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Our Better Angels – Shabbat Vayera, Friday, November 6, 2020

Sat, 2020-11-07 10:25

I don’t know about you, but my head is spinning. Days are a blur, nights are long. Time zones are out of sync. I can’t keep track of what day it is. My brain has been bouncing around on those blue and red maps in a way that makes me think CNN and NBC are trying to hypnotize me.

And then there’s the emotional strain it’s taking on us all. Especially here in Pennsylvania where, like it our not, “History has its eyes on you.” And we wonder, in the end, who tells our story.

In the middle of all this turmoil, in the middle of this week of tumult, I was stopped short by one line in one editorial column by Tom Friedman in the New York Times. He wrote about how difficult it is speaking to his daughters about all that is happening – and how he wishes he could tell them that we will all be okay, and that people will realize, in his words, “that we simply cannot go on tearing one another apart.”[1]

He closed with his hope that “the better angels of our nature” are still out there in our world.

That’s the phrase that made me stop and take notice. Because I immediately connected it to what happens in this week’s Torah portion.

Last week, we were introduced to Abraham and Sarah, who were commanded by God to go forth to the land of Canaan, where they would have land, offspring, and the blessings of all the other families of the world.

The land came. The blessings, the wealth. But not the children. Sarah was barren, much to their anguish, and Abraham’s only child – a son named Ishmael, was by the handmaiden Hagar.

Now 99 years old, Abraham is once again visited by God, who offers further promises of offspring – which to Abraham is becoming less and less likely. And God commands Abraham to circumsize the foreskin of every male in his household, including himself, as a physical sign of an eternal divine covenant.

This is where we find Abraham and Sarah, three days after circumcision, as Abraham is healing in his tent.

In the heat of the day, he looks up and, startled, sees three men standing near him. The Torah introduces this by saying “And Adonai appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre” so that we all know that these three men are messengers of God – but Abraham does not know that.

Yet he immediately leaps up, bows low to them, and invites these passers-by in for a morsel of bread, a little water, and a rest under a tree. Promising little but delivering much, he flies to Sarah with orders to whip up a feast: cakes and curds, and a fatted calf that he somehow is able to roast in a jiffy. He serves them efficiently and respectfully.

After they’ve eaten, the men ask after Sarah, who is listening behind the tent flap as one of the men tells her husband, “I will return to you when life is due, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah finds the prospect laughable, as old as they both are. But we know that, in nine months’ time, she will bear her son Isaac.

And Abraham and Sarah will fully understand that these were not men of flesh and blood – but angels, messengers sent by God to deliver that promise.

Angels – which in the Torah are known as m’lachim, or messengers of God – are, as Gunther Plaut described them in our Reform Torah commentary, “a category of superior beings with special powers . . . a kind of nobility at God’s court . . . [and] the go-betweens [who] . . . transmit revelation to prophets [and] announce the coming of events” like the birth of Isaac or, in the next chapter, the destruction of the evil city of Sodom.[2]

But angels are ephemeral beings. They do not belong here. They are not responsible for what happens here. They come and they go, with messages from on high. It is we humans who are left here to carry out God’s plans for this world.

So I have a proposition. It is actually Abraham and Sarah who are the angels.

After all:

It is Abraham and Sarah who go on faith, packing up their household and heading to Canaan to spread worship of Adonai.

It is Abraham and Sarah who go on faith that, one day, they will be delivered of a son.

It is Abraham and Sarah who open their tent, and their hearts, to mere strangers.

So it is Abraham and Sarah who are the true messengers of God, who are doing God’s work in this world.

Think of it. In the very next scene, when the malachim head off to Sodom and Gomorrah to proclaim the destruction of these evil cities, it is Abraham who tries to protect human life. It is Abraham who argues with God for the lives of the sinners, if he can find even a handful of good people. It is Abraham who rescues his nephew Lot from destruction, whether he deserves it or not.

That’s the kind of behavior – that determined kindness, that belief in humanity’s basic goodness – that so often leads us to call someone our “angel” when they come to our rescue.

I think Thomas Friedman is looking for angels in the wrong place. The angels are not out there somewhere. The angels are – the angels have to be – right here, among us. The angels have to be beings who understand our anguish and forgive our frailties, sometimes saving us from circumstances beyond our control and sometimes saving us from ourselves. And, the truth is, that only fellow human beings can do that.

Right now, among us, the “angels of our better nature” are performing divine service. They are the calm voices in the whirwind of a ferocious storm. They are the vote counters spending long days and nights to uphold each of our constitutional rights, and the groups (like the Pittsburgh Steelers) who send in catered dinners in appreciation.

The “angels” are ones who set this politically charged time aside to go to work, to make sure their children are being educated, to find secure and safe ways to vote in the midst of a horrific and deadly pandemic that is only getting worse, day by day. The “angels” are the ones putting their own lives on the line in hospital wards all over this country, in forced separation from the ones they love.

What we call “angels” really are best described as malachim – as divine messengers. They may be divinely inspired from the heavens above, but they live on the earth below.

And I believe that’s exactly what the author of that phrase “the angels of our better nature” had in mind.

The phrase comes from the conclusion of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address of March 4, 1861. Here is the complete quote:

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

President Lincoln believed in the inherent goodness of humanity. He believed that, even on the verge of a massive upheaval that would threaten to tear our country in half, our true nature would eventually prevail. It would not be pretty. It would not be easy. It would not be quick. But, in the end, the m’lachim among us would see to our ultimate redemption.

I believe this to be true. And I believe God counts on it, as do we all.

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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/04/opinion/trump-biden-election-2020.html

[2] The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. Gunther Plaut (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), page 4.

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To Places Unknown – Shabbat Lech Lecha, Friday, October 30, 2020

Sat, 2020-10-31 10:16

Last weekend, as I was driving north from South Carolina to attend my mother’s funeral in northern Virginia, I passed a landmark from my childhood. I don’t travel on Interstate 95 very much anymore, and I knew it was coming up, but, all of a sudden, there it was – South of the Border. Tacky as ever. Stereotyped as ever. A steel monument in the shape of Pedro’s sombrero. The fireworks shop. The huge gift shop with the tackiest souvenirs ever. It was all still there, on the south side of the North Carolina-South Carolina border, looming large as a reminder of life in the Korotkin household.

South of the Border was always an important stop in the pilgrimage the nine of us made in the Ford Country Squire station wagon from our home in Maryland to vacation in Florida. It was, of course, a necessary rest stop. And for the four of us squeezed into the back-back of the wagon, which had two flip-up seats facing each other, with three more siblings in the middle seat, it was a sign that we had traveled too far for Dad to fulfill his threat that “if you can’t settle down back there, I’ll turn this car around and go home. I mean it!”

On those trips to Florida, we knew, more or less, where we were going. The journey there and back was the unknown factor and part of the fun.

Mom would slam her foot on the imaginary brake on her side every time Dad got distracted by us. It was less Brady Bunch and more National Lampoon’ Vacation, with Dad as Clark Griswold, the dreamer who always thought he knew a great shortcut – and Mom as Ellen, the realist reminding him there were seven kids in the car and where would they find the next rest stop?

The vacation trips to Florida were part of the raucous life of a family forged by life’s big changes and little surprises. Carol became my mom when I was a teenager. She and Dad- – who had both had difficult first marriages – were introduced by friends and fell in love. All of us kids agreed they should get married. And even though the prospect was insane, when you think about it, they took on the responsibility of each other’s happiness, but also of raising each other’s children as their own.

One plus one plus three plus four. All in the Ford Country Squire station wagon chugging our way to South of the Border and beyond. It’s a perfect metaphor for our family – as we embarked on a life together that would take us to places unknown.

The story of this journey to places unknown is not just the story of my family, or your family. It’s the story of the Jewish family. And it all starts with the two characters at the heart of this week’s Torah portion.

Abraham and Sarah – or, as they were still known here, Avram and Sarai – appear pretty much out of nowhere. They’re bit players in the genealogy of an ordinary Chaldean by the name of Terah, who intends to move his extended household to the land of Canaan but stops short, in a place called Haran. We don’t know what Terah thought was so attractive about Canaan. We know he never got there. Maybe it was his health. Maybe it was the needs of his large family. Maybe, in the end, he was just too nervous about moving into unknown territory.

 We do know that that journey into the unknown became the responsibility of Terah’s son Avram and his wife Sarai. He himself doesn’t know that until:

Vayomer Adonai el Avram: God said to Avram: Lech l’cha! Take yourself from your native land, from the land of your birth, and from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you. (Gen. 12:1)

Whoever this “Adonai” is, God promises Avram that he will be a great nation, with a great name, and all of the families of the earth will be blessed by him. And without a word of question or protest, Avram – already 75 years old – heads to Canaan with his family and his nephew Lot, not knowing anything that lies ahead.

The first words that God utters to Avram – Lech l’cha – have always been a puzzlement. God could have just said Lech! – Go! – a straightforward command. But no, God said Lech l’cha – literally “go for yourself.” Because of the promise of blessing and riches? Because of the benefits that will accrue to him?

