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You Will Not Replace Us: Shabbat Bechukkotai, May 20, 2022

Sat, 2022-05-21 10:07

We cannot say we didn’t see it coming.

Charlottesville, Virginia, August, 2017: One woman dead in white nationalist riots. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October, 2018: Eleven Jews slaughtered during prayer at Tree of Life Synagogue. Christchurch, New Zealand, March, 2019: 51 Muslims killed at prayer at two separate mosques by a single gunman. Poway, California, April, 2019, : One woman murdered at a synagogue during Sabbath prayer. El Paso, Texas, August, 2019: 23 Hispanics killed at a Wal-Mart. And now Buffalo, New York, is in mourning for ten people gunned down at a neighborhood supermarket because they were Black.

Jews and Muslims at prayer. Black and Brown people out shopping. All the slaughters had one thing in common: All the alleged gunmen were white men with guns and grudges, who believe in a sick, twisted conspiracy theory called “The Great Replacement.” Here’s a simple explanation from the American Jewish Congress:

“The Great Replacement [is] also known as white replacement theory or white genocide theory. The conspiracy theory, rooted in white supremacist ideology, claims there is an intentional effort, led by Jews, to promote mass migration, intermarriage, and other efforts that would lead to the (quote) ‘extinction of whites.’.”[1]

The shooting suspect in Buffalo made mention of this in his manifesto, which blamed Jews for pushing out whites. So did all the rest. They were pushed and encouraged on line by manifestos full of rage about the supposed downfall of White Christian male domination – here in our country and around the world.

The more the demographic trends move in other directions, it seems, the more angry and desperate they get to stem the tide, one or two or ten or 23 or 51 people at a time.

Back in 2017, when news programs showed streams of young white men in geeky polo shirts marching with hatred blazing in their eyes, shouting “Jews will not replace us!” – back then, we saw this white supremacist movement as a fringe element. As Jews, we took it seriously – we always have to. But we thought it was limited to small groups being radicalized in secret, dark corners of the internet.

We missed one big sign. The sign, in Charlottesville, was that these hate-filled white men were no longer hiding behind masks or inside white robes. They didn’t care who saw them, who identified them. They had been released from the shackles of the darkness.

The mass murders that followed Charlottesville, tell this story. Manifestos by the killers are posted, shared and quoted openly. The Buffalo shooter copied the killer in New Zealand by proudly posting video of his bloody crime. The killers in Pittsburgh and in Poway – consumed by racial paranoia — wrote that their attacks would spark a long-smoldering revolution, a violent race war, awakening unsuspecting white people to the “fact” of their imminent demise unless they took up arms.

We also missed a second big sign from Charlottesville: the shrug, the wink, the nod, that people at the highest levels of our government gave to the racist violence. Again, we believed it was a handful of people. Powerful ones, to be sure, but limited. We were wrong about that. There are a lot more powerful people spewing variations of this hatred, some more overtly than others. And there are lot more Americans than we’d like to think, who believe it.

And we’re just now catching up to a third big shift: the toxic mixture of Christian nationalism, white replacement theory, and other conspiratorial belief systems like Q-Anon and long-refuted allegations of stolen elections. Author Katherine Stewart, who’s written recently on this dangerous and deadly confluence, describes it as “a reactionary, authoritarian ideology that centers its grievances on a narrative of lost national greatness . . . this mind-set always involves a narrative of unjust persecution at the hands of alien or ‘un-American’ groups.”[2]

Stewart says the targets may vary: gay people, non-white immigrants or Americans of color, religious minorities like Muslims or Jews, or that vague catch-all known as “secular elites.” Or, of course, all of the above.

That vagueness is well suited to the dog-whistles we now hear calling those who fall into this toxic morass – calls emanating from elected officials and “populist” media personalities. Some are true believers in “white makes right.” Others simply seek fame and fortune, higher office and high media visibility. Twitter followers. Loyal donors. Even those officials who are late to the “hate party” have learned how to stoke the hatred for personal gain and profit.

As Jews, we know where all this can lead. For millennia we have been the scapegoats who are bullied, exiled, murdered, slaughtered in numbers that were once unbelievable. It’s why we are quick to come to the aid and support of others now targeted by vicious and deadly hate, whatever their race or religion. It’s why we demand action from our government officials at all levels, to denounce the conspiracies and crack down on the violence.

We know that haters carry senseless grudges against “the other” – everyone and anyone who isn’t them. It’s why the echoes of “never again” always tug at our hearts and our guts – and require us to speak out against injustice always and everywhere.

When our Torah says “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof” – justice, justice shall you pursue[3] – the rabbis take special note of the fact that the word for justice is said twice, a rare occurrence in the Bible, which uses terse language. One great Torah commentator, Nachmanides, teaches that’s because we cannot leave it to the judges or the justice system – we each have an obligation seek justice for all. Another sage, Abraham Ibn Ezra, teaches that it means you are obligated to pursue justice – whether it’s to your gain or not — to your last day on earth.

Sitting quietly is not an option. Not when we know where this toxic mix of baseless hatred, conspiracy theories, and beliefs in racial superiority lead. Too many lives have been lost already. Black and brown, Muslim and Jew. If each of us is, as Judaism teaches us, made in God’s image, and if no one’s blood is redder than another’s, then we cannot stand idly while our neighbors bleed. Hate has no home here. Hate must have no home anywhere.

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


©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.ajc.org/news/great-replacement-theory-heres-what-jews-need-to-know-about-white-supremacy

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/18/opinion/christian-nationalism-great-replacement.html?searchResultPosition=1

[3] Deut. 16:20.

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Proclaim Liberty – Shabbat Behar May 13, 2022

Wed, 2022-05-18 10:57

As something of an Anglophile, I’ve been anticipating for months the Jubilee celebrations in early June that will celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years on the British throne. There will be the Trooping of the Colour (colour with a “u”) of course, as hundreds of soldiers put on a display for the monarch. There will be thousands of beacons (big torches, actually) lit across the country. A service of thanksgiving, of course, at St. Paul’s. And even the Derby at Epsom Downs is part of the celebratory weekend.

I’m sure it will be a great celebration for a woman who’s life has been dedicated to Crown and country. And a wonderful way for COVID-weary Brits to get back in touch with one another in a joyful way.

Elizabeth is the first British Monarch ever to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years on the throne – beating even Queen Victoria’s almost 64 years.

But the idea of a Jubilee as a once-in-a-lifetime event goes back to the Torah itself – even if it means something very different.

“You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years,” says the Torah this week. “Then you shall sound the shofar loud . . . and you shall hallow the fiftieth year.” (Lev. 25:8-10)

The Jewish Jubilee – the Yovel — is a community celebration, too. But the word “Yovel” itself means “release.” And our Jubilee is just that. A permanent release from indentured servitude for those who have been enslaved to others because of financial debts. “Each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family,” the Torah says.

But it isn’t just people that get a release on the Yovel. The land gets a rest – no reaping or sowing. Everyone needs to be clever enough to plan ahead for that. Because, as God reminds us here, “the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me.” (Lev. 25:24).

The Yovel – the 50th year – is a reminder to us that everything and everyone are God’s. No human being can enslave another permanently. No person can claim another’s property for a debt permanently. No land can continue to be fruitful, without a time to be fallow, permanently. No community can profit from slave labor or seized property, permanently. It’s all designed to be once in a lifetime: No child shall ever be expected to incur the debts of his father. Each of us deserves to start our own lives with a clean slate – and make of ourselves everything we can without burdens imposed long before we were born.

The Yovel is a reminder to us that those burdens still haunt us in our own time, in our own country, in so many different ways. The burden of multi-generational poverty, unemployment, and drug abuse. The burden of continued destruction of our planet. The burden of low educational expectations that are self-fulfilling for children of color and children of migrants. The burden of fear, ignorance, bigotry and senseless hatred, transmitted from generation to generation around the dinner table. The burden of one religious group imposing its beliefs on others, with sometimes deadly consequences. The burden of rampant egotism and hunger for power that has left countries like Ukraine, Syria, and so many others devastated by brutal invasion.

