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Vincent and Jacob – Shabbat Vayetze, Friday, December 6, 2019

Mon, 2019-12-09 13:59

He is considered by many to be the greatest artist of modern times – maybe the greatest of all time. Vincent Van Gogh is famed for his inventiveness, his unique use of color and shade and palette. He is also known for his chronic depression, his loneliness, and his death – thought by many to have been a suicide.

When you think of Van Gogh, you think the psychedelic dreaminess of Starry Night or the imaginative and colorful depictions of landscapes and shepherds and sunflowers. But Don and I had a chance to learn a lot more about Van Gogh last week at an exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art.

The exhibit focused on the many other artists whose work influenced Van Gogh. Impressionists, yes – but also traditional portrait painters across France who captured the essence of the human form. Landscape artists from the Dutch school, who drew in darkness and shadows. Japanese woodblock printers whose gift for story-telling guided his own.

A dozen of Van Gogh’s own works were included. None was particularly famous. No starry night. No sunflowers. Only a couple were recognizably his, including one self-portrait in which both ears were still intact. There were pen and ink drawings, and what looked like studies of other artists. The point was to show how Van Gogh became the Van Gogh we know.

The display included insightful historical and artistic commentary on each work and each artist, provided by authors of a New York Times best-seller on Van Gogh and his life.

It was, in essence, a narrative, through which you could see the little bits and pieces he picked up from all of these artists and how he merged them into a style that was unmistakably his own.

But the exhibit was much more than a display by and about an artist. It was the story of a human being. A man both brilliant and deeply flawed. A man with insecurities, familial fallouts, and a false belief that he could manage his troubled life better all by himself.

And it occurred to me that this story is a parallel to the tale of our patriarch Jacob, which is at the heart of the Torah portions for this Shabbat and next week’s. Well, it’s a parallel up to a point – when the choices they made sealed their fates one way or another.

Like Jacob, Vincent Van Gogh was born into a family of believers.

Both Vincent’s grandfather – also named Vincent – and his father Theodorus were ministers. Jacob, of course, was the grandson of Abraham, with whom God made an eternal covenant and for whom God provided a land and descendants to inherit that land. His father Isaac literally followed in Abraham’s footsteps, sojourning in the same places and re-digging the same wells.

Vincent thought at one point he’d be a minister, too. His parents even paid for his lessons to gain entry to the official ministry. But he never made it through. He rejected mainstream church theology and practice. As he wrote to his brother Theo: “”I find Father and Mother’s sermons and ideas about God, people, morality and virtue a lot of stuff and nonsense.”

For a while he became an itinerant evangelist in a mining town. But after just one contract, the folks there apparently had had enough of his bizarre ideas and his rough personality. And that was the end of his career in ministry.

As for Jacob, well, as this week’s Torah portion show, he too had ideas about God that went far afield from that of his parents and grandparents. In the famous scene with the dream of Jacob’s ladder and the angels moving up and down from heaven and Jacob’s astonishment that God could be in such an ordinary place in the wilderness and God’s promise of land and protection – with all that, we sometimes skip over what Jacob said in response:

“Jacob then made a vow, saying, ‘If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God.  And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”[1]

God made the promises. Jacob wouldn’t believe them. He had to see the results before he would commit to the relationship.

Both men seemed to suffer from a lack of humility. But that hurt their relationships with their families as much as with God.

Jacob, as we know, was turned out of his parents’ house for cheating his brother and hoodwinking his father.

He later worked in the family business of his father-in-law Laban. But that relationship ended when he fled the farm, taking with him what he felt was owed to him for his years of service, including Laban’s daughters as his wives.

Vincent didn’t do any better. His parents despaired of his erratic behavior and his inability to hold down a job, much less decide on a career. Over the years, he went back to live with them, on and off. But they turned responsibility for him over to his brother Theo – who was settled and successful.

Vincent moved frequently, staying with family or friends and taking up lessons or appointments –but never for very long. Then he’d retreat into social isolation. The evolution of the images that would become the hallmark of his work was the result of lonely surveillance. He came to see himself as the solitary shepherd or the lone farmer depicted in several of his major works.

Both Vincent and Jacob had families that loved them and sometimes despaired of them. But they lived inside themselves. They trusted only themselves.  And they did become successful. Jacob amassed a great fortune and a large household. Vincent, when he had finally absorbed what everyone else could teach him, began painting with astonishing and distinctive brilliance that no one could match.

But a life spent living in his own head took its toll on Vincent. The fears of mental illness that his parents had expressed years earlier became reality. In late 1888, when Van Gogh was only 35, he began having delusions and psychotic attacks. That’s when he cut off his ear.

By the next year, when he was actually becoming popular and successful, depression took over and he pronounced himself a failure. He continued to work but lost not only his passion but his will to live. The one doctor he allowed to try and treat him finally gave up. In the summer of 1890, Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in the stomach, and died two days later, at the age of 37.

And Jacob?

I think there’s a reason why the Torah portions are separated the way they are, between this week and next week. Things could have ended badly for Jacob this week, as he was being chased down by his irate father-in-law. As this week’s portion closes, he manages to negotiate a peaceful separation.

That peaceful separation showed God that something was changing in Jacob – a maturity, a sense of social and familial responsibility. In the closing verses this week, we read:

“Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said, ‘This is God’s camp.’ So he named that place Mahanaim.”[2]

In Hebrew, that means two camps – his and God’s, now working as one. And it signals to us what’s going to happen in next week’s portion.

There, Jacob is on his way to face his brother Esau and own up to the grievous harm he has caused. That night, Jacob has the struggle with the angel in the middle of the stream. Maybe he’s struggling with his own demons as well. But Jacob succeeds where Vincent could not.

He is ready, willing and able to accept both the rewards and the punishments of that life brings. He makes the commitment of faith that God has long been looking for. So Jacob can strive with the angel and survive. He rightfully demands a blessing. And the blessing is his new name – Israel.

Here’s what I take away from the story of these two lives juxtaposed with each other.

The truth is that no one can live a totally solitary life – out in a field or in one’s own mind.

The truth is that no one can survive without mutual love and trust and support of other people.

Vincent refused all of that – or simply could not give it. And in the end, it killed him.

Jacob finally realized and acknowledged the need for love and trust and faith. And Jacob became Israel.

Many of you in the sanctuary tonight know this to be true.

A lot of us try to shoulder our troubles alone. We think: I don’t want to be a burden. Or: I’m a grown-up, I can handle this. Sometimes we can. But sometimes we can’t. And it takes a lot of courage to admit we need help – and then accept it.