No, says Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, a 19th century Polish rabbi commonly known by the title of his greatest writing, the Sefat Emet.

“When Abraham went,” writes Alter, “he did so ‘as God had spoken to him’ (Gen. 12:4). In other words, he went purely because he had been told to do so by God, without any intention of deriving any benefit from his actions.”[1]

And God made the test harder, I think, because of the way Abraham was told to leave: me’artzeha, u-mi-molad-techa, u-mi-beit avicha. “From your land – that’s one thing. But “from the land of your birth” is more personal; it’s a place that holds more attachment to you. And “mi beit avicha” – from your father’s house? It means leaving not just a place but your family. The people you have grown up with, the people who have molded you, and the way of life you have always known.

God made it as difficult, as emotionally crushing, as possible for Avram to follow that command.

The prospect was insane, when you think about it. But Avram and Sarai took on the responsibility, not only of each other’s happiness and welfare, but that of their own household, as they embarked on a life together that would take them to places unknown.

Lech lecha. Go, take yourself. Go for yourself as God has told you?

Lech lecha. Go by yourself – because this is a journey you must make alone?

Or maybe, as a Chasidic tradition teaches: Lech l’cha: Go to yourself. Go forward into the unknown because that is the only way to truly find your potential.

I think I like the last understanding the best. None of us knows what we are truly capable of doing until we are faced with circumstances we never saw coming. When, when you think about it, the prospects are truly insane.

We had no idea what one plus one plus three plus four would really add up to. The reality was energizing and exhausting, difficult and precious, joyous and maddening – all at the same time. Each of us responded to the challenge of the unknown in a different way, for better or for worse. But each of us became who we are because Mom and Dad were willing to say yes.

According to Rabbinic tradition, Abraham will be faced with a total of ten challenges from God during his lifetime. But none of the others – and none of what Abraham and Sarah accomplished – would have been possible without tackling this first one. Without saying “yes.” Without being willing to take that journey into the unknown, to find out what they were truly made of.

Their courage is why we exist today. And that is the story of every single one of our families – and of the Jewish family that binds us together.

Ken yehi ratson. Let us approach the unknown future of our lives with courage and faith. Even when the prospects seem insane. And let us say together: Amen.


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Torah Gems, Vol I, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 97.

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YOM KIPPUR MORNING 2020: “The Story of Us” and Love

Thu, 2020-10-01 13:28

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a people known as the Khazars. Originally part of Attila the Hun’s horde that swept through Europe from the east in the 5th century, they eventually commanded a huge portion of southern Russia. They were originally worshipers of nature and believers in the power of magic. But some time around the 8th or 9th century, they all converted to Judaism.[1]

How and why that happened isn’t quite clear. But stories circulated for centuries that eventually found their way into a remarkable book written in the 12th century by the poet, philosopher and rabbi, Judah ha-Levi. He called the book The Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised Faith. (that’s us)

In The Kuzari, the Khazar king summons a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, and an adherent of Greek philosophy to present the case for his people converting to their belief system. The Rabbi – showing off his intimate knowledge of all the other beliefs, as well as mad debating skills – wins the day, of course. The once-skeptical king is forced to acknowledge that Judaism is far superior to any other faith tradition.

But, like the rabbi in the book, Judah ha-Levi constantly found himself at one great disadvantage when he tried to advocate for the Jewish nation – as he did for his entire life. And that was the fact of exile. The Jews had lost their land and their self-determination. They wandered from place to place, always a despised and oppressed minority. Why should anyone choose to become Jewish? And what would a people perpetually in exile have to teach the world?

Even the rabbi in The Kuzari has to admit this is problematic. After all, the sages teach that Israel was exiled for her sins, and that only when Jews are deemed worthy of redemption will they be gathered back to their land. That obviously hadn’t happened yet – not in a thousand years.

But then Judah ha-Levi hit on a magnificent idea. Think of this: The Jews were scattered around the globe and yet they remained Jews! They could be free anywhere if they only converted, but they didn’t. There must be a reason. And this is the way the rabbi describes it in The Kuzari:

“There is also a hidden wisdom in our exile, akin to the hidden wisdom within a seed that falls into the ground. At first glance, the seed seems to change and decompose into the surrounding soil, water, and manure. To the onlooker, there seems to be nothing tangible left of it. But in reality it is the seed that changes the earth and water to its nature – it converts them step by step, until it refines the elements and transforms them into its own form. As the seed grows, it expels the bark, leaves, and other extraneous portions of the tree to the exterior. Once its core has been purified, it is then ready to receive Divinity.”[2]

To Judah ha-Levi, diaspora was actually a blessing and not a curse. It was an integral part of God’s plan to bring the essence and the lessons of Torah to the world. And even since the creation of the modern State of Israel, we Jews outside of Israel – millions of us – continue to lead rich and full Jewish lives wherever we are.

And that’s because we, too, are part of the mission of Judaism. To be the or le’goyim, as the prophet Isaiah declared: to bring light to an often-dark world.

Last night, I mentioned another part of the speech by columnist Bari Weiss that has been my inspiration for these High Holy Day sermons: her statement that “some of our greatest renewals took place in exile.” I spoke about the internal renewal of our people and how we have survived and thrived. But today, I want to add the insight of Judah ha-Levi:

We took our history of pain and we re-purposed it. But we didn’t do all of this just for us. We also did it for the world.

As Bari Weiss said in her “No Hate, No Fear” speech: “I am a Jew because my ancestors were slaves. And I am a Jew because the story of their Exodus from Egypt, their liberation from slavery, is a story that changed human consciousness forever.”[3]

T’shuvah – the core principle that underpins these Days of Awe — is also a core principle of this changed human consciousness. But t’shuvah doesn’t mean just me or you leaving our prayers today determined to be a better person. It’s so much bigger than that. It’s you and me and all the other Jews of the world leaving our prayers today determined to create a better world.

We are taught that God made sure all people descend from one single human so that no one could say “My heritage is greater than yours!”

Yet we, like so many others, have suffered the devastation wrought by those who shun God and declare themselves as somehow superior to others, based on race or religion or culture.

From the time of Pharaoh’s refusal to repent for his persecution of the Jews to Hitler’s Final Solution, we — who have survived and thrived to live out the moral imperatives that Judaism demands — we understand the toll that hatred and persecution of the “other” takes on our world. And we must use the lessons of our own people’s history to plant those seeds of redemption wherever they are needed.

As Bari Weiss said: “I am a Jew because I refuse to stay silent in the face of injustice.”

We understand that we are commanded to bring people together, under the umbrella of humanity. We know that we must never cease trying to get those who shun God to turn from their destructive ways, to see the good that can come from unity and justice and respect for the dignity of every single person on earth.

We, a tiny sliver of the world’s population, are not destined to be meek. Or quiet. Or compromised. We could not have done so and still survive, and we cannot now. Just as evil finds us — and as Bari Weiss said, “hatred of us has no color or class or politics or language” — so those who are in need of redemption, and whom we can help to be redeemed, have “no color or class or politics or language.” They all are Emma Lazarus’s “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”

That’s the essence of what all people want, and what they inherently deserve. Freedom to pursue passions and goals without fear of discrimination. Freedom to pray and speak and vote as their conscience guides them, without fear for retribution. Freedom to raise their children in peace, without fear for their lives. We Jews get that. Because we’ve lived it.

We – all of us sharing these holy days together — have the good fortune to live in a time and a place where doing so is our free choice. Tree of Life and Poway have taught us to be careful. But they also have taught us not to be cowardly. To stand and not to crouch. To shout and not to whisper.

And, after all these hours spent bent before God in supplication, to rise in joy, holding our heads high, looking at the world around us as it exists in all its flaws – and knowing that we are freed from the chains of our own short-sightedness, narrow-mindedness, and self-doubt, to do the work God put us on earth to do.

As I close my final sermon for these High Holy Days, I want to share words that were written, not for a Jewish community as free as ours – but for one condemned to darkness and death.

In his Yom Kippur message to the Jews of Germany in 1935, Rabbi Leo Baeck – who would survive the Holocaust when six million others of us did not – spoke not of death but of life. Not of a grim present but of a brilliant future. Here, in part, is what he said:

“At this hour the whole House of Israel stands before its God, the God of Justice and the God of Mercy. . .  

“We believe in our faith and our future. Who brought the world the secret of the Lord Everlasting, of the Lord Who is One? . . .  Who brought the world respect for Man made in the image of God?

“Who brought the world the commandment of justice, of social thought? In all these the spirit of the Prophets of Israel, the Revelation of God to the Jewish People had a part. It sprang from our Judaism and continues to grow in it.

“Our history is the history of spiritual greatness, spiritual dignity. We turn to it when attack and insult are directed against us, when need and suffering press in upon us. The Lord led our fathers from generation to generation . . . .  We put our faith in Him in humility and our way ahead is clear, we see our future.”[4]

Ours is a universal and eternal mission, given to us uniquely by God, handed down by us from generation to generation. Sometimes it has been a burden. Sometimes it has been a danger. But always, always, we must see it as Judah ha-Levi did: as a gift and a blessing.

