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“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

Yom Kippur Morning 2021: Open the Gates to Joy

Tue, 2021-09-21 14:38

I have to hand it to our man Moses – God’s beloved, and our most revered prophet. After all the grumbling and kvetching and threatening in which Moses has engaged through much of his farewell address to the Israelites – after all that, he finds the right words at just the right tiAs we’ve discussed for weeks now — going chapter by chapter in Deuteronomy on these Friday nights through the summer — Moses has spent an inordinate amount of time warning the people of the threats they face from the Canaanites who live just over the Jordan River. Chief among these threats is idolatry – the fear that the Israelites will find life just too hard on their own, and they will think it’s easier to blend in with the people who already live in the Promised Land. Including worshiping their gods. Everything Moses has worked for since God’s call to him at the Burning Bush could be lost to the lure of idolatry.

He’s tried to literally put the fear of God in them – warning them of the divine punishments that await them for their sins.

But in this morning’s reading, which comes close to the end of his oration, Moses pulls back on the pummeling and instead focuses on the promise.

The Eternal your God, says Moses, is establishing you “as the people whose only God is the Eternal, as you had been promised, and as God had sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Moses assures them that all future generations of their children, and all who will choose to join the Jewish people, are part of that covenant — as though we ourselves were standing on the banks of the Jordan.

And then, he gets to the most important message:

“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote. It is not in heaven … nor beyond the sea…No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it.”[1]

Moses is no less worried that Jews will find it much easier simply to stop living like Jews, eating like Jews, praying like Jews, or dressing like Jews. He’s still afraid they’ll find acculturation – or even assimilation – too powerful a draw. He’s, frankly, terrified that the experiment in Jewish self-reliance and self-governance will be too intimidating for the Israelites to do for themselves, once God has left them to their own devices.

But instead of threatening them with punishment because of their presumed weaknesses, he blesses them with kindness and promise and a future of freedom and joy because of their intrinsic strength.

And I’d like to take my cue from Moses this morning.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I focused on the threat that we all face from rampant anti-semitism, from the right and from the left. Of the Jew-hatred that lies at the heart of conspiracy theories of all sorts that spread like a plague in our country today. Like Moses, I warned what would happen if we capitulated. If we decided it was too hard for us to be Jews, and just assimilated into the larger society. In other words: What will happen if we let the bullies win.

But there’s another way to beat the bullies. And that’s not only to stand up for ourselves but to fully affirm our Jewishness. Embracing it. Rejoicing in Jewish life, in all its fullness.

There are so many ways that Judaism influences the way we behave every single day. Beyond worship and study and lifecycle events, our Jewishness permeates the way we see the world, and the way we live in it

I was inspired by a recent essay by David Harris of the American Jewish Committee. Harris took time away from his own regular warnings about antisemitism to pen an OpEd entitled “Time to Affirm Jewish Pride.” And I want to share with you my own version, in hopes that you, too, will be inspired to work for the better world that Judaism imagines for us all.[2]

I’ll use the model of Edmond Fleg’s iconic reading, “I Am A Jew.”

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the notion of the one and only Creator God who established this world in all its beauty.

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the notion that all of humanity is commanded to care for this world, to sustain this beauty.

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the astonishing idea that every single human being is equal in God’s eyes – and therefore must be equal in our own.

As the Torah teaches over and over, without qualification: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And as the rabbis taught:

“All of humanity emanates from one single human being in order to maintain peace among people – so that one person cannot say to another: my father is greater than your father . . . .

“Any person can stamp out several coins with one seal and they’d look alike. Only God stamped people with the seal of Adam, the first human being, and not one of us is the same as any other. And since all humanity descends from one person, each and every person is obligated to say: ‘The world was created for me’ – since any one of us could be the source of all humanity.”[3]

I am a Jew because our experience of slavery reminds us that any group of people in any generation can be imprisoned by fear or hate – and because it is our responsibility to toil unceasingly for the redemption of anyone else who is enslaved. As Elie Wiesel said at his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance regarding the oppressed of the world, we must remember . . .

“that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”[4]

I am a Jew because, when we have been abandoned by the world – literally left for dead – we resurrect ourselves and recommit ourselves to not only surviving but thriving in the most inhospitable circumstances.

I am a Jew because I am so very proud that, generation after generation, my people have overcome the limitations and discriminations imposed upon us. With hard work and brains and creativity, both in Israel and around the world, we have helped the world cure diseases and explore the universe and purify drinking water — and create beautiful music and art and dance and literature and theater in astonishing volume and quality, far beyond our numbers.

I am a Jew because I believe in the responsibilities of mitzvah and tikkun: to spend each day looking for ways both to be grateful for what God has given me, and to look for ways to make life better for others.

As someone who has been through life-threatening illness, I have a deeper appreciation for being able to open my eyes every morning – and a deeper sense of responsibility for how I’m going to use the hours I/ve been given. As a Type-A who wants to complete every task with perfection, I accept what Rabbi Tarfon taught: “You are not required to complete the task, but you are also not free to refrain from it.”[5]

Or, as my wonderful commentaries professor Rabbi Ed Goldman taught: God expects us to do the best with what we’ve been given – no more, but no less.

