Matot Masei:That’s Ok, I’ll just stay here

(Apologies to how this is formatted. This is the best I could do with the tech environment I’m in)

Standing at the edge of the Land, amassing at the border, and preparing to go in, Moses heard something he never expected to hear, “Do not move us across the Jordan” . The tribal heads of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Menassah stated that they wanted to remain on the east side of the Jordan River, and didn’t want to cross over into the Land.


Moses’ whole purpose on this journey was to move the entire Israelite community into the Land God had promised them. And now, so close, these Israelites didn’t want to go? Moses told them they were repeating the sins of the Spies, when heads of all the tribes went in to do a reconnaissance of the Land. Eight of the ten scouts came back and said the people would never survive; only Caleb and Joshua reassured the people they would be successful. As a reward, out of that original Exodus generation, only Caleb and Joshua survived long enough to see the Land.

But here were people who didn’t want to go in. They said the land on the east side of the river was better for them and their herds. They wanted to build shelters for their animals, build cities for their families. Moses said, “Are your brothers to go to war” (Num 32:6), meaning, are they going to fight for the land, and you’re going to sit out the struggle? The tribes agreed to send in “shock troops” to help fight the battle for the Land, but afterward, they wanted to go back to their families on the east riverbank.
Today, we are on the cusp of another battle, between Jews in Israel and those outside the Land. Recently, non-Orthodox Jews have been attacked again by the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, questioning their actual identity as Jews and restricting access to places like the Kotel, to live their authentic Jewish lives as they see fit. The rift between the ruling ultra-Orthodox rabbis and Jews around the world is getting wider, deeper and far more hurtful. I don’t consider myself in the Diaspora – as the tribal heads of Reuben, Gad and Menasseh said, they liked the land where they were, as do I. But they were asked to fight for those who would go in, and for generations, Jews around the world have done the same. But the East-Side Israelites’ identity wasn’t questioned; in fact, God approved of their actions, blessing them.

Few in the Israeli government are blessing me and my fellow non-Orthodox Jews now. What then, is my real responsibility to Israel? Am I expected to keep supporting, both literally, figuratively, financially and emotionally, a country which questions my own Jewish identity, and works to keep me away from my own Holy Places in a way I see fit? It has become quite a strain, one that pulls on my heart daily.

The East-Side Israelites were blessed for recognizing that, though they weren’t going into the Land, their identity and authenticity as members of the community and their connection to those that were going to live on the west side of the Jordan was just as strong and just as valid. Today, we deserve no less. Or they risk even moreso the deterioration of community ties, and the alienation that will follow. It’s already started.

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Pinchas: Passing the Torch

passing the torchSuccession planning. It’s the mark of a real leader, and Moses is nothing if not a real leader. As Dr. Hal Lewis, President and CEO of Spertus Institute wrote, “Moses sets the standard for all those involved in Jewish communal life. Disappointed and scared as he surely must have been, Moses remained focused on the ultimate objective, getting the Israelites safely to the land of Israel.”

In this week’s parasha, Pinchas, Moses comes face to face with the fact that his leadership role is about to come to an end. “Moses spoke to Adonai, saying, ‘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 communitymay not be like sheep that have no shepherd.’” (Num 27:15-17)

God identifies Joshua as the next leader, telling Moses to have him “stand before the priest and before the whole community….invest him with your authority ….” (Num 27:19-20) The people had to know that Joshua wasn’t just appearing in the corner office, but that there was a reason Joshua was the next leader. In fact, just to be sure, Moses made sure Joshua presented himself to the priest who consulted with the Urim and Thumim. These were sort of instruments of divination that were inside the High Priest’s breastplate, and the priests consulted them to determine God’s will. That, plus Moses’ approval, would ensure that the people saw Joshua as the rightful successor, and that they would follow him into the Land.

Joshua was one of two people still alive from the community that was at Sinai. The other was Caleb, and they were the only two who lived long enough to enter the land. They had been the only two out of 12 who had gone out to survey the Promised Land. Most of the surveyors lost faith and told the people they’d never make it in the Land. Joshua and Caleb disagreed, saying that God was with them and they would be fine. Their reward was that they would live long enough to enter the Land, while the rest of the generation died out.

So, in front of everyone, Moses took Joshua and had him stand before the whole community, transferring the authority to him. We have no indication that Moses ever told the people he wasn’t going into the Land. I can’t even imagine what it took to stand before everyone, knowing on the inside that he would never get there, but his love of the people was greater than his ego.