As Bari Weiss taught us:

“The Jewish people were not put on Earth to be anti-anti-Semites. We were put on Earth to be Jews.

“We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.

“We are the lamp-lighters.

“We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.

“The people of Israel lives now and forever.

“Am Yisrael Chai.”

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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Kevin A. Brook, “A Brief History of the Khazars,” The Kuzari: In defense of the Despised Faith,” by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, translated and annotated by N. Daniel Korobkin (New Jersey and Jerusalem: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1998), p. xxv.

[2] Kuzari, p. 231.

[3] Bari Weiss, “No Hate, No Fear,” published in the “Opinion” page of the Jewish Journal on January 16, 2020 and accessed at https://jewishjournal.org/2020/01/16/no-hate-no-fear/

[4] “Prayer Composed by Rabbi Leo Baeck For All Jewish Communities in Germany for the Eve of the Day of Atonement, October 10, 1935.” Shoah Resource Center. http://www.yadvashem.org.

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EREV YOM KIPPUR: “The Story of Us” and Redemption

Thu, 2020-10-01 13:23

It is a deep and devastating secret, buried beneath the historical edifices of one of America’s great cities.

In Boston, Massachusetts, the foundations of urban life are crumbling. I’m not talking about traffic or pollution or crime. I’m talking about the actual foundations of the multi-million-dollar townhomes for which the city is so famous, and of which Bostonians are so proud.

The Wall Street Journal chronicled the devastation in an article last March, just before the pandemic exploded. Here’s the gist of the problem:

“Much of modern-day Boston,” wrote Candace Taylor, “was under water when European settlers first arrived on the Shawmut Peninsula. From the late-1700s to the late-1800s, the city aggressively expanded, filling parts of Massachusetts Bay with soil, sand and gravel. Today, the city has about 5,250 acres of filled land . .

“To build on the unstable surface, builders drove tree trunks into the fill until they hit firmer ground, then placed foundation stones on top of these wooden piles. The technique was used until the 1920s when foundation-building technology changed.”[1]

Now, that was fine – as long as the tree-trunk pilings were covered by groundwater.

Except. Except that Boston grew. And people demanded things like a subway system, and tunnels, and sewers and basements. And all of that dropped the groundwater table. Which exposed the tree trunks.

Which rotted the tops of the tree trunks. And when they started to crumble, so did the gorgeous, historic buildings that they support.  

There are about 6-thousand buildings in Boston that rest on these exposed tree trunks. And people who want to live in the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods are finding themselves, well, in a very deep hole.

Here’s the thing about buying in Boston. The state of Massachusetts is a “buyer beware” state. Nobody’s going to tell you that the $3 million dollar home you want to buy on Beacon Hill could collapse at any moment. Sellers have to answer questions truthfully. But you have to know to ask, and a lot of people don’t. The buyer is always responsible for the complicated repairs needed to stabilize the home – into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And insurance doesn’t cover it.

Can you imagine being one of those eager buyers, finally able to purchase a historic home in a dream location – only to find that the earth could literally swallow you up? Can you imagine how it feels when the foundation under your feet – the foundation you thought was so solid – is nothing but sawdust?

Actually, yes, we can. I think this is a pretty good metaphor for what we’ve all been going through the last few months. Just after this story was published, the world as we know it disappeared. The ground beneath our feet became unstable. We have felt disoriented, unable to regain our balance. Work, school, even grocery-shopping have become an ordeal. Nothing – including our worship on this Day of Atonement – is normal or natural.

Buyer-beware? Like the fourth child in the Passover Seder, we didn’t even know how to ask.

But here’s the thing. It’s Erev Yom Kippur during a deadly, worldwide pandemic. And we are together. We look into each other’s eyes. We listen to the mournful strains of Kol Nidre. We offer our hearts to God, along with the promises of our lips. We want to do better and be better, even as the ground beneath our feet threatens to give way.

We are Jews. And for thousands of years, our people have lived on shaky ground. Save for the tiny time spans when we were sovereign in our own land, we have been subject to the whims of princes and barons and kings; we have been victimized by blood-libel and ignorance and hatred; we have been ghettoized and we have been exiled.

We have tried to make our home wherever we are – despite anti-Jewish sentiments that survive today, even here in America, on both the left and the right. We have not only survived, but we have thrived.

And this is what drove author Bari Weiss to proclaim at a rally in New York last January her pride in being a Jew. And this is what inspired me to use her words throughout these Days of Awe. Here is part of her message:

“I am a Jew because even after the heart of Judaism and Jewish sovereignty were destroyed, my people refused to accept the logic of history and disappear. And I am a Jew because some of our greatest renewals took place in exile.”[2]

It’s true. Much of our Judaism today – how we pray, how we mourn, how we celebrate, how we speak – was shaped by the two thousand years between the destruction of the Second Temple and the establishment of the modern State of Israel.

Under Christendom and Islam, under Caliphs and Tsars, in large cities and small towns and shtetels, we have re-created Jewish life over and over again — adjusting to the shifting ground beneath our feet. And we have done so in the three areas that are at the heart of the Days of Awe: Prayer, Atonement, and Righteous Living.

First: Prayer T’fillah:  

Our worship service was largely shaped when we were exiled from Jerusalem under the Romans. The early rabbis, who had fled the destruction of the Temple and the holy city, re-established themselves in the north, in the Galilee.

And there, using Torah, tradition, and their own courage and imagination as their guides, they created the first rules for Jewish living in a post-Temple world. Avodah, the Temple priests’ service to God, was transformed into T’fillah, the prayers each of us utters without the need for a filter, or an intermediary.

But: what to say? Not all of us feel our own words are clear enough, or elegant enough, for God. So the first prayer book we know of was fashioned in the leading Jewish academy of 9th-century Baghdad, under strict Muslim rule during what was considered the Golden Age of Islam.

The structured liturgy was important, and necessary, to bring communities together. It spread throughout the Jewish world, under Islam and under Christendom, in places where Jews were more or less persecuted but were never their own masters. Each community modified the prayer service to suit its own needs.

Poems were added – odes for feast days and elegies for fast days.

The tradition of eulogizing the martyrs of our people was added in the wake of the slaughter of Jews by Crusaders who marched through the Rhineland in 1096 on their way to Jerusalem.

And a standardized schedule of scriptural readings for every Shabbat and holy day meant that Jews throughout the world would be reading the same sacred words at the same time, uniting far-flung Jewish communities that often had little communication with one another.

All of this and more are reflected in our prayer book even today.

But according to rabbinic lore, the seeds of Judaism’s future were sown literally on the ash heap of destruction, as though the earliest rabbis knew what we would need, not only in their generation but in ours:

“Once, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking with his disciple, Rabbi Yehoshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Yehoshua looked at the Temple ruins and cried: ‘Woe is us! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel – through animal sacrifice – lies in ruins!’ Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai spoke to him in comfort: ‘Do not be too sad, my son. We have another, equally meritorious way of gaining atonement: through deeds of loving kindness. For as the prophet Hosea proclaimed so long ago: ‘It is lovingkindness that I seek and not sacrifice; knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’”[3]

This story brings us to the second area at the heart of our Days of Awe:

2. T’shuvah: Responding and returning to God.

Our tradition and our history call us to acknowledge that we must be constantly vigilant, in body and spirit. Nobody gets a pass. A quick apology doesn’t cut it. T’shuvah and forgiveness are not automatic, and they do not come easily or quickly. We have to be sincere and courageous in standing before God and admitting where we’ve fallen short of our own expectations for ourselves. But we also have to make amends with anyone we’ve hurt, and immediately change our behavior and stick with the change. Harder still, we must allow those who have hurt us the opportunity for atonement as well – if, and only if, they are sincere about it.

The rabbis were very well aware of how hard it is to forgive someone who has done you an injustice. Even the great among them didn’t always practice what they preached. Here’s one story from the Talmud:

“There were some lawless men living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir, and they used to cause him pain. Once Rabbi Meir asked of God that they should die. His wife, Beruriah, asked, “What are you thinking? Is it because it is written (in the book of Psalms), ‘Let sinners cease from the earth’? But look at the text carefully! Does it really say hoteim (sinners)? No! It says hata’im (sins).

“And look at the end of the same verse! It says:  ‘And let the wicked be no more.’ So: ‘when sins cease,’ then ‘the wicked will be no more.’ Meir, don’t ask God that these men should die. Ask God that they repent and stop being evil.’ So Rabbi Meir asked God on their behalf and they repented.”[4]

The pandemic may have given us a unique opportunity for teshuvah. Because, if nothing else, it is a perfect example of the truth that we need to take responsibility for our own behavior. And we have learned what happens when we don’t. Like the guidelines for the pandemic, our teshuvah has an impact not only on us, but on everybody around us. And not just our family and friends, who feel so keenly the effects of isolation and virtual exile from anything that approaches normality and stability. It also affects people we meet just in passing, who are either hurt or helped by what we choose to say and do.