I am a Jew because, as the song goes, wherever I go, there’s always someone Jewish. I can walk into any congregation in the world and lend my voice to the communal pleas and offerings and thanks to God.

I am a Jew – in short – because it brings me such joy. The lightness of Shabbat when it starts and the lingering sweetness when it ends. The smiles around the Seder table, and the eagerness of children to answer the four questions and find the afikomen. Dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, and dancing the hora at a bat mitzvah. Standing under a chuppah with a couple as they pledge themselves to one another according to the traditions of Moses and Israel. Seeing the proud tears of a parent at a bris or baby naming, knowing that their love of being Jewish remains alive in another generation.

I am a Jew because, every year, God grants me the gift of forgiveness and the possibility of advancement, using my brain and my heart and my hands to make this year better than the last.

I am a Jew because I have the honor of being part of a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, that is dedicated to advancing Jewish life, and Jewish learning and Jewish prayer — year after year, generation after generation, with intense pride and immense joy. Despite the pains of loss and the pains of advancing age, despite the shrinking numbers and the financial challenges, I know that – in this new year — you all (WE all) will step up as one, and bring the world a little closer to tikkun, to the way that God intended for the world to be.

On this most sacred day – on this Sabbath of Sabbaths — Moses comes to remind us that we must look beyond the fear of failing, to the joy of success. There is no greater gift in living our Judaism this way, each and every day. It is very near to us. It is here, in our mouths and in our hearts. We can do it.

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


©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Deuteronomy 29:9-14, 30:11-14


[3] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, expanded.

[4] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1986/wiesel/26054-elie-wiesel-acceptance-speech-1986/

[5] Pirke Avot 1:16.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“Who Do You Think You Are?” – Kol Nidre 2021

Tue, 2021-09-21 14:34

On Friday, April 12, 1907, the British newspaper “The Jewish Chronicle” highlighted this upcoming Bar Mitzvah on its front page:

“GERSHON – Samuel, second son of Mr. and Mrs. L. Gershon of 93 Downs-road, Clapton, N.E., will read a portion of the Law at the South Hackney Synagogue on the Sabbath next April 13th.”

Now, that would not be especially noteworthy – except for the fact that Samuel Gershon was the great-grandfather of Harry Potter himself, actor Daniel Radcliffe. And it was a fact – and a heritage — that Radcliffe knew little to nothing about until he appeared on the television show “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Daniel Radcliffe was just an ordinary British lad growing up in London. But his maternal grandmother, whom he knew as Muriel Gresham, was really Muriel Gershon – and her whole family were Jewish immigrants from Europe. Her father Samuel, the aforementioned Bar Mitzvah boy, inherited a jewelry business from his father, Louis Gershon. But it foundered so badly in the hands of Samuel and his brothers that they faked a robbery in order to collect the insurance – a scheme so shameful that Samuel later committed suicide.

The ancestry show, “Who Do You Think You Are” goes for the gut – the emotion, the huge revelations, the celebrities learning family histories that are usually heartwarming and sometimes lurid. But the basic question is the one all of us ask at one time or another: Who do I think I am?  

And it’s not just a human question. It’s also a Jewish question. In fact, it’s the Jewish question on Yom Kippur.

Throughout this Day of Atonement, each of us is asked to go on a journey. From belief to reality. From self-delusion to self-awareness. We will try to come to grips with where we have fallen short in the past year, how our understanding of ourselves may somehow have gone astray, and how we need to change our patterns of thought and behavior to get on the path of life we really want.

Now, we know that the journey is never as easy or straightforward as it seems. It’s not a wide, straight path like a boulevard. Our journey to self-realization is complicated and sometimes unpleasant. We might take steps backward before we can move ahead. And sometimes we simply can’t separate belief from fact, or fantasy from reality.

In fact, scientists now tell us that everything we perceive in the world around us is filtered through our own prior experiences. This sometimes-heated conversation between our senses and our memory can be such a balagan that one researcher called it a “controlled hallucination” – something that, as columnist David Brooks wrote, “is the closest we can get to registering reality.”[1] 

Researcher Nadine Dijkstra phrased it a little more nicely: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” [2]

Think of the ways our past can influence what we see around us. If we think we’re bad at math because we’ve failed tests before, we’re going to go into the SATs with a preconceived notion about what we can expect from ourselves. If we are coming out of a bad relationship with someone who has been insensitive – or even abusive – we might tend to overreact to things that a new partner says and does, or take them the wrong way, presuming the pattern will repeat itself.

We may see clearly the statistics that the COVID vaccines work, and the fact that masking helps prevent transmission IF everybody wears them. But if we are filtering that information through past feelings of helplessness, or bad past experiences with getting a shot, we might act on emotion rather than information.

In other words, writes Dijkstra, “our perception of the outside world is strongly influenced by what we believe.”

What science is telling us is important, and we have to understand this about ourselves. It’s really, really hard to challenge or change a set of beliefs that has guided our behavior– even if the result has not been what we’d like. It’s hard to get off the hamster wheel, or out of the rut, or even out of a life of self-abuse. It’s how we are wired as imperfect human beings – and our circuits sometimes go ka-floo-ey.

But hey – especially considering everything we’ve all been through for the last year and a half — it’s okay to acknowledge that change is hard, and it’s scary, and it’s painfully slow. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s absolutely necessary.

And Judaism understands that.

