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“These Words” – Shabbat Devarim, August 9, 2019

Mon, 2019-08-12 17:33

“Eilu ha-devarim” – These are the words. This is the way the Book of Deuteronomy opens. These are the words that Moses spoke to all the Israelites. The entire book is composed of a series of speeches – sermons – given by Moses in the days before his death. Sermons of history and remembrance. Sermons of chastisement. Sermons of promise.

These are the words that Moses chooses ever so carefully to re-tell the story of this past forty years.

“Eilu ha-devarim.” These are the words.

Except that the Hebrew is actually much more nuanced than that. The word “Davar” often refers to words, to speech. But a “davar” is also a thing, an action, a behavior.

כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ:

“This thing is very close to you, on your lips and in your heart, that you accomplish them,” Moses will say in a subsequent sermon, referring to the life of mitzvah the Israelites are commanded to lead in the Promised Land.[1]

“When you go out as a troop against your enemies,” וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכֹּל דָּבָר רָע: “guard against all bad behavior,” Moses will warn them, regarding the struggle they will have settling the land.[2]

By often using the same language for both words and deeds, the book of Deuteronomy – Moses’s epitaph to himself — draws a clear connection between what you say and what you do. The lesson, I believe, is that the way you speak carries the same consequences as the way you act.

I think about this fundamental lesson in the wake of a sad, horrifying, deadly week in our country.

Within a few hours of each other, two young men with a grudge and a powerful weapon went on bloody rampages – first in El Paso, Texas, and then in Dayton, Ohio. More than 30 people are dead, scores more wounded – some critically.

We do not know yet what drove the mass murderer in Dayton to kill nine people, including his own sister. But we do know a lot more about the first shooter, who drove ten hours from his hometown to deliberately target Hispanics and mixed-race couples — and found what he was looking for at a Wal-Mart store in the border town of El Paso.

We know a lot, because, like the terrorists responsible for the carnage at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, at a synagogue in Poway, California, and at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, the 21-year-old white male suspect was connected to an on-line manifesto posted just before he started shooting – clearly stating what the author was about to do and why.

The El Paso screed – posted 19 minutes before the first 9-11 calls came in – railed against what the author called “a Hispanic invasion of Texas.”  It called for separating our country in to different zones according to race. It warned that white people were being replaced by foreigners. It decreed, and I quote: “if we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.”

Similar language was posted on line and in chat rooms by the terrorists responsible for the slaughters in New Zealand and California and Pittsburgh. It’s a white-supremacist theory called “The Great Replacement.” This one substituted Hispanics for Jews or Muslims – but the perceived grievances are the same: the attempted replacement of whites by people of other colors or ethnicities. And the antidote is the same: Kill as many of the “other” as you possibly can, to deter more of them from invading your country.

The white supremacist terrorists who conducted these slaughters of innocents clearly understand the connection between word and deed. They themselves had been influenced by what previous terrorists had written. They themselves want to encourage others in their circles of hate to follow in their footsteps. They are everywhere. And they are dangerous. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Violence committed by white men inspired by an extremist ideology make up a growing number of domestic terrorism cases, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Of about 850 current domestic terrorism cases, 40% involve racially motivated violent extremism and a majority of those cases involve white supremacists, the FBI said.”

Eilu Ha-devarim: Watch just not what we say, but what we do.

As Jews, our history teaches us terrible lessons about the connection between word and deed. The Nazi program of genocide began with anti-Jewish propaganda, blaming us for the economic and social woes that beset Germany after World War One. This was followed by a concerted program of de-humanization, then discrimination, then removing Jews from civic life, then physically separating us. Then deporting us.

The horrors of the Holocaust are unique in history – but the pattern is so clear that the Anti-Defamation League created a Pyramid of Hate that starts at the bottom with biased attitudes like stereotyping and fear-mongering, to acts of bias like bullying and isolation, all the way up to genocide. Not every action on the bottom leads to the top. But every genocide starts at the bottom.

Eilu ha-devarim. At its most horrific, propoganda begets pogrom.

But dangerous and potential deadly language does not just lurk in the chat rooms of Chan8. It is all around us. Insensitivity, stereotyping, ridicule, name-calling, bullying, de-humanization – all of it is heavy in the air of our public discourse.

As Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear wrote this week in the New York Times:

“Linking political speech, however heated, to the specific acts of ruthless mass killers is a fraught exercise, but experts on political communication said national leaders could shape an environment with their words and deeds, and bore a special responsibility to avoid inflaming individuals or groups, however unintentionally.”

And those words do inflame.

So we have moved from “Mexicans are rapists” and “this is an invasion” and migrants “pour and infest” our country and “go back to where you came from” and the clear implication that women lawmakers of color are not true Americans . . .

To a group of young white men, photographed at a political rally this week choking a life-sized cutout of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez . . .

To dozens of border agents using racist and misogynistic language in private chat rooms, belittling Hispanic law-makers and threatening members of Congress who call for investigations of the conditions at the border. . .

To those conditions that exemplify dehumanization: immigrant children living in filth, without diapers, food, or showers, for weeks at a time – many torn from their parents, never to be reunited. . .

To the name-calling and fear-mongering reflected in the screed attributed to the El Paso killer, who traveled ten hours from home to target Hispanics and mixed-race couples. Just as it had appeared in similar postings by the white-nationalist terrorists who killed in Christchurch, and Poway, and Pittsburgh.

National leaders not only could shape an environment with their words – they must. We have a right to demand that ALL such language cease. Because you never know who’s listening to you. You never know who’s talking about your remarks in the dark corners of the internet. You never know who hears your nasty, degrading remarks and takes them as an invitation, or even a command, to act on them.

We never know who. But because we know they’re out there, we must all watch what we say and how we say it. And because we also know that words and deeds are deeply embedded in each other, we must all demand that civic discourse be civil discourse.

Eilu ha-devarim” – there are always consequences to these words.

Changing behavior, in Judaism, is called teshuvah. It is the act of turning from sin, seeking forgiveness, and forging a different path. The first step is acknowledging your sin – of word or of deed. It has to be personal and it has to be sincere.

My own scholarly work this year focused on a Yom Kippur prayer called “Tefillah Zakah,”[3] in which the sincere penitent pledges to use those parts of the body with which they committed sin to try to repair the damage they have done.

Here is part of that prayer, in my translation:

“[God], You have gifted me with a mouth and tongue and teeth and palate and throat . . .  Through the power of speech, You differentiated human from beast—and yet I am not even a beast, for I have defiled my mouth with obscenities and with evil language; with lies, mockery, and gossip; sowing discord, shaming others, cursing others, and glorifying myself at the expense of others.

“You have gifted me with hands and the sense of touch, that I might engage in the performance of mitzvot. And yet I have defiled them through forbidden contact, striking with a vicious fist and raising a hand to cause harm.

“You have gifted me with legs with which to walk the path of mitzvah. And yet I have defiled them, turning them into legs that hasten to cause trouble. . .”

The true penitent then vows to seek forgiveness from those they have wronged – knowing that God cannot forgive until atonement has been made.

It’s time for teshuvah. It’s time for those who have let loose the beast of fear-mongering and de-humanization and the clear potential for violence to stop, turn, acknowledge what they have done, and instead use their speech and their hands and their legs and every other part of their body that they have defiled . . . to calm, and to heal, and to unite.

Do it now. Do it for us all.

Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Parashat Nitzavim, Deut. 3o:14

[2] Parashat Ki Teitse: Deut. 23:10

[3] In traditional prayer books, Tefillah Zakah appears just prior to Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur Eve, in preparation for asking God to excuse unfulfilled vows that one has tried one’s best to fulfill.

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“The Journeys of the Children of Israel” for Shabbat Ma’sei – August 2, 2019

Mon, 2019-08-05 11:54

It’s the end of the road for the children of Israel – the end of the forty-year journey from slavery to true freedom, as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, the land that God had promised their forefather Abraham would be theirs. That’s where we find our Israelite ancestors this week as we conclude the Book of Numbers. They are just a stone’s throw from claiming their inheritance.

It has not been an easy journey. It has been filled with fear and fortune, with setbacks and successes, with challenges to the leadership of Moses, Aaron and Miriam that have sometimes shredded the nascent unity of a rag-tag group of slaves. But it also has brought joy to a people experiencing for the first time both the rights and responsibilities that freedom brings. And it has imbued them with a sense of awe and purpose that they could never have had before.

But we know that the past is prologue. And so the Ba’al Shem Tov, the great mystic and founder of Hasidic Judaism, teaches us this:

“Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual, between the time he is born and the time he dies.”[1]

WILL occur. Not did occur. In other words, when we look at the broad sweep of the story of the Exodus and the wilderness journeys, we should also recognize its intensely personal nature. And not just for those generations that died in the wilderness or were born in it – but for every person in every generation, including every single one of us.

The forty-two journeys to which the Ba’al Shem Tov refers are nominally the ones that Moses chronicles at the beginning of this parashah – the specific places from Rameses to the steppes of Moab where the Israelites encamped on their journey, some overnight, some for weeks or even months at a time.

But for the Ba’al Shem Tov, and for the mystical tradition he represents, these stops along the way correspond to the forty-two journeys that make up the life of every human being, from the time we emerge from the womb (which would be the exodus from Egypt) to our entry into the World to Come (that is, coming into the Land of Israel). Each Israelite encampment, he believed, represents a constricted part of our own consciousness – a time when we have strayed from our obligations to God and to other people and to ourselves. Each time the Israelites traveled forward, this represents an expanded part of our consciousness – that is, when we act in a way that is kinder and truer to what God expects and requires of us.

The mystical understanding of all this stopping and starting over a lifetime is an acknowledgement that we don’t always act the way we should. That sometimes we become petty or nasty, or even abusive. That we lie or cheat or steal – in direct contradiction to the way God has commanded us to behave.

It’s also a recognition that we have long stretches in our lives when we make a habit of doing the right thing – acting in an honest and generous way that makes others’ lives better.

But I think there’s another layer to all of this. The mystics focused on what’s inside of us – while we have to deal with a lot of factors outside of us that we cannot control.

So in our constricted times, when we’re stuck in one place, it could be because we’re sad, alone, confused, bereft. Each of us in this sanctuary tonight has lost people we love. Many of us are sharing the names of family and friends who are sick, and some of us will rise for Kaddish tonight to remember someone we miss a lot. In the last three weeks, we have held a funeral at the cemetery along with two headstone dedications marking the first year after someone’s death. And there are two more such dedications scheduled for later this year.

And yet each of us also has been gifted with times of incredible happiness – sometimes fleeting, sometimes for a long while. The birth of a child or grandchild. A reunion with a loved one. A major milestone or achievement in our career. Coming out of illness to healing and health again. We remember to be grateful for every one of these times of joy. We  thank God for every small delight.

The Book of Numbers – the narrative of the Wilderness Journey – ends quite abruptly with the conclusion of this Torah portion. All we get is a raft of jumble, last-minute divine commands regarding boundaries and cities of refuge and inheritance laws, all mooshed together. No lofty rhetoric. No sense of literary or emotional closure.

But that’s the thing about all these comings and goings. They often come out of nowhere. The Biblical commentator Ovadia Ben Jacob Sforno reminds us:

“Sometimes the starting points were good places and the points for which they set out were bad ones, sometimes the opposite; in either case, the Israelites had no advance knowledge of when and where they were to travel, which was very hard – yet they never refused to go.”[2]

Not one of us has a clue what even tomorrow will bring. But there’s no way to avoid it. We embrace good days with gratitude and cope with bad days as part of the deal. Some of us will feel like we reach our Promised Land in our lifetimes, the ultimate expansion. Some of us are left feeling short, in a place of constriction. But some of us don’t even comprehend how expansive our lives really have been.

I was talking the other day with a life-long friend who opened up to me about her years of physical and psychological illness, from which she is only just emerging.

She told me she had an epiphany one day when she was deep in her illness: She had a clear sense that God was with her, talking to her, guiding her. But she said she felt unworthy, that she felt she wasn’t good enough to do whatever God wanted her to do, which she didn’t really understand.

But as we talked, here’s what emerged. She’s a teacher – a high-school literature teacher. Most of her students are considered at-risk: they deal with everything from hunger to parental neglect.

She refuses to dumb down her lessons for them.  She insists they challenge themselves, even if nobody but her is paying attention.

She doesn’t win every battle against weariness or mediocrity.

But there are those students she hears from years later, whose lives she has taken from places of constriction to places of great expansion. The one who is a successful journalist because she told him that he was a really good writer – even though she’s the only one who ever did. The ones who make it to college – and even through college – when nobody but her expects them to, or prepares them to, succeed. And even the ones who just start coming to class a little more regularly, because she has created a classroom where it can be interesting, and even fun, to learn.

She hadn’t realized that, in taking each student from a stuck place to a place of growth and expansion – that she was doing the same for herself. It wasn’t just that sense of God in one place at one time that brought her to healing. It was the result of using the God-given gifts that she’d had all along. That’s what carried her through her own wilderness and brought her to the edge of her Promised Land.

Each of us may feel stuck in a narrow place from time to time – sometimes because of our own fragility and sometimes because of external forces. But this story of Israel’s wanderings, and its 42 stops and starts, reminds us — and assures us — that our limitations are only temporary obstructions in the journey of life.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

#####         ©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Torah Gems, Vol. III, edited by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg (Tel Aviv: Yavheh Publishing House Ltd, 1992), p. 159.

[2] The Commentator’s Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Numbers, edited, translated and annotated by Michael Carasik (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011), p. 238. Sforno: 16th-century Italy.

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Liberty, Humanity, Community – An All-American Sermon for July 12, 2019

Sat, 2019-07-13 14:06

We haven’t been together to pray since before the long July 4th holiday weekend, so let’s catch up.

I usually love July 4th. Because whatever is going on in my life, your lives, and the world in general, it’s one time in the heat of the summer that we can just breathe a little easier. We relax, grill out, go to parades, and watch the fireworks. A few hours amidst the toils and tribulations of life when we can revel in the joy of our American experience.

And that SO didn’t happen this year. July 4th was, for a lot of us, full of invective that was unpleasant and unnecessary, and fully contrary to what we think the spirit of July 4th ought to be. So thank God we had July 7th. Remember July 7th? Last Sunday? The tail-end of the holiday weekend, and the day of all-American joy and celebration that we so badly wanted and needed. That was the day that the U.S. won the Women’s World Cup.

The Women’s Team members are brash and mouthy, but they back up their bravado with immense skill and power and pride. They are what we Americans strive to be: winners in our own right, working hard and playing by the rules – well, maybe pushing the envelope a bit but doing it with style, grace, humor, and, above all, unity. That’s why, in the words of Lauren Peace writing this week in the New York Times, ‘They’re the most American thing we’ve got going right now.”[1]

The teamwork the women displayed was impressive. The way they lifted each other up was heartwarming. The way they each took turns hoisting the championship trophy was a two-tissue tearjerker.