Rabbi Meir learned his lesson. Here’s another quote from the Talmud:

“It was taught by the early rabbis that Rabbi Meir would say: Great is repentance because the entire world is forgiven on account of one individual who repents. As the prophet Hosea (14:5) declared on God’s behalf: ‘I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely; for My anger has turned away from him.’ Because one individual repented, everyone will be healed.”

Because one individual repented, everyone will be healed.

I don’t think that’s magic. I think that’s us. I think that’s just one of us being responsible for our own behavior, making an example of ourselves to inspire others, and to protect others. That’s what God calls on Jews to do. And the world needs it, now more than ever.

It is one thing to want to change, to want to be better and do better. But knowing how – well, that’s something else again.

3.  And this brings us to the third and final element in the process of awakening that God laid out for us: Tzedakah.We think most often of tzedakah as righteous giving. But its root is tzedek: righteous living.

The Torah and Haftarah portions we will read throughout the day tomorrow give us a guided road map to living a life that fulfills God’s purpose for us.

In the morning reading from Deuteronomy, Moses reminds us that God gave us Torah on Sinai and expected us to embrace it and to live it. Lo Bashanayim hi, Moses declares: It’s not in the heavens, or on the far shores of the sea. It’s in our hearts and our minds and our mouths – and it is our responsibility to fulfill its mission.

In the afternoon portion from the Holiness code of Leviticus, we are taught how to do that: justice in our communities; fairness in our business practices; honor to the elderly; assistance to those who are most at risk.

And just for good measure, we will have the Haftarah from the prophet Isaiah (ch. 58) reminding us – in the powerful language that echoes through millennia — that it is never, ever enough to sit in prayer and ruminate on the good that Torah can bring to the world – because we need to do the bringing.

We must do everything we can – based on our own history – to help everyone around us feel that they are safe once again on solid ground. That they are no longer in exile from normality.

We know how to ask. And we know how to answer.

As Bari Weiss concluded in her inspiring speech back in January:

“The Jewish people were not put on Earth to be anti-anti-Semites. We were put on Earth to be Jews.

“We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.

“We are the lamp-lighters.

“We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.

“The people of Israel lives now and forever.

“Am Yisrael Chai.”

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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Candace Taylor, “The Secret In Boston’s Basement,” The Wall Street Journal, Friday, March 6, 2020, Mansion Page M1,

[2] Bari Weiss, “No Hate, No Fear,” published in the “Opinion” page of the Jewish Journal on January 16, 2020 and accessed at https://jewishjournal.org/2020/01/16/no-hate-no-fear/

[3] Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:5

[4]   Berakhot 10a:2-4

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2020: “The Story of Us” and Revelation

Tue, 2020-09-22 13:11

Deep in the recesses of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem stands a small chapel, called the Latin Chapel, revered by Christians around the world as the place of Jesus’s Tomb. On the south wall is a mosaic depicting one of the most hauntingly memorable scenes from the Bible.

It is not, as you might expect, a scene of the crucifixion. It is the Akedat Yitzchak, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Torah reading from Genesis 22 that we read this morning.

In this mosaic, Abraham has his arm raised, knife in his hand, prepared to slaughter his most beloved son Isaac, God’s gift of his and Sarah’s old age. Below him, Isaac lies bound on the altar, staring up at his father. In front of him, an angel has his hand raised to stop the slaughter. And behind him is the ram caught in a thicket by its horns, which God has sent to be the substitute sacrifice.

In a 16th-century manuscript from Ottoman Turkey, a colorful miniature image also shows Abraham sacrificing his son. But the son here is not Isaac but Ishmael, his first-born son by the handmaid Hagar. Muslim tradition substitutes the younger for the older, although the name of the son is not mentioned at all in the Quran.

Both of Judaism’s daughter religions have adopted and adapted this story to fit their own religious narratives. For Christians, the story is one of ultimate sacrifice. For Muslims, it is one of ultimate submission.

For we Jews, the binding of Isaac is only one part of a lengthy narrative of the life of Abraham – only the last of ten trials beginning with God’s call.

For us, Abraham’s is not a story of an “ultimate” anything. It is, rather, the beginning of Judaism and of the character of the Jew: Complex, brave, incomplete, inspiring.

In this series of sermons that I’m calling “The Story of Us,” I draw this morning on Bari Weiss’s words about Abraham in her “No Hate, No Fear” speech in New York last winter:

“I am a Jew because of the audacity and iconoclasm of Abraham, the first Jew of all. The whole world was awash in idols and he stood alone to proclaim the truth: There is one God.”[1]

Think of just how astonishing the whole concept is! The world into which Abraham was born was one of pantheism: a belief that different gods controlled different forces in nature. Ancient peoples worshiped and fed the gods of the sky and the sea, the dew and the harvest. It was their way to explain the miracles of nature that make it possible for us to exist on earth.

Abraham knew differently. He had been called to serve by a God who vowed to him: “I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2). Only a God that controlled everything in the universe could make such a promise. And only Abraham could see such a God.

But the one-ness of God was not all that Abraham understood. Implicit in that first promise – and all the promises that followed – was not ultimate sacrifice or submission, but something a lot more complex. Something more human.

God had a plan for Abraham and his descendants: to make them a treasured people who would live a life based on kindness and ethical decision-making.

We see this first in the welcoming of the three strangers by Abraham and Sarah, who promise these wayfarers a morsel of food and some water, and who deliver an enormous feast. Nobody demanded, or even asked, for them to go to so much trouble. It was clearly in their natures to do so.

And we see it most explicitly in what follows – in God’s “aside,” as God muses with God’s self before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:

 “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do – since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט to keep the way of the ETERNAL by doing what is just and right, in order that the ETERNAL may bring about for Abraham what has been promised him.” (Genesis 18:17-19)

God went ahead and told Abraham everything – allowing Abraham to actually argue with God (!) to spare the lives of at least some of the people of these cities of sin.

Even this early in the Abraham story, here’s what we know: Abraham and Sarah are naturally kind and generous people. And through them, God is creating a people of justice and righteousness.

As the great Bible scholar Jon Levensen put it, “As the call and commission of Abram already indicate, it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.”[2]

For generations, this mandate has been described as “chosen-ness” – that we Jews are God’s “chosen” people. And while it may a valid way to describe our mission, it has gotten us into trouble. We have been persecuted in both the Christian and Islamic worlds as heretics and parasites. We have endured exclusion, blood-libel, exile and genocide.

And yet, we are not a people who have shed the blood of others in return. Yes, there are times in the Tanakh when God calls the Israelites to war and commands them to slaughter every person and burn every building. And, yes, there are times in modern Israel’s history when Jewish behavior toward non-Jews has been arrogant, discriminatory, and even deadly. We are troubled, to say the least, to acknowledge that this, too, is part of our history.

But in general, we are a people just trying to get along. Whether under submissive terms in medieval Christian and Muslim lands, or free in our own land after two-thousand years of exile; whether in the Jewish homeland or in the lands many of us Jews call home – we are a people who hold ourselves to a high moral standard. A standard founded in the mission of Abraham, structured in the mitzvot of Torah given to Moses at Sinai, and re-stated 27-hundred years ago by the prophet Micah:

“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the ETERNAL requires of you: Only to do justice. And to love goodness. And to walk modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

And as Bari Weiss declared in her speech last January: “I am a Jew because our God commands us to never oppress the stranger.”

Abraham was not a perfect human being. He’s not supposed to be. Human beings are not perfect creatures. We have failings and flaws and we make mistakes.

But we, like Abraham, rely on our faith. And our faith teaches us that we must turn – in this season of turning – toward a life that is kinder and gentler and more honest; that respects the dignity and unique worth of every human being; and that calls on us to speak up for those who are not treated with the dignity they deserve. A life in which we are commanded to stretch out our hand to the poor, the needy, and the stranger. A life in which we never take for granted that, as Jon Levensen wrote,

“God’s singling out of the Jews, foreshadowed in the call of Abraham is irrevocable . . . their specialness and uniqueness in the eyes of God do not depend on their fulfilling any mission, but they do have a mission to fulfill nonetheless – namely, to share the universal and transcendent truth that has graciously been disclosed to them alone.”[3]

To them – to us – is Abraham’s bequest given. And that’s true whether we are born among the traditional descendants of Abraham and Sarah or choose to become so, making Avraham v’Sarah part of our names as they are forever part of our lives.

We, like Abraham, will be forced to endure trials in our lives. If it weren’t for the trials we are undergoing right now, we’d all be in the sanctuary together this morning. Trials like these may temporarily scare us, or isolate us, or sicken us. But if we brave them together, as the heirs to Abraham and Sarah, they will not defeat us.

In this moment, we are living in a world of great tumult. There isn’t a neighborhood in this country where people are free from fear and confusion and frustration. There isn’t a family in which parents don’t worry over their children, and children for their parents.

We know very well from our history the danger that fear will turn to anger, and frustration to violence. We know very well from our history that innocent victims will suffer.