In fact, Judaism knew this well before scientists did. That’s why we were given the gift of these Days of Awe and this day of Yom Kippur in particular.

This is the day we get off the wheel and out of the rut and into God’s space and God’s time. A whole twenty-four hours with nothing to do but reflect and refresh. To admit that what we believe about ourselves — and other people — can and must change. To acknowledge that what our experience teaches us – and how it colors the way we see the world – may well be faulty. To accept that the world outside of us is not static, and our own stubbornness is not going to hold it back. So, as the world evolves, so must we. To believe that, as Moses assures the assembled Israelite nation in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading, we can handle this. So:

“Who do I think I am?”

I am an imperfect creature. I was created from clay but with the breath of God giving me life, simply trying to navigate this life as best I can. Hillel taught me that the fundamental truth of Torah is: “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else,” and it’s up to me to recognize when I’ve reached that line.[3]

I am an important creature. I have been born into a world that is fractured and troubled. But humanity, created at the close of Creation, was put here to heal it. As God said to Adam: “Take care of My world. If you do not, there will be no one to do it after you.”[4]

I am a redeemable creature. I make a lot of mistakes, often based on past experience, or faulty perceptions. But the rabbis have taught me: “A person should always be pliant like a reed, and not stiff like a cedar.”[5] I have to be willing to change my ideas about other people, and the events of the world as they unfold, as well as my own behavior. Or I’ll end up unable to function in the world at all.

I am a creature who deserves to love and to be loved. As God said to Israel: “My children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you love one another and honor one another.”[6]

I am a creature resolved to elevate my life from day to day, and from year to year. The school of Hillel taught that, in matters of holiness, one should always begin in darkness and conclude with light. And, for me, every day of my life is a matter of holiness.

Who do I think I am? I was created in the image of God. And so, like God, who said to Moses at the Burning Bush, “Eheyeh asher eheyeh,” I am what I choose to be.

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


©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/02/opinion/brain-reality-imagination.html. Quoting neuroscientist Anil Seth of the University of Sussex.

[2] https://nautil.us/issue/104/harmony/the-fine-line-between-reality-and-imaginary?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=fineline&fbclid=IwAR0ss2T4zEv_YupgakcmV6N1GdetlScyyKDvIR9GWkJp-DvUBPZmDI56Yxg

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

[4] Midrash Kolelet Rabbah 7:28

[5] Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 20a.

[6] Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 26., as included in Bialik and Ravnitsky’s The Book of Legends: Sefer ha-Aggadah, English edition trans. William G. Braude, p. 646.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2021: Reclaiming Our Joy

Tue, 2021-09-21 14:29

I have to admit, after almost a dozen years here in Altoona, I’m still sometimes taken aback by random questions I get about Judaism – from lay people and even from pastors. Some are pretty sophisticated and respectful questions about theology and practice. Some are as basic as: “So Jesus was Jewish?” And “Where do you do your sacrifices if you don’t have a Temple?”

For years, we had a great annual interfaith series that explored a lot of issues of faith and fiction, and conflicting narratives and beliefs. That kind of played itself out before COVID, so we’re left with conversations on the congregational or individual level. I always appreciate it when I’m invited to teach about Judaism instead of having non-Jews trying to figure us out for themselves using their own texts and theology.

And what I’ve figured out is that at least some of the misunderstandings about Judaism evolve from this morning’s Torah portion: the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, at the command of Abraham’s God. In fact, this one story – which is never mentioned at all in the whole rest of the Torah – becomes fundamental to the two monotheistic faiths that were spawned by ancient Judaism. But fundamental in a way that leads to a lot of confusion and some occasional bad feelings.

In Christianity, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his own beloved son Isaac is superseded by God’s total sacrifice of his beloved son Jesus, and therefore the unique Divine covenant shifts away from us to Jesus’s followers.

In Islamic tradition, the child who is saved is Ishmael and not Isaac – which means the Divine covenant belongs, not to Isaac’s descendants (that would be us) but to Ishmael’s.

And maybe that’s why we read the story of the Binding of Isaac on Rosh Hashanah. For us, the New Year means a new commitment to our behavior, and to our treatment of other people and our world. But it’s also a time for renewing our covenant with God and our faith. When we hear the sounding of the shofar on this day of judgment, we ask God to remember the selfless act of Abraham, the binding of Isaac – and the covenant that is binding in all generations of their descendants, both by blood and by choice.

It’s a reminder, not just to all Jews but to all humanity, that it was our Torah and our people and our prophet that brought to the world the whole concept of Divine love – and of the joy that we share in the Divine promise of redemption.

We rabbis talk a lot amongst ourselves about how to talk to non-Jews. My experience tells me that we have to meet people where they are, and start from what they know, what they don’t know, and what they think they know but really don’t. But first, we have to suss out whether it’s worth having that conversation at all.

I think of it in terms of the four children we read about at the Passover Seder: The wise child; the wicked child; the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask.

For the person who does not know how to ask – we must start the conversation, as the Haggadah teaches us: “This is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.” We explain that we see ourselves as though we ourselves are of the generation that was redeemed – and that the existence of us as a Jewish people today depends on our ever-present appreciation that redemption is a gift to be savored and shared.