Anyone who has created a start-up will tell you it takes a different kind of leadership to keep things going that it does to get things going. Few have both sets of skills. Each role is crucial in the life of the start-up, but it takes a rare leader who knows they can’t be the only one to take the enterprise to the next step. Yet every leader who has created something wants that special thing to carry on. And as Dr. Lewis writes, “In the end, his [Moses’] own personal quest, however lofty or honorable, paled in comparison to the long term viability of the nation of Israel.” Succession is part of good leadership. Whether it’s God or the individual who recognizes it, it’s vital for a true leader to know when to pass the torch.


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Balak: A shandah for the neighbors

tsktskA Shanda for the neighbors.

At the end of the parasha Balak, after we read the oddly humorous yet compelling story of Balak and Balaam, and the talking donkey, we get the first nine verses of Chapter 25 in Bamidbar/Numbers. If you ask me, these should really be attached to the next parasha, since its name is Pinchas, and these verses are about a very dramatic moment starring Pinchas himself. But no.

Scenario:  Israelites begin cavorting with Moabite women, and not just cavorting, but engaging in idol worshiping. God gets angry (flared nostrils), tells Moses to take  the ringleaders and impale them publicly, as an example to turn away from this behavior, which isn’t exactly what God said to do. God was after the ringleaders, Moses took out after all the men who were cavorting.  One of the Israelites, Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, and therefore one of the priestly class, sees this whole thing going on, leaves the group, takes a spear, follows an offending couple into a tent/chamber and skewers them through the belly. A plague was averted, after 24,000 people died. For his act of zealousness, in the next parasha, Pinchas is rewarded with God’s “brit shalom”, pact of peace/friendship/favor because he was zealous for God.

Several questions arise of course. Back in Exodus, when the people were cavorting in front of the Golden Calf, Moses’ reaction was to take charge, crush the gold, mix with water, and make the people drink it. Then, he pleads with God not to destroy the people. Here? Moses raises not a peep against the plague, against God, against the violence. Why didn’t Moses speak up?

What was the big difference in sins, between the Golden Calf and here? Both stories began with the people worshiping an idol, challenging or turning their backs on God. Why did it affect Moses differently, or rather, why did he react differently?

With the Golden Calf, it was just “us” – the Israelites were alone in the wilderness, and their behavior was being seen only by God and Moses. Here, with Pinchas, others viewed the behavior, and it was no longer an internal affair. Maybe Moses felt he needed to take a stronger stand when the Israelites were cavorting among others, not just ourselves.

Do we react differently if those around us act poorly, when it’s in the family, or when out in public? Do we feel that a friend or relative’s behavior reflects on us? Remember how we felt judged when our kids melted down in public, as if it were an indictment of us as parents? How many of us grew up hearing “it’s a shandah for the neighbors” (it’s a shame in from of others) ?

I think we are better off when our actions don’t change, depending on whether we are in the public arena or the private. Ethical behavior is ethical behavior; doing the right thing is doing the right thing, regardless of who’s watching. And kal v’chomer, how much more so, is it crucial to know the difference if one is in the public sphere. Kal v’chomer, indeed.

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Chukat: Looking for sweet water

The waters of Meribah, bitter waters. We are drinking from them now.

Miriam dies in this parasha, Chukat, and the Rabbis tell us that all the water that had been available to the people through the wilderness dries up. Naturally, the people complain. God tells Moses to go to a particular place, and speak to a rock, and the people will have water.

Maybe it’s because Moses’ sister just died, maybe he’d just had it with the complaining, maybe he was trying to raise his status to the community. For whatever reason, Moses hit the rock instead of talking to it. Water came out, the people’s thirst was slaked, but there was a penalty Moses had to pay: he would take the people to the edge of the Land, but would never be allowed in.

Harsh. Bitter waters, indeed.

We’re about to celebrate the 4th of July, one of my favorite holidays. I love this country. I hang the flag, I cry at parades, I cheer for fireworks. But boy, this year feels different. I feel like I’m tasting bitter waters. A lot of things are swirling in my head.

I’m in a play that is all about Jewish identity – what should it mean to be Jewish, and how exactly does one live a Jewish life? It all takes place against the backdrop of the Nazi March in Skokie, in the 1970s, which tested, and ultimately came down on the side of, the First Amendment. Just this week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu  basically said the ultra-Orthodox community is in charge of the rest of us non-Orthodox Jews, and that rather than follow through with promises he and the Knesset made regarding egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, well…staying in power is more important, so never mind, the deal is off. But please, do come visit, donate, and support us. Just don’t pray here.