And we know very well from our history that every single one of us can and must be the voice of reason, and calm, and compassion. Like Abraham and Sarah – and like every generation of Jews since – we, too must heed God’s command לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט – “to do what is just and right.”

As Bari Weiss closed her speech in January:

“The Jewish people were not put on Earth to be anti-anti-Semites. We were put on Earth to be Jews.

“We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.

“We are the lamp-lighters.

“We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.

“The people of Israel lives now and forever.

“Am Yisrael Chai.”

Ken Yehi Ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission. As we say together: Amen.


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Bari Weiss, “No Hate, No Fear,” published in the “Opinion” page of the Jewish Journal on January 16, 2020 and accessed at https://jewishjournal.org/2020/01/16/no-hate-no-fear/

[2] Jon D. Levensen, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity & Islam (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 24.

[3] Levenson, p. 33.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Erev Rosh Hashanah: “The Story of Us” and God’s Creation:

Tue, 2020-09-22 13:03

Illness. Isolation. Fear. Separation. Conspiracy theories. Lockdowns. Death.

For many people, at least some of these plagues have defined life under the Coronavirus pandemic for the past six months. Here at Temple, we, certainly, did not anticipate this. When we were forced to cancel our Purim celebration at the last minute back in early March, we thought – well, by mid-summer, everything will be okay. We’ll be back together. This, too, shall pass.

But it didn’t. There are a lot of reasons why we are meeting on Zoom tonight, and for the rest of our holy days and fall festivals. Some of them are out of our control. Some of them could have been controlled but weren’t. But the consensus of our Temple family at our annual meeting was to prioritize everyone’s safety, and that’s what we’re doing.

As a congregation, we actually have held up pretty well, all things considered. We have used all the technology available to us, to bring our congregational family and friends together almost every Friday night since March, with prayers, Torah, and just sharing how we’re doing.

We were privileged to call Isaac Rubinstein to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah just a few weeks ago. And despite the challenges of speaking to empty pews in the sanctuary, Isaac did as beautiful and mature a job as I’ve ever seen in one of my students.

We have marked each other’s happy moments, mourned each other’s losses, and celebrated the little triumphs that make every day a little bit easier and happier than it otherwise might have been. We’ve reminded each other to just breathe.

We’ve done it because we are a strong community. And we’ve been able to do it, I think, at least in part, because we are Jews.

Let’s face it: Throughout the ages and within our lifetimes, Jews have persevered where others have disappeared. We have faced exile, pogroms, anti-Jewish laws, and ingrained antisemitism. We have wandered the world, settling where we can, when we can, figuring out how to make a living however we can.

Isolation? Been there. Conspiracy theories – well, they seem to have been invented to persecute Jews. Ghettos? Death? Try the pogroms in central Europe generations before there was a Holocaust.

And we are still here. Not Amalek. Not Haman. Not any of the Hamans that have arisen in every generation since then. We’re still here. Though not in the numbers we ought to be.

Some people say it’s a miracle. I say: it’s because of who we are. We are Jews. We have learned to persevere. To survive and to thrive.

Of course, we’re not the only ones who have found strength and survival mechanisms during the pandemic. But I think ours are somewhat unique, because they are ingrained in our history and in the very existence of our communities.

And that’s what I’m going to be talking about throughout these Days of Awe.

I call this: “The Story of Us.” And I was inspired by a remarkable, and very under-reported, speech that was made back in January by the Jewish author and ardent Zionist, Bari Weiss. She gave the speech in front of 25-thousand people at a “No Hate, No Fear” solidarity march in New York.

She based it on Edmund Fleg’s famous essay, “I am a Jew…because.”

And through these High Holy Days I am drawing from her speech to inspire us all with who we are, and what we can become. Which after all — is what the High Holy Days are all about.

Tonight: “The Story of Us” and God’s creation:

Bari Weiss declared:

“Today, as in so many times in history, there are many forces in the world insisting that Jews must disappear or die. Some say it bluntly. Some cloak it in the language of progress.

“But I am a Jew because I know that there is force far greater than that. And that is the force of who we are and the force of our world-changing ideas.”[1]

Tonight, at the dawn of our New Year, we celebrate one of these world-changing ideas: the Jewish story of Creation.

Now, it’s true, that every people of the ancient Near East had a version of the Creation myth. And the one that appears in the Jewish Bible is just one version. But ours comes with something extra: the idea of a mission. The notion that we were put on this earth for a purpose that is grounded in the Torah’s concepts of morality and goodness.

And nobody outlined this idea better than the 16th-century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria. Luria’s idea is based on three concepts:

  • Tzimtzum, or contraction
  • Shevirat ha-kelim, the breaking of the vessels
  • And Tikkun, restoration.

Luria referred to God as the Infinite – in Hebrew, Ein Sof, that which is without end. The Torah describes how God brought the material world into being from nothingness with words: Let there be light. But what’s important, according to Luria, is what happened before that. After all, God being God – infinite and without end – there wasn’t room for a material world.

So God did something remarkably humble for, you know, God. God withdrew into Godself to make room for Creation. God restricted God’s own presence through tzimtzum so that the universe and all that fills it could live.

And then, when there was room outside of God, God sent that beam of Divine light into the space that was void and without form. The Divine light allowed the universe to be organized – day and night, air and water and land. And God, as Torah tells us, saw that it was good.

But it wasn’t all good – not God-good. The Divine light was so powerful that we couldn’t have survived it. So it was enclosed in Kelim, vessels. But the vessels weren’t strong enough, and they shattered into tiny shards. Sparks of that beam of Divine light went everywhere. The shards of the vessels embedded themselves into everything, shredding things as they went. And God’s constriction allowed disharmony and aggression and evil and death to come into the material world. By its very nature, the world became imperfect and inconstant.

This world of chaos and illness and confusion – this is the world that we Jews were born into. And this is the world that gives us purpose.

As Howard Schwartz writes in the book Tree of Souls,

“This is why we were created – to gather the sparks no matter where we are hidden. God created the world so that the descendants of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles – to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way, the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.

“And when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete.”[2]

Tikkun olam: We use this phrase most often to describe social justice projects. But its cosmic significance is most important, especially on the day that we celebrate God’s creation. Tikkun olam literally means the repair of God’s world.

But, guess what? God cannot do this. Only we can do this. Only we have the power to search the world for those sparks of Divine light and bring them together to create order, harmony and peace.

These sparks of light could be anywhere and everywhere. In plants and trees; in animals of the land, the sea and the air. In rocks. In water. But I believe we find them most often in other people.

Sometimes they are hard to spot. Because when those vessels shattered and threw the world into chaos – the nature of humanity also changed. Remember Adam and Eve: they chose to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their action assured that all human beings would now have free will, freedom to choose how to behave.

When Samuel Goldman wrote about this last month in The New York Times, he was promoting the fusion of two concepts that are often seen as incompatible: freedom and virtue:

“People need constraint to develop moral habits,” Goldman wrote, “but also freedom to make mistakes, change their ways and assume responsibility for both failures and achievements.”[3]

Goldman attributed the idea to the likes of Aristotle and Greek philosophy. But we know that it is the foundation of Torah.

In our High Holy Day readings, Torah lays out the choices for us and urges us to lead lives of ethical behavior, kindness to those most vulnerable in our society, honesty in our business dealings, and humility before God. But in doing so, Torah acknowledges we have the right and the power to do otherwise: to cheat, to steal, to lie. To threaten, to discriminate, to persecute. To be selfish.

And, let’s face it, a lot of people do make those choices. We all know them. In a chaotic and sometimes dangerous world, they choose to perpetuate chaos, fear and bigotry. In a world that is already hard to navigate, they put icebergs in the sea routes and nails on the road.

In these days of pandemic, they refuse to mask or social distance, cause scenes at Wal-Mart, and promote wild conspiracy theories and unproven (or even dangerous) quack remedies.

The selfish people often suck up all the oxygen in the room, because everything is always about them. So they make it hard to adjust our focus, and pay attention to those who often do not draw attention to themselves. The selfless and the sensitive. The compassionate and the caring. The people whose divine spark glows brightly, if we choose to open our eyes and see. Behind a mask, from six feet away, you watch, and you know.

Those are the people whose nature we must cultivate and whose work we must support. They are the ones who will freely share their sparks and unite them with others who are like them. They are not afraid that sharing means they lose something precious. On the contrary, they see what the great Torah sage known as Rashi saw in the kindling of the Shabbat lights: When one flame lights another, neither one is diminished, and their shared light burns more brightly – lighting the way for us all.

The selfish people are often the loudest voices in the room, but they don’t necessarily represent the majority. Back in March and April – when the pandemic was sweeping across our country, The New York Times commissioned a study about what Americans thought about the crisis. They wanted to know: Are you focusing more on your personal problems, or on those of society – the people around you? Overall, the share of responders who emphasized society’s interests at least as much as their own increased by 3.3 percent, from 37.6 percent to 40.9 percent. And that’s a very significant jump in this kind of survey.

And the survey results were the same regardless of political affiliation, gender, age or geography.

