Korach: This year I’m on your side

truth to powerI really don’t know what to do with this parasha this week. It’s Korach. Every year, I admit I struggle with this text; what is it that Korach did so wrong?  Korach (who was from the tribe of Levi, like Moses and Aaron), along with 250 followers from among the elite of the community, gathered against Moses and Aaron and said, “You are too much! (you have gone too far) All the community is holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?” (Num 16:1-3)

I usually see this as a “speaking truth to power” moment, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Many commentators say that Korach’s problem was that he did it publically, that he was after personal gain, not for the benefit of the community, that he was challenging authority that God had chosen – Moses was the leader. Some say that this was a succession issue; Korach could foresee a time when Moses wouldn’t be around, and who would be the leader then?

These are ringing false with me right now. I don’t care that Korach made his demands in public; public airing of protest is exactly what is needed now. I don’t care that Korach was in it for himself; someone has to step forward and call “Foul!”, and if it puts that brave person in a better, more beneficial position to do good in the community, all the more reason for support. I don’t care that Korach was trying to get himself in line for leadership; maybe the people needed to know that there were options.

Obviously, I’m taking the text and overlaying it to the world I live in right now, and that’s exactly what keeps the Torah relevant. This year, however, it’s harder to come out and trash Korach. I know what happens in the story: Moses challenges Korach and his followers to a fire-pan duel, to see whose fire pans God will choose. Of course, God chose Moses’ and Aaron’s firepans, and ultimately, Korach and his followers are swallowed up as the earth splits in two.

Maybe the real message right now is that civil disobedience is crucial to a healthy community, and if one chooses to go that route, one must be ready to pay the consequences. Earthquakes may seem a bit over-the-top (so to speak), but everyone who marches, protests, calls out officials is at risk for arrest, jail, fines, etc. That’s the price to be paid, and this year, I’m honoring the Korach-like rabble-rousers who pay it.

I hope next year, when Korach rolls around again, I’ll be able to get back to a more traditional take on the parasha. I sure hope so.

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B’ha’alotcha: Meltdown in the Wilderness

meltdownWe’ve all seen the meltdowns. The child in the grocery store, that moment when you realize you’ve gone on  One. Errand. Too. Many.  We know how hard it is for the adult in charge, and we resolve to be empathetic, understand, and non-judgmental.

But when about when it’s an adult that has the meltdown? Are we just as empathetic? Do we judge when grown ups flip out?

Exhibit one: Moses’ meltdown. I mean, he really melts down.  There was One. Complaint. Too. Many. from the people. Moses heard the people crying, each in their own clans, wanting more meat, more meat. “We really had the good stuff back in Egypt”, they said, “the cucumbers and leeks and onions. Now there’s only this manna stuff, and we’re sick and tired of it!”  (paraphrase)

Moses was distressed. He said, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,’ …Where am I to get meat for them?” (Num 11:11-13) Moses says, Hey God – you promised the Land to their fathers, and I’m stuck with carrying it out? And finally, at the end of his meltdown, he says, “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me.” (Num 11:14)

We’ve all been there. Freaking out, panicking, I can’t take this any more. I’m falling and I’m failing.

There are a couple of different ideas in Moses’ rant. First, it’s “why are You so mean to me? What did I ever do?”  Then he moves to, “Is all this my fault, huh?” And then it’s, “How am I going to do this – I can’t give these people what they need. I’m not good enough. I can’t do this.”

We’ve all been there. Those stages of anger and fear and giving up and turning the chess board upside down, stomping out of the room.

Moses needs help, and God tells him how to get it: look around you. There are 70 elders who have leadership experience.  Use them. Ask them. Bring them into the holy space with you, and they will share the burden with you.

So many of us feel it’s an admission of failure or weakness to reach out and say, “Help me”, and I think it goes for both men and women. We tell our kids to ask for help, that it’s a sign of maturity to do that, but somehow growing up means growing out of that approach to getting through life.

Torah teaches us to need each other, because we’re not in it alone, and we’re not supposed to be able to go it alone.

By the way, my favorite part of this parasha is what happens next. God acts like a typical parent who has had it with the whining. “You want meat?”, God says, “Fine, I’ll give you so much meat you’ll hate it, it will come out of your nostrils. See how you like THAT!” (paraphrasing Num 11:19-20, but not by much!)

Back to the teaching – need each other. We empathize, and don’t judge. Just be there. Rely on each other. It’s what gets us through the wilderness.




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Bamidbar/Shavuot: ultimate folk festival

mainstageI love going to folk festivals. I used to go all the time. There’s something about a huge group of people, all facing the main stage, waiting expectantly for the groups to perform, gathering the entire crowd into a remarkably intimate moment, focusing our attention and quite literally tuning our ears and voices to one frequency. The harmony emerges from the crowd. The performers welcome the interchange, and when the last notes hang in the air, in full-throated chords, there is magic. No lie…the only time I’ve ever seen a triple rainbow was sitting on a hillside, facing a main stage, waiting for the music to start.

That’s what Sinai was like, I’m guessing.

