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Charting History “In the Heights” Shabbat Chukat, Friday, June 18, 2021

Sat, 2021-06-19 10:26

I’m not in the habit of using the Friday night pulpit to recommend movies – but. . . You MUST go see “In the Heights,” the movie version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking, Tony-winning Broadway musical that preceded “Hamilton.” “In the Heights” is raucous and beautiful. The dancing and singing are spectacular. The story is heartwarming and emotional – and it includes a few surprises that I never saw coming.

I know it’s on HBO Max. But see it in the theater, if you can. The big screen and the immersive sound do it justice.

Great singing and dancing aside, though, there are good reasons to speak about the movie from the bimah on Shabbat.

“In the Heights,” for those of you who don’t know, is the story of three days in the life of the diverse Latino community of Washington Heights, the neighborhood north of Harlem on Manhattan’s West Side. Its residents come from countries throughout the Caribbean and Central America, all drawn to the promise of a better life. But many struggle with the powerful forces arrayed against them: poverty, racism, anti-immigration politics — not to mention the usual stresses on any family.

Many also struggle with themselves. They are torn between their pride in their heritage and their desire to be fully Americans. Do they have to move out to move up? As we join the story, the ties that have bound generations of neighbors together are fraying. Prices are rising. And a massive blackout in the hottest days of the summer creates huge challenges for the future of the Heights and its unique cultural personality.

The first thing that struck me about “In the Heights” was that it could easily have taken place in a Jewish neighborhood. People of one ethnic group moving into the homes and businesses of another ethnic group that has moved up by moving out. People fighting distrust and discrimination. Parents sacrificing everything for their children, so that the kids can leave the barrio (or the shtetl) prepared for a successful life. Sounds familiar, right? One character in the film even gives a “l’chayim” in a toast over cold beers.

But the more I learned about the history of the show, the more Jewish it became to me. From its first version in 1999, written when Lin-Manuel Miranda was still in college, “In the Heights” has gone through a series of major mutations. Responding to the social, political and cultural changes of the past two decades, the film version has a profoundly different outlook, focus, and feel than the original stage show.

A professor here at Penn State University, A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, the school’s Bronx-born director of Latino and Latina Studies, reviewed the show’s history for an article in The Washington Post this week. And what I share with you tonight about the evolution of the show over two decades is drawn from that article.[1]

Amazingly, that first version of the show didn’t really deal with immigration at all. It was love story whose backdrop highlighted the wide array of music, food and language in the neighborhood. That changed by its next iteration in 2004 which, as Sandoval-Strausz points out, followed a decade of major migration to this country — and a subsequent anti-immigrant political backlash.

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes came on board. She shifted the focus of the play from one relationship to the entire community, spotlighting the characters and the different countries from which they had come.

Major musical numbers were added that highlighted the shared experiences of one wave of immigrants after another. All that led to the show’s debut on the Broadway stage in 2008, where it blew everybody away with its charm, its unique rhythms, and its sheer energy – and where, as Time magazine noted, its celebration of multiculturalism made it the perfect musical with which to open the Obama presidential era.

But in the decade that followed, our national mood and federal policies changed. We witnessed southern borders all but closed, even to legal immigration, with parents and children torn from each other; and ramped-up rhetoric against immigrants and people of color in general.

So the finished film evolved to answer these challenges. New plotlines include the threat to so-called “Dreamers” who were brought to this nation illegally as small children.

As Sandoval-Strausz wrote: “This cinematic adaptation of ‘In the Heights’ has met its historical moment.”

But what strikes me as most Jewish about the show is not that it met this moment – but that it has evolved to meet every moment. It has adjusted to reflect each generation’s self-awareness, needs and goals.

And that is something that we Jews have been doing for three thousand years.

In every generation, we try to make sense out of our own lives through our history, our traditions, and our sacred texts. And as we search for answers, we find new insights – and new answers — in old stories.

This process of ongoing revelation is as old as the Bible itself. Take the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’s farewell address. He gives us a very different take on some of the key events in Exodus and Numbers, portraying himself as a leader much put-upon by the people, whom he regularly saves from God’s wrath. Within the Bible, this is clearly the story he wants to impart to the people before he dies – as both promise and warning of how they should behave in the future.

But the changes that are made in the telling also reflect the authors and redactors of Deuteronomy, who — in the late 7th century BCE, in the reign of King Josiah – sought to reinforce monotheism and the worship of Israel’s one and only God, as well as the centrality of Jerusalem as the source of both temporal and celestial power.

