Mase’i: No more

sadnessI’m tired.  And I can’t stop looking at the news and Facebook.  As I write this, I have no idea how these words will read tomorrow or the day after or next week, whenever you might get around to reading them.

“… you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places.  And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.  ….

“… you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places.  And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.  ….

This isn’t from Hamas. This is from this week’s Torah portion, Masei. (Num 33:51-53)  God says this to Moses, and Moses is to tell the people.

I dismiss it.  I reject it.  I cringe when I read it.  Is there any more painful proof than this, that there were PEOPLE who were living there when we came into the land?  Maybe this was the way we began in the land, but no more.  We can’t. I can’t. I won’t.  It’s hard for me even to try to figure out why God would say this, that this sort of scorched-earth destruction was not only ok, but commanded.  This is the God to follow?  Someone tell me how this is ok.

I have a friend and teacher, a Modern Orthodox rabbi  who has said, referencing some of the more obscure commandments in the Torah,  “We don’t live by this book.  We live by the commentary to this book.”  Meaning, we post-Modern Jews don’t live by the literal text of the Torah, although some do, I suppose.   If we didn’t live by the commentary, we’d still be offering up animal sacrifice and stoning sinners.  Yet, we are guided by the Torah itself, the lessons hidden, to be found by turning it and turning it again.  The Torah is valuable only in how we make it relevant to our lives today, adding commentary every single day we struggle with it.  Elsewhere in this parasha, we read of Zelophechad’s daughters, who challenge the status quo by asking for land inheritance rights even though they’re women.  It would have been easier to write about those verses, not these. Anyway, the daughters get their rights.  Change can be found in the Torah, when some things just don’t reflect reality or no longer hold the values we’ve come to, well, value.

I try to turn off Facebook , yet I still read and read and read more.  I click, and click and post and click and then weep and sigh and click some more.  All because we’re engaged in a real fight with real people on both sides, dying and crying. How we got here is less important than the sickening knowledge I’ve come to understand (and not so recently, but I struggle, oh I how I struggle with it) that Israel has to do what it’s doing, it has to.  Those tunnels have to be destroyed.  Those people who want to kill my family have to be stopped.  Those rockets have to stop, from both sides, and frankly, from my weary and despairing state of mind right now, I can’t want one side to stop more than the other.  People are mourning on both sides; after all, it is war and that’s what happens in war.

So, what to do with this text?  Is this a lesson in the breach, telling us how not to behave?  Because, really, I can’t read that and not think that it’s just wrong, wiping out an entire people and their holy places is just wrong.  I won’t blame the kind of people who take these words literally, saying it’s all their fault we are where we are, there is a straight line between what they’ve done and said, and what’s happening now.  I do see the harm done by extremists in our own community.  I will keep speaking out against what I think is so very wrong in their beliefs and actions.  But now?   Where is the line being drawn now, from here on?  I can only stand up against the kind of intolerance in this text.  And wait for next week’s parasha, when I can pick up the book, look inside, and hope that by then, we’ve moved beyond this text in more ways than one.

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Matot: No thanks, Moses, you go on ahead, I’ll stay here.

bordersSo it turns out that Moses may have failed at bringing the entire Israelite nation into the Land.  And so began the Diaspora.

In this week’s parasha, Matot, God describes and proscribes what a holy war should look like.  The enemy is the Midianite tribe (yes, it’s interesting that Moses’ wife is a Midianite and he took lots of advice from his Midianite Priest father-in-law, but that piece of marriage counseling will have to wait) and God gets pretty specific in the instructions.  Gather people.  Arm them, including the “sacred utensils and trumpets for sounding the blast.”  Kill all, except for virgins, level the towns, take the booty, purify whatever you think has been contaminated, divide the booty, bring the gold and other good stuff to the Priests.  That’s uncomfortable to read, indeed.  But moving on….