That’s one of the reasons for Temple Beth Israel’s existence. There’s no shame in asking for support: We are a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. It’s our mitzvah, and our blessing, to help each other.

We are here when you need care and consolation. We are here to help you celebrate your joys. And, as your rabbi, I always try to make sure you are never alone to face whatever life throws at you. The lonely shepherd or the solitary farmer may be a captivating image in a painting. But it’s no way to go through life.

As we witness the evolution of Jacob into Israel, we recognize how much we need one another.

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

 

####

©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

[1] Gen: 28: 20-22

[2] Gen. 32:2-3.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“Let There Be Light” – Shabbat Bereshit and the First Yahrzeit for the Victims at Tree of Life , Friday, October 25, 2019

Sat, 2019-10-26 12:53

A year ago, tomorrow morning, as I was leaving here after adult Bible study, I got a text from a congregant who wanted to know if I’d heard any news. No, I texted back – why? There was a shooting at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, he replied. And it is very bad.

Since I have been the rabbi here at Temple Beth Israel, I have had to respond – in prayer and in preaching – to way too many mass murders in this country, from Sandy Hook Elementary School to the Orlando Night Club to the Las Vegas Strip. But this time it was different. This time it was personal.

Eleven Jews murdered at Sabbath prayer – simply because they were Jews. Elderly people sitting in the back of the pews, as they had, faithfully, every week for decades. In Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood we all know well. Altoona’s Jewish community has deep ties there. Many of us have family there and some grew up there. Some of us shop there on a regular basis. At least one of our couples was married at Tree of Life, and another among us taught Religious School there. These eleven people, and those who were wounded – including UPMC chaplain Dan Leger, whose colleagues are here tonight – could have been our family, our friends.

In Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood we all know well. A center of bustling Jewish life for generations. A place where people from all different faiths and cultures live as neighbors. It is literally Mister Rogers Neighborhood – as Fred Rogers lived not far from the synagogue that remains closed, surrounded by security fences and make-shift shrines with symbols and messages of love and support.

This Shabbat marks an ending and a beginning for the survivors and for the families of those murdered. In Jewish mourning tradition, we set aside a full year from the time someone is buried as a time of special remembrance.

Children have a particular responsibility to say Kaddish, a statement of faith in God in memory of a loved one, for a full year. Here at Temple Beth Israel, we read the names of congregants and loved ones who have passed away for a full year, so that any time the family comes to worship during that time, they can be assured their loved one’s name will be shared.

For some of the mourners at Tree of Life, the turning of a year may mark a time of closure. We know that some have begun returning to their lives, though they will never be the same. Some who have gone through grief counseling have found solace in the arms of neighbors and friends and others who have suffered as well.

It doesn’t mean that we forget. We never forget. But we come to this day changed by the distance from our immediate shock and horror and fear and grief.

We at Temple Beth Israel were so afraid a year ago. We knew that the accused murderer in Pittsburgh had been motivated and inspired by other mass murderers around the world who had posted manifestos on social networking spewing hatred at Jews, blacks, Muslims, and other minorities. We needed to mourn. But we also needed to know that we could be safe here. And you took care of us. Our friends in the interfaith community embraced us, and hundreds of you were part of a magnificent service of remembrance and hope at Zion Lutheran Church in Hollidaysburg.

And we took action to protect ourselves. Security briefings from the Department of Homeland Security. Procedures for emergencies. Hardened security for the building. We still want to be what the words from the prophet Isaiah chiseled on the front of our building tell us we ought to be: A House of Prayer for All Peoples. But we are also careful, as we have to be.

According to an annual survey of Jewish opinion in the United States conducted this summer by the American Jewish Committee, since the slaughter at Tree of Life, sixty-five percent of American Jews feel less secure as a Jew in the U.S. than they did a year ago.

And with good reason: According to the FBI, antisemitic incidents in this country rose nearly SIXTY percent last year, compared to the year before. Sixty percent. And, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups operating across American last year rose to a record high of 1,020 – the fourth straight year of heightened, coordinated hate.

“Hate has frayed the social fabric of our country,” said Richard Cohen, past president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Knitting it back together will take the efforts of all segments of our society – our families, our schools, our houses of worship, our civic organizations and the business community. Most of all, it will take leadership – political leadership – that inspires our country to live up to its highest values.”

Since Cohen specifically mentioned houses of worship, let’s work on the healing process tonight, and let’s start with Scripture and our Jewish tradition.

I mentioned that this is a time of endings and beginnings. It is a new beginning on the Jewish calendar – the Sabbath on which we renew our reading of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), starting with its very first verses and the story of Creation.

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים ׀ אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם:[1]

God created Adam in the Divine Image; in the likeness of God was Adam created; male and female did God create.

Unlike all of the other creatures created before humanity, who were formed two by two so that they could reproduce, God created only one first human – Adam – fashioned from the adamah, from the dust of the earth. Adam was created both male and female, and only later did God split the two sides apart.

But why were we created differently? Why do we all descend from one human rather than two?

Because, as the rabbis taught us:

“A man may stamp out many coins with one die and they are all alike. But the Holy One of Blessing stamped each human with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow – so that each of us may say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’”[2]

Each of us carries the stamp of God. Each of us is equally worthy – not just of God’s love but of each other’s love. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or what language you speak, or what color your skin is, or how and where you pray. We are all created equal and all originate from one being – so that nobody can say: My ancestor was greater than yours.

That makes every life as precious as every other life. And every life to come. In the next generation, when Cain kills Abel, the Torah tells us:

י וַיֹּאמֶר מֶה עָשִׂיתָ קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן־הָאֲדָמָה:[3]

God said, “What have you done? The voice of the bloods of your brother cry out to me from the earth!”

Not “the blood of your brother” but “the bloods (plural) of your brother” – because, as the rabbis teach, it wasn’t just one person that Cain killed.

It was all the children who would never be born – untold generations that would never have a chance to do God’s work on earth.

These verses from the first chapters of Genesis teach us of the preciousness of every life. Of the equal value of every life. Of the untold potential of every life. This Divine message is engraved in the act of Creation itself. And anything we humans have done that is contrary to this message is a shanda, a disgrace – a show of contempt for God and God’s plan for this world.

We live in a world where dark forces far from God’s message surrounds us: people seething with hatred and perceived grudges that are multiplied in the shadowy corners of the internet. Professor Deborah Lipstadt, who has spent decades fighting antisemitism, wrote this week that “this oldest hatred continues to grow, evolve, and develop” across the political spectrum.