It seems to me that the Yovel is a lot more than an old story about how we lived under God’s rule in ancient agricultural towns. It’s a blueprint – a divine directive, really – for the way we ought to be living today: free from oppression, as the prophet Micah expressed in declaring God’s will that “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

And so it is here, in the story of the Yovel, that the Torah proclaims, in the words etched onto the Liberty Bell by our own nation’s founders: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof” (Lev. 25:10).

Our lives ought to be filled with the kindness, and generosity of mind and spirit, with which our British neighbors celebrate the Platinum Jubilee: communities coming together in celebration, no matter the race or culture or faith of neighbors; people showing solidarity with each other and honor for the leaders who have earned their trust; opportunities for public thanksgiving and for public service.

The Jewish Jubilee is no longer formally celebrated – not since the Israelite people were scattered and the Second Temple destroyed – although by some calculations, we’re in the middle of a 50-year cycle now. But there’s no need to wait to get the party started.

Now is as good a time as any to recommit ourselves to tikkun, the healing of our world, so that that the next generation will never have to inherit the burdens we have created.

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, God commands:

אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:

You shall guard my sabbaths and venerate my sanctuary.” But we now understand that the whole world is God’s sanctuary, and every Sabbath is just a little taste of what the world could and should be. And it is up to each of us, in every generation, to fulfill that obligation.

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


©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin

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“Bans Off Our Bodies, Bans Off Our Beliefs” – Rabbi Dr. Audrey Korotkin

Sun, 2022-05-15 13:02

Rally For Abortion Access, Harrisburg, May 14, 2022

In my home congregation, when my congregants gather on the Sabbath, I thank them for being present for themselves and for each other. Shabbat is meant to be shared by people creating sacred space and marking sacred time. Well, this is the Sabbath, and, this morning, you are my congregation, creating sacred space with your commitment to do justice and love your neighbor as yourself. Thank you for being here for yourselves and for each other – and for all of those who need your love and support now, more than ever.

I want to take you all back several years, to my very first congregational position, at a small town in rural Illinois. I was still a seminary student, just learning how to be the preacher, teacher, pastor and leader of a community of faith. I thought it would be routine – Sabbath services, an occasional bar mitzvah, adult learning, visiting the housebound.

And then, one of my congregants came to me in agony.

She was pregnant. It was a planned pregnancy, and she and her husband were overjoyed. And then, some months into her pregnancy, they discovered that the fetus had multiple abnormalities. It would likely not survive birth. It might not survive that long. And in the meantime, her health and well-being were in danger. They were devastated. They thought they had done everything right.

So they made the difficult, but necessary, decision for her to have an abortion. She came to me because she wanted assurance that Judaism – that her Jewish community and her rabbi – would support their decision and help them heal. The answer was an unequivocal yes.

Judaism believes in bodily autonomy. Judaism believes in the agency of women. And even the rabbis of old – who were by no means radical feminists – drew from our Scripture to codify abortion into Jewish law. Abortion is accepted in Jewish law and sometimes required to save the mother’s life. And a woman’s life is always of paramount importance, no matter how far the pregnancy has progressed.  

My congregant was relieved to know all of this, from a Jewish perspective. But I realized there was a second reason she needed the support of her congregational community. She was not getting that support from the medical community. In this small, rural town in Illinois, she was ostracized by doctors and nurses who allowed their own personal religious beliefs to get in the way of the medical care she needed and deserved. She had a safe abortion. And she had safe harbor in the arms of her congregation.

This was about 25 years ago, well after Roe v. Wade was established law, reinforced by the Casey decision. And yet her experience was much more traumatic than it ought to have been, because other peoples’ religious beliefs were infringing on her constitutional right to choose abortion.

A lot has changed in our country since then. But one thing has not. Politicians and judges are still trying to impose their personal religious beliefs on the rest of us. They are still trying to insert themselves into some of the most personal and fraught decisions we can make. And they are succeeding, state by state – and now, possibly, on a national level. Under the guise of law and justice, they are using their presumptions about fetal personhood that are rooted in their particular conservative, patriarchal notions of religion to limit, or revoke, our right to privacy and our right to agency, and our right to our own religious beliefs.

As a person of deep faith – and a faith leader – I am offended. I am disgusted. I am determined to stop them in their tracks.

We’re talking here today about saving Roe. But don’t forget this is happening right here in Pennsylvania on the state level. My own state senator, Judy Ward, is the lead sponsor of a proposed state constitutional amendment that would proclaim that “nothing in this Constitution grants or secures any right relating to abortion.” Their reasoning? Quote: “to protect the life of every unborn child from conception to birth.”

That is a religious belief – that personhood begins at conception, or fertilization. Senator Ward and others who are signing onto this are, of course, entitled to their personal religious belief. But they are not entitled to impose their religious belief on us. Senate Bill 956 is one of many such proposals that have been debated in this statehouse over the past few years. But it is the most pernicious, because they want, not just to codify their religious beliefs into law, but to insert them into the most basic document of personal freedoms that we have.

It’s similar to the damage that Justice Alito is trying to do to the U.S. Constitution. Substituting his personal religious beliefs for our personal freedoms. Misrepresenting history. Quoting medieval misogynists as reliable sources – one of whom actually changed the words of my Bible (his “Old Testament”), turning the text on its head, to justify his contention that abortion is murder.

I am not kidding about this. I mentioned earlier that Judaism draws from Scripture in its legal acceptance of abortion. Here’s what Exodus 21, verse 22 says, in the laws of injuries:

“When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined.” There’s no capital crime. There’s no killing. Scripture focuses on the injury done to the woman, and the compensation due her for that injury.

Ah but here’s what Henry de Bracton had to say in the 13th century, as quoted by Justice Alito in his draft ruling:

“If a person has struck a pregnant woman, or has given her poison, whereby he has caused an abortion, if the foetus be already formed and animated, he commits homicide.”

Did you see what they did there? It’s a good thing some of us know our Bible.

Now, Justice Alito neglects to acknowledge the original biblical source. But he does cite a medieval legal “authority” who actually altered the word of God! Honestly, anyone who will do that, is capable of anything.

So here’s the deal. Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. Abortion is still legal in this country – despite the many roadblocks that have been erected to stop it. We have to protect abortion rights and abortion access nationwide and in our own backyard. It is imperative that my religious freedoms and my bodily autonomy – and yours and yours and yours – continue to be guaranteed across this nation.

So to those who are trying to take away our freedom and our rights I say:

Bans off our bodies. Bans off our beliefs.

And let us say: Amen.


Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“And I’m STILL Talking to You!” Shabbat Metzorah, April 8, 2022

Sat, 2022-04-09 11:34

Every once in a while, at this time of the year, we get lucky. We come to that long section of Leviticus that contains all the details of bodily impurities and skin disease – and if we’re lucky, the two Torah portions, Tazria and Metzora, are combined into one, and we can dispatch it in one Shabbat. 

This year is not one of those times. Female impurities last week, the men this week, and scaly skin all around. But that’s okay. We’ll just continue the conversation we started a week ago – in search of the underlying Jewish values that make us proud, instead of squeamish. We’ll focus on the words of Torah that guide us to principles of inclusion and kindness, rather than rules that lead to isolation and ignorance.

Tonight, as we did last week, we’ll look at one little detail in the text.

Last week, we saw how sin becomes a part of your body – and a part of your life – if you don’t stop it at the door. And we understood how many chances God gives us to do the right thing.

Tonight, we’re still talking about the person who suffers from tzora-at, a scaly skin condition. And we begin with a special ceremony that God commands to do, to purify the person who’s sick, so that he can leave the isolation to which he’s been banished, lest he contaminate the rest of the community.