Then there was the incident at the Chicago Dyke March last weekend before the Pride Parade. Three women who were carrying a Pride flag with a Jewish star on it were asked to leave, being told that the presence of the Jewish star makes others feel “unsafe” and that it’s a “trigger”, and that the Dyke March is anti-Zionist, so you Jewish lesbians aren’t welcome here. Zionism, they said, is racist, so even though you’re not carrying an actual Israeli flag, well,  please leave. Now. And just yesterday, we are subjected to yet another new low in the Tweeterverse coming out of the White House, attacking  a journalist on her looks, because she dared to criticize the President. I’m afraid to think how much lower this “leader” can sink to, but his venom is poisoning our whole country.  And then there’s Philando Castille, may he rest in peace.  The rest of us can’t rest in any kind of peace, there’s too much to be done.

And the health care legislation? Oy.

I think about the bitter waters we’re all drinking in today’s political environment. Miriam died, the fresh water dried up, the people rose up and violence became an immediate answer, though it turned the waters bitter.

What exactly do we celebrate this Shabbat and July 4, then? Violent speech and deeds that satisfies our immediate thirst for what? Revenge? Tit –for-tat insults? We are sacrificing the deep and satisfying thirst-quenching sweet water of informed, intelligent, civil discourse, for a gulp of muddy, acrimonious uninformed and shallow water.

It is up to each of us to turn aside and not drink from this poisonous well. Stand up. Speak up. Find the sweet water of justice and equality, common sense and compassion. Then we can truly celebrate our independence, and the beauty of this land we call ours.




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Korach: False populism

Populism_commentsRav lachem.  (Num 16:3)

You have gone too far. Or as Rashi (11th c France) translated, “You have too much” Or, as Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) translated, “You have enough.”

Here’s the setting: Korach, a Levite like Moses and Aaron, but from a different branch of the family, rose up against Moses. He had gathered 250 tribal leaders of the Israelites, and stood against Moses and Aaron. Korach said, “rav lachem”, staging a revolt against the very leaders that took the people out of Egypt and has been leading them through the wilderness.

Many have wondered what it was that bothered Korach so much; what was he accusing Moses and Aaron of doing that was so bad, they needed to start a revolution? Moses and Aaron were haughty? They weren’t sharing the leadership roles? After all, Korach said, the whole community is holy, and who made you so special to be ruling over us? Moses, upon hearing this, told Korach the next day, God would make clear who the leader was to be, adding, “rav lachem” – basically, right back atcha, Korach, no you’ve gone too far.

We see the word “rav” in other places, as applied to the people as a whole. In Exodus, (Ex 1:9), Pharoah said that the people were “rav” – there were too many of them, and he was alarmed.  And later in Numbers, King Balak hires a prophet to curse the Israelites because they had become “rav”, which alarmed the King.

Maybe what’s really bothering Korach (and Pharaoh and Balak) is that he was threatened by the number of people that were following Moses and Aaron. Pharaoh and Balak were alarmed by how numerous the people had become. Was Korach alarmed by how popular Moses had become?

Today, there is great store put in a “populist” message. It’s an easy message: Those other people are infringing on our freedom. Those other people are a danger to our freedom. Those people are getting too numerous, and they’ll crowd us out. This country elected a “populist” a few months ago, and he has done nothing but stir up distrust and alarm for the “other” from the time he began his quest for leadership. He thinks he is standing up for the little guy, like Korach was doing. He thinks he is setting himself apart as the voice of the voiceless. And, like the 250 leaders Korach gathered behind him, some people bought the act. But ultimately, Korach’s rebellion was a failure; he and his followers were swallowed up by the earth, and a plague ran through the community until Aaron placed himself between the plague and the people, stopping it in its path.

The populist in office has followers, as did Korach. And on the surface, Korach’s complaint against Moses made sense. But if his motivation was “rav lachem”, and he was sowing distrust and division among the people, then anyone using that same motivation is similarly doomed.



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Shelach l’cha: A wedding toast

weddingtoastOur niece got married last weekend. We were up in the Redwoods of Northern California  for the wedding.  It was pretty cold, actually, but it was the warmest group of people. Our niece has had some significant pain in her life, and it was such joy to see her happy. She found one great guy.

When we first got the save-the-date call, Torah-geeky Aunt Anita immediately went to the calendar to see what the “wedding parasha” was. And it was a beauty; this wrote itself. I found a couple of minutes with the bride and groom to share these thoughts, but it was pretty rushed. So, I’m sharing their wedding parasha toast here.

Shelach l’cha. Go forth. In this parasha, Moses has brought the people to the edge of the Land, not long after leaving Egypt. But the people are freaked out, not knowing what’s ahead. So God tells Moses to gather the leaders of each of the tribes, twelve men in all, and send them into the Land to scope it out. Moses sent them off with specific charges: How’s the soil? How’s the land? How are the people? Do they live in walled cities?