“Today’s antisemites,” she wrote, “including those who might have previously never dared to publicly utter their hateful thoughts, feel emboldened to do so. In fact, they feel more than emboldened.” [4]

But then, Professor Lipstadt said something that took me aback. She wrote: “As much as I worry about what the antisemites might do to Jews, I worry even more about what we might do to ourselves because of antisemitism.”

And here’s what she meant:

When we define ourselves as Jews, our motivation should not be to counter the toxicity of antisemitism. It should be because we are proud of our history, our heritage, and our mission on earth. It should be because we truly rejoice in Torah and mitzvot, in holy days and festival days, and in this Sabbath day – which, like humanity, is part of the fabric of Creation itself.

It’s what Professor Lipstadt called living Jewishly for the joy, and not for the oy.

“While we stand guard,” she wrote, “and we would be crazy not to – we do so in order to be free to celebrate Jewish life in all its manifestations.”

But here’s the part of her message I really wanted to share with you tonight:

“We are bearers of a magnificent tradition, one that expresses itself in religious, intellectual, philanthropic, artistic, communal, and political contexts. Despite the best efforts of so many generations of non-Jews to harm, kill, and even annihilate us, we celebrate the multi-faceted tradition that is our and all it has given to the world. We do so, not because of the attempt to destroy us, but in spite of it.”

We must be Jewish – in every way we express Judaism – not because we are victims but because we are Jews. We gather here for Shabbat tonight, mindful of what happened a year ago that shattered our world. But we gather every Friday night because we are Jews. Because the Sabbath is God’s gift to us.

It is the culmination of the act of Creation, which began with the light of a Divine spark that is embedded in each and every one of us. It is a foretaste of the World To Come – a world of peace and of freedom and, yes, of joy.  It is a gift that we share tonight with our friends and our neighbors as a thank-you for their love for us.

Our unity in this sanctuary tonight is a testament to the way God intended for humanity to live in this world. As the Psalmist wrote:

 זֶה־הַיּוֹם עָשָׂה יְהֹוָה נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ:[5]

This is the day that God has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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

#####

©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Genesis 1:27

[2] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

[3] Genesis 4:10.

[4] Deborah E. Lipstadt, “The Best Way to Fight Anti-Semitism? Jewish Joy,” Forward, October 23, 2019.

[5] Psalm 118:24

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Yom Kippur Morning 2019: Seeing is Believing

Thu, 2019-10-10 16:25

All Barb Zaplotney wanted was for someone to see her. To see HER. Not her wheelchair. Not her disability. To see HER. Barb. The woman who was paralyzed in a car accident a dozen years ago, her spinal cord severed at the T-10 vertebra.

That’s all. Was that too much to ask? Was it too much to ask that some of the staff at the rehab facility stop referring to her as “T-10” and call her by name?

“I felt like they only saw my diagnosis and didn’t see me as a human being,” she said recently at a program at Saint Francis University. “We are not our diagnoses.”

Barb Zaplotney is not alone, though over the years she often felt like it. None of us likes to be ignored. None of us wants to be stereotyped. None of us deserves to be “essentialized” – a word I used last night. “Essentialized” means seeing another person as “essentially” something “other” – something inferior. Broken. Disabled. Unworthy of our attention.

Every one of us needs to be seen and appreciated for who we are. Every one of us yearns for connections to other people – dynamic relationships that make us feel loved and special. And every one of us, at one time or another, has been frustrated trying to make that connection.

Why is it so hard? What’s the missing ingredient? It’s not a secret. It’s looking – really looking – into another person’s eyes.

Seeing another person – really looking at them – used to be considered an essential part of building relationships. It still is. Think of a baby staring at the face of a mom or dad – and breaking out in a broad grin, and giggling just at the site of them. That’s our natural instinct as human beings. But it’s an instinct that somehow decays over time.

It used to be so natural to smile at a stranger on the street and have them smile back. Not any more. More often than not, I find that people look away, or move away, as quickly as they can. It’s like they equate seeing with spying. It’s uncomfortable – or downright creepy.

Even in situations where you’d think eye contact would be essential – it doesn’t happen. When’s the last time you checked out at Wal-Mart and had the checker greet you and look you in the eye and smile and acknowledge that they are there to serve you?

Or do you just skip the whole personal interaction thing and go to the self-check line instead?

In a world where so many of us have trouble shifting our eyes from our cell-phone screens – where texting and messaging has replaced actual one-on-one, face-to-face conversation — we’ve gotten out of practice of making basic eye contact. Of being able to read non-verbal signals that can tell us how a person is really feeling. Is she looking thin and tired? Is he having trouble walking? Is her smile touched with sadness? You can’t get that out of text. You can only get it by lifting your eyes and seeing.

But we don’t. And I think that’s really sad.

So today, a day when we feel that our very lives depend on our ability to make powerful connections and mend important relationships – with God and with one another – using our God-given gift of sight becomes more important than ever.

The fact is that each of us has an infinite capability for goodness that we can visualize – and then actualize – through this gift of sight. It’s so powerful that it’s highlighted in a prayer that traditionally recited right before Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur Eve. That prayer, T’filah Zakah, focuses on how we have mis-used our limbs and our organs to hurt other people. It forces us to evaluate ourselves, head to toe, and recognize how much damage we have done – and how we ought to use those same parts of our body to repent, to mend and to heal.

This prayer happens not to be included in the prayer book we use here. But I’ve been working through it this year. And here’s how the operative part of it goes:

בָּרָֽאתָ בִּי עֵינַֽיִם, וּבָהֶם חוּשׁ הָרְאוּת, לִרְאוֹת בְּהֶם מַה שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה . . .

You have gifted me with eyes, and with them the sense of sight, so that I might see through them what is written in Your Torah, imbuing them with sanctity as they look upon every holy word.

We focus our eyes too much, says the prayer, on objects we covet, or people we belittle – when we ought to be concentrating our sight on the mitzvot of the Torah that You’ve given us in love.

And what is in the Torah that’s so important? As it turns out, the gift of sight itself is a prominent theme of our Scriptural readings throughout these Days of Awe.

Remember the story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac that we read on Rosh Hashanah? Twice, the Torah tells us Vayisa Avraham et-einav: “Abraham lifted his eyes.” The first time, we read that, vayar et ha-making mey-ra-khok –he saw the place from afar “– meaning, the mountaintop where God directed him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.[1] The second time, we read, va’yar v-hinei ayil, “behold there was a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns,” whom he sacrificed instead of Isaac.[2]

Sight is so crucial in this story that Abraham names the spot Adonai YirehGod sees. Without using his gift of sight, Abraham would never have proven his worth to God. He would never have seen his son inherit his relationship with God. Had Abraham not lifted his eyes, the Jewish people would not exist at all.