God spoke to Moses, saying, “This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time he is to be purified: When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp to see if the leper has been healed of his scaly affection.”[1]

Um…hold on a minute. Question here. I get that this person needs to be brought to the priest to be checked out. But why should the priest have to leave the camp to do that. After all, the priest is such an important guy: powerful, ritually pure. Does he really need to join all the lepers and other presumed sinners outside the community? Isn’t there some safe and effective alternative?

To the 18th-century kabbalistic sage Rabbi Eliezer ben Meir ha-Levi of Pinsk, the answer is: Yes he does have to go. No, there’s no alternative. Why? Here’s the explanation he gave in his published homily on this text:

“God wants the leaders to give the people the benefit of the doubt. God wants the High Priests to realize that if they had needed to go out in the world and earn their living, it’s possible that they, too, would have sinned. Here, the Torah teaches us that the priest must go forth out of the camp, out of his comfort zone. He has to put himself, literally, in the place of person who’s presumed to have sinned. He must surround himself with ordinary working people, the am ha’aretz, who are just trying to get by, day by day, toiling to feed their family and put a roof over their heads — and sometimes cross a line or make a mistake. It is only then, Rabbi Eliezer writes, that the priest will see that the tsora’at of this person, whatever its cause, can and will be healed.[2]

It’s easy for us to pass judgment on other people while we’re safely ensconced in our comfortable surroundings – when we are safe, while they are not. Most of us gathered tonight don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, or whether we’ll have a paying job tomorrow.

Most of us are blessed with supportive friends and family and a caring congregation – people who will be by our side when we can’t handle the curveballs of life alone. It’s easy to look at people sleeping on the streets, or pushing a grocery cart full of rags and bags, or lining up for a hot meal – and dismiss them as somehow lazy or wasteful.

But we have seen over the past couple of years just how close to desperate so many of our neighbors are. The people who, in the depths of the pandemic, had to swallow their pride and drive through a pop-up food bank or find their way to a free-food porch, just to get a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and a roll of toilet paper. The people who were desperately trying to pick up work while they scrambled for an internet signal for their children, so they could be schooled from their home, while their elderly parents were isolated in a nursing home.

We’ve watched the unemployment numbers go up, as the money for rent disappears. The worst may be over. (God willing, it is.) But these have been the facts of life right here in our communities. We may not exactly be walking a mile in their shoes. But we’ve seen for ourselves just how close misfortune can come to people who thought they were safe – or even immune.

And if our pride blocks us from thinking we could be next, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, another great Chassidic master, teaches:

“Had the holy books not talked about the sin of pride, I would not have believed it possible for any human, composed of the dust of the earth and who will one day return to the dust of the earth, to be conceited.[3]

So yes, even the high priest – who is most cosseted and most lavishly cared for — has to leave the confines of his safe life and go out to where the people are. It’s only when he does that, that he can even understand what tsora-at is: an inadvertent slip-up, a choice between two bad options, a mistake that’s too easy to make when your life requires personal sacrifice every day.

It’s only then, that the priest can focus, not on one little imperfection or mis-step, but on the whole person, created – as he is – in God’s image, and as precious to God as anyone else. It’s only when he sees the truth of daily life for most people that he learns to say: I must do something to bring healing and comfort to someone who is in such distress that he is afflicted to his very soul.

And if it’s true for the priest – well, none of us needs wait for someone who is suffering to come to us. Through these years when plague has shaken so many lives, it’s our responsibility to reach out to them.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.


©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Lev. 14:1-3.

[2] Rewritten from Torah Gems: Volume II Shemot, Vaykra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, trans. By Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing Co., 1992), p. 293.

[3] Ibid., p. 295.

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“I’m Talking to YOU!”  Shabbat Tazria, Friday, April 1, 2022

Mon, 2022-04-04 14:03

It’s said that “the devil is in the details.” But in the case of this week’s Torah portion, the Divine is in the details. God’s message to us comes from some fine points in the language of the parashah for this Shabbat.

Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe v’el Aharon laymor: “God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying….” (Lev. 13:1). Nothing unusual there. God does that a lot, especially in the Book of Leviticus where Aaron’s role as High Priest is elevated. It’s what follows that grabs our attention.

Twenty-seven times in the Torah, we read that God then commanded: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them….” So most of the time, including at the very beginning of this week’s parashah, Leviticus chapter 12, God wants a specific message, a particular mitzvah, communicated to the entire community.

But not this time. At the beginning Chapter 13, God then says:

אָדָם כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ־סַפַּחַת

When an individual has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.

In other words, God goes right for a direct and personal call. Not to “B’ani Yisrael,” the camp in general, but to “Adam” – every individual person. This issue is so important, so crucial to the functioning and the future of the community, that it demands the immediate attention of each and every one of its members. God commands that the message say: “I’m talking to YOU!”  

So: what’s so important here that God chooses this language, which appears only four times in the Torah?

The short answer is: tzora’at. Leprosy. Or any of the scaly skin diseases that might spread among the people.

Tzora’at may indeed have been a scary scourge in those days. But the Torah also uses it as allegory – as a symbol for something that’s far more frightening: Evil, sin, immorality. Something inside a person that is malevolent, so nasty, that it manifests itself on the outside.

Now, in the ancient world, people really did believe that your essence on the inside really did become visible to everybody else on your outside. So if you were showing signs of a serious illness, it was because you must have done something really bad. You wore your transgression like a scarlet A. It’s the presumption that Job’s friends make, when he loses his money, his property, his children – everything. Well, you must have done something wrong, they tell him. Even though that’s really not true.

Job didn’t believe it. And neither do we, these days. Mr. Hyde doesn’t become Dr. Jekyll. But our tradition uses this idea, as it emerges in the Torah this week, to provide a lesson about how we ought to behave in our daily lives. Here’s how it’s laid out in the “Shema Shlomo,” the collected teachings of the 18th-century chassidic master Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, Russia, and his students:

Then he will be brought to Aaron the priest and his sons.” [This is the way our passage begins.] In the case of an outbreak in a house, the Torah has previously stated, “he will come,” implying the person will come to the priest voluntarily. But here [by the time a person’s skin has become white and scaly], why does he have to be brought? Here’s the explanation: According to our Sages, nega’im – outbreaks in one’s home, clothing, or body – are caused by various sins. [The Midrash][1] states: ‘At first nega’im affect one’s home. If the person does not repent, nega’im affect his clothes. If he still does not repent, they affect his body.’ Thus, the first stage is an outbreak in one’s house. At that time, sin has not yet taken deep root within the person, and ‘he will come’ voluntarily to the priest. By the time the outbreak reaches his body, though, he has become so used to his wicked deeds that he sees nothing wrong with them. At that point, he must be brought to the priest by others.”[2]

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, a revered 19th-century Lithuanian teacher, was more concise:

“The Talmud tells us that if a person commits a sin once and then a second time, he comes to think of that particular action as permissible. What happens if he commits the same sin a third time? By then, the person comes to regard the sin as a mitzvah, a positive commandment.”[3]

A white lie, cheating a bit on a project, stealing a couple of dollars to buy something you want – that may not seem like a big deal. But the more you cut corners, or take credit for work you didn’t do, or short-change someone with something they’ve paid for, or break a promise to a loved one – the more you do that, the less bad you feel.

The more it just becomes not a big deal, who cares anyway, nobody caught me. So why not do it again? Only now, it’s not just what you do. It becomes who you are. So the way you present on the outside, with your behavior, really does reflect a moral decay on the inside.

Over the past two years, we’ve learned how much we need our communities, how much care we need to show for one another. And what a true blessing that is to the world. And yet, some people have gone in the opposite direction. Hate crime has risen against Asians – and Jews. Cyber criminals are stealing identities from people who need to shop on line. Fraudsters were actually making and selling thousands of fake N-95 masks that did not give people the protection they thought they were getting. Charlatans played on peoples’ fears of illness and distrust of expertise to sell them totally ridiculous “remedies” that were supposed to prevent or cure COVID – including the medicine we give to our dogs every month to protect them against worms.