The scouts spend three months on this reconnoiter mission, and come back with a report. Moses gathers the entire community to hear them. But it doesn’t go well. Ten of the twelve scouts say it’s a doomed mission.There are giants in the land, they think they look like grasshoppers to the giants. The cities are huge and fortified. Basically, they said, “We’re gonna die. It’s hopeless.”

Two scouts, however, had a different takeaway. Joshua and Caleb said, “Hey, we’ll be fine, as long as we trust in God. And by the way, the soil is great – we stopped at a farmer’s market, and brought you all back some amazing grapes.”  God wasn’t impressed with the other ten scouts’ lack of faith, and because of them, the entire community had to go back into the wilderness and wander around for another 38 years, so that faithless generation would die out. But in reward for Joshua and Caleb’s trust in God, they were allowed to live long enough to go into the Land; in fact, Joshua was chosen as Moses’ successor.

Marriage is an unknown, scary uncharted territory, and our niece and her new husband were standing at the edge, ready to go in. It won’t work out, people say, you’re opening yourself up for a lot of hurt.  But they were unconvinced by the doomsday reports; they were armed with faith and hope and love, and they were ready to take on the giants.

So here’s Aunt Anita’s toast: Be Caleb and Joshua. Keep your love for each other safe inside the walled cities, but make sure the walls aren’t too high, so you’re open to new possibilities in your life together. Find the fertile soil for a family, and a future. Stay connected to others outside your safe walls. Don’t listen to those around you who tell you how hard it will be in the new land. You know that. But you also know that you are prepared, you’ve scouted out the terrain, and you want to step over the boundary to building a life with each other. Relish that. Revel in this new land. Be Caleb and Joshua. And always find a farmers’ market.

We love you.

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Naso: take time

Nasso. The chapter of rituals that aren’t in Leviticus. Odd rituals, strange, involving magical phrases, the power of haircuts and public extremism.

I was at a Bar Mitzvah this last weekend, a mincha/afternoon service (so the young man had this parasha instead of last week’s.) He bravely tackled the “Sotah” ritual (or is it a trial?) This happens when a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful, (“a fit of jealousy comes over him”) so he brings her in front of the Priest and the entire community, and accuses her by uncovering her hair. The Priest writes a magical phrase on a piece of paper, takes some dirt from the Tabernacle floor, mixes it all with water, makes her drink it. She offers up a “meal offering of jealousy”, and if she responds physically to the water concoction, she’s guilty. He asked if there was anything we can take away from this ordeal that makes sense to our post-Enlightenment, feminist sensibilities?

Right after this is the story of the Nazir. Whereas the Sotah ritual is only for women, the Nazir is open to both women and men. The individual chooses a term of time to become a Nazir, and during that time, they cannot cut their hair, come anywhere near a dead person (even close family), and stays away from any wine or even grapes.  The Nazir also makes an offering, a “sin” offering. At the end of the Nazir time, another is brought. What do we take away from this that makes sense to us today?

My Torah class talks of “scotch tape” moments. Why are these two stories next to each other? What’s the tape that connects them?

Well, there are similar elements, or at least similar questions. Hair, for example, a very personal and even sexual element – both are ways of publically stating a personal status. One is humiliation, one is extreme deprivation. Another are the offerings – what is the Nazir atoning for? Why is it the responsibility of the wife to bring an offering of jealousy? Both are done in the presence of the Priest, i.e. the entire community.

There is also the element of time. For the Nazir, each of the forbidden activities has to do with time – hair grows, grapes ferment, people die. For the Sotah, the effect of the bitter waters is that she will either be able or not be able to maintain a pregnancy (“hold seed”) It takes time to determine that. Both the Sotah and the Nazir are under public scrutiny for their behavior for a period of time, until the term expires.

Both the Sotah and the Nazir are examples of extreme behavior, either on one’s own behalf (Nazir) or that of an accuser (Sotah) And when we are dealing with extreme behavior, time is a good thing. Odd as the Sotah ritual is, it prevents a jealous husband from taking his suspicions out on his wife in private. Whatever the Nazir is working through, it can’t last forever. He or she has to end the restrictions and resume normal life at some point. We are cautioned against unrelenting extremism. Just as we couldn’t live at the base of Sinai forever, and had to get going on our journey, we can’t live in the extremist bubble either. That’s our takeaway for today. Extremism is a quick, dangerous flame that burns out. But passion, well-directed and contained, is an ember that can last.

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