Or take Chronicles, which gives us a very different take on the same era that’s already been covered by the Books of Kings.[2] While Kings focuses on the monarchy, Chronicles wraps its historical perspective around the Temple. That makes sense, since it dates from a time when the re-built Second Temple took center stage in the hearts, and the daily lives, of the Jews of Israel. That’s how the authors explained our history in the way that people of their generation would understand.

Now, since the close of the canon two-thousand years ago, we have used tools like biblical commentary and Midrash. These tools help us unpack the text, yes. But they also teach us a lot about the authors and their communities — be they Babylonian rabbis, medieval European sages, or modern scholars.

All of their work is designed to answer the same questions: How can we Jews understand these obscure texts and make them relevant? How can we use them to connect our past to our present, in order to preserve our future?

That’s at the heart of what we do every time we pick up a Tanakh or look at rabbinic literature or ask the question: “Why does the Torah want us to know this?” We start with the presumption that the past has something important to teach us today, and that if we don’t find meaning in it, we’re not looking hard enough or using all the tools at our disposal.

We also start with the presumption that we want the past to teach us and guide us. We want our ancestors and their stories to be a source of pride – just like the people of Washington Heights did. It doesn’t mean white-washing troubling passages or events. It means struggling with them to learn from them – even if the lesson is what not to do.

So let’s look at one episode in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. After the death of Miriam, the water supply dries up. The people rise up once again against her brothers, Moses and Aaron, wailing about being left to die of thirst in the wilderness, and why-oh-why did we ever leave Egypt!

God instructs Moses and Aaron to take up a rod, assemble the people, and order a nearby rock to produce water – a miracle that is meant to rally the troops.[3]

So they do. They’re at the rock, Moses has his staff in his hand, and he says to the people: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”[4] Moses strikes the rock twice with the rod, and water pours out.

But now God is angry with Moses and Aaron! “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people,” God tells them, “therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”[5]

Wait…. What just happened there? Why, exactly, is God angry at them? What did they do wrong? It’s really not clear.

Over centuries, the sages have come up with a different lot of answers. Early on, the rabbis thought it seemed obvious: Well, God said to order the rock – v’dibartem – and Moses struck it instead. But for us – I mean, doesn’t that seem like a petty little difference? Given everything Moses has done for God and the people, does the punishment fit the crime?

A thousand years ago, Maimonides – the great physician, philosopher and Torah scholar – suggested something very different: It had nothing to do with the stick, he said. It had to do with the way Moses spoke to the people, calling them out: “Listen, you rebels!” – Shim’u-na hamorim!

“God found fault with him,” Maimonides wrote, that “such a man as he should show anger in the presence of the entire community of Israel, where wrath is unbecoming. This was a profanation of God’s name, because men imitated the words and conduct of Moses.”[6]

So, not only should Moses not have blown up at them like that – but in doing so, he gave them implicit permission to act that way, too. Leaders and teachers instruct us with everything that they say and do. And Moses was setting a very bad example.

Maimonides is, of course, speaking as someone who moved easily – though carefully – in the courts of Islamic power in Spain and North Africa. He uses his experience with the wider world to warn us about speaking rashly or losing our temper in public.

That resonates with us. We represent the Jewish community among non-Jews all the time – whether we are aware of it or not, and whether we like it or not. Maimonides reminds us that what we say and how we behave is often taken by others to represent what all Jews say and do.

So let’s now look at the same text in much more modern interpretation. This one comes from the Women’s Torah Commentary published by the Reform movement just thirteen years ago.

In her essay on the parashah, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser reminds us that all of this happens right after the death of Miriam, and she believes that the text itself shows us that it’s all related. Remember that Moses called out to the people, Shim’u-na ha-morimlisten up you rebels! She points out that this word for rebels, mor’im, only appears this one time in the Torah. “Remarkably,” she teaches, “in their unvocalized form the words morim (rebels) and miryam (Miriam) are made up of the same four Hebrew consonants: mem-reysh-yud-mem.”

“This verbal coincidence,” she teaches, “may intimate that Moses’ behavior has as much to do with losing Miriam as with his frustration with the Israelite people. It suggests that, when faced with the task of producing water, Moses recalls Miriam as his older sister, his co-leader, and perhaps most of all, the clever caretaker who guarded him at the Nile.”[7]

Wow. Now that’s something we totally get. Remember – there was no formal mourning period for Miriam, as there would be for Aaron and Moses. No chance for her brothers, or the people, to openly weep for her.