Recent news reports tell us that fraudsters – people who live among us —  have stolen over 100-billion dollars in COVID relief funds in this country. Money that was supposed to go to small-business people to pay their rent, to pay their employees, to buy their supplies – so that they could take care of their families and the other families that depended on them.

Matthew Schneider, a former U.S. attorney from Michigan, was aghast: “It is the biggest fraud in a generation,” he told NBC News.[4]

And what the fraudsters do with the money that they stole from us? Here’s one report published last year on the “Small Business Trends” web site:

“Millions of dollars of coronavirus relief funds meant to keep employees on the payroll were instead blown on extravagant personal spending sprees — all by a relatively small handful of people. Some of them operated as crime rings as part of the PPP loan fraud schemes they were committing. Loot paid for with PPP loan money included two Lamborghini Huracan sports cars, a Rolex Presidential watch, a 5.73-carat diamond ring, a diamond bracelet, two Tesla cars, a 26-foot Pavati Wake Boat, a 33-foot Cruiser yacht, two Rolls-Royces, a Lamborghini Urus luxury SUV, a Kia Stinger, a Ford F-350 pickup truck, at least three Bentleys, and an assortment of other pricey vehicles and boats. Wads of cash, casino runs and strip club visits also figured in the mix in the PPP loan fraud spree. One defendant was so brazen he allegedly posted a rap video online flashing $100 bills.”[5]

It’s a staggering account. It may be a small number of people we’re talking about here. But they stole a bit. And then a little bit more. And then a lot more. And they indulged themselves and burrowed themselves into their sin so deeply that, after a while, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

That’s the message in these verses. God gives us every chance to repent by starting with the walls of the house. That’s the first warning. If we still act badly, and treat others with contempt, the evolution of evil becomes evident on our clothes.

And if we ignore the second warning, it’s now on us and it’s inside of us. Three strikes and we’re out. We are someone to be ignored, shunned, even exiled from our community. Nobody wants to hang around with a known liar, thief or bully. It becomes a very solitary way to live. And we saw in the pandemic, it can become a criminal way to live. Not all criminals get caught. But there’s payback, one way or another.

Some people look at this part of the Torah and see a message of separation and exclusion. But that’s not what Torah’s trying to teach us. These passages are not about isolating people from the community. They’re about finding ways to keep them in, create conditions to help them return.

But it’s up to each of us, individually. God is talking to YOU. And YOU. And ME. Each of us is responsible for our own behavior, and for the repercussions of that behavior. Each of us is accountable for how we treat others.

 You know, V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – that isn’t just a catch phrase. An old adage. When Hillel the Elder was asked to condense the entire message of our tradition into words he could share while standing on one foot, he declared:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”[6]

Or as God might direct us from the verses we read this Shabbat:

“I am talking to YOU!”

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


©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Midrash Rabbah 17:4.

[2] Torah Gems, Volume II Shemot, Vaykra (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 284.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/biggest-fraud-generation-looting-covid-relief-program-known-ppp-n1279664. Accessed online March 31, 2022.

[5] https://smallbiztrends.com/2020/08/ppp-fraud.html. Accessed online March 31, 2022.

[6] Bavli Shabbat 31a

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

A Small Letter, a Great Message – Shabbat Vayikra, Friday, March 11, 2022

Sat, 2022-03-12 10:08

Once upon a time, in a little Jewish town hundreds of years ago, a scribe hunched over a huge piece of parchment, straining in the fading light as evening came.

The scribe was engaged in one of the holiest tasks of his lifetime: To take a pot of ink and a stack of tanned animal hides, and with them create a Sefer Torah, a sacred Torah scroll, containing the Five Books of Moses. A scroll that would be read by the leaders of his local synagogue each Monday and Thursday and on Shabbat, and cherished – God willing – by the Jews of his town for generations.

He had a finished scroll in front of him, and his job was to copy it precisely. One mistake, and an entire sheet of parchment would be ruined and would have to be re-done. It would take months and months of tireless work, making his hand sore and his eyes weary. But it was holy writ, and holy work.

The scribe already had finished the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus. After leaving a sizable gap in the column, he carefully crafted the first word of the Book of Leviticus: Vayikra – and God called. Vav. Yud. Kuf. Reish. Alef. Whew. He continued, checking each letter as he worked with the completed scroll he used as his model. A few more tedious hours and he had completed the first several verses.

As he went on, the scribe was satisfied with the quality of his work. But he had missed something. Something big. Or, rather, something small. For some reason, when he completed the word Vayikra, he made the alef at the end smaller than the other letters. All the other letters of all the other words of all the other columns of all the other sheets of the entire Torah. He never caught it. And so it remained. And because his skill was so exemplary, and the scroll so beautiful, it was used as a model from which dozens of other scribes copied – and hundreds after them. And they all made the alef a bit smaller because that’s what the model showed. They never questioned it. They just did it.

So the little alef became a tradition, a norm, a standard in the scroll. Any time you open one up now, you’ll see it the same way. And because it’s like that in the scroll, most books of the Torah also print it that way.

And that, my friends, is the story of the small alef.

Now, I have to tell you – I just totally made that up. I did. Because we don’t know why the alef is small. You can Google it. Research it in Torah commentaries. But they won’t give you a decent historical explanation. So I figured that scribal error was as good a reason as any.

But far be it for the rabbis to let it go at that. You knew they wouldn’t, didn’t you? After all, if, as the sages believe, there is deeper meaning in every single word and every single letter of the Torah itself, then there must also be significance to every letter in the way it’s written down – including the little alef at the end of Vaykra.

Any explanation that you’ll find involves Midrash: Interpretation, explanation, uncovering a Jewish value.

So let’s take a look.

א וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

God called out to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.

This is how the Book of Leviticus begins. And it’s a good start. It’s a reminder that the Book of Exodus closed last week with the completion of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, which would be God’s dwelling place among the Israelites wherever their journey took them. And now, whenever God wanted to talk to Moses, it wouldn’t require finding an impressive mountain top. God always would be — right there.

But that first word. And that last letter. That’s what draws the attention of the sages.

Rabbinic commentary generally focuses on the idea that the small alef is a sign of Moses’s humility. In the teaching of Rabbi Simchah Bunim, a great Chassidic master in 18th-century Poland,

“Even though Moses attained the greatest heights ever reached by man, he was unmoved by that fact and remained as humble as ever. When a person stands at the top of a mountain, he does not boast about how tall he is, because it is the mountain that makes him high.”[1] And so, Moses, who first spoke to God on the top of Mount Sinai, always reminds himself – and the people – that whatever he has accomplished is God’s doing, not his.

There’s actually one version of this teaching that says the small alef is the result of a divine negotiation. The great 13th-century sage Jacob ben Asher[2] teaches that the alef is written as a small letter because Moses wanted it out completely. He wanted the text to say only vayakar – and it happened. It would imply that God’s call was just a chance occurrence, the way that Torah later describes the call to the pagan prophet Balaam. But God said, no Moses, vayikra –I’m calling especially to you because I want everyone to know how beloved you are to me! And so they compromised. Moses wrote the word the way God wanted, but made the the alef small.

It’s a beautiful testimony to the true greatness of someone who remains humble, no matter how great others see him.

But the explanation I like best is the one offered by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, who was the chief rabbi of the Oethodox synagogues of the United Kingdom. He, too, focused on the difference between these two wordsone with an alef and one without, one a powerful call and the other a random event. And here’s what he taught.

“The letter aleph is almost inaudible. Its appearance in a sefer Torah at the beginning of Vayikra is almost invisible. Do not expect – the Torah is intimating – that the presence of God in history will always be as clear and unambiguous as it was during the Exodus from Egypt and the division of the Red Sea. For much of the time it will depend on your own sensitivity. For those who look, it will be visible. For those who listen, it can be heard. But first you have to look and listen. If you choose not to see or hear, then Vayikra will become Vayikar. The call will be inaudible. History will seem mere chance.”[3]

But Rabbi Sacks knew, as we all know, that history is not mere chance at all. Our very existence as Jews in the 21st century, he teaches, is testimony to that.