This weekend we begin celebrating Shavuot, the festival of receiving the Torah. It comes exactly 49 days after Passover, and through the counting of the Omer, we have been journeying to this point, at this time, from slavery to becoming our own nation. I say that instead of “freedom”, because we don’t suddenly get to do whatever we want; to the contrary, we receive Torah, a blueprint for society that lays out our behavior toward God, but more importantly, our behavior toward each other. God’s Torah is the foundation on which we can build a just and righteous society, in which God’s presence is felt and recognized.

Over and over again, we are told to consider the needs of the vulnerable in our midst. Over and over, Torah tells us how to conduct business, how to treat the earth, how to treat each other, how to stay in covenant with God, how to keep that relationship going, and how to sustain our human community. There is always a balance to keep; when our relationship with God is on course, our society is reflected in that. By the same token, when we keep justice and compassion at the center of our community, our relationship with God is sustained.

This week, we also begin the book of Bamidbar, Numbers, though that’s a name that only comes from the fact that a census is taken right at the beginning. Better translation is “in the wilderness”, for that is what we are doing now. We’ve been at the base of the mountain for a long time, and it’s time to get moving.

Head ‘em up, move ‘em out.

There’s a lot written in this parasha about who stands where, who does what, whose job is what, etc. But at the center of it all, literally, is the Tabernacle, the Mishkan. It’s the center of the community, physically and spiritually. It’s where it all happens. It’s the main stage.

Celebrating the Torah is the festival I love to attend over and over. See you at Sinai. I’ll be the one singing next to you.

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Behar: Holy Land

land for saleWe are still at the Mountain, and we’ve been here for a long time.

In this week’s parasha Behar, we are still at the base of Mt Sinai, hearing more about what life is going to be like once the Israelites get to the Land. And it’s the Land that Moses begins to direct his instructions. First, there will be a “Sabbath” for the land every seven years (Shmita), when the crops lie fallow. Then, every seven-times-seven years, it is the Jubilee Year, when not only the land lies fallow, but land and property revert to original owners. Like Shabbat is a re-set for the person, Shmita and Jubilee are re-sets for the society. It’s not just about the Land in an agricultural sense, it’s the Land in terms of the entire society. Rules are set out for returning property to owners, regardless of whether it’s land or houses. Follow the rules, and society will function not just smoothly, but with justice.

Who knows if the Jubilee year ever actually played as described in this parasha. But to me, the important part of the parasha is what comes after the description of the Jubilee year. The text tells of redeeming the land, or the house; what to do if someone is in bad straits and needs help redeeming his land or house. The community comes to his aid. And the text continues: “If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority [as in becoming an indentured servant], and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side; do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman.” (Lev 25:35-36)

If your kinsman is in straits. If your neighbor is in need. The holiness of the Land is intact only so far as the holiness in your relationships with your neighbors. You don’t treat someone who is in need any differently than anyone else. You don’t ship them off to a poorhouse, but you let them live among you. You don’t take advantage of someone in need through extortion. Why? “Because I am Adonai who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Lev 25:38)

This way of living is the antithesis of what happened in Egypt. People aren’t property, people have dignity, people have honor, people have value.

That’s what makes the Land holy. Holiness comes from how we treat each other. Holiness is what we do, and how we do it.


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Emor: Choose to participate

Calendar_BlueWhen is Rosh Hashanah this year? How many times have you asked that question? You know the answer is always the same, right? Rosh Hashanah is pretty much always the first of Tishrei.  Passover? Yep, always the 15th of Nisan? My dad died on 27 Tammuz, and  my anniversary this year is always Lag B’Omer, 33rd day between 2nd night of Passover and the first day of Shavuot.

Are you following me, or does it sound like an alternate reality? It is, in a way. It’s Jewish calendar life.

This week’s parasha is Emor, in which we read, “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of Adonai which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.” (Lev 23:2)  The text takes us through Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “Those are the set times of Adonai that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions..” (Lev 23:37)

If you want to keep a people together, there are a couple of things you can do: have them eat the same way (rules of kosher food), and tell time differently. Jewish time goes evening to evening; “secular” time goes sunrise to sunrise. We have a whole separate calendar, and our holidays are based on it. It’s a lunar calendar, which moves the holidays around on the “regular” calendar. Except for Shabbat, our holidays are always either early or late… Somehow they’re never on time!

Except for Shabbat, almost all of our holidays are based around agricultural timing, too. They’re tied to the harvests, the seasons, the natural world. These things are going to happen on their own. The flow of the seasons is beyond us, but it’s our choice to plug into it, and plant/reap/sow/connect with that rhythm.

It’s the same with Shabbat and the holidays themselves. They will come and go, whether  we celebrate them or not. We have the choice to be a part of them. They are opportunities to connect with what’s happening naturally in a specifically Jewish way. There’s going to be another Friday every week.  We can mark that time Jewishly. Harvest seasons roll around every year; we can mark those times Jewishly.

Maybe you “do” Shabbat differently than I do, but whatever you do, you can do it on Friday night, not Thursday. However you “do” Yom Kippur, you can do it on the 10th day of Tishrei, not just any fall afternoon.