The gift of sight here signifies the gift of faith – the faith of a man who believed that God would redeem them both. And the faith of God in the man that God had chosen.

On Yom Kippur, this gift of faith is tested. Today, God demands that we lift our eyes and witness our betrayal of one another. Our prayers require us to look at the brokenness of cities, the pollution of the air, water and land; to see the way we make weapons of war – fashioning spears out of pruning hooks. We acknowledge we have shut our eyes to our neighbors. The poor beggar. The homeless veteran. The abused child. And, yes, the woman in a wheelchair who wants only for others to see her for who she is.

In this afternoon’s Torah reading from the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19, God demands:

וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:

Do not place a stumbling block before a person who is blind; but revere Your God, for I am Adonai.

Now, blindness can be literal, and physical. But blindness can also be ignorance, or foolishness, or naivete. A stumbling block can be a physical barrier. But also it can be abuse or manipulation or exploitation by someone who is deliberately taking advantage, or inflicting cruelty – and then ignoring the consequences.

Either way, God insists that the iveir be treated with respect. Someone who cannot see must not be abused by someone who chooses not to see.

And in this afternoon’s Haftarah, we learn of the prophet Jonah, one who chose not to see.

In this story, God has pronounced the punishment of destruction on the wicked people of Nineveh. But then it all changes:

וַיַּרְא הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת־מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כִּי־שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה . . .

God SAW what the people were doing – that they had turned away from their evil ways – and God renounced the punishment planned for them and did not carry it out.[3]

But rather than raising his eyes, as Abraham did, Jonah refused to see. He already had “essentialized” the people of Nineveh as evil and unworthy. He ran away, into the wilderness. And the story ends with God chastising his prophet for his lack of care and concern for other human beings. Care he might have felt had he simply been willing to turn his eyes on the city – as God did – and look at the people and see how they had changed.

Do we look? Or do we look away? Are we strong enough to not to “essentialize” and stereotype, and make presumptions – but, rather, to see each human being as uniquely created in the image of God? Are we strong enough to look in each other’s eyes and see, in the other, the reflection of God we see in ourselves.

Because, if we are, we will be compelled to behave with kindness and care. And that is exactly what God teaches us through this verse in the Book of Proverbs:

תְּנָה בְנִי לִבְּךָ לִי וְעֵינֶיךָ דְּרָכַי תִּצְּרְֹנָה:

Give your mind to me, my son; Let your eyes watch My ways.[4]

Do we look? – or do we look away? Are we strong enough to take on the responsibility God gave us, or not?

The movie producer, Brian Grazer, has just written a whole best-selling book about this, called Face to Face. His premise is very simple.

He writes:

“In a world where our attention is too often focused downward or elsewhere, simply lifting your eyes to meet another’s gaze can be transformative… (When you) hold eye contact, notice how your interactions change. And watch as it makes others feel more respected, heard, seen, and valued.”

That is what the gift of sight can do. And you don’t have to be sick or tired or in a wheelchair to feel the marvelous gift of another’s eyes seeing you for who and what you are. You just have to be . . . human.

In this morning’s Torah reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, God uses the language of sight to remind us of our obligations to ourselves, and to others:

 רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַחַיִּים וְאֶת־הַטּוֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּוֶת וְאֶת־הָרָע

Behold! See! I lay out before you today life and good, or death and evil, blessing and curse – that you may choose life — and live.[5]

Every single one of us has the power to bless others as we would wish to be blessed. To value others as we wish to be valued. To see others as we would wish to be seen. All we need to do is lift our eyes.

Let this gift compel us, through teshuvah, to make this a world we are proud to behold.

And let us say together: Amen.

######

©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Genesis 22:4

[2] Genesis 22:13

[3] Jonah 3:10

[4] Proverbs 23:26

[5] Deuteronomy 30:19

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Erev Yom Kippur / Kol Nidre 2019: Good Omens

Thu, 2019-10-10 16:18

It is the ultimate cosmic battle that will determine the future of humanity and of our world. Light versus darkness. Good versus evil. The faithful remnant versus the doomed and the damned.

It permeates millennia of apocalyptic literature, Jewish and Christian alike. It inspires our contemporary culture and the television shows that capture our attention, from Game of Thrones to Good Omens. And it encourages some among us to commit unspeakable crimes.

The battle of Armageddon – or Har Meggido, in the Hebrew – will be, for some, a cleansing – and for others a catastrophe. But it is always inevitable. It is always black and white. It is always clear who ought to win.

Except – except that it really isn’t. For all that we are enthralled, and often terrified, by the notion of this ultimate battle, this is not the zero-sum game it purports to be. It is not so clear. It is not black and white. And, in reality, it is not even out there in the world.

Armageddon is an imagined physical manifestation of an eternal battle that rages within each of us. It is the yetzer ha-tov versus the yetzer ha-ra. In English, we translate that as the good inclination versus the evil inclination – though it’s far more nuanced than that.

And it is never a final showdown. It is a constant, life-long struggle to balance these two natures of our characters. The passionate against the pure. The safe against the risky. The parochial versus the universal. The need we have to protect ourselves, and the command we hear to care for others.

Every single day, we make our choices. Every Yom Kippur, we face their consequences.

The truth is, nuance and balance are hard. If we could live in a world of black and white, truth verses falsehood, good versus bad, life would be so much easier. We crave simplicity and order, the pure and the concrete.

And the craving is understandable. Our world today is complicated beyond our comprehension – and so much of it is terrifying. And so, very often, the craving drives us to tackle the complexities and challenges of life by over-simplifying them, and zeroing out the shades of grey that are the hallmark of human life.

Ironically, a work of science fiction has shown us how to cope with a world of fact.

The book – and now television mini-series – “Good Omens” is the perfect antidote to this simplistic way of looking at our world. Authors Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett have done the opposite of what we naturally tend to do. They have taken a very simple, black-and-white, good-and-bad notion of Armageddon — and made it complex, difficult, and much more human.

Here’s the thing about Armageddon. You start with the presumption that all the angels are good – especially the archangels closest to God – and that all the demons are bad. That’s the least you can expect from a proper apocalypse, right?

But the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are totally unexpected. From the day that Crowley turned into a snake and temped Eve and Adam into eating that apple, the day that Aziraphale had to evict the first two humans from the Garden of Eden for daring to eat from tree of the knowledge of good and evil – from that day onward, the two of them became cohorts, partners, and friends.

They both have known humanity from the beginning. And their relationships with humans show just how complex our mortal world really is.