But here’s what caught my attention.

Before they got to the winner’s stand, each of them exchanged their game jersey for a new one – one that had a fourth, gold star embroidered on to signify the fourth such world title for American women. But instead of having their individual names and numbers on the back, every one of these jerseys said, simply, “Champions” with the number 19.

For all that we often laud America as the land of individual achievement, in the end we know that what really makes us great is what we achieve together.

We children of immigrants understand this. Like many of your families, mine didn’t come all at once. My great-grandmother was sent here at the age of 16 by her family, hoping to get her out of the poverty and oppression of Poland to live under the protection of Lady Liberty’s torch. With hard work and the support of a sponsor, she brought her family over, one by one, the last one arriving at Ellis Island just before the outbreak of the First World War, when the gates to freedom closed.

Family-based immigration – what is now derided as “chain migration” — is the way many of our families got here. It works because religious and ethnic groups provide all kinds of support to their members, physically, financially and emotionally.

And one generation helps another. The masses of Eastern European Jews who fled persecution – sometimes whole shtetls at a time – found support from the German Jews who had come before them and wanted their co-religionists to succeed.

They had set up places like the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House in Pittsburgh, to help their fellow Jews acculturate into American life. Today, newer immigrant communities create similar support systems to welcome members, for everything from job creation to English education to child care.

WE children of immigrants understand this power of WE the people. Not a melting pot, as our nation once was envisioned, but what anthropologist Frederik Barth called a “plural society” – one in which defined ethnic communities live side by side, interdependent on one another, each with a unique contribution that supports and enriches us all.

That’s the WE of America. That’s the strength of America. And nobody has said it better than US Women’s World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, as she danced her way through the ticker-tape parade through New York’s “Canyon of Heroes””

“There’s nothing that can faze this group,” she said told the enormous crowd.

“We’re chilling. We got tea-sippin’, we got celebrations. We have pink hair and purple hair, we have tattoos and dreadlocks. We got white girls and black girls and everything in between. Straight girls and gay girls. . . It’s my absolute honor to lead this team out on the field. There’s no other place that I would rather be.”[2]

That’s the America I love – and there’s no other place that I would rather be. An America that’s a land of opportunity for all, where there’s respect for differences and avenues for doing the hard work together, no matter the color of our skin or the color of our hair. A place where we pull each other, not just ourselves, up by the bootstraps.

I want every day in America to be July 7th, 2019.

When I saw our women that afternoon, one by one, hoisting the championship trophy above their heads, I really imagined them holding up Lady Liberty’s lamp. I saw them the way Emma Lazarus described the welcoming statue, as “a mighty woman with a torch.”

Alexandra Gold, in an essay some years ago in Lilith Magazine on the Jewish nature of the Statue of Liberty, commented that “Lazarus imagines the Statue’s torch as an enduring reminder of a tradition passed down through the ages, the light (and strength) of the Jews.”[3]

But not just for the Jews. We know what it means to come from oppression to freedom, from a sense of exile to a place of welcome, from a land of darkness to one bathed in liberty’s light. We live that journey in every generation – just like the one that took us from the exodus from Egypt to the glory of the Promised Land.

And like that journey of ancient days, we know that we can reach the goal only by walking as one, with all the difficulties and concessions and cooperation and mutual support that this demands.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” cries Lady Liberty at the conclusion of The New Colossus. This lamp, and its message of welcome, is the gateway to America. Not just for our ancestors but for us and for all who wish to be part of WE THE PEOPLE. Every purple-haired, tea-sipping, arm-waving, unapologetically and irreplaceably celebratory one of us.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/08/opinion/womens-world-cup.html?searchResultPosition=1

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/07/10/megan-rapinoe-speech/?utm_term=.d295d500f31a

[3] https://www.lilith.org/articles/is-the-statue-of-liberty-jewish/

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We Are A Family – for Shabbat Shelach Lecha[1], Friday, June 21, 2019

Tue, 2019-06-25 13:58

You may remember that a few weeks ago, as we were beginning this year’s reading of the Book of Numbers, I pointed out a distinct change in the approach of the text to the condition of the ancient Israelites. Rather than looking backward at the legacy of slavery, Numbers began with God’s plan for the people’s future by commanding a census of all the young men who would be eligible for military service.

And the book, I noted, is filled from beginning to end with mitzvot that would guide the people when they settled in the land that God had promised to them, and to which Moses was leading them.

This week’s Torah portion provides an important example of how ready the Israelites were – or were not – to fulfill God’s plan for them.

Shelach lecha, God says to Moses: “Send you men to scout out the land of Cana’an, which I am giving to the Israelite people.” And then God instructs Moses to “send one man from each of their ancestral tribes each one a chieftain among them.”

On the surface, this would indicate that God wanted to make sure that each of the 12 tribes had buy-in to the plan. That each would feel included and empowered. But there’s some indication in traditional commentaries that the plan was inevitably flawed.

Don Isaac Abarbanel, a 15th-century Portuguese commentator, sees this clearly. “Why,” he asks, “did God tell them to ‘send one man from each of their ancestral tribes’ for a total of 12? Two men would see just as much as 12 – or 100 – and arouse less suspicion.”

And don’t forget, that’s exactly what Joshua would do when it came time to actually cross over the Jordan into the walled city of Jericho – as though he learned the lesson from the disaster that’s about to befall his predecessor Moses here.

But our tradition teaches that this wasn’t just a tactical blunder. We read:

“Each tribe sent its own representatives. No tribe trusted any other, and each group chose its own person. There was no unity among them, and they were divided into separate tribes and groups. However, when Joshua sent the spies, he sent only two. That showed the unity of the nation and their mutual trust, and that was the reason for the mission’s success.”[2]

So God and Moses are preparing the Israelites to battle their way into the Promised Land. But the Hebrew text itself also gives us clues that, while the people, while they may no longer think like slaves, still don’t look at themselves as one nation with a Divine mission.

In many English translations, Moses charges them with this task: “See what kind of country it is, are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many, is the country in which they dwell good or bad?” The language is in the plural – are they strong or weak? Is the country where they dwell good or bad? But that’s not what the Hebrew says.

The Hebrew refers to “ha-am” – the nation, in the collective singular:

מַה־הִוא וְאֶת־הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב עָלֶיהָ הֶחָזָק הוּא הֲרָפֶה הַמְעַט הוּא אִם־רָב

“And what of this people which dwells on the land: Is IT strong or weak; is IT few or many. . . . Are ITS towns open or fortified?”[3]

Moses acknowledges by his own language that the Israelites – who still identify by their tribes and their ancestral houses – will be up against a true, unified nation in the Canaanite people. And the spies use the same language to report back:

אֶפֶס כִּי־עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד

“Wow, the nation that dwells there IS mighty and the cities are fortified and large. . . We cannot attack that am – that people, that nation — for IT is stronger than we.”[4]

The Hebrew tells us something really important that is missing in the English. The spies first describe the inhabitants of the land – the Amalekites of the Negev to the south, and the Hittites and Jebusites and Amorites of the hill country of the north, and the Canaanites along the sea and the Jordan river – but then they refer to them as am – one people, one nation, united by the fact that they all see themselves as am.

And that is something that, clearly that the scouts themselves lack. They think of themselves as sons of Levi or Judah or Benjamin. They are not yet Am Yisrael, the People Israel, as we know it today.