We may be obsessed by the mask-less guy standing six inches behind us in the checkout line at Martin’s. But he represents a smaller proportion of the population than he’d like to think.

Then again, maybe he might not always be so selfish. After all, the whole point of these Days of Awe is that they offer us an opening to acknowledge the mistakes we’ve made in our attitudes and our behavior, and to change them. Maybe that guy will literally see the lights in others and follow those lights to a more caring and responsible life. It’s clearly happened for other people, as the Times article reported on that survey:

“The past weeks have put a spotlight on community engagement and, in particular, on the personal risks nurses and doctors are taking to treat their communities. The increase may also reflect growing recognition of our mutual dependence and the fact that we sacrifice our own desires, such as going outside, in the spirit of keeping one another healthy.”[4]

We have called these people heroes – these people on the front lines. The doctors and nurses and custodians in hospitals and nursing homes. The stackers and check-out clerks in pharmacies and grocery stores. The people who donate food to foodbanks, and the people who distribute that food. I call them sparks.

Sparks of divine light, shining most brightly when our world is most dark, lighting the way for us and making the world brighter with the power of their combined radiance.

This pandemic has been a microcosm of the stages of creation: Tzimtzum, the contraction of the world that has brought humanity together as we have not seen in our lifetimes. Shevirat ha-keilim, as the vessels of community, faith, and trust in one another are broken. And Tikkun, as people around the world – and within our own communities – actually become the sparks of Divine light that bring us back together in the common cause of healing and unity.

The celebration of this ongoing work of tikkun is the celebration of the world itself – the world that God created for us. The world that is as imperfect as we are. The world that can only sustain itself from generation to generation if we bring our sparks together as one. 

We Jews have taught this to the world. As Bari Weiss declared in concluding her speech in January:  

“We were put on Earth to be Jews.

“We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.

“We are the lamp-lighters.

“We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.

“The people of Israel lives now and forever.

“Am Yisrael Chai.”

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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Bari Weiss, “No Hate, No Fear,” published in the “Opinion” page of the Jewish Journal on January 16, 2020 and accessed at https://jewishjournal.org/2020/01/16/no-hate-no-fear/

[2] Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 122.

[3] Samuel Goldman, “Republicans Have Another Option. It’s Not Trumpism,” The New York Times, August 31, 2020. Accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/31/opinion/trump-conservatives.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

[4] Alexander W. Cappelen, Ranveig Falch, Erik O. Sorensen, Bertil Tungodden and Gus Wezerek, “What Do You Owe Your Neighbor? The Pandemic Might Change Your Answer,” The New York Times, April 16, 2020. Accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/16/opinion/coronavirus-inequality-solidarity-poll.html

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“See This Day”: Reflections on the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage Shabbat R’eh Friday August 14, 2020

Fri, 2020-08-14 20:35

Imagine that this is the year 1848. The first women’s rights convention has just been held in Seneca Falls, New York – which produced a “Declaration of Sentiments” that included a demand for American women to have the right to vote.[1]

Imagine that you are attending a women’s rights rally in the days that follow Seneca Falls – maybe in New York, maybe in Boston or Philadelphia.

You are there, of course, to see the suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who already is famous for her passion and her idealism. And of course you’re hoping to get a glimpse at her famously radical bloomer dress, which consisted of pantaloons tucked under a scandalous knee-high dress.

A century and a half before there was any such thing as a “social media influencer,” you’d be able to spot Susan B. Anthony in a second. Anybody would.

But you might be overlooking that slightly older woman standing next to her. Like Anthony, she was also an abolitionist – championing enfranchisement for both blacks and women. Unlike Anthony – and most of the other more famous suffragists – she was Jewish.

Ernestine Rose was actually born to a traditional Jewish family in Poland – the daughter of a rabbi, no less.

But she rebelled against the customs and strictures of her family and community, and migrated to Western Europe and then to the United States in search of her own freedom.

Ernestine Rose was by no means the only Jewish woman who was a leader of the suffragist movement. There was also Hannah Greenbaum Solomon, who was the first president of the National Council of Jewish women, and Maud Nathan, who got involved in women’s issues through her work in progressive activism and labor movements. And many more.

With all that, however, there wasn’t a single Jewish women’s organization that took the lead in demanding or endorsing suffrage. According to Melissa Klapper’s article on American suffrage in the Jewish Women’s Archives, “Neither the Ladies Auxiliary of the socialist Workmen’s Circle nor Haddasah formally endorsed suffrage until 1917 and the National Council of Jewish Women never did so.”

Now, that’s pretty shocking to those of us who know the impact these organizations have had on women’s lives.

But Klapper, in her article, suggests three reasons this was the case. First: These groups held a lot of local programs in the south, where white women – as well as men – feared the enfranchisement of Black women. Second, many women might have opposed their organization taking on an overtly political agenda. And third: antisemitism was rife in the women’s suffrage movement and had been for decades.

Like modern-day leftist coalitions that single out Jews for criticism and isolation under the guise of intersectionality, elements of the supposedly progressive women’s movement of the late 19th and early 20th century publicly despised Jewish women.

This was especially true during the mass migration to America of poor eastern European Jews who flooded the streets of New York and other large cities.

Within the organized Jewish world, there was quite a bit of support for women’s suffrage, based often on the Biblical examples of the prophetess Deborah and of Queen Esther, who put herself in danger to save the lives of her fellow Persian Jews.

And so it was with the Jewish leadership of socialist parties, trade-unions and working-class communities – who saw and adopted women’s suffrage as another facet in the struggle for power and dignity for every person.

As Klapper points out, the Jewish tradition of social justice – of equal treatment for every human being – also played a role here. It’s a tradition that plays a prominent place, as well, in this week’s Torah portion.

The parashah – R’eh, the fourth portion in the Book of Deuteronomy – is ostensibly about communal worship and the annual cycle of the ritual calendar. But, tellingly, the portion both begins and ends with a command that is powerfully and intentionally inclusive.

R’eh! – the parashah begins.

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Adonai your God.

The first few paragraphs adjure the Israelites not only to reject the pagan worship practices of the Canaanites on the other side of the Jordan river, but to actively destroy their altars.

The rest encourages joyous celebrations of accepted worship practice throughout the Israelite community, starting with this command:

“And you shall rejoice before Adonai your God with your sons and daughters and with your male and female slaves, along with [the family of] the Levite in your settlements” (Deut. 12:12). The parallel command at the end of the parashah adds in “the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in your communities” (Deut. 16:11).

Male and female, young and old, Jewish and not, those of means and those without, those with families and those without. Everyone is to be included.

Now: I should point out that there is one oddity – one omission – that’s common to both of these verses: Neither one of them explicitly mentions wives in the celebration. Were wives automatically included? The Hebrew makes it hard to tell. The first verse is written in the plural and the second is in the singular – but both are written in the Bible’s default mechanism of masculine language. [2]

There is, however, one hint: This phrase that appears earlier on, at the very beginning of the portion to introduce the notion of festive celebration:

You shall feast there before your God Adonai, together with your households אַתֶּם וּבָתֵּיכֶם  – happy in all the undertakings in which Adonai your God has blessed you. [Deut. 12:7]

אַתֶּם וּבָתֵּיכֶם  That’s key phrase here:  “you and your households.” Who all is in the household? And why would the wife specifically not be mentioned when daughters, female slaves and widows are?

In an essay to the Women’s Torah Commentary, Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert[3] points to a rabbinic tradition that when the Torah says “household” in these situations, what it actually means is “wife.”

In the Mishnah’s description of the laws of Yom Kippur, for example, Rabbi Judah himself cites Scripture (Lev. 16:6) this way:

As it says, and he shall make atonement for himself and for his house – and “his house” refers to his wife.

And she points to this quote in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 118b):

Rabbi Yosei said that he always spoke euphemistically: In all my days, I did not call my wife, my wife, nor my ox, my ox. Rather, I called my wife, my home – בֵּיתִי, — because she is the essence of the home, and my ox, my field, because it is the primary force in the fields.

Yes, there are – in traditional Judaism – time-bound mitzvot like the offerings given for the altar that only apply to men, based on this same section of Torah. But those are the mitzvot that don’t even apply in a post-Temple world. And the predominant mitzvah of celebration includes us all.

I think that this parashah is not just about festivals. It’s really about the bayit, the Jewish home – the essential building block of Jewish community and Jewish history. And its goal is to establish, from the bayit outward, equality and inclusion as building-blocks of Jewish life.

One hundred years after the passage of the 19th amendment – an anniversary we celebrate this coming Tuesday – we marvel at the strength and the courage of the women who battled for most of their lives to achieve women’s suffrage. We marvel, especially, at the Jewish women – who not only had to face down the power of the patriarchy, but also of rampant hatred against them – even among other women. Because they were immigrants. Because they were Jewish. Because they didn’t fit someone else’s definition of what it meant to be a true American.

And we recognize that these battles are still being fought a century later. Women still are not fairly represented in government or in business; women are still not promoted at the levels men are; women are still not paid anywhere near what men are.