Aziraphale, as an angel, believes that any race that can create beautiful music and art and literature, and the sumptuous food he savors, has to be good at base. To Aziraphale, as the story goes, “Evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction. No matter how well-planned, how foolproof an evil plan, no matter how apparently successful it may seem upon the way, in the end it will founder on the rocks of iniquity and vanish.”

And since humans have lived this long, we can’t be so bad, can we?

Yet Aziraphale – even though he lives on earth — tends to almost a monastic life inside a dusty old bookstore. He’s fussy and self-indulgent. And being an angel, he is sometimes oblivious to the trouble we cause and the destruction we can create.

Crowley, on the other hand, has no illusions about us humans. As a demon, he thinks of us the way a demon should:

“Nothing he could think up,” the story goes, “was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it . . . They were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and then devoted most of their energies to making it worse.”

“They’ve got what we lack,” Crowley thought to himself. “They’ve got imagination.”

And yet, for every Spanish Inquisition, when Crowley goaded humanity into indulging in our basest behavior, he rather liked people – and abhorred the murder of children.

Over the centuries, the angel and the demon, the story goes, “realize[d] they have far more in common with their immediate opponents than their remote allies. It meant a tacit non-interference in certain of each other’s activities. It made certain that while neither really won, also neither really lost.”

Because, after all, they thought: “the world was an amazing interesting place which they both wanted to enjoy for as long as possible.”

So when word comes down that the anti-Christ has been delivered from hell and the Archangels of heaven have set the stage for Armageddon, they decide to pair up and stop the destruction of the world.

Now, I hate spoilers as much as the next person. So I’ll leave you to ponder how they try to do it, and whether they succeed. But – in the process — there’s one important and rather astonishing lesson that we humans learn about this good versus evil thing:

The forces of light turn out to be Aziraphale AND Crowley – the ones who are close to us, who care about us, who are willing to work with the complexities of human life, rather than reduce it to meaningless simplicity.

The forces of darkness are the Archangels AND the creatures of the lowest depths. They are ones that are far removed from us and our daily struggles. They are the ones who are determined to tear us apart – or make us tear each other apart – even to the ends of the earth.

Here’s what we learn from Aziraphale and Crowley’s example:

The closer we are to each other, and the more we understand what we have in common, then the easier it will be to work together. More than that: the closer each of us is to what’s inside of us, and the more we practice the balancing act between the two inclinations that are always tugging us one way or the other, then the easier it will be to be a true partner in the work of sustaining the world.

Here are three ways I think we can prevent the daily Armageddons of this world, so that we can work together, to live together, in an environment that is complex, and contradictory, and more than a little bit scary.

I’ve taken them from a couple of recent New York Times columns by David Brooks. Here, he writes about fighting the ideology of hate, and dispelling cynicism and despair about our future, by working together — even as demons and angels occasionally do.

 First: We have to win the battle of pluralism over “essentialism.”

Essentialism is when the identity of an individual or group is over-simplified to one defining and “essential” characteristic. It’s usually focused on someone’s race, and it’s always the mark of a lesser creature. Both the Archangels and the devils who are trying to bring about Armageddon see the human race as “essentially” vile, inferior, and easily goaded into racial animus and xenophobia.

Brooks argues for pluralism, which teaches us, as he writes:Human differences make life richer and more interesting. We treasure members of all races and faiths for what they bring to the mosaic.”

The Jewish tradition teaches us the same thing. The rabbis of the Mishnah write:

“A man may stamp out many coins with one die and they are all alike. But the Holy One of Blessing stamped each human with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow – so that each of us may say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’”[1]

Second: We have to win the battle of unity over separatism.

The Archangels believe in what is essentially racial purity. They castigate Aziraphale for his relationships with, and his empathy for, humans. They believe the universe is “healthier” (in Brooks’s words) when races – such as angels and humans – live separately. They believe that the universe is “diseased” when races mix. In unity, Brooks writes, “We’re one people.”

And again, our Jewish tradition teaches the same thing. Unlike all the other creatures who came forth, from the beginning, two by two, humans all descend from Adam, so that no one person can say to another, “My father is greater than yours.”[2]

Third: We have to win the battle of opportunity over Darwinism.

In “Good Omens,” there is a sense of superiority in both heaven and hell. It’s a belief that humanity will ultimately be destroyed because it is inferior – though the archangels, in particular, see the need to help us along the path to our final destruction. Perhaps, as Brooks contends, that’s really a feeling of insecurity rather than self-confidence – that humanity may reach up and vie with supposedly pure and perfect creatures.

The rabbis teach us this in still another story of man’s creation[3].

When God decided to create humanity, the angels divided up into camps – some for and some against. The angels that represented Lovingkindness said: “Let Adam be created because humanity will do acts of love!” But the angels representing Truth disagreed, declaring, “Do not let Adam be created, because the human is all lies!” The angels of Justice then spoke up and said: “Let Adam be created because the human will do acts of justice!” But the angels of Peace said no, “Do not let Adam be created, because humanity is all strife!”

As the angels continued to argue, God fashioned humanity from the earth anyway and said to them: “Why are you still arguing? Adam has already been created!”

God created humanity to give us the opportunity to prove Lovingkindness and Justice right — and Truth and Peace wrong. Opportunity, writes David Brooks, means that everyone gets a chance to prove themselves.

Aziraphale and Crowley, angel and demon, were given the opportunity to prove that humanity could sustain itself and prove its worth, even against the most powerful forces in the universe.

And that’s all we’re asking for tonight – right? God! Please give us the opportunity to prove to You that we are worthy of Your trust!

Forgive us for those times when we succumb fully to our yetser hara, when we neglect to treat your world and your creatures with the care we give ourselves.

Guide us in the wisdom of the yetser ha-tov, which shows us the beauty and healing we are capable of bringing to your world.

Open our eyes to the reality that life is never simple, and that there is never only one right answer.

Help us to recognize, O God, that the world is not pure. It is not black and white. It is not static. And it can never be. As David Brooks writes, “the only thing that’s static is death.”

And so, tonight, we focus on life, knowing that every life is made better when we work together. When we look beneath the superficial differences of race or nation or religion, and recognize the fundamental, God-given spark of life that makes all humanity one.

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

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©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

[2] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

[3] Bereshit Rabbah 8:5

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“It IS in the Heavens!” Rosh Hashanah Morning 2019

Wed, 2019-10-02 09:29

It seems impossible that so much time has passed. But this summer, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first time man walked on the moon. We remember it as one of the greatest achievements in human history. I remember it as the night I got to stay up late, snuggling with my dad on the floor with our backs against the sofa, watching that grainy black-and-white picture while Walter Cronkite marveled like a little kid. That one small step for man — Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the lunar surface – marked the first time a human being had set foot somewhere beyond our earth. And it was a marvelous and beautiful and astonishing moment.