The people who left Egypt relied completely on God to see them through the forty years of existence in the wilderness: God gave them everything they needed from clothes to food to the protection of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. So they could afford to stick with their families and their tribes. Even God recognized this when they were commanded to muster by tribe when they traveled. It wasn’t until Joshua led them across the Jordan and they were responsible for their own self-care and their own decisions that they realized what it meant to be Am Yisrael.

A community’s self-identity, then, is the key to its success, to its ability to prosper where others fail, to sustain itself – again using the singular – in the face of challenges and even existential threats. Which means that the existential threats to Am Yisrael today aren’t just from Iran or Syria or Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza; some of them must lie within our community.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the head of ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America – brings us a teaching this week from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the retired chief rabbi of Great Britain and a great scholar of both traditional Jewish text and contemporary Jewish life.[5]

Rabbi Sacks, he says, wrote that, in classical Hebrew, there are three different ways to describe community: Edah, tsibbur, and kehillah.

Edah means witness, and it refers to people who stick together because they came from the same place. But identifying a place of origin doesn’t tell us anything about their personalities, their opinions, or their politics.

Tsibbur comes from the word for heap or pile; a group of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time for the same purpose, like the tsibbur that comes together to pray, but otherwise may have little in common.

And then there’s Kehillah. As Rabbi Weinberg writes:

“A kehillah is different from the other two kinds of community. Its members may be diverse (like a tsibbur). But they are orchestrated together for a collective undertaking – one that involves in making a distinctive contribution. In short, a kehila has a mission. When we identify as part of a Kehila, it is not only the place we pray as a Tzibbur but a shared sense of mission to which we adhere.”

I think it’s easier to identify in and with a Kehillah on a small scale, like we do here at Temple Beth Israel. In fact, we don’t see ourselves just a kehillah kedoshah, a holy congregation, but as a mishpacha kedoshah, a sacred family. Yes, we identify a collective undertaking, a collective contribution to make. But our mission is internal as well as external. We take care of our own, as Bruce Springsteen sang. We feel each other’s joys and sorrows. No one is anonymous in a small family like ours. And no one is ever alone.

I often wonder what it would be like if Am Yisrael thought of itself as one big family. Not always happy, not always getting along. But cognizant of the real responsibility we have to the mishpachah as a whole. In the State of Israel today, they’re about to embark on a second round of elections because petty rivalries and power trips meant nobody could get together and form a new government.

In the American Jewish community, many national organizations based in major cities have far less reach and influence than they used to – but also no longer make a point of staying connected with small-town Jews like us.

And even here in our small town, where we maintain strong links through Eidah and Tsibbur, through where we came from and how and where we pray, we often have to remind ourselves to be sensitive and inclusive of our mishpachah on one side of town or the other. I think we’re doing better with that, because we can see what happens elsewhere, when those family ties break down.

From the universal concept of Am Yisrael to the intensely personal need for mishpachah kedoshah, unity is what makes us strong. Not dismissing our backgrounds, our political differences or our choices on observance as insignificant – but acknowledging them and accepting them as we would the differences in any extended family. The Torah’s story of the twelve scouts helps us understand the power of how we see ourselves as one.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.



©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin



[1] Note: As a Reform congregation, we follow the Israeli calendar rather than the traditional Diaspora calendar that is based on additional days for festivals. Therefore (and because the schedule for Passover this year meant we concluded our seven days on a Friday night while traditional congregations observed through Saturday and thus are a week behind on the Torah reading cycle) on the Shabbat of June 21-22, we are reading “Shelach Lecha,” while traditional congregations are a week behind in Beha’alotecha.

[2] Torah Gems, ed. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Volume III, p. 60, citing “various sources.”

[3] Numbers 13:19

[4] Numbers 13;28, 31.

[5] Rabbi Josh Weinberg, “Let Your [Old] Guard Down.” https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgxwChJnSGTjtSJGQVlNZNlppcPTk

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Watch Where You’re Going, Not Where You’ve Been – Shabbat Bemidbar, Friday, May 31, 2019

Fri, 2019-06-07 10:15

Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. This was one of Grandmom Freda’s favorite phrases. Probably because I was (and still am) such a klutz, that otherwise I’d do some serious damage to myself. Trip over an uneven point in the sidewalk. Smack straight into a lamp-post. Get run over by somebody else’s basket at the supermarket.

Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. Our little Beagle puppy Freddie should have heeded that advice this week on one of our frequently rain-soaked walks. He was so obsessed with the big chocolate Lab behind him down the street – the one that’s eleventy-thousand times bigger than him and would squash him with one swipe of a paw – that he completely missed the bunny rabbit that scurried across the street right in front of us. Addie, the shepherd, spotted it. But bunnies are supposed to be a Beagle thing. And Freddie missed the very first one of the spring.

Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. That should be the grandmotherly theme of the Book of Numbers, Bemidbar, which we begin reading tonight. Genesis took us back to the hoary origins of humanity. Exodus took us back, too, to the foundation of our people Israel. Leviticus harkened back to a long-ago time of priests and incense and oils and sacrifices pleasing to God. And, coming up, the Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’s rewriting of all this history from the perspective of a man who was never permitted to see the land that held the promise of Israel’s future. All four of them are reminiscences of times past – combinations of mythology and wishfulness and wistfulness.

But not the Book of Numbers. Of the five books of the Torah, this is the only one that starts out looking where we’re going, not where we’ve been.  The Book of Numbers essentially picks up the wilderness narrative where the end of Exodus left off. But the end of Exodus left us dealing with internal issues within a community still forming, still catching up with the idea of freedom. Here, at the beginning of Numbers, there’s a 180 degree turn.

Two years and one month into the Exodus from Egypt, God summons Moses to the Tent of Meeting and commands him to take census of the Israelite community – tribe by tribe, clan by clan – to identify those young men who would form the Israelite army. The army that would protect the women and the children and the elderly as they moved into unknown territory. As they moved farther from Egypt, farther from Sinai, farther from anything they knew.

In Exodus chapter 13 we learned that God did not take the people along the sea route, by the land of the Philistines, ki karov hu. That’s usually translated as although it was near – that is, although the sea route to the Promised Land was a quicker journey, God chose otherwise. But a more insightful translation of the phrase ki karov hu is BECAUSE it was near:

“And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, because that was near; for God said, Lest perhaps the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.”

In Exodus, God didn’t want the Israelites running scared, back to Egypt, back to slavery and probably to their deaths. But by the first verses of the Book of Numbers, God sees that the Israelites are no longer drawn to the past. God now can focus their attention on where they are going, and not where they’ve been.

The striking about-face in these first verses of the Book of Numbers doesn’t just mark a literal turning point for our ancestors. It gives us some important insights about our lives today – about the pull of the past, maybe as it was or maybe as we imagine it to have been. About moving forward with our lives based, not on what our lives might have been, but on the choices that life presents us today. Try as we might, we cannot turn back time. We cannot, so to speak, go home again.

Did anybody else watch the re-produced episodes of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” this past week? ABC brought series creator Norman Lear back and re-staged two episodes in front of a live studio audience.

All new casts – including Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei and Anthony Anderson – didn’t just re-create the episodes. They didn’t just use the original scripts as they aired 40 years ago. They took on the character traits of the original actors: Archie’s cigar-infused Bronx bluster that belonged to Carroll O’Connor, Edith’s screechy vocal quality that forever will be identified with Jean Stapleton.