Events in history do not happen by chance, and they are always connected.
Rabbi Sacks notes that it is not by chance that Hitler chose the Jews – vulnerable and relatively powerless – as his target for genocide. And today, we know that it is not by chance that Vladimir Putin, a lingering remnant of Cold War thinking, avarice and paranoia, chose Ukraine – vulnerable and relatively powerless — as his target for conquest.

As Jews, we also know what it means to be called by God. Vayikra: God calls to each of us as God once called to Moses – with power and purpose. It is now our responsibility to, humbly but forcefully, represent Jewish values to the world. It is now our task to speak truth to power. To refuse the bully his victory. To provide whatever care and support we can to the people of Ukraine, whether through contributions (which we continue to make through the World Union for Progressive Judaism), through our messages to our political leadership, or through our determination to weather some temporary inconveniences in the advancement of peace, of democracy, and of freedom for all.

It should not – it cannot — just be in the words of the Haggadah or the yearning in our Shabbat prayers that we speak of redemption for humanity. As God’s treasured people, the Torah teaches, we must live as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.[4]

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


©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Torah Gems Vol II, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, trans. Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 241.

[2] Kitzur Ba’al HaTurim to Lev. 1:1. Mesorah Publishing. See http://www.sefaria.org.

[3] https://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation/vayikra/between-destiny-and-chance/. Accessed March 11, 2022.

[4] Exodus 19:6.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“Nevertheless, Hanukkah” – Shabbat Hanukkah   December 3, 2021

Sat, 2021-12-04 11:30

So first of all, happy Hanukkah. I hope the holiday, and the beauty of the lights, has brought a smile to everyone’s face, and that the latkes (whether you eat them with apple sauce, sour cream, or hot pepper jelly), fill your bellies.

I have one colleague in Israel who teases us every year with his gourmet reviews of all the sufganiot he can sample. As someone who can’t find a decent jelly doughnut, I do get jealous. I have another colleague who has done a virtual Hanukkah “show and tell” with her families, showing off what they’ve been doing and receiving during the eight days.

The way we celebrate Hanukkah is light and fun. We sing. We eat. We exchange gifts (although we know that’s not really part of the holiday tradition). We get the kids excited about being Jewish. And that’s a great thing. A really great thing. We stuff a lot of information in the kids’ heads about Judaism. But doing Jewish, giving Jewish, celebrating Jewish – that’s what stays with them their whole lives.

But Hanukkah isn’t just a kids’ holiday. It isn’t even meant to be a kids’ holiday. Hanukkah carries a lot of lessons for adults. We just have to be willing to take a peek at the darker side of a festival we usually revere for bringing light to our homes and our communities.

As we discussed in our Jewish mysticism class last night, we are all familiar with the classic story we’ve been taught. That the Maccabees – Mattathias and his sons, who lived in southern Israel in the second century BCE — were leading a battle for religious freedom.

That this small band of righteous Jews, galvanized by faith, took on and defeated the powerful Syrian Greeks who had defiled the Temple in Jerusalem with their idols. That the Maccabees purged the Temple and rededicated it to the Israelite God. And when they found only one little bottle of olive oil – enough to light the ner tamid, the Eternal Lamp, over the altar for one night only, a great miracle took place and God made sure the oil lasted for eight days.

In our homes – and in our worship service tonight — we celebrate the victory of the few over the many, of the oppressed over the oppressor. We use the miracle of the light as a reminder of God’s power, and as a symbol of the resilience of the Jewish people through centuries of similar oppression.

But that’s only part of the tale.

Michelle Boorstein, writing in the Washington Post this week, explains that history records a deeper and darker story.[1]

The Maccabees were heroes to some Jews, but villains to others, she reminds us. She calls them “religious zealots” who, in her words,

“were fighting back not only against the religious oppression of the Greeks, but also against fellow Jews who adopted Greek ways, such as idol worship.” The Maccabees themselves killed not only Greeks Syrians but also Hellenized Jews who saw a better future for themselves if they became part of the larger Greek culture.

But even that is just part of the Maccabean story.

Judah Maccabee himself was not just a religious idealogue. As historian Shaye Cohen writes:

“At some point during the struggle the goals of Judah and his party changed. He was no longer fighting for religious liberty but for political independence. He and his brothers after him sought to make Judea free and independent, under the rule of a new dynasty: that of the Maccabees themselves.”[2]

This new dynasty controlled Judea for nearly a hundred years, through five generations. The Maccabees accrued wealth and power. They took on Greek names: Alexander Janneus, Antigonus. They reveled in the decadent and increasingly corrupt wealth of a court with all the trappings of Hellenism. They became exactly what Mattithias had fought against in the first place – which raised fear and loathing among other Jews, especially in Jerusalem, where they had essentially dislodged and replace the old aristocracy.

“Some Jews . . .”  writes Cohen, “were prepared to fight against their rulers for the sake of religious freedom, but they were not prepared to support the dynastic pretentions of the Maccabees.”

So when Alexander Janneus’ sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, found themselves fighting each other as proxies in a battle that had engulfed Rome itself, they had few supporters for either claim. In the end, the two brothers gave up and essentially ceded control of Judea to the Romans.

The Maccabean dynasty ended in ignominious fashion. The young Turks, now old, corrupt and incompetent, were overtaken by a new generation beholden to the Romans, and by their young leader. The great-great-great-great granddaughter of Mattithas the Maccabee married this man, who we know as King Herod the Great. And he ruled Judea under the direct control of Rome for more than forty years.

That’s when the battle of Jew against Jew instigated by the Maccabees resumed with a vengeance. The revolt against Rome was compromised from the start by bloody infighting among Jewish sects: Pharisees and Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. The rabbis would say that the Second Temple was destroyed, not because of the Romans, but because of sinchat chinam — senseless hatred of one Jew for another.

This, then, was the final legacy of the Maccabees: the undermining of Jewish sovereignty from without – but also the undermining of Jewish society, community, faith and purpose from within.

And so it’s not surprising really, that the rabbis of the Talmud wanted to change the focus, and the meaning, of Hanukkah. This was not to be remembered as a military victory of men, but of the triumph of faith in God, rewarded by the miracle of the lamp.

But I’d suggest that we might even be misunderstanding this rabbinic story.

The real miracle is not the cruse of oil. The real miracle of the story is that there were rabbis around to create it. The real miracle of the story is that, all these generations later, we are still retelling it, as we light our menorahs each of the eight nights.

We have a phrase we use in Hebrew: “af al pi chen” – which translates to “nevertheless.”

Despite the damage done by generations of Jewish infighting – af al pi chein, nevertheless, the Jews persisted. We survived our own self-immolation. Our faith in God, and a renewed trust in each other, finally had an impact. We recognized that the divisions that tore our nation apart and sent us into exile were not worth it. They are never worth it.

For sure, we still have our internal disagreements. Af al pi chein – nevertheless — we are still, and always, K’lal Yisrael, the worldwide people Israel. We who light the hanukkiah by the windows of our homes, so that the world can see what “Hanukah” – dedication – really looks like.

Rabbi Hillel taught us to begin on the first night by lighting one candle, and increase each night to eight, because we always rise up in holiness. And we always use a shamash, a helper candle, to light the others. In the Jewish mystical tradition that we talked about in class last night, each candle represents the soul of a human being, infused by a spark of divine light that is buried deep inside each of us.

Af al pi chein – nevertheless – despite our differences, we recognize, honor and inspire the lights that dwell in each other. It is a great mitzvah – one that has a healing impact on our world.

You know, at the White House Menorah Lighting on Thursday night, there was a lot of talk about light dispelling darkness, and bring hope into dark places. What caught my attention was when Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff said “Jewish values are American values.”

I thought: What if we turned that around? What if we said: “American values are, at their heart, Jewish values”? In a nation now torn by sinat chinam, maybe we could remind everyone what those values really are.

Here’s what we’ve learned over two thousand years about what makes a nation great:

It is the recognition that we must rely on each other; that we need to live in community and in harmony with each other; and that we have to look out for each other — regardless of our differences.