I was going to talk about how, when I got a new calendar, the fisrt thing I did was write in when the holidays were. Most of us don’t work off paper anymore, but our electronic calendars usually don’t mark when Shavuot or Sukkot are, but Chanukah and High Holidays may be. Take the next step – choose to participate in the rhythm that is uniquely Jewish.  Log on to a Hebrew calendar site, and plug in those holidays. Choose to know when the set times are, and celebrate!


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Kedoshim: The real giving tree

hand-treeI have never been a fan of banning books. I love books, and I’m even glad for the opportunity to read a book that ultimately, I don’t even like. It hones my analysis, sharpens my knowledge of what I like and what I don’t like.

But, I never read “The  Giving Tree” to my kids. Ever. Never gave it as a gift, and gave away copies we got as gifts. Basically banned it from the house.  If one can be said to “hate” a book, that’s one of them. Now, I like a lot of Shel Silverstein, so it’s not him. It’s just this book.

The tree gives and gives and gives. And make no mistake, the tree is female and the recipient is clearly male; the female exhausts herself giving of herself until there’s nothing left but a stump, and she gets nothing in return. It’s about the worst model I could imagine for my daughters and son.

This week’s parasha, Kedoshim, is pretty much the opposite of “The Giving Tree.” In Kedoshim, we read, “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit shall be set aside for as holy before Adonai, and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit, that its yield to you may be increased: I am Adonai your God “ (Lev 19:23-25)

The Hebrew actually says, “you shall leave the foreskin of that fruit uncircumcised”, i.e. blocked from use. We see that phrase in other places – we are told that Moses had “uncircumcised lips”, he couldn’t speak freely. We read about those with “uncircumcised hearts” as unfeeling.  Ramban (13th c Spain) brings in other examples: someone who is circumcised of spirit is close-minded (Ezekiel), and one whose ears are circumcised can’t hear (Jeremiah) . Uncircumcised is potential unfulfilled, fruitfulness closed off, fertility blocked, progress clogged, humanity thwarted.

The tree needs to grow strong and sustainable before we can begin deriving benefit from it. We just can’t take and take and take  from the tree. It’s not good for the land, for the tree, and not good for us, “that its yield to you may be increased.” Rashi (11th c France) says the effect of observing this commandment is that the tree’s yield will be increased,it’s in our best interest to keep the tree giving forth fruit. Rashi also says this practice keeps us  from being bitter about caring for something without getting anything in return.

This text teaches us sustainability. The “Giving Tree” tree ends up a stump. The Leviticus tree ends up fruitful and alive, giving and receiving nourishment for generations to come. Sorry, Shel, but that’s a better model.a


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Tazria-Metzora: The cost of being Jewish

can you afford itTazria-Metzora – one of those parshiot (weekly Torah portions) that we either skip over or read with some sort of “yuk” factor interest. It’s all about skin diseases, impurities of the body and building (read the part about a home getting diseased), and isn’t very pleasing to read.

But something did catch my eye this time.

“If however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering.” (Lev 13:8) and later on we read, ”If however he is poor, and his means are insufficient…” (Lev 14:21), and then again,  “He shall then offer one of the turtledoves or pigeons, depending on his means, whichever he can afford, …” (Lev 14:31)

The instances for which these particular offerings are quite different – the first is for a woman who has just given birth, and the second and third for a skin condition, needing to be deemed “cleansed” by the priest. But both have a caveat of affordability. A lamb was more expensive to the individual than a pigeon, and in other cases we read that if even the pigeon is beyond one’s means, a simple flour/meal offering will suffice.

It’s expensive to be Jewish.

Well, that is, if you choose to “do” Jewish in a traditional way – separate dishes, bigger kitchens for storage of those dishes, buying only kosher products,  kosher meat, restricting errands to certain days (“but the sale ends on Saturday!”), membership, donations, and more and more.  Don’t get me started about day school. It shouldn’t be like this. Living an actively identified Jewish life shouldn’t make you feel like bankruptcy is around the corner, or that this is a club that’s only for the wealthy.

The Torah is telling us it shouldn’t be like this, either. The text is quite aware of taking one’s means into consideration when fulfilling a mitzvah, that it shouldn’t break the bank to be deemed “holy” or “acceptable” or even just part of the community.

Last month, as I stood in line at the kosher butcher to buy some food for Passover, the woman in front of me rang up a $1,000 bill for kosher meat. A thousand dollars. For a week’s worth of meat. I’ve heard this before from others, and it leaves me speechless. Far from judging what she serves her family, I’m more astounded at the expectations the community seems to have developed for what constitutes a proper observance of the holiday. I hope she’s got the money to spare; if so, good for her, but if not, I’m more concerned that she feels she has to over-extend to celebrate “the right way.”

I can’t control day school tuition, but I do know people are responding to the cost with their feet – lower enrollment. Our community, on a macro and micro level, needs to take long hard looks at the “cost” of being Jewish, and find the awareness that the Torah already has found. Inclusion in our community can’t be based on what you can afford.


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