It was also a fleeting one. The Apollo program, which ended in 1972, turned out to be the last time humankind would venture out of earth’s atmosphere. The government, and some private companies say they’ll take us back to the moon and even beyond. But nothing has yet come of it. We came, we walked – and we left. We left the great expanses of the universe as much of a mystery as when we started.

“What the Space Age has changed,” wrote Adam Kirsch this summer at the time of the Apollo 11 anniversary, “is not mainly our ability to venture into outer space, which remains strictly limited. Rather, its most important effect has been to transform the way we think about the universe and our place in it.

“Ever since the earliest recorded speculation about the heavens, in the Bible and ancient Greek philosophy,” he continued, “human beings have always looked to the stars to understand our place in Creation.

“What is new about the Space Age is that it brings home to us, in concrete ways, a possibility that would have shocked and dismayed our ancestors: that the heavens might be empty.”[1]

Adam Kirsch divides human time into two distinct categories: before and after the onset of space exploration. Beforehand, he writes, we would look up to the sky and see what we call “the heavens” – the Biblical phrase for God’s glorious domain of power and majesty and wonder. Now, he says, we see only “space” – a vastness, cold and empty, void of life or even the means to sustain it.

But this morning, I’m going to disagree with Kirsch’s conclusion. I do not think that knowledge has displaced belief. I would argue that just the opposite is true: that knowledge – science, exploration, raw data – has only made our belief in God’s creative energy even stronger.

Kirsch writes that we humans live in what he calls “cosmic isolation” – and that our greatest hope when we began space exploration is that there would be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

To some extent, he’s right. Think of Galileo peering into the lens of his telescope four hundred years ago and wondering what he’d find. Modern science fiction – books, television, movies – is obsessed with finding something “up there.” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” brought us aliens that looked like child ghosts. “Doctor Who” posits the idea of a whole race of people from another planet who look completely human.

From H.G Wells’s “War of the Worlds” onwards, space creatures have often been described as evil, determined to destroy humanity or at least to conquer us. Or eat us. They are sometimes thwarted by an E.T. who loves us, or a Doctor who vows to protect us.

Our disappointment in the physical emptiness, Kirsch believes, has changed “the heavens, once the setting for the Earth and human beings,” merely to “space, a void in which we wander.”

“There is no essential difference between what happens ‘down here’ on earth and ‘up there’” in the sky he writes. But I think that’s where his argument falls short.

Judaism has always presumed a powerful cosmic connection between heaven and earth. Both came out of the same void and chaos that God harnessed and ordered so that we might exist. When describing the act of Creation, the Torah sometimes says “earth and heaven” and in other places says “heaven and earth.” And Rabbi Eleazer, a sage of 2nd-century Israel, says that’s to teach us that the two are of equal value.[2]

That’s sounds like a pretty astonishing thing to say – if you think that the heavens are God’s domain exclusively, and that earth is reserved for mere mortals. But it makes perfect sense if you believe that, as the Psalmist wrote, when we ponder the universe, we see that, “You [God], have made [man] little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty.”[3] And when we look around us on earth, we see God’s presence dwelling among us – embedded in each rock and every creature, and – especially – the people who make our lives rich.

When Kirsch says there’s no essential difference between “up here” and “down there,” again, he’s kind of right. But he’s missing the point. The two realms are all part of one whole. And not only that: the sages believed that what we do “down here” makes a difference in what happens “up there.” That we can actually effect change in the way God sees and organizes the universe based on what we say and what we do.

When you think about it, that’s the whole purpose of being here today – marking the birthday of the world and the hope of renewal; asking God for forgiveness based on our peoples’ ancient connection; begging for the chance to make the world better this year than last, by making ourselves better.

The rabbis fashioned a prayer service that presumes that, not only does God listen to us, but that God cares what we say. They codified the Torah’s diverse and dense list of mitzvot – the divinely commanded do’s and don’t’s of Jewish life – so that we could do God’s work on earth, guiding the world to the place of peace and healing that it was ordained to be.

But the medieval Jewish mystics, whose writings I’ve been studying for the past several months, took this core rabbinic belief even further. Reviving ancient practices that incorporated magic and theurgy, they believed that not only could we humans persuade God – but that we could change the very nature of God. They believed that not only could we bring tikkun – repair and healing – to the world, but that we have the power to bring tikkun to the very elements that make up God.

In other words: God may have created us with flaws – but also with the power to heal divinity itself. And when God is healed, so are we all.

Rabbi Arthur Green, a great student and scholar of Jewish mysticism, put it this way: Kabbalistic activity like intense and deep meditation is designed to have an impact, “on the inner state of the Godhead and its efficacy in bringing about divine unity and thus showering divine blessing upon the lower world.”[4]

Kabbalistic writing, such as the Zohar of 12th century Spain, is esoteric, confusing, and deliberately dense. I’ll try and explain it simply:

Jewish mystics believe that the Godhead kind of looks like God’s back, from head to toe and side to side. The head, the arms the legs, the innards – all of this is designed around ten sefirot – ten divine powers, ten identities that interact with one another through a flow of energy that is intense and very sexual in nature. The Godhead has a high and a low point – starting with the Ein Sof, that part of God that is so high above us that it can never be known or sensed by humans, going down to what we call in Judaism the Shekhinah, the female, nurturing presence of God that dwells among us and that has been with Israel throughout all of our wanderings.

The Godhead also has left and right energies that balance each other out:  kindness and grace against rigor and judgment; momentary splendor opposite endurance. The sefirot also represent sexual energy, male and female characteristics that have somehow been separated from each other – thus making them imperfect and incomplete. As Green writes, “the great drama of religious life, according to the Kabbalists, is that of protecting Shekhinah from the forces of evil and joining her to the holy Bridegroom who ever awaits her.”

And in this reunion of the cosmic bride and groom, the intense sexual energy, the cosmic flow that results, provides healing for our world as well.

Our prayers, our meditations, our faith, our virtues, our devotion to fulfilling God’s grand plan for us in the Torah’s mitzvot – all of this evokes a desire within us, a yearning for the divine. But it also initializes divine unity; it sparks the flow of divine life from the farthermost heights of the Godhead down to us and throughout our world.

Think of like a brilliant, sparkling waterfall, descending and dispersing in a pool filled with energy and life. When we live our lives the way God has asked us to, we actually make God come alive.