It is the acknowledgement that nobody makes it in life alone. That self-sufficiency often isn’t possible. And that individual rights – as important as they are — must sometimes yield to communal needs.

Surely, it’s something that our fellow Americans would understand after two years of COVID-induced darkness. Surely, we now understand a little bit better how kindness and care can light a great and powerful spark in another human being.

The candles of the Hanukkah menorah are a physical reminder of that obligation. We cannot do it alone – and we need not do it all. Af al pi chein – nevertheless, if each of us can be a shamash to ignite even one other person’s hidden potential, we help to heal the world.

Kein yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.


©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/11/27/hanukkah-channukah-hanukah-thanksgiving-christmas-antisemitism/

[2] Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabbees to the Mishnah, ed. Wayne A. Meeks (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1987), p. 30.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“It’s the Jews” – Shabbat Vayishlach, Friday, November 19, 2021

Sat, 2021-11-20 10:06

“Your name shall now be Israel.” This is the message, the blessing, that is bestowed upon the patriarch Jacob in this week’s Torah portion. The blessing comes in the hours before Jacob is to be reunited with Esau – the elder brother whose birthright he had stolen many years before. Jacob lives in fear – quite rightly – that Esau, who is marching toward him with an army, means him harm. Jacob has sent everyone else out ahead – his companions, his household, his flocks and his herds – but he’s too afraid to go beyond the narrow stream that would mark, for him, the point of no return.

 The blessing comes from an all-night struggle with a mysterious man who accosts him in the middle of the stream. With no clear winner in the wrestling match, the stranger demands to be released. Jacob replies: Not until you bless me! And the stranger replies:

“No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel. For you have struggled with God and with human beings and you have prevailed.”

Jacob realizes that he has been struggling with an angel sent by God to test him. And that the name itself is the blessing he demanded.

Yisrael. The name Jacob will carry. The nation he will father.

If the name was God’s gift to Jacob, the nation was God’s gift to the world. Yisrael. We, the people Israel. Born in faith and in struggle, in exile and in redemption, we have become a light to the nations, an inspiration to those who are oppressed and silenced.

But some of the details of this story of Jacob’s struggle give us a hint that the blessing of Yisrael could contain the seeds of a curse.

You see, even though the angel re-names him Israel, the Torah continues to call him Jacob. Why is that? If the angel can assure the father of our people that he is worthy as Yisrael, why does the Torah say otherwise?

It’s possible that Jacob just doesn’t see himself as Israel yet – that he somehow still identifies as the “other” – the youngest, the thief, the trouble-maker. Not exactly what God had in mind as the progenitor of the “chosen people.”

But it’s also possible that the Torah is reaching out to us, as it has to every generation before us, to warn us. To warn us about the way the world perceives us, demeans us, despises us, treats us as the “other.”

The Talmudic rabbis certainly saw it this way: They often used Esau as a representation of the bloody, tyrannical, Jew-hating oppressors of Rome, first under pagan rule and then Christian domination. Other sages, reflecting the antisemitism rampant in their own times and places, see in Esau’s embrace and kiss of Jacob a falsehood, a cover for the loathing for Jacob in Esau’s heart. They even depict Esau as a blood-sucker, biting Jacob’s neck rather than weeping over it. We are not Yisrael to the rest of the world, the rabbis remind us. We are the undeserving, underhanded Jacob.

And, here, the Torah warns us to be prepared for what that means.

Here’s what’s happened in our time and our place just since we talked about antisemitism at the High Holy Days.

This past Monday, a teenager in Texas was charged in federal court with setting fire to an Austin Reform temple, Congregation Beth Israel. The arson attack, which could land 18-year old Franklin Sechriest in jail for ten years, did a reported $150,000 worth of damage.

When the FBI searched Sechriest’s home and car, they found materials to make Molotov cocktails; stickers depicting Jewish figures with their faces exed out and a caption that read “the price of freedom is paid in blood”; and an entry in his journal in which he wrote, on the same day “Get matched on Tinder!” and “I set a synagogue on fire.”

A few hours after the fire was set, members of a neo-Nazi group that calls itself the “Goyim Defense League” livestreamed a swastika burning in the Austin area – but insisted, oh no, it had nothing to do with the Jews.[1]

Glenn Youngkin, who was just elected Governor of Virginia and rode a wave of parent anger about a loss of control over what happens in public schools, blamed his opponent during the campaign for chaos in the schools. But then, most helpfully, he segued right into a widespread antisemitic trope that goes to the heart of conspiracy theories about Jews secretly controlling the world:

“But also [look] at George Soros-backed allies,” he said. “They’ve inserted political operatives into our school system disguised as school boards.”

Apparently the bring-the-Jew-hatred-to-the-school debate is, like, a thing.

Late last month, at what’s become a typically chaotic and angry school board meeting – this one in Chandler, Arizona – a woman identified as Melanie Rettler ranted about critical race theory, vaccines, and other right-wing conspiracy theories. And then she went here:

“Every one of these things, the deep state, the cabal, the swamp, the elite – you can’t mention it but I will – there is one race that owns all the pharmaceutical companies and these vaccines aren’t safe, they aren’t effective and they aren’t free . . . . you know that you’re paying for it through the increase in gas prices, the increase in food prices . . . if you want to bring race into this: It’s the Jews.” [2]

It’s the Jews.

It’s always the Jews, in the end. Jews controlling the banks and the weather. Jews starting the huge wildfires in the west with secret space laser weapons. Jews (George Soros most especially), secretly funding the march of brown people over the southern border in order to “replace” real white, Christian Americans.

As Zack Beauchamp wrote for Vox earlier this year:

“There’s a reason Jews are so often the targets of conspiracy theories, even mainstream ones. Much of conspiracy theorizing as we know it — the enterprise of explaining the world’s woes by positing that a shadowy, all-powerful elite is behind them — arose out of the European anti-Semitic tradition. The influence of that tradition is inescapable; its language and conceptual architecture are inherently linked to longstanding and deadly stereotypes about Jews.”[3]

Just because this kind of lunacy has gone on for centuries doesn’t mean it wasn’t lunacy from the get-go. A teaching ascribed to Rabbi Menahem Ziemba, who certainly must have seen his share of Jew-hatred manifested in early 20th-century Poland, tells us:

“This hatred has no reason behind it, but merely, as the Psalm (105:25) says, ‘They turned their heart to hate His people.’ In one place, they hate the Jews because they are capitalists, and in another – because they are socialists; here, because they are overtly ambitious, and there – because they are lazy and a burden on the public welfare; here because they are too conservative, and there—because they are revolutionary. Thus, the reasons for this hatred are mutually contradictory, and have not an ounce of logic behind them.”[4]

It is lunacy. But it is lunacy that has deep roots in medieval fear and ignorance that is someone alleviated by easy answers and vulnerable targets.

No wonder our patriach might have kept a low profile here. No Yisrael for him, but only the nondescript Jacob.

And yet, this story – when understood another way – gives us hope instead of fear, and light instead of darkness.

Because not all of our tradition sees Esau as inherently evil or angry or false or vengeful.

One rabbinic source actually sees true brotherly love in this reunion:

“And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept” (Gen. 33:4).

Says the author of Ha-emek Berakhah:

“Both of them cried. This teaches us that at the time Jacob felt love for Esau. And this is true in all generations. When Esau’s descendants are stirred by a pure spirit to appreciate the greatness of Jacob’s descendants, we too are moved to recognize that Esau is our brother.”[5]

Jews are not the cause of antisemitism and it is not our responsibility to stop this centuries-old plague. That’s up to the rest of the world to resolve. But in the meantime, we cannot shrink back and stay silent and allow ourselves to feel and act like the “other,” as others may treat us.