And even if there had been, we know from personal experience that the intense and overpowering feelings we have after we lose someone we love can surface in unexpected ways at completely random times.

So for a lot of us, this interpretation might make the best sense of a really troubling text. Anger and frustration born out of loss – especially after the year we’ve had – is something we absolutely understand.

Throughout the show and movie “In the Heights,” characters are challenged by a “here and now” that is moving fast: surprising, sometimes strange and sometimes strangely familiar. Every day is a balancing act, when they have to weigh what they’ve lost of their past against what they may gain for their future. Everyone makes different choices. Some have even changed from one version of the story to another. This, too, is at the heart of our own evolution from generation to generation.

Beyond its masterful storytelling and film-making, “In the Heights” encourages and inspires us to revel in the uniqueness of each community that comes to our country for a better life. But it also teaches us to search under the surface for the underlying values and needs that all of our communities have in common.

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

####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/06/11/in-the-heights-immigration/. Accessed on line June 14, 2021.

[2] The Jewish Study Bible: Torah, Nevi’im, Kethuvim, Second edition, edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2014), p. 1707

[3] Num 20:1-8.

[4] Num. 20:10.

[5] Num. 20:12.

[6] Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim (“Eight Chapters”), his introduction to the Mishnah’s Pirke Avot, chapter 4, paragraph 13. Accessed on Sefaria.com, English translation by Joseph I. Gorfinkle.

[7] Ora Horn Prouser, “Another View,” The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Dr. Tamara Cohn Esakenazi and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, Ph.D. (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), p. 931.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Macho a Macho – Shabbat Korach, Friday, June 11, 2021

Sat, 2021-06-12 11:34

These days, what happens in tonight’s Torah portion would be billed as a battle for the ages, available exclusively on pay-per-view. In one corner, the defending champions: Moses and Aaron of the tribe of Levi – God’s chosen leaders for the Jewish nation. In the other corner, their most formidable challenger yet: their first cousin Korach, the fan favorite among the likes of Dathan and Abiram, rallying from the tribe of Reuben.

It’s a match concocted in testosterone alley: mano a mano – or perhaps macho a macho, since nary a woman is seen in this entire episode.

Korach is incensed that, of all the tribe of Levi, only Aaron and his sons are awarded the high priesthood. Dathan and Abiram question Moses’s leadership capabilities, though they offer none of their own.

The two sets of grievances combine on the main stage as they publicly challenge Moses and Aaron: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy – all of them! – and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”[1]

In a show of strength clothed in humility, Moses falls on his face at hearing this challenge but warns them: “Come morning, God will make known who is God’s and who is holy.”[2] He challenges them on Aaron’s terms: with competing fire pans and incense laid on the altar, to see whose offering God will choose.

The next morning, Korach gathers the crowds – in fact, the Torah says he gathers “Kol ha-eidah” – the entire community – at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The presence of God appears, but God speaks only to Moses and Aaron, warning them to step away from Korach and his band, and for all the Israelites to do the same.

The ground under the leaders of the rebellion bursts open,

“and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. . . and a fire went forth from God and consumed the two hundred and fifty representatives offering the incense.”[3]

That would totally have been worth the $49.95 on pay-per-view.

But apparently the people didn’t like that the fight ended in the first round. The next day the whole community rose up again against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of bringing death to God’s people. So God sent a plague to wipe out the complainers: 14,700 died before Aaron checked the plague.

Afterward, God reaffirmed the selection of Aaron and his sons as the High Priests and the rest of the Levite men as their assistants at the Tent of Meeting: “To be attached to you and to minister to you, while you and your sons under your charge are before the Tent of the Pact.”[4]

God bestows Aaron and his sons with a priesthood called “avodat matanah,” a service of dedication. And God declares anyone else who encroaches on that holy space will be put to death.

Now that ought to do it.

I thought it was important to emphasize the purely masculine aspect of this fierce and public battle for control of the Israelite nation – for a couple of reasons. First, although women do play important roles in our ancient stories, they’re absent here. It’s like the wives and daughters said: Hey, you guys work this out among yourselves. We’re staying out of it – it’s not our fight.