Next, we read that the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who were big cattle breeders, noted that some of the best cattle country was in land east of the Jordan.  So they asked Moses if it would be ok if they stayed there, “It would be a favor to us”, they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (Num 32:5)

Moses was not pleased.  His first response was that these two tribes were wimping out just as they were needed, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Num 32:6)  So they worked out a deal.  The Gadites and Reubenites would settle and build east of the Jordan, but they would leave their wives and families behind and go fight with the rest of the people to conquer the Land.  If they did that, and didn’t just slink off away from the battle, they could have their chosen land instead of the Chosen Land.   However, if they did not “cross over as shock-troops, [they] shall receive holdings among [them]  in the land of Canaan.” (Num 32:30)  Interesting.  Required to have land in Canaan as a punishment?   For another conversation.

Several questions arise here, one of which is, “Did Moses fail in his mission because some people decided they didn’t want to come into the Land?  Is this the first model for Diaspora Jews, those of us who choose to live outside Israel?  We, who have chosen to build “sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” in other parts of the world, what are our responsibilities to those decided to head on in to where Moses showed them?

According to this part of the text, it is military support.  We get to live where we want, but we have to show up to when we’re needed.  I think this has largely been the relationship between Jews living inside Israel and those living outside Israel.   We give money, we hold rallies, we visit, we state our heart-felt support and love, and continue to live where we feel it’s best for our families and livelihood.  It must have hurt Moses terribly to think that, after all this time, there were people who just didn’t want to follow into the Land where he, himself, wasn’t able to go.  But that’s what happens when you free a people from slavery, give them a set of guidelines and rules with which to build a functioning society, and bring them to the edge of their new lives.  Some choose to take those guidelines to heart, but just in a different place.  We’ll stay here, thank you, you guys go on ahead, we’ll visit you for the holidays.

It is a complicated relationship, to be sure. I will not be moving to Israel; I never wanted to.  From the time I was in high school, and in a Zionist youth group that laid a lot of weight (and guilt!) about making Aliyah (emigrating to Israel), I realized that there was a community to educate in this country, people for whom moving to Israel wasn’t going to be their choice, but for whom developing a meaningful Jewish identity was crucial.  Right now, in fact, my relationship with Israel, the State, is more complicated than usual.  It’s breaking my heart.  The Gadites and Reubenites supported their people in war.    I must support them in searching for peace.

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Pinchas: Needing new leaders

passing the batonSuccession.  New leadership.  A challenge for every leader, but a necessity if the community is to move forward.   Like where we are now.  Here’s where we were then.

Moses is getting old.  He knows he’s not heading into the Promised Land with the people he had led for all those decades. He’s lost his sister and his brother, and by now, anyone else who was there at Sinai has long since perished.  That was how God wanted it – a brand new generation was to go into the new Land, one that hadn’t directly experienced the miracles of Egypt, the wandering or Sinai itself.

So.  Time to pick a new leader, and Moses knew it.  So, he did what he usually did when he saw a problem:  he took it to God.  “Let Adonai, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community, who shall go out before them and come in before them and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that Adonai’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”  (Num 27:15-17)

What does it mean to “go out before them and come in before them….”?  The commentators say it means a military leader, and know enough to bring them (not send them) into battle, and lead them back home safely again.

The text continues.  God chose Joshua, son of Nun, teling Moses to “lay your hand upon him.  Have him stand before Eleazar the priest, before the whole community, and commission him in their sight.  Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey.”  (Num 26: 18-20)

Joshua may have been chosen by God, but he still had to come before the entire community.  He had to get “cleared” by the Priest Eleazar, too.  It was no longer enough for God to say so.  That’s how Moses became the leader, but that wasn’t going to work from then on.  Joshua was no Moses, and he knew it.  So did the people.  They needed a different kind of leadership from then on.

Still, he had to have a very public vetting, and he was now going to be working in conjunction with the Priest, unlike Moses, who pretty much worked alone.  He had to have the public support, or the transition would never work.

Our Jewish community in Israel is in desperate need of new leadership.  I know we’re still reeling from the horrific murders of Jewish and Arab teens over the last few weeks.  I know we’re still getting news reports that turn out to be rumors, and it’s hard to separate out the truth.  And yes, I know I’m not living where every day, rockets are pummeling where I live.  My children are not in the army, but my nephews were. Still, for too long, one narrative, one drumbeat has been playing.   Those claiming to have God’s ear, those holding up our painful past, those who need to hold on to their own real fears, and those leading from a place of fear of offending those telling the same past-stories, they’ve all been a part of how we got to where we are, murdering and burning children.  But no more, not in my name.