My colleague Rabbi Michael Dolgin points us to the fact that Jacob’s struggle with the angel occurs at night, but ends with the break of dawn. “The light of dawn,” he wrote, “is inevitably coming to extinguish the dark. When we face difficult situations, we must respond with strength, spirit and faith: three elements that signify the Jewish peoples’ approach to life.”[6]

Strength, spirit and faith. Our message, and our calling, especially at this time of the year. Especially this year. As Thanksgiving glides immediately into Hanukkah, our gratitude to God as redeemer melds with our faith in ourselves as Yisrael.

And so: We must bring all the collective energy of Yisrael to bear. We must represent. We are not the other. We will not be silent. We will not hide in darkness. As we light the candles of Hanukkah we remember: We are the ones commanded to bring light into the world during seasons and times of darkness.

As surely as night gives way to dawn, we must believe in the light of humanity, the brotherhood of Jacob and Esau, and the fulfillment of Yisrael’s blessing.

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


©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.thedailybeast.com/franklin-barrett-sechriest-texas-teen-who-torched-austin-synagogue-seethed-about-jews-in-diary-feds-say?source=email&via=desktop

[2] https://www.jta.org/2021/11/02/united-states/its-the-jews-an-antisemitic-tirade-at-an-arizona-school-board-meeting-spurs-a-response-and-debate-over-it


[4] Torah Gems, vol. I, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg and translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1992), p. 265.

[5] Torah Gems, p. 264

[6] https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/torah-commentary/when-do-we-know-weve-completed-struggle

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

There Are Not Two Sides – Shabbat Vayera, Friday, October 22, 2021

Thu, 2021-10-28 14:59

Jake Berman finds it painful to speak about the bullying and abuse he suffered as Jewish student in the Carroll Independent School district of Southlake, Texas, near Dallas. It’s been twenty years – but it’s still very raw. The antisemitic abuse was so unbearable, he says, he contemplated suicide. “I received everything from jokes about my nose to gas chambers, all while studying for my bar mitzvah,” Berman says. His parents eventually pulled him out of the school system.[1]

Jake Berman finds it painful to speak about those days – but he gathered up the courage to do just that, in a very public forum this week. It was a school board meeting Monday night – the first at which the public had a chance to respond to a horrific event that has sparked international outrage in the pitched battle over what teachers can teach their students.

The state of Texas recently passed a law that requires teachers to present multiple perspectives when discussing, as the law says, “widely debated and currently controversial issues.” The law is part of a much broader national movement of parents, lawmakers and political advocates who oppose classroom lessons on things like racism in American history, as well as school programs focusing on diversity and inclusion. They believe it leaves white students feeling guilty, responsible, and bad about themselves.

So during a teacher training session earlier this month, a Carroll school district administrator, Gina Peddy, focused on that part of the bill that says teachers essentially have to grade the books they have in their classrooms as acceptable or not, based on whether they present a single, dominant narrative, quote, “in such a way that it . . . may be considered offensive.”

Teachers, according to NBC News, had complained that the rules would force them to get rid of children’s books that focus on racism. So Peddy tried to clarify the rules for them with this example:

“Make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.”

The teachers were horrified that anyone would suggest there’s more than one way to describe the most horrible genocide in modern history. One asked Peddy, “How do you oppose the Holocaust?”

Peddy’s response: “Believe me, that’s come up.”

But that, of course, is not an answer. Not to parents. Not to teachers. Not to students. Not in a school district with a history of anti-semitic bullying. Not in any school district, anywhere.

Which left Jake Berman to remind the Carroll School Board and everyone else in attendance at the meeting, and everyone else hearing about it on the national news, what happens when you try and manipulate history:

“The facts are,” he told them, “that there are not two sides of the Holocaust. The Nazis systematically killed millions of people. There are not two sides of slavery. White Europeans enslaved Black Africans in this country until June 19, 1865, a moment we’re barely 150 years removed from.”

There are not two sides. And there is no excuse for laws being imposed on school systems throughout Texas, and other states, that try to excuse, whitewash, or minimize systemic racism, overt sexism or widespread antisemitism by suggesting otherwise. But there are specific goals for these laws.

Many people have come to the side of Gina Peddy and other teachers and administrators throughout Texas and elsewhere who are trying to figure out how to implement new laws about what they can and cannot teach about history and society. Clay Robison, who is a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, told CNN he isn’t surprised by what happened with Peddy. The law, he says, is ambiguous enough to “encourage that kind of reaction.”

So let’s be clear – that ambiguity is by design, not by accident. The authors and enactors don’t want to be seen as promoting racism, misogyny or antisemitism. But that’s exactly what they’re allowing – if not encouraging – with these laws.

The state senator who wrote the troublesome bill in Texas, Republican Bryan Hughes, says that his bill does not require balanced perspectives on what he calls issues of “good and evil” – that the school system has it all wrong. But one teacher in the Carroll system says they have been given very specific instructions that prove otherwise.

“We’re not being asked to have opposing views on colonization, we’re not being asked to have opposing views on Christopher Columbus Day or Thanksgiving.”

Asked by CNN what they are told to teach opposing views on, the teacher responded “Civil rights movement, Holocaust, the Civil War, slavery, women’s rights.”[2] Check. Check. Check. Check. And check.

Let’s be honest. The real reason for these laws is not to confuse teachers about what they can teach about our country. The real reason for these laws is to make them so afraid to teach anything, that they will teach nothing. And that opens the door for others – including racists, misogynists and anti-Semites – to promote their own narratives. It’s not only wrong, it’s also very dangerous.

The truth is that history is messy, disruptive, and at times ugly. The truth is that the white men of the landed gentry who are described as our nation’s “founding fathers” – many slaves owners among them – created the foundational legal structure of our nation with no rights for women and no freedom for slaves. The truth is that indigenous peoples were wiped out and their land colonized. The truth is that, because of our past, many people of color today continue to struggle with worse schools, more dangerous neighborhoods, relatively poor medical care, and less opportunity to change all that.

Now, historic racism, the oppression of women and hatred of Jews certainly don’t tell the whole story of our country. There are so many other factors that shape our nation, and our world — from economics to climate change to scientific advancements. And it’s wrong for anyone to insist that we see our nation – or any nation – only through the lens of race. That’s an oversimplification that’s both untrue and unfair. But it’s a part of the story that has to be told – and has to be taught.

Our Torah portion this week provides us with a look at how ugly history can be . . . and how we have a responsibility to struggle with it, not to hide it.

The Akedah – the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac – has become such an important part of our founding story as a people that we read it every year in the regular Torah reading cycle after we already have shared it on Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days on our calendar.

As I mentioned this year on Rosh Hashanah, the story is not referenced anywhere else in the Torah, even though it also becomes foundational to the two other faith traditions that sprang from Judaism – Christianity and Islam. The redactors may well have seen it as something to be hidden, or glossed over, even though they included it in the final version of the Book of Genesis.

And yet the rabbis are not content with glossing over its details or its meaning. The midrash they created –- a huge body of literature designed to illuminate meanings that may not be obvious in the Biblical text — shows how the rabbis struggled. And it forces us to struggle with what God commanded, what Abraham heard, and what Isaac suffered.[3]

On the one hand, the rabbis believed that Abraham himself struggled to fulfill God’s command – and even tried to talk God out of it. They find it impossible to believe that the same man who argued with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, trying to negotiate for their lives, would consign his son to the fire without raising a single objection. They see an opening in the text. When the Torah tells us that God said: “Take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, take Isaac,” they conclude that God would not have wasted so much time and so many words. So they read this, not as a command from God, but as half of a conversation with Abraham.

Take your son – I have two sons. Which one should I take?

Your only one – Well, but they are both only ones, this one the only son of his mother and this one the only son of his mother.

The one whom you love – Well, a man loves his children equally. How can I do otherwise?

Take Isaac!

So, on the one hand, the rabbis want to believe that Abraham must have tried to dissuade God as he did with Sodom and Gomorrah. They want to believe Abraham sees his God as different from the gods of the Canaanites, who require the blood of children – sacrifices that he and Isaac may well have viewed up close in the valley of Gehinnom as they approached Mount Moriah.