What’s “up here” is dependent on us “down here.” That astonishing idea gives us great power, great responsibility, and great opportunity.

The bottom line is that God needs us. And that is a notion that Adam Kirsch completely misses, when he looks up at the sky and sees empty space instead of God’s vast heavens.

Space is not empty. And just because we haven’t found humanoid life somewhere else doesn’t mean we should stop looking up. We are not discouraged. We are inspired.

From the beauty of a sunset to the familiar shape of a constellation of stars; from that dramatic first photo of “earth rise” taken from Apollo 8 to that one small step on the lunar surface just a few months later – the universe is still a breathtaking marvel. And the earth is still a world waiting to be redeemed by us. God’s partners. God’s healers.

And if we’re going to play that role, we need to take seriously the concept of unity. Unity of the Godhead, yes. But also the unity of humanity here on earth. We must recognize that, just as God is damaged by broken-ness and separation, we humans, too, are damaged by treating each other as “achier” – as the other, something that should be separate and apart and isolated. Something to be feared or despised.

We are all designed to be part of a cosmic unity. Either we can devote ourselves to driving wedges between people, or we can make it our job to heal the wounds caused by divisions. But on this cusp of the new year, we must recognize that when we choose unity “down here,” we actually create healing “up there.” The course – the direction that the flow of God’s cosmic energy will take – is ours to control. The wholeness of the entire universe is in our hands.

On this day of all days — when we seek to reunite with God and reacquaint God with us – let us pledge ourselves to unity within our world, as well as between worlds. Just the way God intended for it to be.

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

 

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©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

[1] Adam Kirsch, “Our Quest For Meaning In the Heavens,” Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, June 29-30, 2019.

[2] Genesis Rabbah 1:15.

[3] Psalm 8:6.

[4] From Arthur Green’s introduction to volume one of The Zohar Pritzker Edition, with translation and commentary by Daniel C. Matt. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2019: The Secret No One Will Tell You.

Wed, 2019-10-02 09:24

Can you keep a secret? I am trusting each and every one of you to never, ever tell anyone else what I’m about to share with you. It’s beineinu: Just between us. So here goes:

I’ve never eaten avocado toast.

Never.

In my life.

There, I said it. And I feel so much better now.

I worry about these things. Avocado toast is apparently not just a passing fad. It’s been on the top-ten-things-to-eat list for several years now, ever since dieticians decided that not all fats are created equal, and the fat in avocado is okay – in moderation and, especially, on toast. With maybe a fried egg. And salt and pepper.

It seems to be on every restaurant’s menu, and on every celebrity’s favorite-quick-things-to-eat list. And I’m getting a little worried that I’m missing out. That I must be doing something gravely wrong with my life if I’ve never, ever eaten avocado toast.

It may seem like a little thing to you. And I suppose it is. Frivolous, really. But both trendy and tasty. And if I’m missing out on this, what else am I missing in my life? Where else have I gone wrong?

Jason Gay, the brilliant, insightful columnist for the Wall Street Journal, used the example of avocado toast in a column this spring to reassure the graduating class of 2019 that they will be just fine in the long run, even though their fears of the future are overwhelming them just now.[1]

Kind of what we go through tonight, when we enter the New Year with the nagging fear that we haven’t cleaned up our mess from last year just yet – and we’re really, really not ready for what’s to come. And that we really don’t know how to be ready.

In that column, Jason Gay let the new graduates in on the dirty little secret that I’m telling you tonight:

“Nobody really knows what they’re doing. Nobody.”

If you, like me, often judge the meaning and richness of your life far too often from the visual travelogues of your Facebook friends – who are either vacationing in Paris or protesting in El Paso – then you feel a little bit inadequate. If you look at the self-portrayal of the lives of colleagues who seemingly work dawn to dusk, with an amazing focus and sense of purpose – then you feel a little bit lazy or hazy.

Does everybody I know just have their stuff together, their lives neatly ordered, checking off accomplishments day by day and never failing to read the assigned “book of the month” from cover to cover?

The answer is no. They don’t. And they don’t eat avocado toast, either. So let’s take a deep breath and follow along with Jason Gay’s three important things that we need to know about life.

Truth Number One: It’s never as bad as it seems.

Sometimes we feel like we are living the lives of 12 year-old-girls, where life is either brilliant or a dumpster fire. And it’s usually a dumpster fire. We are never caught up with our to-do list and will never be caught up. We call the wrong people at the wrong times and then can’t remember why we were calling somebody at all. We forget pick-ups at the pharmacy or at the afternoon soccer game. Our work is under-appreciated, and our work-load is overwhelming.

We find ourselves in tears by the end of the day from sheer exhaustion. And then it starts all over again the next day.

But let’s take a step back, look around and look at ourselves. Most of us in this sanctuary tonight have it pretty good. We do not suffer from hunger. We can afford a decent roof over our heads. We got a good education and try to use it to the best of our ability. And on those days when we do find ourselves in tears, we have people in our lives to hold us and let us cry it out.

That doesn’t mean that everything in our lives is tickety-boo. Many of us sitting here tonight are desperately missing the person who used to sit beside us.  Others of us are dealing with long-term health issues, either physical or emotional, that don’t show because they don’t completely debilitate us. We have good reason to worry about our sick parents or our troubled kids.

But a lot of those challenges that send us into 12-year-old girl dumpster-fire spirals are short term. They do pass – sometimes quickly, often when we just take a deep breath and deal one piece at a time with the thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of life that’s been left on our doorstep.

We just have to remember to take that breath before we let out that scream. The great sage Rava taught: “A man is not held responsible for what he says in the hour of his distress.”[2] But what we say can still sting, if our words are shot like arrows at other people who end up as collateral damage.

Think about the passages of Torah we’ve been reading over the past year, and the stories from Joshua and Judges we’ve been studying on Shabbat mornings. The seminal experience that takes up most of the Torah, the one that made us into the Jewish nation we are today, was our Exodus from Egypt. Now that was a dumpster fire.

Our ancestors didn’t know where God was taking them when they were freed from Egypt. And they certainly didn’t know how long the trip would be. They rebelled early and often. Against the leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam. Against the dire conditions. Against having to move from place to place. Against the rules and commandments being imposed by a God they could not see.

But when their behavior showed anger or impatience or cowardice – inside, they were just plain scared.

They spent forty years thinking – how will I survive? Am I good enough? Am I strong enough? Am I smart enough? Am I faithful enough?

And you know what? Those are the same questions we ask ourselves every single day. And it’s based on the same fear that drives us to distraction. It’s the same fear that keeps us from recognizing that life is never as bad as it seems.

