pull him out. A lot wasn’t good about his situation, but it was one student in particular that forced the decision. A boy named Ido, the biggest kid in the class (had he been left behind a grade?), frequently shouting out and getting yelled at by the teacher, mid-way through the year chose our son as a target. He would taunt him with words, and sometimes more than words.
Before giving up on the school, I began visiting the classroom regularly. One day I was there at lunch time, and I noticed that Ido wasn’t eating. “My mother is bringing my lunch later,” he announced for anyone who cared to listen. Ido disappeared from the classroom a little before I left. As I was walking out of the building, I saw him in the front office sifting through a large bag of sandwiches to find one he liked. A teacher saw me watching and explained, “The Leket Israel delivery was late today.” Leket Israel is a food-salvage non-profit, similar to our local Second Harvest.
This week we read a double parshah, B’har-B’chukotai. The second half of B’chukotai describes a society out of whack. “Ten women will bake bread in one oven,” for scarcity of flour and fuel (26:26). Enemies will chase you, real and imagined, until you become so paranoid that you flee from the “sound of a tossed leaf” (26:36).
The first half of B’chukotai describes a society at harmony with itself, where blessings lead to blessings. A familiar world to me. “I will place peace in the land. You shall lie down without fear” (26:6). Once in the sleep-deprived days of having a new born, we accidentally left our front door wide open the entire night. When I discovered it the next morning, I said a quick prayer of thanks for our safe neighborhood.
Food will be so abundant that “You will remove old (food), to make way for the new,” (26:10), or because it’s past its expiration date. And I cut out the mushy parts of my kids’ fruits, and yesterday I finally tossed that health cereal that seemed a good idea when I was in the store but no one actually liked.
Then I think of Ido, ashamed because his mother did not have the resources to pack him a lunch. I happened to meet Ido in Jerusalem, but far too many people do not have enough to eat right here in Santa Clara and San Mateo, with all the wealth of Silicon Valley glittering around us. And if I lived in some of the harsher neighborhoods of Oakland and accidentally left my door open all night, there would be nothing casual about my prayers the next morning.
The Torah’s vision of collective reward and punishment is uncomfortable not because of the simplicity of the theology, but because of its truth. We are in this together. When I have so much food I can’t fit it in my fridge, and my housekeeper’s children don’t have enough to eat, we are not a society at peace. We are out of balance, and we feel as if we could tip.
The natural reaction when we are afraid is to hold on tighter to what we have. The Torah tells us to do the opposite. Trust. Taking the long view of history, and the broad view of the planet, whatever hardships we are facing as individuals our lives are very good. We may not be in that blessed state described at the beginning of the parshah, but we are a long way from the cursed state described at the end. And each time we give to an organization like Leket Israel or Second Harvest, or to an individual in need, we shift the balance toward blessing.
After Sooze Protter (of CBJ’s religious school faculty) and her sister Nancy Perlin held a garage sale a couple months back, they took everything that didn’t sell to the warehouse of the Ecumenical Hunger Program (EHP) in east Palo Alto. The manager of the warehouse, Nevida Butler, is very sociable, as is Sooze, and they immediately started schmoozing.
“Are you Jewish?” asked Nevida.
“Yes!” Sooze said
“The synagogues do SO much to help us,” and Nevida started rattling off the names of synagogues and rabbis in the area. If Sooze wasn’t already taken with Nevida and her program, now she was hooked!
“What do you need right now?” Sooze asked. “How can we help?” Nevida told Sooze and Nancy about foster children in our neighborhoods, how they are shunted from one home to the next and EHP gives them plastic garbage bags to carry their stuff. What do these children feel, holding their entire life’s belongings in a garbage bag? They feel like garbage.
Sooze and Nancy were on a mission. At home, they emailed their neighborhood lists asking for suitcases, backpacks and sleeping bags in good condition. Donations came pouring in. At CBJ, Sooze galvanized her 6th and 7th grade classes. Her students went from class to class in the religious school, talking about foster children and asking for contributions. An email went out to the entire parent body. Sooze connected the bag drive with Cantor Barbara’s Journey’s program’s lessons on gemilut chasadim, or generous acts of kindness.