But on the other hand, they have to acknowledge that Abraham did try to go through with the sacrifice. The angel, they realize, had to call his name twice to get his attention, as focused as he was with the knife in his raised hand. So here is one rabbinic explanation of what happened next.

In the Torah, the angel says: “Abraham, Abraham, do not put forth your hand to the lad!”

But what follows in the Midrash is this response from Abraham: “But at least let me draw a few drops of blood. If I stop now, all by preparations, both physically and mentally, will have been in vain. At least let me draw enough blood to sprinkle on the altar.”

The rabbis suggest Abraham wouldn’t lay down the knife until he heard directly from God and not from an angel. And in one version of their story, Abraham chastises God for changing the rules on him all the time and demands a promise that it won’t happen again.

That, the rabbis say, is why we read the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah. Abraham does get his Divine promise that Isaac will live and prosper – and that in the future, when Isaac’s descendants sin, they should sound the ram’s horn – the shofar – and God will recall this test and treat them with mercy. 

The rabbis rightly force us to face our history, the ancient world from which our faith traditions sprang. It is ugly, it is disturbing, it is fraught with peril, with unspeakable violence, and with death. The Written Torah may choose to ignore the Akedah. The Oral tradition of the rabbis cannot.

We learn from the rabbis that all history has lessons for us. And that we cannot learn those lessons by creating false analogies or false equivalencies to make elements of the past that may be personal to us more palatable.

Ancient child sacrifice was what it was, just as modern-day genocide is what it is. The system of slavery that many of our nation’s founders not only tolerated but profited from was what it was, just as modern systemic racism is what it is. The political, economic and sexual subjugation of women continues to be what it always was. And no attempt to silence teacher– s to suppress that history, or equivocate over it — can be justified.

We could remove the entire chapter of Genesis that contains the Akedah, and the narrative would be smooth. But the fact that it was included – and the fact that the rabbis force us to face it and struggle with it – teaches us some important things about ourselves.

We are wise enough to acknowledge the truth, and nobody has the power to take that wisdom from us.

We are strong enough to handle the truth, and nobody has the authority to weaken our resolve.

We are human enough to struggle with the truth – to learn from it, to grow from it, and to make this world better because of it. There are not two sides. And for the sake of our world, there are not two choices.

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


©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/southlake-texas-holocaust-jewish-school-books-rcna3264

[2] https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/16/us/texas-southlake-school-holocaust/index.html

[3] Midrashim taken from Yalkut Me’am Lo-ez, The Torah Anthology, Genesis-II, The Patriarchs, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (New York: Moznaim Publishing Company, 1989).

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“To Boldly Go” – Shabbat Lech Lecha, Friday, October 15, 2021

Mon, 2021-10-18 15:45

Captain’s Log, Stardate 11-13-2021

The recorded response of Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise – also known as actor William Shatner, who on Wednesday boldly went where no one his age has gone before, as one of four passengers who reached just into space in the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket.

“What you have given me is the most profound experience,” Shatner told Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos after landing back in the Texas desert. “I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it.”[1]

Shatner’s ten-minute flight — including a few fleeting moments floating in zero-gravity – did just reach into the final frontier, 66 miles up from earth and four miles beyond what is considered the edge of space. It may have been akin to the blink of an eye compared to the career Shatner has had playing Captain Kirk on a Hollywood soundstage since 1966. But the power of the blast-off, the view of the earth from above, and the miracle of a safe and soft landing was obviously and deeply profound.

“To boldly go where no man has gone before . . .” Even those of us who grew up on Star Trek in all its incarnations will always hear Shatner’s voice speaking those words in the original series intro. And how timely it was that he should fulfill that mission for himself during the week when the Torah gives us a story about another powerful journey that carries its own cosmic importance.

Lech lecha, God says to the Chaldean man Avram, son of Haran. “Go forth from your native land, from the land of your birth, from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you.”

Lech lecha. What a curious and unique command. Not just lech – “Go!” – but Lecha lecha. “Betake yourself.” “Go for yourself.” Some commentators dismiss it as an idiom, a mere feature of the Hebrew language.

But we want more. We look for a deeper message. After all, as author Aviva Zornberg points out: “For the first time [in the Torah], a journey is undertaken, not as an act of exile (Adam, Cain) or a quest for domination (the generation of Babel) but as a response to a divine imperative.”[2]

And so the Midrash gives us the gift of this inherent meaning: “Lech Lecha: Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”[3]

But there’s a twist: God does not call Avram by name. His calling is unique, and the details of his journey intensely personal. But the call is not inherently his alone. And so we are free to imagine ourselves as the one being called. We may well see ourselves in Avram’s place, feeling the urge – the necessity — at some point in our lives to boldly go where we have never gone before, feeling that the time and the travel are right.

Many of us left the places where we were born and where we grew up long ago. We have journeyed across the country, or even around the world. We go for love, we go for professional challenges, we go for the sheer adventure of going.

Some of us go when we are young, with nothing holding us back or keeping us in place. Some of us change the trajectory of our lives when we are older. Maybe not 75 like Avram, or 90 like William Shatner – but old enough to know that the chance to boldly go doesn’t happen every day. We seize the chance and embrace the unknown.

Today, our country is filled with travelers doing just that. They pack up and go. As Abby Vesoulis wrote this week in Time Magazine, “If April 2020 was the month of pink slips – as the rapid spread of COVID-19 resulted in the loss of 20.5 million jobs – then Fall 2021 is the dawn of their revenge. A record breaking 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August across an array of industries . . . meanwhile, the 7.7 million people who remain unemployed aren’t, for the most part, jumping at the roughly 10.4 million job openings.”[4]

A lot of people are just fed up with their nasty, back-breaking jobs and lousy working conditions. With low wages and unaffordable child care weighing on them, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich put it, “Workers are burned out. They’re fed up. They’re fried. In the wake of so much hardship, and illness and death during the past year, they’re not going to take it anymore.”[5]

For these travelers, the pandemic has been a stark reminder of the hardness and fragility of life that Captain Kirk saw passing by him out the window of the Blue Origin capsule this week:

“To see the blue color whip by you and now you’re staring into blackness,” Shatner reflected back on earth. “In an instant, you go, ‘Whoa, that’s death.’ That’s what I saw.”[6]

I always wonder what blackness Avram must have seen in his life to be so utterly and immediately willing to boldly go on God’s command. Was it the pointless idolatry that surrounded him in Haran – his friends and family worshiping imagines that they had carved with their own hands? Was there hunger? Violence? Or did he simply lift up his eyes, as he would when God sent him on the next part of his journey, and see that blue sky calling him out of the blackness?

Avram would lech lecha, go forth to find himself in a place where his gifts would flourish. He would be tutored by the land and the trees. He would learn from the sky and from the voice that called to him out of the heavens.

We, too, learn and grow and change and dare from so many influences in our lives: The people we meet. The people we love. The books we read. The flavors we eat. The colors at which we marvel. And, especially lately, the air we breathe, the smiles we reflect, and the care we give to one another. The very power of being able to awaken each day. These are the gifts that we learn never to take for granted.

Some of us “betake ourselves” to lands unknown. But even for those of us who find these gifts in the immediate vicinity where we grew up, every day offers us challenges and opportunities. Life is not static, anywhere we are.

Change is an integral part of life. We can try to resist it. Or we can “boldly go” – as our ancestors did – to become the people God meant us to be.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission on earth, and to the final frontier. As we say together: Amen.


©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/10/13/shatner-blue-origin-space-tourism/

[2] Aviva Zornberg, as quoted in the footnotes for Genesis 12:1 in Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 70.

[3] Mei Ha-Shi-lo-ah, as quoted in the footnotes for Genesis 12:1 in Etz Hayim, loc. cit.

[4] https://time.com/6106322/the-great-resignation-jobs/

[5] Ibid.

[6] From the Associated Press article datelined Van Horn, Texas, published in Altoona Mirror for Thursday, October 14, 2021, page C-1.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog


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