For the person who is simple, we have to take things one step at a time. We must be patient in explaining how we Jews moved from Biblical ways of life two millennia ago. We must teach how Judaism was reborn and restored in a world without a Temple or priests or sacrifices – and that the genius of the early rabbis was their ability to create exactly what God promised to the people through Moses:

“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself,” God said. “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be My own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:4-6)

The person who is wise already knows that our notion of Jews as God’s “treasured” people does not deny or disrespect anyone else’s beliefs. It doesn’t make us superior. Nor does it endow us with any right to control anyone or anything beyond ourselves.

In any of these three situations we can sit with neighbors and colleagues and friends, and we can have rational and honest discussions about – well, pretty much anything, from the nature of the world to the responsibilities of humanity.

It is the fourth person – the person who is wicked who is the cause for concern.

In the Haggadah this is the child who says: “What is this observance to you – to you and not to me.” Today, this is the person who sees the Jew as the “other,” as something less than human, as something to be feared, and despised, and defeated. Today, this is the anti-Semite, the Jew-hater. Today, on a day of joy at the coming of this new year, the anti-Semite creates among us a sense of dread that this year will be just as scary as the last.

It’s no secret that antisemitic incidents remain at an historically high level in this country. Even with the pandemic, 2020 saw a total of 2,024 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported to the Anti-Defamation League.[1] Now, we haven’t had any violence in our area – although I know some of our members are still afraid since Tree of Life, even with the hardening of our building security. But we have had other incidents. Antisemitic leaflets have been distributed in Altoona in the past year, as well as in State College. And many congregations whose congregations rely on live-streamed services have been Zoom-bombed by Jew-haters who get into the service and scream horrific threats at Jews at prayer.

But here’s what I think is the worst and ugliest aspect of antisemitism today: It comes at us from both sides.

It comes from the far-right: From neo-nazis who beat up Jews walking to synagogue and vandalize Jewish cemeteries with swastikas. From white supremacists who scream “Jews will not replace us,” in their torch-lit marches, and fill the internet with lies about the Rothschilds and George Soros paying for black and brown people to come to this country to de-populate and pollute the blood of the white Christian majority.

These horrific lies have been repeated by elected officials at all levels, who are too gullible or too bigoted to be able to separate truth from clear and crazy fiction. Antisemitism is an old and vile conspiracy theory that now links other conspiracy theories together in new ways, in new social media avenues that spread as quickly – well, as quickly as a virus in a pandemic.

But antisemitism also comes at us from the far left. It comes from Jew-hating demagogues who are leaders of organizations like the Women’s March and the Chicago Dyke March and Black Lives Matter, who hijack their groups’ purported goals of freedom and equality, and who reject or deny the facts of Jewish minority persecution throughout history.

Antisemitism comes from left-wing groups on college campuses across the country, where Jewish students are subject to harassment, physical threats and emotional intimidation – because of their commitment to the existence of the State of Israel or regardless of it.

Antisemitism comes from those who wrap their hatred of Jews under the banner of anti-Zionism – as though singling out the Jewish homeland, the only democratic nation in the Middle East, for condemnation isn’t bigotry at its worst. As though harassing and threatening American Jews for Israel’s mere existence isn’t as obvious a hatred as Nazi salutes.

And it comes from those who have used America’s current reckoning with race as the lens through which they demand all the world be judged – including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is not racial at all. It’s about two semitic peoples with dueling narratives about history and land. It involves an Israel where only a third of Jews today trace their lineage to Europe – and more and more are from Africa and parts of Asia.

But a pretty good chunk of American Jewry seems ignorant of all this. A national survey this summer by the Jewish Electoral Institute showed that 25 percent of respondents agreed that Israel is an apartheid state, and 34 percent agreed that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States.[2]

And, yes, partly because of this, antisemitism also comes from some young Jews who are eager to prove their credentials as progressive activists.

They march with pro-Palestinian protesters who demand the land “from the river to the sea” – which requires the destruction of the State of Israel. They are willing to discard a key part of their identities: their Judaism – the faith tradition that gave much of the world its moral foundation in the first place.

Antisemitism is a travesty of humanity. It is patently absurd that there should be such paranoid hatred of point-two (0.2) percent of the world’s population.

And here’s the irony. We American Jews – especially in the non-traditional streams of American Judaism – we are steadfast defenders of everybody else’s rights. Immigrants. Gays and lesbians. The homeless and the hungry.

And we should be. As God’s “treasured” people, we have a unique responsibility to fulfill the moral imperative of the Torah to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We have thousands of years of experience of being the “other” — and we know that nobody deserves to be a paranoia-filled punching bag for anyone else. Not immigrants. Not people of color. Not women. Not poor people. Nobody.

But: We also have the responsibility to fulfill the teaching of the great sage Hillel the Elder:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

We are often taught that Hillel was going from the lesser mitzvah to the greater, encouraging us to think beyond ourselves to all of those who are persecuted or disadvantaged or vulnerable. But I would suggest a slightly different reading.

I think Hillel deliberately started with the phrase “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I think he firmly believed that we Jews must stand up for ourselves first. Because if we don’t – we won’t be here for anyone else. We’ve talked a lot about personal self-care in this past year. But we have to start talking about national self-care, too.

Every generation of Jews has faced an existential threat in some place, from some group. Every generation of Jews has been persecuted, hated and feared for no other reason than that we exist.