When you work a jigsaw puzzle, sometimes it takes forever to find and fit the pieces that go around the edges, and match up the ones with similar colors or markings. But what a great sense of relief and pride we feel when enough pieces are in place that the image becomes clear. When fear of the unknown goes away, and we recognize that we are good enough, and strong enough, and smart enough, and faithful enough to finish the project. To survive the mess that we call life.

Which takes us to truth number two:

Truth Number Two: Everyone is making it up as they go along.

As Jason Gay wrote to those graduating seniors:

“Life is a series of leaps and educated guesses. Sometimes, uneducated guesses. We can practice, prepare, and read all the instruction manuals, but we’re really all making this up as we go along. . . And the charlatans who claim they do have life figured out – they have it less figured out than anyone.”

There are a lot of people out there trying to sell us books that claim to unlock the secret of life. But they do not include our rabbinic sages. They knew better. Every generation of them has had the unenviable task of explaining why bad things happen to good people. And they’ve never been able to come up with a good explanation.

The students of Rabbi Ishmael used to teach: “One who goes through forty days without any kind of suffering is, in a manner of speaking, deemed to have received his reward in this world.”[3] That is to say, just know that rough stuff happens and be grateful to God for the good days we have.

Like the long-suffering good man Job, the sages realize that life really does not come with an instruction manual. That calamity happens for no reason. That people don’t always get what they deserve, for better or for worse. They call it “God’s ineffable plan,” and that’s about as good as it gets.

It’s not very satisfying, but at least it’s truthful. And it’s why we all have to make it up as we go along. My wonderful Bible commentaries teacher Dr. Ed Goldman, taught us that God’s simple message boils down to this: Just do the best you can, with what you’ve got to work with.

Several chapters of the Book of Exodus describe in excruciating detail God’s direction to Moses for building the Tabernacle that they would carry in the wilderness, the physical symbol of God’s presence in their midst. There are vivid descriptions of an ark covered with pure gold, curtains of various colors made of fine linen, boards of acacia wood fastened together with hooks of gold and sockets of silver, exquisite rare jewels sewn into the vestments for the priests. The details go on and on.

Where do you think a bunch of rag-tag nomads wandering through the wilderness would come up with these things? Did they schlep all this wood and linen from Egypt? Did they miraculously find dolphin skins in the middle of a desert?

My guess that they decided the task wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be, as long as they took the right approach. So they short-tracked the looming chaos and frustration, took God’s exacting measurements and materials, and just did the best with what they had to work with.

Making the best of what we’ve got – is neither an admission of ultimate failure, nor an excuse for settling for mediocrity. It is a recognition that we are put on earth to serve God, to tend God’s world, and to nurture God’s creatures – be they human or beast. It is a realization that the material world – like each of us – is imperfect, and that it is deliberately made that way so that each of us can, and must, make it better.

That realization brings us to the third and final truth that Jason Gay delivers to us:

Truth Number Three: Embrace the Chaos, walk out the door, be kind to your fellow human beings, and change the world.

“A little chaos is okay,” he writes. “A little chaos keeps life interesting, keeps you on your toes.”

The truth is that life would be pretty dull if every day was predictable, if every challenge was easily conquered, if we never felt frustrated or a little bit ill-prepared for a task. But here’s another truth: it takes courage for you to walk into the middle of chaos, sort out the pieces that are important, and make the world a better place with them.

There’s a fascinating, and complicated, verse in the Book of Proverbs (12:25). The first part goes like this:

דְּאָגָה בְלֶב־אִישׁ יַשְׁחֶנָּה

If there is anxiety in a man’s mind, yashchena, let him quash it

“Let him quash it.”

Two great sages of the Land of Israel disagreed on what that really means.[4] Rabbi Ammi understood it as “yasi-hennah”: Let him banish it from his mind and think about other things. His friend Rabbi Assi played around with the letters of the same word and concluded, no, the word was actually “Yeshi-hennah”- let him speak about it to others, so that they can help him and ease his anxiety.

I think both are right. Sometimes you have face your anger or your frustration – or your fear – on your own, breaking it down piece by piece. Sometimes you just have to set it aside for a while until you can come back to it with a fresh eye.

And sometimes you need advice, and you can’t be afraid to ask for it. You can’t feel unworthy or foolish. There are no stupid questions. There are only unasked ones. And sometimes another person’s wisdom or insight or experience is just what you need to break out of the chaos of your own mind.

Whatever the case, the second half of the verse from Proverbs gives us the result:

וְדָבָר טוֹב יְשַׂמְּחֶנָּה:

And turn it into joy with a davar tov.

Davar tov. That could be a kind word, or a good deed. Either way, the result is the same: you create something positive out of your struggle. Something that can help another person. Something that, yes, might even change the world, a little bit at a time.

“There will be mornings,” Jayson Gay warned, “when you won’t want to walk out the door.

“But it’s OK. Remember this:

“It’s never as bad as it seems.”

“Everyone is making it up as they go along.”

“Embrace the chaos, walk out the door, be kind to your fellow humans and change the world.”

In this New Year, do not be afraid to walk out the door, or out of the seeming safety of your own mind, into the chaos that is the nature of life. Break down the pieces of the chaos a bit at a time, and re-organize them so that they make some sense. Use the energy of your struggle to push the world to a better place.

And be brave enough to try something new. “Because,” as Jason Gay acknowledged: “let’s face it, avocado toast is delicious.”

Let the year 5780 be one of turning setbacks into successes, and gratitude into giving. And let us say together: Amen.

####

©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

[1] Jason Gay, “The Secret No One Will Tell You,” Wall Street Journal. Saturday/Sunday, May 11-12, 2019

[2] Bavli Bava Batra 16b, from The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, p. 719. Compiled by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitsky, translated by William G. Braude (New York: Schocken Books, 1992).

[3] Bavli Arachin 16b-17a. From The Book of Legends, p. 719.

[4] See Bavli Sanhedrin 100b

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

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

Mon, 2019-08-12 17:33

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

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

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

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

כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And those words do inflame.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is part of that prayer, in my translation:

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

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

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

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

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

Do it now. Do it for us all.

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

#####

©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

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

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

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

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

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

Mon, 2019-08-05 11:54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#####         ©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

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

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

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

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

Sat, 2019-07-13 14:06

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

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

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

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

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

But here’s what caught my attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

####

©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

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

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

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

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

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

Tue, 2019-06-25 13:58

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

אֶפֶס כִּי־עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

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

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

[3] Numbers 13:19

[4] Numbers 13;28, 31.

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

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