I wanted to enjoy this. I really did. Norman Lear’s shows – “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons” – I grew up on them. They were the programs that influenced my social views throughout my adolescence.

They laid bare the social upheavals of the 1970s and the struggles that communities and neighbors across America had with integration, the empowerment of women, and the specter of the Vietnam War. They were of that time and of that generation. These shows were unlike anything anyone had ever seen on television. Norman Lear used television as a mirror on his audiences, forcing us to look at ourselves in a way that nobody had before. That’s what made them so powerful.

And that’s why this re-boot didn’t work.

When the most significant moment of the entire hour is Jennifer Hudson in a humongous Afro owning the stage with her rendition of the theme song to “The Jeffersons” – you know something is amiss.

I don’t know if these characters would work today under any circumstances. We aren’t “All in the Family” as much as we are “Modern Family.” “The Jeffersons” was about the first black family on the block, the first inter-racial couple in the neighborhood. But CBS, the network that originally aired so many of Norman Lear’s shows, is now running “The Neighborhood,” where it’s the white family from the Midwest who are the interlopers in a very not-white neighborhood in L.A.

It’s not that people like Archie Bunker don’t exist anymore: Bigots who don’t even realize they are bigots. Anti-semites who will insist they can’t be, because one of their best friends is a Jew. Working-class white people who are conned into believing that black people moving ahead in society must be gaming the system or getting something that they’re not.

It’s not that strict gender stereotyping or the denigration of the work and worth of women is a thing of the past. Not when the #metoo movement has painfully laid bare the cost of saying no to a powerful man. Not when millions of women around this nation are now realizing we must fight the same battles we thought our mothers won forty years ago, when these shows first aired, including the battles for control over our own bodies (as anyone who remembers that episode of “Maude” knows well).

And it’s not that television cannot or should not hold up that mirror to our country today and make each and every one of us take a good long look at ourselves untouched and unfiltered, rather than in the photo-shopped way we would like others to see us. In fact, I think we need that more than ever.

One critic wrote: I’d like to see Archie Bunker deal with today’s issues, not those of 40 years ago. And maybe that would work, I don’t know. Norman Lear is a genius. What he did in the 1970’s was new and honest and astonishing and uncomfortable – for its own time. And maybe he could do something equally astonishing and honest for our time.

But, my friends, we have to watch where we’re going, not where we’ve been. Nostalgia will not touch us, or disturb us, or inspire us to face today’s challenges. Like the Israelites of old, we cannot yearn for what life was – or what we now imagine it was, distorted, as that may be, by our own fading memories.

In these first few verses of the Book of Numbers, God is making sure that the Israelites will be looking in the right direction.

They will be armed with the mitzvot that shape their years in the wilderness — the same rules and ethical values that guide us today.

The laws about how we wage war, for which the census sets the stage.

The laws of our feast days and fast days that have shaped our national character from generation to generation.

Care of the land that has been entrusted to us.

Care of our neighbors – those who work and eat and pray alongside us – regardless of where they come from or what they look like.

Care of the strangers who come to our communities, in the full knowledge that we are now the ones with power over other people’s lives.

Aaron will die, and life will go on. Miriam will die, and they will still move forward. One generation will take over from another. And the generation that had not known slavery – that had no reason to look where they’d been – will be granted the gift of completing the journey to where they were going.

We must be that generation. We must be honest enough to withstand that scrutiny in the mirror. We must be brave enough, and kind enough, to build a world – one block, one neighborhood, one community at a time – that reflects the values the Torah gave us thousands of years ago.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

A Woman’s Voice, A Woman’s Place: For the 30th Anniversary of Women of the Wall. Shabbat Pekude – Friday, March 8, 2019

Sat, 2019-03-09 16:56

Today was destined to be an auspicious day, the confluence of three important events. It was International Women’s Day, which for more than a hundred years has celebrated the role – and the promise – of girls and women throughout the world. It was the 30th anniversary of Women of the Wall, which has shown as a beacon of strength and determination and joy in Israel. It was Rosh Hodesh – the new moon, on which women’s prayers are considered especially auspicious – which meant that Women of the Wall would be celebrating this anniversary by praying at the Kotel. And not only was it Rosh Hodesh, it was Rosh Hodesh Adar, the month when we read the story of Queen Esther’s courage in saving the Jews of ancient Persia.

And it all went about as horribly wrong as I had feared – and expected – that it would.

The signs beforehand were ominous. Literally.

Flyers handed out throughout ultra-Orthodox communities in and around Jerusalem read like fake newspaper covers, calling essentially for holy war on the Women of the Wall. “The Reform have conquered the Kotel!” – the explosive headline read. “We must prevent it! All of us to the Kotel, Friday, 6:45 AM!”

So by the time members of Women of the Wall and the men who support them arrived at the Kotel – the holiest space in all of Judaism – the entire plaza already was crammed with Haredi men and boys and girls bussed in from so-called religious schools across the area.

They were not there to pray the prayers for the new month – but to prevent this group of women from doing so.

I was watching the live feed on Facebook in the middle of the night. Here’s what I saw:

Not only had the request for a sound system by Women of the Wall for the large group they expected been turned down by the Haredi rabbis in charge of the Western Wall Plaza – that sound system had instead been set up in the men’s section, where it was turned up full blast to drown out the women’s prayers.

Not only was there no security for the women, but the Jerusalem Police blamed them for inciting a riot by coming to the women’s section to pray – as they have done every month for three decades.

Not only were the women jostled and pushed and punched and scratched by these so-called religious girls who screamed at them and tugged at their prayer shawls and their tefillin – but the Men of the Women of the Wall were displaced and physically abused as well. Among them several of the famed paratroopers who liberated Jerusalem in 1967 – true national heroes being treated like garbage.

The scene was a calamity – and a dangerous one at that. The women trying to pray together were pushed apart and separated, so that they couldn’t even hear each other, much less pray a coherent service. They eventually had to be evacuated to Robinson’s Arch, a separate space for egalitarian worship, in order to hold their Torah service.

Let’s be clear about this. Women have the right to pray together, and to pray together at the Kotel – both by traditional Jewish law and by Israel civil law as upheld by the courts over and over again.

But the worst violence against them in at least five years was precipitated by an ultra-Orthdox patriarchy that cares nothing for either halakhah or civil law but only for amassing power. And it has been enabled and emboldened by an Israeli government – led for the last decade by Benjamin Netanyahu – that has a nasty co-dependent relationship with this Haredi patriarchy. It is a relationship based on power and patronage and male domination.

There are many people in Israel who would consider themselves chiloni – secular – and don’t care much about what happens to Women of the Wall. But they should. Because the travesty at the Kotel this morning is just one symptom of life in Israel that is increasingly erasing women from both religious and civil life.

In religious communities – and even outside of them – signs have appeared ordering women to walk on one side of the street and not the other, or to dress in more modest garb, or to avoid going anywhere near the neighborhood synagogue even when men are not at prayer.

In what are supposed to be secular government public events, women have been barred from speaking, or even appearing.

Posters – paid advertisements – for women running for public office have been effaced from the sides of public buses.

And just this week, a class-action lawsuit was filed against IKEA – the consummate example of modern secular consumerism – because their Israeli catalog included not one photo of a woman or a girl, but only of black-hatted, bearded religious men and their sons.