 Every generation of Jews has been the object of absurd and obscene paranoid conspiracy theories, from blood libel to white-supremacist replacement theory to space lasers.

But we have survived because we believe in ourselves. In our divine purpose. In the promise of our homeland, restored after two thousand years, even with all its flaws and failings. And we believe we are responsible for handing the covenant that we celebrate today to the next generation, and the one after that. We would not be here today, at the beginning of this New Year, without that belief in ourselves.

We have to stay vigilant. And we have to remain united. We must ensure that our children are neither the ones who don’t even know how to ask – nor the ones who absent themselves altogether. And we cannot be silent in face of hatred. As Elie Wiesel once said: “Neutrality helps the oppressor.” 

Last night, I spoke of the joy of just being human. This morning, as we tell the sacred story of our origins, I speak of the joy of being Jewish – of living and loving and praying and helping in this world, in the way Judaism teaches. A joy that no one has the right to take away from us.

Let this New Year be the one in which we reclaim our joy. A New Year when we can openly celebrate our faith in God and affirm our moral covenant with humanity. Let us demand freedom from fear and baseless hatred. If not now, when?

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


©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin  

[1] Numbers according to the annual ADL Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, issued for 2020 on April 27, 2021, the second anniversary of the deadly antisemitic attack on Chabad of Poway, California.

[2] Jewish Electoral Institute National Jewish Survey of 800 Jewish voters, conducted June 28-July 1, 2021. http://www.gbaostrategies.com

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2021: A Case of The Twisties

Tue, 2021-09-21 14:24

I’m looking out at all of you tonight — and even though we are completely on Zoom once again, I can’t help but smile. Mostly because you are you. And I love every single one of you. And I love that you are all here for yourselves, and for each other. I know it’s not where we hoped to be tonight. But regardless of the fears and the challenges and the distractions all around us, we are here. Good job, everyone.

It’s so hard to express what we have gone through in these months of pandemic. But a recent event half a world away gave me the exact word I’ve been looking for. We have all had a case of the “twisties.”

I’d never heard of that word until last month’s Covid-delayed Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when American gymnast Simone Biles – considered by many to be the greatest in history – suddenly withdrew from competition after a major scare during practice.

Biles had some trouble on the uneven bars. Then she tried to rehearse her floor routine and found herself literally in uncharted territory as she attempted her tumbling. “That’s when the wires just snapped,” she later said. “Things were not connecting, and I don’t know what went wrong.”[1]

What went wrong, apparently, was that Biles had developed a case of what they call the “Twisties” – a sudden lack of awareness of where she was in mid-air. Biles is renowned for adding all kinds of twists and contortions into her flips and somersaults as she soars through the air, including a double-twisting somersault dismount on the uneven bars that makes her look like she’s weightless in slow-motion.

 And then, suddenly, she couldn’t do it. “My body and my mind weren’t in sync,” she said. “That’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around.”[2]

I cannot think of a better way to describe what each of us has gone through in the past eighteen months. Our bodies and our minds out of sync with each other and with everything going on around us. Our sense of powerlessness overwhelming us, as everyday tasks that were once routine became obstacle courses that constantly changed – or like a maze with no beginning and no end. Remember, in the Harry Potter movies, the stairwells at Hogwarts that kept shifting and taking the students anywhere or nowhere? Yeah, like that.

We started out with so much energy in the spring of 2020, presuming a brief shutdown that surely would end by late summer. We fell into “languishing,” as the current vernacular calls it, when we realized we were in it for the long haul. The ups and downs have only accelerated in the past few months: Vaccinations became widely available but then half the adult population rejected them. People desperate to get out of town flocked to vacation spots on the shore or in the mountains or in the parks – but then were exposed to the Delta variant that attacks even those who have gotten their shots. School systems planned all summer for full openings, but then in late July, kids started getting really sick. Heated rhetoric and disinformation continue to cause emotional whiplash.

Back in May of this year, columnist Kathleen Parker wrote how wonderful it was to attend the Carolina Cup Steeplechase Races down in our adopted second home of Camden, South Carolina:

“The sight of so many smiles and cheeks and noses and chins was both jarring and joyous, as well as somehow unexpected,” she wrote. “I joked to my husband that I didn’t recognize people without their masks.”[3]

Two months later, at the end of July, Parker wrote of the brewing civil war between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. She even compared it to the worst sectarian violence of the Iraq War when neighborhoods and families were torn apart by their differing responses to the U.S.-led invasion of their country.[4]

Of course we have a case of the “twisties.” How could we possibly avoid it?

But, you know what? Somehow we are negotiating all of this amazingly well. For the imperfect, stiff-necked humans that we are – somehow we are maintaining our bearings. It’s not easy, and it’s not always pretty. But I think each of us is doing pretty well in the worst circumstances most of us have ever experienced.

I think our pandemic-induced case of the “twisties” has made each of us feel more vulnerable. And even with a sort-of end in sight, we still can’t gauge just where we are – we just still seem to be floating in mid-air. One reason, I think is that, whatever “normal” looks like at the end of this is not going to be the “normal” we left 18 months ago.

