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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Bamidbar: Hold your head high

hands upBamidbar – in the wilderness – the book of countings – the book of being counted.

Just as Leviticus had another name, the Torah of the Priests, Bamidbar has another name too: Ha’Pikudim – the book of taking note, of noticing, of being noticed. P’K’D – the shoresh is used about Sarah, in Genesis. It’s translated as “remembered” – God remembered Sarah, but it’s more. God “pakad” Sarah. God noticed. God took note of, not just remembered. It’s deeper than that.

This fourth book of the Torah begins “on the first day of the second month, in the second year following the Exodus from the land of Egypt” (1:1). We are still at the mountain. We haven’t moved yet, but it’s time to get on the road. The first thing God does is call for a census. The text says, “s’u et rosh” –lift up the heads and count them, one by one.  The text proceeds to number each of the tribes, each of the tribal heads. They were the leaders of the community, and they needed to literally stand up and be counted.

Things happen when you are counted. You can’t hide. You stop being anonymous. You have to own your identity. Others notice you are there. You not only get counted, but suddenly you count. It matters that you’re there. You have a role to play and you’re not just taking up space.

The Israelites were all together at Sinai, but now in Bamidbar, they begin to be divided up into their tribes. They take note of where they are to stand and march in relation to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. They have roles to play, and it matters where they are. They are being counted by God and Moses and by each other. They have become…accountable. They are accountable to their community, to their leader,to their God.

My grandmother used to say that if you lift your head up above the crowd, someone will come by and slice it off. That was her experience, and it is the experience of so many around the world. To speak out is to risk never speaking again.  It’s hard to stand up and be counted, especially when things matter the most. We are at a time when things matter the most, because much is threatened. Our health , our rights, our natural world, so much is at risk. We can’t all stand up for everything, but each of us can stand up for something. Stand up and be counted.The voices we raise with our heads held high have to be raised only for those who can’t speak on their own, but to keep the righteous roar going.

It’s time to keep speaking out, to be counted and to be accountable toour community, our neighbors, our leaders…especially our leaders…and ourselves. Lift your head up.








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Behar B’chukotai: Fig trees and fear

washington under fig tree“If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on.

It outlives when I’m gone.

Like the Scripture says: ‘Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

And no one shall make them afraid.’

They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made

I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree.

A moment  alone in the shade.

A home in this nation we’ve made.

One last time.”

Yes, I’m quoting Hamilton, but then Lin Manuel Miranda is referring to Leviticus 26:6 “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone…”  This is part of an if/then clause.  The parasha B’chukotai begins, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments I will grant your rains int heir season so the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.” The whole second half of Leviticus is the Holiness Code, which lays out all sorts of rules about setting up a righteous  society. Watching out for the vulnerable, don’t put stumbling blocks before the blind, don’t bribe judges, and of course, “V’ahavta l’re-echa k’mocha Ani Adonai” (Love your fellow as yourself, I am God) If you follow those rules, then what follows is a land where no one is afraid, where all can rest under their own vines and fig trees. Where there is peace. As Rashi said in commentary, one might think that getting rains and produce will be all one needs. But, “we learn from this that peace is as valuable as everything else put together.”In Hamilton, as in history, Washington knew it was important when to leave. He and the other founding fathers had done their best to establish rules by which to establish a righteous society. They were bold, they had won an unprecedented War of Independence, and they were guided by principles and values that were also unprecedented. Equality. Individual freedom. Everyone’s voice counted (yes, I know some there were some glaring exceptions that took a hundred years or so to work out..and are still being worked out.) Many of those values came from Leviticus – treating everyone with dignity, no matter their circumstances. Being fair and honorable to poor and rich alike, expecting and dispensing justice to the high and low.

The Levitical vision of peace is a society where these values are played out every day, and when they aren’t, fear creeps in. People who aren’t valued don’t find value in others. Feeling like the deck is stacked doesn’t engender trust in others who seem to hold the cards. But that’s not enough to throw it all out the window. Rather, we need to return to those very values – honesty, integrity, dignity, equality –to fix what’s wrong. The values protect us, they don’t make us more vulnerable.