And even men who are supposed to be reasonable, open-minded allies are not always helpful. Netanyahu’s ever-more reactionary ruling coalition is being challenged by a new, more moderate Blue-and-White coalition, which says it will support the expansion and renovation of the Robinson’s Arch egalitarian prayer area. But the coalition’s number-two, Yair Lapid, stepped in it big time last week when he was asked at a public event why there are so few women on the group’s candidate list for the upcoming elections. There are only nine women in the top 30 and 13 in the top 40.

First, Lapid gave the rather lame excuse that, yes, it’s regrettable, but the list was done in haste in last-minute negotiations. Then, according to the Times of Israel newspaper:

“After offering his answer, Lapid introduced the party’s second-highest female candidate on the list, Orna Barbivai, a retired army major-general who is in tenth place, to stand up and acknowledge the crowd. But she declined and Lapid responded with a smile and said: “We have a small number of women candidates and even they lack discipline.’”

I was told by an Israeli colleague – well, that’s just Israeli self-deprecating humor. But Lapid wasn’t making fun of himself. And frankly there’s no excuse for a coalition that purports to be centrist and broad-based but does not recruit candidates of all races and backgrounds, men and women alike, from the get-go. That it wouldn’t occur to them to do so shows just how far to the right Israel has moved. And it is deeply, deeply disturbing.

All of this comes at a time when we American Jews are being bombarded here at home with hardened and emboldened antisemitism from both the left and the right, and when we have suffered (close to home) a spike in hate crimes against us and our communities. But, frankly, it’s getting harder and harder to justify support for Israel on the grounds that it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, when it looks and acts increasingly like something very different.

For the nearly nine years that I have been your rabbi, I have been proud of the support our community has shown for Women of the Wall. My first year here, we did a photo shoot of women and girls and their families wearing tallitot and holding Torah scrolls. One year, we decorated oranges for our seder plates with Women of the Wall slogans. This year, our Confirmation students have been inspired by meeting via the internet with my Jerusalem-based colleague and friend Rabbi Susan Silverman. Susan is a longtime member of Women of the Wall who was arrested along with her then-17-ear-old daughter Hallel six years ago – for the simple act of wearing prayer shawls during worship at the Kotel.

It is so important that we continue to support Women of the Wall into the next decade of their advocacy for women and girls in all walks of life. They are an example of courage and determination that should inspire us all of us.

Every single month, they walk the gauntlet, knowing they will be cursed and spat on and pushed and shoved and knocked down – all because they want to pray in peace, and they want to pray for peace.

Every single month, they show us what an eishet chayil, a Woman of Valor, really looks like.

Every single month, they hold the ground against an ever-more powerful patriarchy that is determined to sideline and disempower women from both religious and civil life in a land that was founded to be both Jewish and democratic. And if they can push back, with the challenges they face, then so can we.

Every day ought to be International Women’s Day. Every day ought to bring us one step closer to equal pay, equal rights, and equal opportunities – without fear of harassment, or threats of punishment for our impudence.

We were warned. We were given an explanation. Nevertheless, we persisted. Let that be said of all of us on this International Women’s Day, on this Rosh Hodesh, on this first day of the month of Adar, when a woman’s voice is heard and a woman’s courage is celebrated.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


© 2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Making Space for God – Shabbat Vayakhel, Friday, March 1, 2019

Fri, 2019-03-08 12:42

Gold and silver and copper for vessels. Blue and purple and crimson yarn for weaving curtains. Fine linen and goat’s hair, tanned ram skins and dolphin skins for the tent walls. Acacia wood for the altar tables. Oil for lighting. Spices for anointing. Aromatic incense for ceremonies. Precious gems for the priestly vestments.

These are among the precious possessions that the Israelites are summoned to bring to the artisans who are constructing the Tabernacle in the wilderness, at the start of this week’s Torah portion. Somehow, a rag-tag group of escaped slaves has access to such things in such great quantity, and is eager to give them so willingly, that Moses actually has to tell them to stop giving – because it’s more than God needs.

The truth of the matter is, of course, that Israel’s God needs none of this. But the people believe God does – and right now, in this Neverland between the Egypt they have left and the land they have been promised as their own – right now, that’s what matters.

The land is full of Temples and altars to the pantheons of Gods that were were worshipped across the Ancient Near East. The gods always got the best of what the people had – from the precious metals and gems to adorn the temples, to the animals sacrificed on the altars, to the skills of the artisans and weavers and goldsmiths. This is what the ancient peoples believed: If we care for our gods and their needs, then they will care for us and ours.

But as we are overwhelmed by the details and the minutiae, it’s all too easy to forget that this temple, this altar, is unlike any other. For God has commanded that these wanderers in need of love and protection create a portable tabernacle that will go with them: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham: Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”[1]

Let’s just stop and think for a moment about what an extraordinary statement that is.

In the ancient world, everybody else believed in a vast pantheon of gods, each of whom had a specific role and a specific realm. A god of the sun and a god of the moon. A god of the mountains and a god of the sea. A god of rain and a god of the harvest. Each one had to be worshiped and fed and obeyed, in his or her own temple. The people went to them.

But Israel’s God is like no other – one God of creation, revelation and redemption. One God overseeing the workings of the whole material world. And instead of insisting that these wanderers come to God, God is saying – wherever you go, I will be with you, and this Tabernacle will be My home. V’shachanti b’tocham.

The three-letter root for the Hebrew word “to dwell” is shin-khaf-nun. In these same Biblical passages, it is at the root of the word Mishkan – the tabernacle itself.

And from this same root, the rabbis create the Divine persona of Shechina, the indwelling, close presence of God. The nurturing feminine aspects of a God previously portrayed as celestial, accessible only to Moses on Mount Sinai, and masculine, capable of destroying whole armies with a wave of His hand.

The Shekhina, for the rabbis, is that facet of God that the Israelites need in times of distress, loneliness, and fear. Not just in the wilderness, but anywhere we go – by choice or by force. By invitation or by exile. And not just thirty-five hundred years ago, but even now.

As the great Rabbi Akiva taught: “Shekol makom she-galu, shechina imahem, Wherever Israel goes into exile, Shechina is with them.”

What an astonishing notion! A God that is willing to go into the wilderness, into exile, into danger – to protect an entire nation, in every generation. Never before had the world seen such a thing! But that’s not the end of the story.

During my month away, I’ve been – among other things – studying the Zohar, the foundational text of medieval Jewish mysticism, with the brilliant scholar Daniel Matt, who spent eighteen years of his life creating a modern, annotated English translation of this esoteric and complicated piece of literature. Created in 13th-century Spain and written by Moshe de Leon in pseudo-ancient Aramaic, the Zohar plumbs the depths of the words of Torah seeking the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe – and opening the gates of heaven themselves.

The gate-keeper to the celestial heights – to those facets of God so far from us and so incomprehensible – is Shechina. She is, Dr. Matt told us, actually the star of the Zohar. But here, she is not a mere facet of God’s nature. She actually represents a concept of Deity that Judaism sorely lacks: the feminine half of God.

Keep in mind that peoples of the ancient world had, at the head of their pantheons, a male god and a female god reigning together. Isis and Osiris in Egypt, for example, or An and Ki in Mesopotamia.

But as the Israelite religion evolved, the feminine, the goddess, disappeared. The God of Torah is described in masculine terms, in masculine language. The Rabbis turned the Mishkan – the place of God among us – into Shechina, the nurturing element of God among us. But the Kabbalists gave Shechina her own realm, her own powers. She is the bride sitting as an equal with her bridegroom, the masculine element of God they called Tiferet, or what we would call yud-hey-vav-hay, Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, Adonai, or Lord.