There have been techtonic shifts in education, employment, and housing. We may be facing new choices about where we live, how we work, what we expect from our kids and what we are able to leave to them. We’re seeing huge gaps in job availability, child-care accessibility, and housing costs. And we have seen tens of thousands of workers lost to drug addiction: By one account, prescription opioids accounted for forty-four percent of the decrease in men’s labor force participation in the past twenty years.[5]

Among those of us gathered to welcome our New Year tonight, some have lost jobs. Others have suffered terrifying illness. A number of us have lost a loved one – and have not been able to mourn them as we would want. All of this will pose challenges to us that will seem insurmountable. But somehow, we will get our sense of “air awareness” back again.

Today is Rosh Hashanah – the day we celebrate as the birthday of the world. It comes around every year on the first day of the month of Tishri – but the cycle of the year is not a perfect circle. It does not come back to the same space where we left it last year. It’s more like a spiral – like a Slinky toy that coils back near where it came from, but farther ahead. Even if we wanted to go back to where we were a year ago – or two years ago — we couldn’t.

We have to move forward, whether we like it or not. We have to grapple with change and new challenges and doors that open in front of us while other doors close tight behind us. That old reality no longer exists.

Today is Rosh Hashanah – the day we fear as the day of judgment, when – according to our tradition – the good we have done in our lives is weighed against the not-so-good.

Our prayers will tell us that life and death hang in the balance. Our Torah readings will teach us that we can choose life – physical life, spiritual life, emotional life – not by being perfect. But by being human. Not by trying to emulate someone else, but by being the best of ourselves.

The famed Chassidic master Rabbi Zusha – an old story tells us — was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his teacher, “Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Rabbi Zusha answered, “[But] When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham.” Rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha?’ And then what will I say? [6]

Then what will I say? That’s the question each of us asks of ourselves tonight.

In one sense, these Days of Awe pose this tremendous challenge to each of us. But in some ways, I think they’re designed to remind us that we should cut ourselves some slack. That, even (or especially) on this “Day of Judgment,” God expects each of us to strive, not for perfection, but to be the best “me” that we can be. That is what will bring us a sense of satisfaction, a sense of relief, and – most of all – a sense of joy. Joy at just being us. Joy at just being human.

That’s what I thought about when I saw the photo of Simone Biles right after she finished her balance beam routine – the one and only event she competed in, at the very end of the Olympic gymnastics competition. It wasn’t her best performance of all time. It wasn’t her most difficult.

She had to take out the twisting moves on the dismount that had made her famous – and substitute one that was just hard by the rest of the world’s standards.

She did it. She did it well enough to earn a bronze medal. And she – Simone Biles, the perfectionist, the “greatest of all time” – was really good with that. She wasn’t judging herself against anyone else’s standards. “I was,” she said, “just going out there doing this for me.”[7]

And that photo. Her hand over her heart, a lightness in her step. A smile on her face. Not the forced smile all gymnasts flash before they start a routine. But a genuine glow from inside of her – happy at re-discovering, maybe for the first time in a long time, what it is that made her fall in love with gymnastics in the first place. What made her feel grounded in a world suffering from the “twisties.”

Today is Rosh Hashanah. The birthday of the world and the day of judgment. A day of reflection and of celebration. A day when we take stock of the past and move into the future.

As we celebrate our world, we also celebrate ourselves. All through the six days of creation, God took stock: “Vayar Elohim ki tov” – and God saw that it was good. It was only after the sixth day, the day that humans were created, that God saw and: “Hinei tov me’od” – behold it was very good.

The world is better – MUCH BETTER – because we are in it. As the gates of prayer and forgiveness open wide to us on these Day of Awe, the choice each of us faces now is simply how to make our very presence something full of purpose and of joy. Tonight, you all got a very good start. Good job, everyone.

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


©Audrey R. Korotkin 2021

[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/simone-biles-olympics-gymnastics-beam-11627983483?mod=searchresults_pos2&page=1

[2] See Note 1.

[3] Kathleen Parker, “Thankfully, We Get To See Faces Again,” published in the Altoona Mirror on May 29, 2021.

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/07/30/will-delta-variant-turn-americans-against-one-another/ accessed on line August 9, 2021.

[5] “Mystery of the Missing Workers,” Bloomberg Businessweek, August 9, 2021, pp. 29-31. Article cites May 2018 research paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

[6] https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/115569.2?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/08/03/sports/gymnastics-olympics-biles-beam-final

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

A Leap of Faith: Shabbat Eikev, Friday, July 30, 2021

Sun, 2021-08-01 16:19

Here we are, reaching the climactic scenes of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Indy has found his father, kidnapped by the Nazis (and as we know, he hates those guys). His father has been deliberately shot to force Indy to pass through three deadly trials to reach the Holy Grail, whose cosmic power of giving eternal life the Nazis seek to possess.

Indy has cleverly solved the riddles of the first two tests; only one now stands between him and this powerful relic. “Take a leap from the lion’s head” – the test now commands of him. As he rushes to complete the task, he is stopped in his tracks. The “lion’s head” is an image carved into a sheer rock face that empties out into a bottomless and wide chasm. It is impossible for him to jump to the other side, where the prize waits for him.