The second reason I wanted to share this perspective on Korach’s rebellion was that I had the honor this week of being part of the event committee for a very important virtual conference by the Women’s Rabbinic Network. We called this convention “Journey to 50,” as we kick off a year of celebration leading to next spring’s 50th anniversary of the ground-breaking ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand.

Sally was at the heart of our celebration. But our conference was about a lot more than that. It was a celebration of every woman who has command of a bimah or a religious school or a social justice organization. It was a celebration of the way women’s voices and demands have changed the face of the rabbinate – and indeed the Jewish world. It was a celebration of women all over the world whose stories we were hearing for the first time.

Months ago, when we first talked about the idea of my emceeing panels of women ordained in each decade, I thought it was really important to select colleagues who aren’t famous – who aren’t published authors or senior rabbis in huge congregations. Who aren’t the go-to people for newspapers or magazines or television shows. A number of the colleagues we invited were surprised to be asked: they said they didn’t think their stories were unique or important enough.

But as we convened one panel after another, representing one generation and then the next, they opened up. They shared with their whole hearts in ways they never expected to, and told stories they’d never shared publicly with anyone. Stories of struggle and insecurity. Stories of triumph and jubilation. Stories of just trying to uplift people’s spirits and sustaining their faith — changing lives for the better, one person at a time in one community at a time.

Story-telling – and active listening – were important this week for another reason. If you read Jewish news sites, you might have seen that there is a whole new wave of #MeToo stories breaking out throughout the institutions of American Reform Judaism – involving friends and colleagues and teachers and institutional leaders. This week, we welcomed all the voices and the stories that needed to be told, however difficult they might be to hear, in a safe and open space. In seminars, in text-study sessions, in small group conversations, and even in the chat box.

It was an important reminder to each of us that we need to speak softly and sensitively. That we must listen and ask questions rather than make assumptions or accusations, without having all the facts at hand.

I wonder what would have happened if Korach and Datham and Abiram and their followers had approached Moses and Aaron with that attitude, rather than trying to shame them or throw ignorant, self-serving accusations at them in public. Maybe their wives and daughters would have encouraged collaboration rather than confrontation. Maybe God wouldn’t have gotten so angry as to open the earth and spread a plague. Maybe at least some of those 14-thousand people would have lived.

In next week’s Torah portion, Miriam dies – and there is no formal mourning period in the camp for her, as there will be for Aaron and Moses.

Yet the Israelites will reel in the profound loss they feel — so much so that, according to the text, the community is said to be left without water. Without basic life-sustaining nourishment. It is a reminder of how much the talent, the commitment, and the nurturing character of women contribute to Jewish community – often without recognition.

You know, for years after ordination, I kind of dismissed the Women’s Rabbinic Network as something I didn’t need. After all, I’d always worked in male-dominated careers – and I managed to acquit myself pretty well.

But the first time I went to a women’s rabbinic convention, I realized that I get something there that I get nowhere else. Everything we do together is meant to lift each other up and embrace each other, or receive an embrace and be lifted up, as we need it. We share and we listen. We socialize and do things just for fun.

After any other professional conference, I might leave with some new texts to teach or new technology to bring back. This week, I bring back joy and pride and hope and love.

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

####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Numbers 16:3.

[2] Numbers 16:5

[3] Num. 16:32-35.

[4] Num. 18:2.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“The Mind of a Grasshopper” Shabbat Shelach, Friday, June 4, 2021

Sat, 2021-06-05 10:18

Tonight, I want you to imagine that you are the Biblical figure of Shammua ben Zaccur. What, you never heard of him? Okay, so he’s not the most memorable of characters from our ancient stories. But Shammua ben Zaccur, of the tribe of Reuben, is the first of the twelve men selected by Moses to act as an advance party and scout out the Land of Canaan. As we begin this week’s Torah portion, Shammua ben Zaccur and eleven others – each a leader of one of the twelve tribes – are sent off by Moses, as the rest of the Israelites wait for their report on the east bank of the Jordan River.

“Shelach lecha!” – God tells Moses. Go ahead, send them off. Or, maybe, send for yourself, for your own peace of mind. I (God) already know what’s there. I already told you what’s there. But if you need to, fine, make your choices and send them out.

The fact that God may be insinuating a lack of trust or faith on the part of even Moses may give us a hint as to how the rest of this story will go. Joshua son of Nun from the tribe of Ephraim, and Caleb son of Yephunneh of the tribe of Judah, will both return with vivid descriptions of a beautiful land, flowing with milk and honey, verdant and productive and ready for the Israelites’ arrival.[1]

Shammua ben Zaccur and nine other tribal leaders will come back with a slightly darker perspective. “The people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and large,” they report.