Earlier in this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we read of the High Priest Pinchas who rushes out to where no one else will go, to avert a disaster.  That’s what Priests do.  They protect the people.  What we need now are leaders, both religious and governmental, who are willing to go where no one else is going now, to avert a disaster.  It’s time to hear the voices of other people, not just the voices in the echo chamber.  The world-wide Jewish community has to be brave enough to ask for it, and support the Israeli voices that are trying to break through.  Today’s leaders seem willing to send young people into battle, but it’s unclear to me that they’re wise enough to bring them home safely again, not for lack of desire, but lack of vision.

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Balak: Tents neither lovely nor fair

4 teens killedThe deadline approaches and I must turn to the keyboard to write.  I must write even though my heart is so heavy, so burdened with sadness and confusion, pain and frustration.  And I’m supposed to find something in the thousands of words in this week’s Parasha, Balak, that is relevant and meaningful.

But I can’t find meaning in this last week’s events.  Three teenage boys, Eyal Yifrach, 19; Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaer, both 16, were put in their graves, while their parents had to watch and weep. ( To read Alden Solovy’s beautiful prayer of healing and mourning

There is no sorrow deeper than that of a parent burying a child, especially (can one use that word?) one that has been murdered.   Immediately, there were calls on my Facebook page and in my inbox for revenge, words to the effect “we’ll pay them back, and make them think twice about ever attacking us again”, and even the Head of State was quoted as saying, “Hamas will pay dearly for this”, regardless of the fact that no proof had been established that Hamas was responsible.  There still is no proof.

And now, another teenage boy is dead, this time a 16 year old Palestinian boy named Mohammed Abu Khudair.  It is still being investigated as to the circumstances of his death, but at first glance, it seems to be a revenge killing.  He was dragged into a car and taken away.  Ultra-right Jewish nationalists went on a rampage Tuesday night, coinciding with the funerals, even though the boys’ parents themselves were pleading for restraint.  The situation is still volatile, with news reports coming throughout each day.

And more are dead, and more will die, and more mothers will bury their sons.

And Balak?  What could Balak possibly have to teach us this week?  Some background to the story:  this is an instance of God talking to a non-Israelite prophet.  King Balaam of Moab is concerned that the Israelites are growing too numerous, and hires well-known prophet Balak to curse the people, because he (the King) had heard that the people are remarkably blessed by God.  After some goings-on, including a talking donkey, Balak ends up blessing the people, admittedly saying only the words God puts in his mouth.  “How fair are your tens, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Num 24:5), among other nice things said.

The tents looked lovely from a distance.  From the mountains surrounding the Israelites, the community looked peaceful and united , unaware that the blessings and curses, offerings and machinations are going on around them.  If a contemporary Balak were to be tasked with the same job, the tents of Jacob would be portrayed as anything but fair or united.  Parts of the community are advocating revenge and hate and violence.  Certainly, this is not the way a blessed community acts.  Would Balak have had the courage to speak words that came from God – to call out the community for following such a destructive path?  What about the courage from within?

Thankfully, to my mind, there are those from within who are advocating restraints.  They know  that decisions made from grief, anger and pain are never good ones.  But how much is the rest of the community listening?  Israel may have been unaware that Balak was offering blessings from far away, but we need to be fully aware that curses are imminent if we’re not brave enough to turn away from more killing.

One of the important aspects of the Balak story is that , at this point in Numbers, the Torah is beginning to talk about how the Israelites engage in, and get along with (or don’t) with other nations.  The “Other” is taking its place in our story.

Balak teaches us that wisdom can come from the “other”, that wisdom doesn’t only have to come from within our own community, especially when the community is acting in a way that does not bring blessings, but only more curses.  We won’t need the “Other” to curse us; we’ll be doing it to ourselves

The memories of the four teenage boys killed should be for blessings, not curses.  Otherwise, there is only more killing ahead, more mothers saying mourners’ prayers over their dead sons, and the dwelling places of Israel will be drowning in tears.

Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Mohammed Abu Khudair. Remember them.  May these be the last whose lives were ended by intolerance and hate.


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Chukat: Underplaying the scene


water from the rockChukkat is one jam-packed parasha.