He wracks his brain for an answer, based on the clues his father has left him from his lifelong search for the Grail. Suddenly, he realizes – the “leap from the lion’s head” is not a clue in an old, dog-eared notebook. The “Leap from the lion’s head” is a leap of faith. Somehow, he must believe with all his heart that he can cross the abyss – that he can walk through thin air – even though his brain tells him it’s impossible. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath – and, instead of gingerly tiptoeing into the cavern, he raises his leg and stretches it out as far as it will go, leading with his heel.

A leap of faith. Indiana Jones knew that he could not be tentative. He could not put his toe out there as though he was testing the water in a swimming pool, where he could draw back if it was too cold.

No, a leap of faith required taking the biggest step he could, knowing his momentum would propel him forward no matter what happened.

Indy he lowers his leg in front of him. The heel comes to rest on a stone bridge that has miraculously appeared in his path, holding him up and guiding him to the Grail.

It was that heel, in that moment, that saved the Jones boys.

The heel in Hebrew is called akeiv. And the great Torah commentator Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki – does a brilliant word play and links it to the word eikev that begins this week’s Torah portion.

עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה

the parasha begins:

Eikev: Because of – on the heels of — your obedience to these rules, and your observance of them, the Eternal your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant made on oath with your fathers. God will favor you and bless you and multiply you.”[1]


“If you do obey . . . you shall be blessed above all other peoples.”[2]

All you have to do, God tells the Israelites, is take that leap of faith – raise up that leg, lead with the akeiv, and stride confidently and with perfect faith across the Jordan River and into your new life.

Eikev. I’ve done my part, God says. I’ve gotten you this far. I’ve given you all the tools and all the rules. Now it’s your turn.

Moses reminds the people of the long way that they have traveled in the wilderness these forty years, the tests that God has given them to prepare them. But God also had given them total protection: from hunger, from thirst, from attack. Would they, Moses asks them now, be prepared for the challenges that await them on the other side of the river? Had they really evolved, on this long journey, into a nation that could be self-ruling and self-sustaining in the Promised Land?

Eikev. You need to take that leap of faith, Moses says. Not only your faith in your God. But your faith in yourselves, and in one another.

In the past year and a half, many of us have felt like we have stood on that precipice, looking out into a yawning and unending darkness, with no clear path forward. At first, we packed up the Temple, set up our home studios and thought – we can do this! A few weeks on an iPad, and we’ll be back by late summer, for sure.

But late summer turned into late fall, into winter and into another year. We had such high hopes this past spring, and came back together this summer, like this, as safely as we could.

Now, with the Delta variant exploding in communities with low vaccination rates we are once again witnessing the horrors of hospital beds filling up, ICU units expanding, and front-line medical personnel exhausting what little strength they had left. School systems are being encouraged to re-impose mask mandates. Cities are requiring vaccination of their workers, and even the federal government is saying to their employees: get the shots, or deal with the limitations of being unvaccinated.

We know we are vulnerable here in Blair County, with only half our adult population vaccinated. Months after we thought we’d be free, our faith in one another is being tested like never before.

I imagine the Israelites felt this way. Moses is reminding them that they have often behaved selfishly in the past – and I can visualize the people standing there, giving each other side-long glances and thinking: “That would be you, neighbor. Thanks a lot, buddy.”

Here’s Moses trying to cajole, coerce, and plead with a stiff-necked people to get their act together and think of each other. To get out of their comfort zones and do the right thing for the community. We can relate to that, can’t we?

Eikev. Patients who are now hospitalized with COVID are begging their doctors and nurses to give them the vaccine – and are being told, I’m sorry, it’s too late for that. Their families are horrified: We thought it was a hoax, they say. We thought it would never come here. We thought it really wasn’t a big deal.

Eikev. Our Torah reminds us: Never forget what you have seen with your own eyes. More than six hundred thousand Americans have died. Infection rates and deaths are rising again. It IS a big deal.

We’re all trying to do the right thing here. But I’m sure you’ve noticed that we’re missing a few regulars. And it breaks my heart that they’re not here.

It breaks my heart to know there are congregants who want to be here, now, but are afraid.

It breaks my heart that so many stiff-necked people in our own community can’t see how their lack of care affects so many other people.

It breaks my heart to tell our Religious School parents that their kids will need to wear masks when they come back into our classrooms.

It breaks my heart to know that we as a congregation – we who have worked so hard for so long to feel that warmth and joy that comes from being together – that we are once again being left on the precipice by events that are largely out of our control.  But that could be controlled if more people just cared.

And it breaks my heart to hear so-called leaders of any faith tradition telling their people to reject masks and vaccines because, somehow, God will provide. As though God isn’t already providing, as doctors and scientists use their God-given abilities to work beyond the limits they thought possible, and to create the miraculous vaccines that have saved untold lives.

It breaks my heart because Judaism is not by any means the only faith tradition that teaches that we must care for one another – each and every one of us, and particularly the most vulnerable among us.

The Torah uses the examples of the orphan, the widow and the stranger. But we would also include the very young, the elderly, the sick, and the ignorant and the selfish – who sometimes have to be saved from themselves.

Eikev. We’re always looking in Torah for guidance for our own lives. This one little word uttered thousands of years ago rings in our ears today – powerfully reminding us of what we can do when we believe — in God, in ourselves, and in each other. Like the Israelites of old, we can be the nation we were meant to be. All it takes is that leap of faith.