“All the people that we saw are men of great size. We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”[2]

Well, that’s all it takes for the Israelites to fall into howling and weeping and lamenting their fate. “Why is God taking us that land to fall by the sword,” the people cry out. “How much better it would be if we go back to Egypt!”[3]

An angered God chastises them, calling them “wicked” and threatening to strike them all down for their faithlessness. Only Moses’ plea on their behalf saves them from death.

This scene from our Torah portion is often used to explain why Joshua and Caleb inherit the mantle of leadership from Moses, and why we never hear from the likes of Shammua ben Zaccur again.

So tonight, I want you to image that you are the Biblical figure of Shammua ben Zaccur. What would you have said and done in his place?

Shammua, like the other nine tribal leaders with whom he agreed, is chosen by Moses for what is, for all they know, a suicide mission. They know nothing about the so-called Promised Land on the other side of the Jordan River. And what they see is only a small area on the west bank. “It does indeed flow with milk and honey,”[4] they report back, as they share the fruit of the land with their fellow Israelites.

But…for them, the benefits of nature seem to be far outweighed by the challenge of humanity. Are they just supposed to show up — hundreds of thousands of men, women and children – and think they’ll be welcomed? Or that they can somehow displace the powerful peoples who already live there?

Sure, God gave them some successes on their trek through the nations to the east. But they know that God is setting them up to handle things for themselves when they cross that river.

For Shammua ben Zaccur, the future of his family, his clan, and his tribe are at stake. The same goes for all the rest of his band of brothers. Are they willing to risk their lives and their futures?

For some, the answer is simply: No. Shammua’s own people, the tribe of Reuben, vote to stay on the land to the east, which they already know is good for grazing their livestock. And the tribe of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh stay with them.

The men agree to cross over to the west and fight, if necessary, to help the other nine and a half tribes settle in. But their families and households stay behind, where they’ll be safe.

Here’s the thing about Shammua ben Zaccur. And Igal son of Joseph from the tribe of Issachar. And Palti son of Rafu from the tribe of Benjamin – and all the rest. They have spent their entire lives walking, day by day, into the unknown.

They’re tired. They’re perpetually afraid. They have known only isolation from anything that resembles normalcy. They are ready to settle down on their little plot of land, raise their children and earn their living — like the free human beings they are supposed to be.

Encountering the native peoples of Cana’an – their numbers, their wealth, their fortifications, even their physical size – is more than they can bear after forty exhausting years.

The Jewish tradition does not treat the ten spies kindly and never has. Nachmanides, writing in 13th-century Spain, says that, when Caleb and Joshua try to encourage the Israelites, the other ten start making stuff up – giants and grasshoppers – to keep the people in fear.[5] Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, in 19th Poland, teaches that, while the spies may have told the people exactly what they saw, that was not the whole truth. “Truth and faith go hand in hand,” he wrote. “They preferred their limited and deceptive vision to God’s promise, which is the absolute truth – and that was their great sin.”[6]

I don’t think they sinned. I think they were just scared. And so of course they thought of themselves as grasshoppers compared to what they saw around them.

Fear and fatigue sometimes get the best of us – any of us. Tribal leaders who are supposed to be brave and strong, even after forty years on their feet isolated in the wilderness. And the rest of us, who are supposed to be able to handle life with aplomb, after fifteen months of isolation that have interrupted and permanently changed our daily routines, our relationships, and everything else in our lives.

Shelach, lecha! – we tell ourselves. Get out there! The mandates have been lifted. Shops and restaurants and ballparks are opening up. And Temple sanctuaries. Get out there! Start living again!

It’s what we want, right? What we’ve wanted all along.

And yet we pause. Fatigue, isolation, and all the rest have taken their toll. We want to be the people we thought we were – but we’ve kind of forgotten how. Our timing is off. Our memory is fuzzy. Even our driving skills are a little rusty.

The pandemic has made us feel a little bit small – like those grasshoppers, those little pesky insects that could easily be devoured or stepped on – intimidated by everything around them that is bigger and stronger and more powerful.

But there happens to be a lot about grasshoppers that our Israelite ancestors did not know.

For instance:

Did you know that grasshoppers have been around for about 250 million years? Those big, strong dinosaurs have come and gone, but the grasshoppers are still here.