One of the most powerful moments, however, is when Moses strikes the rock and water comes out.  A little background, first.


There is some disagreement as to whether we’re in year 2 or year 38 of the wandering.  Rashi (11th c France), Rambam  and Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain)all think it’s the latter, so I’ll go with that for now.  All who were at Sinai are gone, except for Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, the leadership siblings, and Joshua and Caleb, the future leaders.


But here we are.  The people arrive as a unified body (kol ha’edah) at the wilderness of Zin, and Miriam dies.  Immediately, we read that the people start complaining again about the lack of water, “joining against” Moses and Aaron, saying, “Why did you bring Adonai’s community into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?  Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates?  There is not even water to drink!”  (Num 20:4-5)


Apparently, they’ve forgotten a few things.  First, they were slaves in Egypt, not an ideal existence.  Second, the promise of all the good things to eat was in the Land they were going to enter, not in the wilderness.


Nevertheless, God tells Moses to solve the water problem by taking a rod in his hand, assemble the community, and tell the rock to produce water.  He and Aaron did this, but when it came time for speaking to the rock, Moses struck the rock twice and the water poured forth.   The result was thirst-quenching for the people and their beasts, but it was a short-lived victory.


This was Moses’ biggest sin, the one that keeps him out of the Promised Land.  Because he struck the rock instead of speaking to it, he find out that he will die in the wilderness, in sight of the Land he devoted his entire life to reaching.


None of these people were in Egypt to see the miracles of the plagues, or at Sinai to see and hear the Torah given.  Perhaps they question more. Perhaps they’re more wary of promises of food and water in the wilderness.  Perhaps it’s harder for them to experience the faith their elders did, based as it was in first-hand experienced wonders.  So, perhaps Moses had to convince them that his leadership wasn’t passé, that he wasn’t irrelevant, and neither was faith in God.


How we keep these ancient stories relevant is a challenge as difficult today as getting water out of a stone.  Not everyone experiences Divine moments, and even if one does, that doesn’t preclude the rest of us from finding meaning and power in the tales.  Do we require from our leaders that they have experienced those Divine Moments, so we trust their decisions and actions?  Do prophets make the best leaders?  I think not.  They may be the voice and insight we need to hear, but good leadership requires eyes on the dream, and feet on the ground, where we live and work and function.  We should be wary of those who say they’ve received a telegram (text?)  from beyond that the rest of us have to just trust came through clearly.


Moses’ mistake, as far as the people were concerned, was that he resorted to the magic tricks, thinking that’s what impressed the generation before.  Moses didn’t trust the people’s faith in the more ordinary.  Miracles don’t have to be sound and light shows.  Sometimes, they’re found in the quiet, urgent whisper.


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Korach: Plan B

earth opening up KorachTemper, temper, God.  You always go right that place, don’t You?  “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!!” (Num. 16:21)  In Korach, this week’s parasha, there is rebellion afoot.  Korach, a Levite like Moses and Aaron, took a stand, along with 250 followers, and said to the brothers, “You’ve gone too far.” (Num 16:3)  The next thing you know, Moses and Aaron had a major crisis in front of them.  God immediately threatened to annihilate the people, and almost does so.  The earth opened up, and Korach and his followers are swallowed up.  Then there was plague.  Thousands and thousands of people died after the rebellion. Confrontation over.

This isn’t the first or last time God has threatened a do-over like this.  It happened in Genesis during the stories of the Flood and Sodom and Gemorrah, and again in Exodus in the story of the Golden Calf.  Here in Korach, and once more again when the people continued to complain incessantly.  Why, just last week, in Shelach L’cha, the people freaked out at the report back from the scouts Moses sent into the Land.  They said it was filled with giants, and they were all going to die if they tried to enter the Land.  God offered to get rid of this faithless people and start all over with another group, led by Moses.

What is it about these scenarios that get’s God’s goat, so to speak?  In Genesis, there were serious breaches of morality.  The Golden Calf was a significant break in the people’s faith in God.  That one act of defiance threatened the very new, very fragile community that was just born out of slavery. Only three months out of Egypt, and stunned after a huge mountaintop sound and light show, they were easily swayed into rebellion because this idea of one God, one promise hadn’t taken root in the people’s minds and hearts.