So what does it mean to bring the feminine back into our notion of God? The union of the male and female makes God complete. And we here on earth are responsible for making that happen. The rabbis taught that the way we behave on earth has consequences for the world. The kabbalists taught that what we say and do has consequences for God, who created our world. We speak of Tikkun Olam as repair of the world – usually through tzedakah and g’milut chasadim, giving and doing in God’s name. But tikkun, for the mystics, is – as Dr. Matt taught – about something very specific. It’s about weaving together the elements of God that make God whole. And making God whole is the way we make our lives and our world whole.

Now, that is a far greater responsibility. But it starts, Dr. Matt says, with the basic responsibility of studying Torah. It is Torah’s words, after all, that created the world. It is Torah’s words that hold the secrets to at least some elements of God’s nature. It is Torah’s words that bring us closer to our own unity with God – and ultimately to the unity of God.

Ever since Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we humans have been exiled from one-ness. As Dr. Matt taught, there is something beautiful and also something terrible about the splits, the tears in the weaving, that the exile created. On the one hand, we understand – as Adam and Eve did in that moment that brought them shame — that we are unique creatures, separate entities from one another. And that individuality is what gives us the spark of creativity that we need to make the world better.

On the other hand, being separate can be very, very lonely. We all know that. We all feel a sense of abandonment – some of us more deeply than others, and some of us in different situations than others. But that’s why, ever since then, we humans have searched for, and worked for, ways of coming back together. Of creating Tikkun.

Our goal, then, is – in essence – achieving oneness. Oneness with the divine. Oneness within the divine. Oneness by creating healing within ourselves. Oneness by creating healing between us and other people.

Repairing the cosmos is too big a job for any one of us even to comprehend. But starting by repairing ourselves, and our relationships to other people, is a life-altering start.

In coming weeks, we will see the change in the world around us – new life sprouting from the old, green from brown, dynamic colors emerging overnight. It’s like the earth is healing itself naturally, regularly, just as God intended.

And so it should be with each of us: finding in the new life around us the inspiration to find new life and inspiration and love within us and in the people around us, with the support and guidance of the Shechina, who is always with us.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Exodus 25:8.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“Miriam and the Women Danced” For the Blair County Women’s March: Saturday, January 19, 2019

Sun, 2019-01-20 12:05

This morning, I want to tell you a story. It’s actually a story about THE story, the ultimate story in Jewish history. The story which, owing to a convergence of events on today’s calendar, is also THE portion of Jewish scripture that is being read TODAY in temples and synagogues all around the world.

You all know the story, I think. The Israelites fleeing Egypt are now trapped between the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army coming up fast from behind. God instructs Moses to hold out his hand over the waters, the sea miraculously parts, and the jubilant Israelites cross to freedom on the dry river bed.

Moses, the man who didn’t even want this job because, as he told God, he was “slow of speech,” now is inspired to sing of the peoples’ redemption in a magnificent, extended and richly detailed poem of praise to God known as the “Song of the Sea.”

Or so we are told.

But following this long poem attributed to Moses, the book of Exodus gives us this:

“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously. Horse and driver have God hurled into the sea.” (Ex. 15:20-21)

Without waiting for orders or encouragement, Miriam and the women take it upon themselves to dance right into the middle of the sea-bed – in full faith and trust in God that they will be redeemed.

As it happens, this short two-line song may well be the original – or at least the most ancient – telling of the redemption of the Israelite nation. It may just be that this simple, short and beautiful first description of what the women said and did was later overshadowed by the extended and more famous poem attributed to Moses – who, after all, is the hero of the Exodus story as it has been handed down to us.

Some scholars even believe that the entire “song of the sea” should actually be attributed to Miriam. After all, in the ancient world, it was the role of the women to compose and perform songs of triumph to greet victorious troops as they returned from battle. One ancient manuscript actually calls this “The Song of Miriam.” But in the end, Moses is given the credit.

We are fortunate that the remnants of the original story remain in the final redaction of THE story. Because they teach us how powerful these women were when their faith in God was strong, and their trust in one another was, perhaps, even stronger. Miriam could not have pulled this off alone. It took all the women, singing and dancing across the dry river bed to freedom, who made such an impact that their simple act of faith remains with us more than three-thousand years later.

What happened to Miriam’s song and the story of the women are part and parcel of the patriarchal narrative of life – not just the life of the Ancient Near East but the life we live today. The movement that we call the Women’s March began in 2017 as a message to the world that the women of America would not step back. We would not see our accomplishments neglected or belittled. We would not politely wait our turn to step up into positions of leadership and power – any more than the Israelite women waited for somebody else to tell them to march forward.

The speed at which this is now happening at all levels of public life has been astonishing. It literally takes my breath away. I found my place in the feminist movement back in the 70’s, raised by a father who taught me I could do anything and be anything I wanted to be – and inspired by his mother, my Grandmom Freda, who took no nonsense from anyone, and by her mother, my Bubbie Rose, who arrived at these shores from Poland, all alone, at the age of 16, with nothing but a letter of introduction and enough talent in the kitchen and the sewing room to earn passage for the rest of her family.

The young women I am fortunate enough to teach and to pastor take for granted the broad horizons open to them. Which is exactly what my generation of feminists fought for.

The wonderful Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Connie Schultz (who’s married to some politician in Ohio) wrote this week of what she learned watching her own mother’s regret that she had lived by the limitations that others had put on her. Connie wrote:

“We women have always had our ambition – and by ambition, I mean wanting to do anything that runs contrary to the relentless and time-honored tradition of keeping us in the shadow of our own lives.”

“Keeping us in the shadow of our own lives.” I love that phrase. I think it captures perfectly our struggle against those patriarchal traditions. The women of my and Connie’s generation had a long learning curve about stepping out of the shadows of our own lives. We had to learn, as Connie wrote, that our restlessness is an asset and a strength – and not, as we may have been taught, a sign of impolite selfishness.

And we are overjoyed to see how easily and gracefully the women who are our daughters’ ages – and even our granddaughters’ ages – have followed their (your) restlessness, stepping into the light and, like Miriam and the women, singing and dancing their (your) way to the front.

I was so lucky and blessed to be raised by inspiring and empowering women, who did not wait for someone else to give them permission to live their lives. That gift led me to what are still considered “non-traditional” careers for women: broadcast journalism, sports journalism, sports marketing. And now my true calling as a rabbi – a teacher, a preacher and a pastor for the past twenty years.

We women rabbis are still very much in the minority, even in Reform Judaism, which is the most inclusive and progressive stream of Judaism. But we are making our mark in congregations large and small, where we are a living embodiment of the joy of stepping out of the shadows of our own lives — and of other peoples’ pre-conceived notions of who and what a rabbi is supposed to be.

The women gathered here today – and in towns and cities across the country – come from all different ethnicities, faith traditions, and families of origin. But we march together because, like Miriam and the women, we understand we are stronger together. We are bolder together. And God knows, we are louder together. To those who would try to weaken us by driving wedges between us – I say now, you will not win. We see what you’re trying to do. We know your game plan. And we always will be three moves ahead of you.

We have a Hebrew phrase that we use at times such as these – times such as Miriam and the women faced – when we have rid ourselves of servitude but face unknown challenges in the path ahead. We say:

Chazak! Chazak! V’nitchazek!

Be Strong! Be Strong! And we will be encouraged.

The first part is in the singular: You be strong! And you! And you!