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


©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Deut. 7:12-13.

[2] Deut. 7:12, 14.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Higher, Faster, Longer: Shabbat Vaetchanan, Friday, July 23, 2021

Sun, 2021-07-25 15:50

I just want to say: Wally Funk is the coolest, most amazing woman in the universe. The fact that, at 82, she became the oldest person to travel in space is the least of it. When she took off with Jeff Bezos in the Blue Origin spacecraft on Tuesday, she finally achieved a goal that was denied to her six decades ago.

Wally Funk – the pilot with the shock of white hair, the amazing smile, the great laugh – was once a member of a private space program we now call the Mercury 13 but then was called FLAT: First Lady Astronaut Trainees. In 1961, at age 21, she became a star among a group of women getting the same training as the men of the Mercury program who made the first forays into space. William Randolph Lovelace, who had once worked for NASA, wanted to show that women could handle the assignment as well as men. And, in fact, many of the women did better in the training. Wally’s scores were higher than John Glenn’s – and she was only the third best woman![1]

But the program was shut down. Not a single FLAT ever went into space. There actually was one congressional sub-committee hearing about it, where two of the FLAT participants begged for the chance – and where John Glenn himself opposed it, saying that including women in the space program “may be undesirable.”[2]

Mercury 13, in many ways, became a victim of what I personally would describe as the testosterone-fueled space obsessions of the Cold War. Ironically, while the Soviet Union sent Valentina Tereshkova into space in 1963, no American woman would do so until 1983 – when Sally Ride joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger.[3]

And Wally Funk? The woman who dreamed of flying at such an early age that she jumped off the roof of a barn in a Superman costume when she was five years old, thinking the suit could keep her airborne?[4] Who had piloted her first solo flight at the age of 16 and became a professional aviator at age 20?

She applied twice to NASA, in 1962 and 1966, during the Gemini programs. She was turned down both times for lack of an engineering degree – which had been denied her at her local college. And which, it should be pointed out, John Glenn also lacked. She was always ready. NASA was not.

But Wally Funk was not a quitter. She found other ways to fulfill her personal motto of “Higher, Faster, Longer.” In many ways, she succeeded. She logged 19-thousand hours in the air. She became a flight instructor and taught 3-thousand other people how to fly. She became an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. In 2012 – when she was already in her 70s – Wally Funk even learned how to fly a Black Hawk Helicopter.

In the meantime, other women were finally getting their shot. Two years after Sally Ride finally shattered the galactic glass ceiling in 1983, Eileen Collins became the first woman to actually pilot a space shuttle. By then, Wally Funk was too old to join the program.

And so she had the ride of her life on Tuesday – July 20th, 52 years to the day after Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, surely a day that Jeff Bezos deliberately chose for the first flight of Blue Origin. She giggled through her few minutes of weightlessness, and marveled at the darkness that enfolded around the capsule as it reached the altitude where space begins. When the crew was greeted back on the ground, she exited the capsule jumping over the threshold, arms open wide, and a grin from ear to ear.

Wally Funk finally had gone where she ought to have been sixty years ago, had sexism and politics and personal prejudices not gotten in her way. In the press conference afterwards, Wally declared: “I loved it! I can hardly wait to go again!” When Jeff Bezos turned to her and said: “Amen! Next stop for you is the moon, Wally,” she replied, “Yes, it is.”[5]

I think of Wally Funk in the same pioneering spirit of our Israelite ancestors, who are being prepared by Moses in this week’s Torah portion to venture into the unknown. Like Wally Funk, they had a very long wait to get to where they belonged all along. Not as long as her 60 years – but long.

And just as Wally may not get to the moon, which would have been her Promised Land, not every Israelite completed the journey. A whole generation died in the wilderness, including Aaron and Miriam. And even Moses had to hand the reins to Joshua to see the people across the Jordan River.

As it happens, Moses’s rhetoric in this week’s parashah reminds us just how much we always have dreamed of reaching up into the heavens — where the weight of the earth disappears and reality takes on a whole new form.

“You have but to inquire about bygone ages that came before you,” Moses says, “ever since God created man on earth, from one end of heaven to the other, has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known?”[6]

No, it hasn’t. The heavens – ha-shamayim – remain a place of wonder. To reach its heights, and to experience the miraculous and beautiful world that God has created from its vantage point, remains our greatest desire.

But reaching into the heavens is also a symbol of broader human accomplishment. Moses’s description of transcending the bounds of earth goes hand in hand with the demands that God makes of us while we are here. And so here Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments given on Sinai, which direct our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. When Moses urges each of us to seek God with all our heart and soul – b’chol l’vavcha uv’chol naf’shecha – he calls on us to follow God’s path of personal faith, mutual compassion, and communal responsibility.[7]

Higher. Faster. Longer. Let Wally Funk’s motto be our inspiration. Let us never be deterred. And let us say: Amen.


©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://peoplepill.com/people/wally-funk

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jun/24/ill-be-flying-till-i-die-why-wally-funk-wont-give-up-her-lifelong-space-mission

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/19/science/wally-funk-jeff-bezos.html

[4] https://peoplepill.com/people/wally-funk for this information and all that follows.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kmpb7xJJ10I

[6] Deuteronomy 4:32.

[7] Deuteronomy 4:29.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog


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