Washington wasn’t the end, he was the beginning. Exodus was the end of an enslaved people, and the beginning of a revolutionary society, based on values the ancient world hadn’t seen before. We need that revolutionary spirit now, to stand firm against those who try to lure us to turn our backs on it.

Everyone deserves to sit under a fig tree and not be afraid.



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Emor: The work of our hands

hands the worldThe week got away from me. Here’s commentary on Emor from a while back, but updated to what is (sadly) still relevant.

Now here’s an odd story in this week’s parasha, Emor,  not that there aren’t a few odd stories in our Torah.  One day, “There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian.  And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite.  The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the NAME in blasphemy and he was brought to Moses” (Lev. 24:10-11).   The man’s mother was from the tribe of Dan, and he was placed in custody until God made a decision as to what to do with him.

Decision made, this is what they were told to do:  “Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and let all who were within hearing [of him saying the NAME] lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.”  (Lev. 24:13)

Now, putting aside the issue of stoning for a moment, there are a few other interesting aspects to this story.  This individual had violated a community standard in a significant way by pronouncing the NAME of God, one that only Moses had used.  This person crossed a line, and greatly offended the people; since he had offended the entire community, his punishment needed to be communal as well.

There are several interpretations of the “let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head” line.  Rashi (12th c France) said that by laying hands on him, they’re saying “Your blood is on your own head. We’re not to be punished for your death, since you brought it on yourself.”  Bechor Shor (also 12th c France) said by laying hands on the blasphemer’s head, as one does with an offering of say, the goat that absolves the community’s sins,   the members of the town absolve themselves from the sin of that one individual, making them innocent of taking part in a murder; he is indeed guilty, not they.

However, I believe there’s another way to look at this.  Without saying that the community is responsible for the one who went too far, that wrongdoing on an individual’s part is somehow the entire community’s fault, I do think that when everyone must take part in both the conviction and execution of the, well…execution, the community must take notice.  By laying hands on the condemned criminal, as individuals, they are taking responsibility for what’s about to happen.  It’s not happening behind a door – just the opposite, this is supposed to take place in the presence of the entire community, all those who heard him and were affected by his behavior.   This is not to be taken lightly, or ignored, or somehow missed.

We routinely experience individuals in our midst that go too far, stepping over the line of what society has laid out to be offensive behavior. We call it breaking the law.  But at a certain point, when a particular crime is so often repeated, society must ask itself why.  When too many corporations are caught “blaspheming” (ripping off customers or polluting water), we put laws in place to stop the behavior. Today, we moan and cry about the astounding level of gun violence in the country.  Children are gunning down children, and have been for far too long.  We have some laws about this, we arrest the offenders, try them in court, and with our metaphorical hands on their heads, we pass judgment.

I’m not writing in favor or communal death penalties here.  I am, however, saying that the holes in the gun laws are big enough to shoot through. Literally.  And those holes must be closed, shut up tight, so that the legal-blanket better protects the community, as it is supposed to.

Recently, the US Senate acted shamefully by voting down (and it wasn’t even voted down!  There was a majority in favor.  Apparently, it depends on what “majority” means ) closing those loopholes that would have offered protection.  It wasn’t a great bill….I would much prefer that it go further in removing assault weapons and  accessories from the community…but it sure was a start.  By failing to pass the legislation, the Senate placed its communal hands on the wrong heads – the heads of those who gave such grave offense by their blasphemous behavior, saying as Rashi said, “You brought this on yourself.  We are not to blame.”  With great respect, Rashi, I disagree.  The US Senate cannot absolve itself from the responsibility. The Senate is very much to blame, and will remain so until and unless they lay their hands on the heads of those shot down,  to comfort and protect them, not the ones who supply the shooters.  Surely those shooters have offended God by taking lives away,  and they are indeed responsible for their actions.  But the “camp” bears some responsibility in a larger sense, too.

Those of us in the community need to be aware of where our hands are being laid, and it shouldn’t be on the heads of the blasphemers’ partners, those who help keep the holes in the protective blanket wide open.  No, our hands need to create that protection by keeping the blasphemers from bringing their poison into the community in the first place.

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