So we continue to fight this millennia-long Jewish battle for social justice and individual dignity that is rooted in the Torah itself. We fight for legislation. For education. For equal pay.

We fight for ourselves. And we also fight alongside so many others who also don’t fit into narrow, and narrow-minded, definitions of what it means to be a true American.

We Jewish American women take pride in our foremothers – those of the 19th and 20th centuries and those thousands of years ago – Miriam and Deborah and Esther and all the unknown women in unremembered Jewish communities who demanded attention, and justice, and equality.

We know we deserve it. And we know that the Torah says so.

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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin





[1] Much of this material comes from the Jewish Women’s Archive’s article “Suffrage in the United States” by Melissa R. Klapper, accessed at https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/suffrage-in-the-united-states

[2] See The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, Ph.D. (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), in the footnotes to both of these verses on pages 1119 and 1133.

[3] See “Post-biblical Interpretations” in The Women’s Commentary, pp. 1134-1136

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Getting What We Deserve? Shabbat Eikev, Friday, August 7, 2020

Sat, 2020-08-08 11:48

So this is where we are: The weirdest weather we can remember. Partners falling ill – some in constant pain, others only with vague memories of who we are. Parents remembered at the graveside – some gone way before their time. All this and more happening as we try our best to cope with an international pandemic that has us praying and learning from afar every week for months on end – a dangerous disease that has forced children from their classrooms, parents from their places of work, merchants struggling to survive, and a lot of people afraid to go to the store or the pharmacy because not everyone is respectful enough to put on a mask.

Welcome to the life of our congregation in the summer of 2020.

As we learn the painful stories of those whose lives have been devastated by the coronavirus and the economic destruction it has wrought– we fall back on the age-old question of WHY? Why, God? Why do bad things happen to good people?

It is, unfortunately, a question for which there is no answer.

But why should that be? Is God not all-powerful? Or all-good? Or: Is God—if you believe in God’s existence—simply removed from the world? More than three decades ago, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner deliberately titled his book about theodicy When Bad Things Happen To Good People, not why, because, he came to believe, based on his own experiences, that pain and tragedy are simply part of the world as God created it. Rabbi Kushner wrote:

“God does not cause our misfortunes. . . . Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.”[1]

But the fact remains that bad things do happen to good people. We have seen that every day of this pandemic: On this past Tuesday alone, more than 13-hundred people in the United States died of the Coronavirus. Nearly 160-thousand total. Almost five million people in this country have become infected. And countless millions of others are stretched to their limit – or beyond – financially, emotionally, socially.

Feeling each day like we’re caught in a vise, making it hard sometimes to breathe, or think, or plan – it’s natural that we would turn to Torah for help and relief. But then we come face to face with what we read this Shabbat in Eikev, the third parashah of the Book of Deuteronomy.

Here the so-called Deuteronomic theology is in full display: If you obey God, you will be rewarded; if you disobey, you will be punished. This concept has underscored the study we’ve been doing for months now on Saturday mornings, first from the Book of Judges and now in the Book of Samuel, which are thematically (and theologically) tied into Deuteronomy. And we’ve struggled with it a lot.

And all comes from here, as God, through Moses, lays out the choice in language that people who live off the land will understand:

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—I also will provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow down to them. For the Eternal’s anger will flare up against you, shutting up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Eternal is assigning to you.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

These words are familiar to anyone who davens regularly from a traditional or Conservative prayer book, as they comprise much of the second paragraph of scriptural verses that immediately follow the Shema. They do not appear in American Reform prayer books. We Reform Jews have trouble praying what we do not believe. And our experience tells us not to believe in Deuteronomic theology.

We are not the only ones troubled by it. Two millennia ago, the early Sages, who witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple, and the death and desolation that accompanied it, formulated the notion of the olam haba, the “world to come,” as the place where people would finally get whatever is due them in this world. The Mishnah teaches us: “All Israel have a portion in the World to Come,” with the exception of heretics who reject Torah itself.

Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, in his classic fifteenth-century Mishnah commentary, gave a beautiful description of the ultimate reward of the good people who might have suffered in this world: “The righteous sit with crowns on their heads, and enjoy the brilliance of the Divine Presence.”[2]

That’s a lovely image. And the olam haba may give some comfort to those who struggle with theodicy and the question of God’s place in our lives. But the fact remains that we all still must live in the olam hazeh, in “this world.”

The pandemic may well be, as Rabbi Kushner wrote, an inevitable consequence of “living in a world of inflexible natural laws.” But our response to it is not fixed. It is not inevitable. And this may be where we look for the answers to the troubling questions raised by this Torah portion.

What we’re given here, on the surface, is a very rigid concept of good and evil, of reward and punishment. And it’s a concept that, as we know, does not play out in real life. But let’s look below the surface. And let’s look at it in the context of the rest of Torah portion. Because it is introduced by this call by Moses’s to the Israelites:

“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to love and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul . . .” (Deuteronomy 10:12)

And how do we do that? Moses tells us that, too:

“Cut away, therefore, the thickening of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Eternal is God Supreme . . . who upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing – You too must befriend the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Deut. 10:16-19)

This is the context into which Moses now places the promise of the blessings of rain in its time, and new grain and wine and oil.

So, I’m thinking: Maybe all of that isn’t a rigid notion of Divine gifts and retribution after all. Maybe – if we read it in context — the examples that Moses gives of God’s gifts to us are meant to be a metaphor for the gifts we ought to be giving one another, if we are acting in God’s image and following God’s example.

Maybe the reward of goodness comes from the good we do for others, the way we spread God’s kindness through life, through our families and our communities. Maybe the reward of goodness is a natural outgrowth of loving and serving God with all our heart and soul. Upholding the cause of the weak. Treating the stranger with respect. We can’t always identify the people who are vulnerable. But we don’t need to. The food banks and shelters in our area always need financial support. And spreading God’s kindness doesn’t even require money. Maybe it’s as simple an act as wearing a mask out in public, and socially distancing, and washing up properly. We never know who that might help.

Rabbi Kushner also writes: “we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes.” But we should never be in a position where we are hurt or betrayed by others. And we certainly don’t want others to feel hurt or betrayed by us.

The answer to this dilemma of good and evil, of reward and punishment, may be as simple as Moses’s added personal appeal to each of us:

“Love the Eternal your God and keep God’s charges, laws, judgments and commands, every single day.” (Deut. 11:1)

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will, and our mission. And let us say together: Amen.


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People (NY: Schocken Books, 1981), p. 134; also excerpted on www.myjewishlearning.com. All the Kushner quotes come from this source.

[2] Mishnah Sanhedrin: A New Translation with a Commentary by Rabbi Pinhas Kehati (Jerusalem: Eliner Library, 1994), Chapter 10, Mishnah 1, pp. 137-138 in the paperback edition


Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

So That You May Live: Shabbat Va’etchanan, Friday, July 31, 2020

Sat, 2020-08-01 09:49

According to Jewish tradition, and the well-known Debbie Friedman song, there are 613 commandments that Moses handed to us in the Jewish Bible. Our earliest record of this tradition is in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Makkot 23b), where Rabbi Simlai is quoted as saying:

“There were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding to the number of a person’s limbs.”

Rabbi Simlai didn’t lay all 613 of them out for us, and I don’t know where he got the 248 limbs (or parts) in the human body. But the great philosopher Maimonides, who was also a renowned physician, must have been down with it. Because in the law code he wrote in the 12th century, he outlined every single one of them. And his list is the one that we pretty much follow even today.

These mitzvot guide Jewish living in every way: How we marry, raise children, and bury our dead. How we conduct business. How we pray and when we pray. How we build community structures that respect our neighbors and support the needy and the most vulnerable.

The mitzvot are scattered throughout the Torah. But many of the key elements appear in this week’s Torah portion.

Moses is now into the meat of his farewell address to the people. After getting a few frustrations off his chest and re-telling the tale of the past forty years, he’s now teaching the people how to behave when the get to the land where – as we talked about last week – they will be on their own to take Torah into their hearts and their lives. So now he gives the Israelites – the first generation born in freedom — as much hard information as he can.

This week’s portion contains what one of my colleagues calls Torah’s greatest hits: The Shema (Deut. 6:4-9), which binds us to God eternally and exclusively. The reiteration of the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-18), the big categories from which all of the mitzvot flow.

And Moses ties them to the past and to the future, with a reminder to the people of their parents’ divine redemption from Egypt (Deut. 6:20-25), and a command to the people to teach their children of their history and the heritage of Torah (Deut. 6:7).

But tucked into all of this is also a call from Moses to the Israelites to pay heed to their present (Deut 4:9), to the here and now:

רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר־רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ וּפֶן־יָסוּרוּ מִלְּבָבְךָ כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ

Only take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.

It’s crucial, God is telling the people, that you operate in reality – the reality of being the generation responsible for decisions that will shape not only your destiny, but the destiny of your children and the generations who will follow them.