Within a few weeks, our 6th and 7th graders had collected 50 bags. Nearly all were in excellent condition, many brand new — the types of bags that a child could feel pride carrying. Best of all, our CBJ kids decided on their own to collect stuffed animals, enough to put one animal surprise in every single bag.
This is Judaism at its best. Our parshah this week, kedoshim, starts out with a famous injunction:
קְדֹשִים תְהיוּ כִּי קָדוֹש אָנִי “You must be holy because I, God, am holy.”
We set our standards high. Sooze’s passion for this bag drive was ignited when Nevida, a Christian woman, reminded her of her Jewishness. In some contexts, the word “holy” implies an aloofness from the real world. Not in Judaism. We say in our daily Amidah prayer:
קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ. “Holy, Holy, Holy, all the land is filled with God’s glory.”
How are we, mere humans, to enact this God-like holiness? Our parshah tells us. Revere your parents. Leave a corner of your field for anyone in need, especially foreigners. Don’t place a stumbling block before the blind. Do not hold on to grudge, but rather figure out how to communicate about problems. Above all, love your neighbor as yourself.
Sooze and Nancy have already dropped more than 100 bags, and 50 stuffed animals, at the EHP warehouse. What does EHP need now? Shoes, for adults and kids. Look in your closet, and see what you have to donate. Sooze’s sister Nancy is organizing the collection: <email@example.com> or 650-867-1400
Parshat Achrei Mot
About a decade ago, I dropped my cell phone in a taxicab on my way to the airport. Returning it to me wasn’t easy. But eventually the driver got it back to me, along with his business card. From that time on, whenever we needed a ride to the airport we called that driver directly, rather than calling the dispatcher.
When I started commuting weekly to Los Angeles for rabbinical school, that driver offered to take me home from SJC every week for $20. He’s Israeli and, aside from the good deal on the car ride, I appreciated the opportunity to talk Hebrew with him. I soon learned that he had been a commander in the Yom Kippur war, 21 years old and responsible for a troop of boys 3 years younger than he. Their unit was hit by an explosive. He saw all of his boys die. The sole survivor, he was hospitalized for a year.
Now he was living with 6 little dogs in an illegal trailer, parked on a friend’s property in east Palo Alto. He was paying a very small amount by Silicon Valley standards, but what would be a respectable rent for a nice apartment in many parts of the country. Considering that his trailer didn’t have running water (he used a garden hose), it was hard to consider it a good deal.
One day, he called to tell me his landlady no longer wanted him on her property. He had no place to no go. The waiting lists for affordable housing are years long. And that’s without pets, but his attachment to those dogs is stronger than any I’ve seen. His situation seemed desperate, and I made a crazy offer. I spent two days clearing out our garage, and he and the dogs moved in.
I sometimes reflect on the emotional impulses that drove me and my husband to take this man in, beyond simple affection. His heroism in the Yom Kippur war was part of it: he had suffered so much for the country I love from afar, and for which I’ve done very little beyond sending an occasional check.
That feeling of debt is coupled with a different set of emotions, or perhaps a set of values that are at the heart of this week’s parshah. The parshah’s name is Achrei Mot, meaning “after they died”. It opens with a reminder that God killed Aaron’s sons. It closes with a warning that if the people misbehave, the land will “vomit them out”, as it did the residents before them. The Torah suggests that the things we feel most deeply to be ours – our bodies, our land, our homes – are all on loan from God. Though I don’t believe in the simple reward-and-punishment theology of the Bible, years of studying Torah have shaped my sense of possession.
I have an office at CBJ. No one else can walk-into my office, sit at my desk and type on my computer without my permission. But I understand that my office belongs to me only at the grace of the CBJ community, and only because you trust me to use it for the good of the community.
The homes we live in, the bodies we inhabit, belong to us in much the same way. No one is allowed to enter our homes or touch our bodies without our permission. But they are ours only at the grace of God, and with the trust that we will use them to do good. When we give of ourselves generously and openly, welcoming outsiders into our homes, sharing our resources with those in need, we are simply using God’s loans as we should.