The second part is in the plural. Every time you or you or you shows how wonderful you are, you inspire the rest of us to stand strong together.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin


The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), commentary to Parashat B’shalach, Exodus 15:1-21), p. 387-88.



Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Yom Kippur Morning 2018: “It’s You I Like”

Thu, 2018-09-20 15:00

It started out as a simple act of kindness.

It was a scorching hot day in the neighborhood, and Mr. Rogers was trying to keep himself cool by dipping his feet in the cold water of a kiddie pool. So when the neighborhood’s friendly policeman, Officer Clemmons, stopped by, Mr. Rogers naturally invited him to roll up his trousers and do the same – and so he did.

We might not think much of it now. But this was 1969. And Officer Clemmons was black.

Of all the public accommodations that had been at the center of racism and protest – from water fountains to lunch counters to public schools – swimming pools were among the last holdouts of segregation. Since the 1920s, when public pools became gender integrated, they became racially segregated – because white swimmers objected to the specter of black men swimming with white women. There was even a riot at Pittsburgh’s Highland Park Pool – the only city pool where men and women, and boys and girls, swam together – in which white swimmers attacked blacks with clubs and rocks, to keep them from entering the pool.

In the period after World War Two, when public officials formally integrated public swimming pools, many southern cities simply shut theirs down. And in the north, whites fled for the suburbs, where they could maintain de-facto segregation. Or they joined private clubs, where only whites were admitted as members.

In 1969, the long hot summer that followed the race riots after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King a year before, racially charged emotions were high again. And Fred Rogers, as he always did, showed the way by sharing his little pool with Francois Clemmons. Because that, he taught by example, is simply what neighbors do. At a time of intense anger and tension in our country, Mr. Rogers fulfilled the pledge he had once given:

“The world needs a sense of worth,” he said. “And it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.”

With all the prayers and the petitions and the verses of Torah we share on the High Holy Days, Mr. Rogers’ simple message conveys the essence of what we hope to take away from the Days of Awe: Each of us – every human being – is worthy, regardless of race or color or gender or background or economic status. Everyone is worthy of being our neighbor.

Here’s the way Mister Rogers put it, in one of the songs he often sang on his television show:

It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,

Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.

But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

Today, we live in a world where bigots and bullies feel emboldened and empowered to attack – both physically and emotionally — people who do not look like them, or who do not pray like them, or who do not speak like them, or who do not otherwise conform to their narrow vision of belonging in their neighborhood, which they define with a single racial, or religious, or gender identity.

As barriers rise, bridges fall. And a lot – a lot – of people suffer. And, as Mister Rogers knew full well, a lot of the victims are children.

In Oklahoma last month, as families were preparing for back-to-school time, a transgender 7th grader named Maddie was forced to move to a new school district for the second time, after parents of other students threatened her on social media

They called her “it,” and “maggot.” “If he wants to be female, make him a female,” one parent wrote, “a good sharp knife will do the job really quick.”

We are not spared here in Altoona, where we are dealing with the devastating aftermath of the suicide of another 7th grader, after what his father’s lawsuit against the school system calls “a particularly brutal day of bullying.” We may live in a very white neighborhood – but there are differences among us that are more than skin deep. So don’t for a moment think the gay kids, or the trans kids, or the kids who struggle with learning challenges, or the kids who are just socially awkward, or the Jewish kids – always fit in just because of the color of their skin.

Mister Rogers started his television show because he knew that children needed to be loved. More than that: They needed to know they are worthy of love. The inexplicable viciousness of these attacks on children are one way in which we who are different are told we are not worthy. These attacks are coming from adults, or from children who learn this hatred from adults. It is shameful. It is unacceptable. And it is contrary to God’s command to all of us, which we hear most powerfully on this holiest of days.

In our public, civic life, we seem to have no way to talk to one another that is not nasty and hurtful. There seems to be no place today for civil discourse, for actually listening to someone else’s perspective and acknowledging it, even if you don’t agree with them. And the world of truthiness – a word coined in jest a few years ago by television satirist Stephen Colbert – has lost its irony in a deluge of outright lies.

Lies designed to divide us along racial or gender or religious lines. Lies designed to make us believe that if someone else’s life is improving, you are paying the price. Remember the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats? Now it’s shark week, every week of the year.

Columnist David Brooks describes this as the rise of the wolves – leaders who, he says, “don’t so much have a shared ideology as a shared mentality.” And that mentality, he writes, is this:

“Wolves perceive the world as a war of all against all and seek to create the world in which wolves thrive, which is a world without agreed-upon rules, without restraining institutions, norms and etiquette.”

We are, Brooks writes, in a battle over how we establish relationship: We can do it either at a high level, “based on friendship, shared values, loyalty and affection” – or at a low level, “based on mutual selfish interest and a brutal, ends-justify-the-means mentality.”

“The grand project for those of us who believe in a high-level, civilized world order,” Brooks writes, “is to find ways to restore social trust. It is to find ways to restructure power – at all levels – in order to re-inspire faith in the system. It is to find common projects – locally, globally, and internationally – that diverse people can do together.”

It is time to take back our neighborhood from the selfish and the brutal, from the bigots and the bullies. We need to step out of the echo chamber that recycles and dresses up old hatreds in new language, and step into a wind-tunnel that will blow all of that away and make room for fresh air.

Balloons and kind slogans are not going to cut it. We have to get into the difficult work of those common projects right here in our own neighborhood – projects that we diverse people can do together.

Our Temple family does what it can. Donating and packing nutritious lunches for at-risk neighborhood children through the Altoona Mountain Lion BackPack Program. Serving tasty home-made meals to neighbors in need at the Love Feast at Simpson Temple. Some of us volunteer at Habitat for Humanity – which recognizes the dignity and responsibility that come with home ownership. Others have helped rebuild broken-down neighborhood playgrounds, knowing that fresh air and exercise are good for both the body and the spirit. And the Jewish community has been, from the beginning, part of IDA – “Improved Dwellings for Altoona” – a faith-based non-profit that insures that over a thousand needy people in our neighborhood have a safe and healthy place to live.

We do all of this – and we must do much, much more – not because we feel like it but because God commands us to do it.

The Holiness Code – Chapter 19 of Leviticus from which we will read later today – commands us to care for the poor and the hungry, to speak with integrity and truth, not to pervert justice, not to spread lies about our neighbors.

It commands us not to oppress strangers – those who do not look like us, or who do not talk like us, or who do not come from the same background as us: “The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens,” says God, “V’ahavta l’re-acha-kamocha. And you shall love them as yourself.”

We may take a cursory glance around our neighborhood and see almost all white faces. But just because we have few neighbors with brown or black skin, or few neighbors who speak a different native language than us – that does not absolve us from the task that God sets for us today.

As Mister Rogers himself taught, using the language that we Jews understand, “We are all called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation.”

Fred Rogers made that public call for neighborliness in a special public service announcement created in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, when Muslims and Arabs were under siege in this country. It was a time when, like today, racism and panic and the building of walls took hold among some among us, when what our neighborhood needed most was compassion and reasonableness and new bridges of understanding.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Home We Build Together, wrote: “The best way of breaking down barriers between people or communities is through simple, unforced acts of kindness. One act can undo years of estrangement.”

One act of kindness. How about if we start there? Let’s make it something brave and unexpected and simple, like Mister Rogers sharing his wading pool with Officer Clemmons. One act, when we can say to another human being, created in the image of God: “It’s you, yourself. It’s you I like.”

What a revolution we might start! What a neighborhood we might build.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our commitment. And let us say together: Amen.


©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin



Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog


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