Nothing is more important than dealing in reality and doing it together – not the mythology of history, not the parochial disputes among the tribes, and not the petty squabbles that may arise among families. Keep your eyes on the prize, he tells them – and the prize is crossing the Jordan River, together and united, into the Promised Land.

Reality, truth-telling, facts, cooperation, collaboration, and caring for one another. These are the tools that the Israelites will need to succeed.

The truth is: It’s no different for us today than it was over three thousand years ago. And when we forget, or neglect, what’s most important – that’s when we get into trouble.

Back in March, when we had to suddenly shut down our Religious School and move worship and study out of our beloved Temple building, many of us hoped and believed we’d be back by mid-summer. It didn’t really occur to us that we might need to shelter at home, avoiding contact with anyone but immediate family, for months on end.

It’s quite possible that if everyone – or at least the vast majority of everyones – had dealt in reality, facts, cooperation and caring for one another from the beginning, we wouldn’t be in the position we are now, with High Holy Days on Zoom, long quarantines for people like us who travel from one state to another, and so many parents and teachers terrified at the prospects of live schooling. But that’s not what happened. And look where we are.

A week ago, the number of people in our country known to have been infected with the virus passed four million, with hospitalization rates  rising as well. This week, we passed 150-thousand deaths.

There are still no national mandates for masking and distancing. There’s still no national program for acquiring protective gear and distributing it where front-line workers need it most. There’s still no national program helping state and local government to open schools safely, or to do the testing and tracing that everyone has known for months has to happen.

But there sure are a lot of Americans who think that masks are for sissies and social distancing is for losers. Who reject the scientists and medical professionals who are giving us the facts and dealing in reality, but accept the claims of quack physicians assuring them they need do nothing at all, if those claims appear in the right social-media accounts.

People who refuse to cooperate and do the right thing for the sake of anyone else. Who verbally abuse, physically accost, and occasionally pull a gun on retail workers making minimum wage, when they ask them to follow the rules and put on a mask for everyone’s safety.

There are people who’ve contracted COVID who spend weeks on ventilators. Five minutes in a mask to get your latte and sandwich at Sheetz isn’t an infringement of your constitutional rights. It’s common sense, and common decency.

It’s also inherently Jewish.

The first five of the ten commandments reiterated this week speak to our direct relationship with God. The second half of the list directs us on our treatment of one another. So the way we show just how much we care about each other is a reflection of how much we care about God. Now, with Torah in our hands, it’s all on us. But we have to understand how our choices – to follow God’s path or not – impact everyone around us.

As my colleague Rabbi Max Chaiken wrote in this week’s Reform Judaism commentary:

“Perhaps most importantly, Va-et’chanan reinforces the idea of our own free will: While we cannot always control our circumstances, we are responsible for the ethical and spiritual choices we make as we walk our path through life.”

We cannot control the fact of the pandemic. But we can and must control our response to it. Deal in facts and truth and reality and common sense and kindness – and follow the best advice that the scientific community has to give us.

That, too, is Moses’s message to us in the parashah: O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live.

   לְמַעַן תִּחְיוּ.

Moses uses the plural here – and not just because he’s speaking to the entire Israelite nation. He uses it as a clear message that our lives are dependent on one another. And that the life of the community – of the nation – depends on what each of us is willing to do for us all.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be the message we take into our hearts and our lives every day. And let us say: Amen.


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin



Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Speaking for Ourselves: Shabbat Devarim, Friday, July 24, 2020

Sun, 2020-07-26 10:06

It’s one of the most common phrases in all of the Torah, easy to recognize and understand:   וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: . . . God calls on the most beloved and trusted of all the prophets, using these exact words, 70 times in the Torah. And, by my count, the phrase is followed 23 times by some variation of: tell the children of Israel this.

God clearly trusts Moses to deliver the divine message to the people he’s leading, just as it’s given to him. And the Torah shows us that, as time goes on, the need for that trust is more and more crucial. The phrase appears eleven times in the book of Exodus, twenty-seven times in the book of Leviticus, and thirty-two times in the book of Numbers.

In the book of Deuteronomy, which we begin reading tonight, the phrase appears exactly zero times. Nada. Zip. None. In fact, the book starts this way:

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל: These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel.

Moses needs no prompting. He is old. He is dying. He knows he will not be the one to lead the Israelites west across the Jordan River into the Promised Land that he has longed to see. And so, on the east bank of the Jordan, he addresses the people at length. The entire Book of Deuteronomy is his final address. And he takes the opportunity to set a few things straight.

Moses recounts the forty-year journey on which he has led a frequently stiff-necked and recalcitrant people. He reminds them of all the times he had to intervene to save them from God’s wrath, and he downplays the times when his behavior fell short, or when he did not deliver the divine message as well as he should have.

Moses also takes the opportunity to both encourage the people to follow the rules in the great gift of Torah that God has given them – and to warn them of the dire consequences that await them if they don’t. He inspires them with the words we know as the Shema, the clear and firm statement of their faith in the one and only God. He reiterates the Ten Commandments, from which all other mitzvot flow. And he blesses them with the words we know as the priestly benediction, calling on God to guide their steps and protect them from harm.

And he – Moses, the man of stuttering speech – does all of this poetically and eloquently and movingly.

But beyond the rhetoric, these first words of the Book of Deuteronomy teach us something else very, very important about the Israelite world in which Moses takes leave of them. It’s no longer God’s responsibility to tell us how to behave all the time. Now, it’s up to us.

By accepting the b’rit, the covenant, at Sinai, we bound ourselves to God and Torah. But there, we declared, na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we’ll heed you. We signed on for whatever God had in mind for us, and, over forty years, God gave us the details, large and small.

Those forty years are over. A new generation has emerged that has never known slavery. A new leader, Joshua, has been chosen to lead them. A new land awaits them. And a new responsibility has been laid on them.

Torah is alluding to this in the way Deuteronomy begins. Moses now uses his farewell address to gently guide them into the idea that Torah is now in their hands. He will make it explicit near the end of his oration, when he tells the assembled nation:

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, for you to do it. (Deut. 30:11-14)

In future generations, the Israelites will have judges and kings to lead them; priests to make offerings on their behalf; and prophets to be their conscience when they’re tempted to go astray. But it is now up to the people to govern themselves – to create sacred communities and build fair systems of justice and run open marketplaces and teach their children to be kind to everyone and generous to the needy – all following the guidance of Torah. These few words at the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy lay the foundation that has sustained Jewish life from the crossing of the Jordan River until today.

According to the rabbis of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b), God acknowledges that this was the plan all along – not to have to guide our every step or make our every decision, but to give us the tools in Torah to do all of it ourselves.

The story is told of the brilliant but irritable Rabbi Eliezer, who one day was arguing with all of his colleagues about the kosher status of a particular oven. Now, the general rule is that Jewish law follows the majority. But Rabbi Eliezer refused to concede.

He said, “If the law follows me, the carob tree will prove it”; and, lo and behold, the carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, some say four hundred cubits. The rabbis said: “We do not bring proof from a carob tree.”

He came back and said, “If the law follows me, the water channel will prove it”; just then, the water channel flowed in reverse direction. They said: “We do not bring proof from a water channel.”

He came back and said, “If the law is as I say, the walls of the House of Study will prove it”; the walls of the House of Study began to bend inward. Rabbi Joshua protested at them, saying to them, “If scholars defeat each other in the law, how does it benefit you?” So the walls froze where they were.

Rabbi Eliezer came back and said, “If the law follows my ruling, from the Heavens they will prove it”; a Bat Kol, a heavenly voice, then called out and said, “What is with you towards Rabbi Eliezer, for the law agrees with him in every instance?” Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said, “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” (Deuteronomy 30:12).

Added Rabbi Jeremiah: “Since the Torah had been given [to us] at Sinai, we do not even listen to a heavenly voice.”

Some time afterward, Rabbi Nathan happened upon the prophet Elijah [who does appear now and then to people] and said to him, “What did the Holy One do in that hour [when we refused to follow the Bat Kol]?” Elijah said to him: “God smiled and said, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.’”

Each and every generation will find its own way and its own interpretation in the Torah, and deal with its own challenges from without and within. But we have been able to sustain our faith and our people only because Torah is in our hands. Torah – not as 613 discrete commandments that we have to pound into our heads. But Torah as the prophet Isaiah (56:1) summarized for us: שִׁמְרוּ מִשְׁפָּט וַעֲשׂוּ צְדָקָה

Keep justice and do righteousness. The foundation of Torah isn’t hard to remember – which is why Moses assured the people they could do this. Despite all the arguing and the complaining and the half-hearted attempts to turn around – they could do this. And so can we.

Keep justice and do righteousness. Or, as we learned from the great Rabbi Hillel the Elder in our study of Pirke Avot, the Mishnah’s ethical teachings of the early rabbis: What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. That is Torah. All the rest is simply commentary.

If we – each of us – follow a path of life in which we treat each other with dignity and fairness, we are fulfilling the promise and the responsibility that Torah lays out for us in Deuteronomy. God expects no more from us than that. And we should expect no less.

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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin



Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog


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