With Korach, we were still at the base of the mountain, but into the second year away from Egypt.   The community had begun to settle a bit, as the institutional structure was laid out and started to take hold.  But this new threat was about authority – not Divine authority, but very human, very mortal authority. Perhaps a far greater test to any new society is how it handles challenges to its own leadership.  The leadership was threatened by the continual griping. The people kept saying that Moses brought them out for naught, they were doomed, and why didn’t Moses just leave them back in Egypt, where life was better. That kind of demoralizing whining can eat away at foundations as surely as the immorality of earlier times did.  Both got God’s attention and tempted God to clear the page and start all over.

Maybe Korach had a valid point, maybe he didn’t; what was important, however, to the future of the people, was how this challenge was resolved.  How we handle those who continually criticize without suggestions of how to make things better says a lot about our political structure. We have people like that around us now, actually bringing the governing function to a halt, with nothing to offer except the ability to bring things to a dead stop. This isn’t good for the community, regardless of what the complaints are about.  A functioning, sustainable society needs a way to handle both valid challenges to leadership, and the false buzzing of those that seek to simply tear down.   For Moses, the day was saved by Divine disasters.  For us, we need to find a better Plan B.   You can’t always depend on a well-timed earthquake.




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Shelach L’cha: The silver thread that binds

Prayers for new Hebrew month in JerusalemThere is a silver string on the front of my tallit (prayer shawl), tied onto the tzitzit, the fringes.    I can’t remember how long it’s been there, but it started with a campaign from the Women of the Wall,.  It’s meant to remind me and all else who see it of how other women are prohibited from wearing a tallit in prayer at the Kotel, Wall, in Israel.    I think of those other women every Shabbat morning, when I gather together the four corners of the tallit, during the prayers just before the Shma.  The text says the fringes are to remind me of the commandments:  “make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments,,..look at it and recall all the Commandments of Adonai…”(Num: 15:38-38) , which we read in this week’s parasha, Shelach L’cha.

I’ve written before about what it means to me to wear a tallit.  It’s been almost 20 years, and it just feels odd not to wear it if I’m in a prayerful setting.  It’s not always easy; those summer outdoor services at camp were pretty hot, and putting on another layer of wool wasn’t my first choice. But I committed to wearing talit, so I wear tallit.

There’s a tangible weight that comes off my shoulders when I take my tallit off, and it’s more than the weight of the fabric. My behavior, my thoughts, my outlook change when I have my tallit on, and when I take it off, I re-enter the secular setting of life.  The tallit is a distinguishing line, between the prayerful and secular worlds.

When I see that silver thread, I am now reminded of the new President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin.  He would do well to wear the silver thread, if he is to be a true president of all the people of Israel, which he claims to be.  Is he President of the women who are barred from reading Torah and wearing tallit in public, or will he continue to refer to Reform Judaism as “This is idol worship and not Judaism. Until now I thought Reform was a stream of Judaism, but after visiting two of their synagogues I am convinced that this is a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”  Recent polls find that over 400,000 Israeli Jews define themselves as Reform or Conservative.  Is President Rivlin their President, too?

I don’t have to prove anything to President Rivlin.  I don’t have to prove to him that my weekly Shabbat presence at synagogue, or my delight in reading and studying Torah comes from a deep and abiding passion for Jewish life.  I don’t need him to validate my Jewish identity when I walk into a sanctuary and actually, literally count as a Jewish adult.  I live in America, where the State can’t tell me how (or if) to practice a religion…so far.  But the silver thread reminds me that the Torah says we were all at Sinai, male and female, so God spoke and revealed Torah to me, too. The silver thread reminds me that those 400,000 Jews, and more, actually, literally count, too.  And the women who show up at the Wall to thank and praise God for the new moon, the passage of time, say the prayers for good health and parnassa (sustenance) count, too.  They’re saying Jewish words, in a Jewish setting, with Jewish “accessories”, and they count.  No State has the right to tell them otherwise.

So I’ll continue to wear the silver thread.  I’ll continue to support those organizations like IRAC and Women of the Wall and the Reform and Masorti movements in Israel.  The silver thread ties me to the Wall more than anything else, and I will wear it as long as it takes until it’s not needed any more.  May that day come, soon.

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