Did you know that grasshoppers are actually really strong for their size? They’re hind legs are so powerful that they can leap away from danger.

Did you know that grasshoppers protect themselves from predators with natural camouflage? That some can change not only their color but also their behavior? Did you know that they can protect each other by forming swarms and just decimating any plant life around them?

That actually happened just two years ago: a huge grasshopper invasion in Las Vegas. There were as many as 46 million of them on any given night, drawn by an abundance of vegetation due to unusually wet weather, and the bright neon lights of the Vegas Strip. Some experts say that’s not a once-in-a-lifetime event. The right natural conditions and the right human conditions could cause it again.[7]

So let’s not sell ourselves short, like our ancestors did at the banks of the Jordan River so long ago. Beyond the individual strength we each possess, there’s also power in numbers. Whether it’s parents helping parents get their children through the end of this school year; or remote workers using new technology to the fullest to collaborate with their peers; or members of our congregational family checking up on each other and offering time and attention and an occasional homecooked meal – we grasshoppers can get a whole lot accomplished.

Are we afraid? Of course we are. We could sell ourselves short, like Shammua ben Zaccur and his mates did. Or we can acknowledge our fear and face it down, like Joshua and Caleb – overcoming tall obstacles and embracing life once again. Like the small but mighty grasshopper, we can prevail. And, like them, we will be most successful by doing it together.

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

######

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Num. 14:6-8

[2] Num. 13:32-33

[3]  Num. 14:2-3

[4] Num. 13:27

[5] Michael Carasik, The Commentators’ Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Numbers (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011), p. 97.

[6] Torah Gems Volume III, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House Ltd., 1992), p. 64.

[7] https://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2021/05/28/cdr-remember-the-invasion-of-grasshoppers-now-theres-an-explanation/#.YLUmJahKiUk

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Shabbat Bamidbar: Into the Wilderness, and Out Again. Friday, May 14, 2021

Mon, 2021-05-17 17:18

So.. for the first time in fifteen months, I am speaking to you from the bimah of Temple Beth Israel’s sanctuary, where you will join me and Earla and Dorothy next week.

Some of you have been attending Shabbat worship regularly on Zoom, but some have not. And I know what is foremost on your mind. What burning question you have to ask. What you can wait no longer to know.

Rabbi, what in the world happened to your hair?

I know, right? Covid Hair. The direct result of not having a haircut for six months. At which point I just said: cut it all off, and let’s see what we’ve got. And this is what I’ve got. The real deal. In all its gray glory.

Like the torn black ribbon we wear during shiva, Covid Hair is just one outward manifestation of what’s been going on inside of us for these long months. So are the sweatpants. And the few additional pounds from lack of exercise. These are the physical markers of what we’ve been through emotionally. The sadness and loneliness. The longing for a hug. A drink with friends. A Shabbat shared together – really together.

With many of us now fully vaccinated – as we all should be, if we can – we are finally making plans to reunite next week here in the sanctuary, albeit with masks and social distancing and no pads on the pews and no oneg, at least for now. Step by step, we will be moving out of the long, lonely darkness of this devastating and deadly pandemic, into the light of community.

So how appropriate that, on this Shabbat of transition, we begin the reading of the Book of Numbers – or, in Hebrew, Bamidbar: In the wilderness.

In parallel to the journey we have made in the past 15 months, Sefer Bamidbar takes the story of our ancestors from “the first day of the second month, in the second year following the Exodus from the land of Egypt,” through forty years of wilderness wanderings, to the edge of the Promised Land, “on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.”

The people will witness God’s power and test God’s patience. They will pine for the familiar and fear for the future. They will take their places in the Israelite camp – each tribe, each clan, each family, with a job for now, and a place in the Promised Land in the future. They will learn God’s reward for promises kept, and divine punishment for promises broken. They will create – with God’s guidance – the rituals that will organize their daily lives, and the laws that will guide their communal behavior.

They will try God’s patience with their complaints, born of fear and fatigue. They will be blessed by Moses and by the priests, Aaron and his sons, for a life of wellness and peace.

All of this sounds familiar to us, as we have moved through this wilderness of the past 15 months. Leaving behind the familiar and fearing for what will happen the next day, and the next. Getting frustrated and angry with the pace of progress – and sometimes paying the price for ignoring the warnings to be patient.

But just as our ancestors eventually learned to put the welfare of the community over their own personal desires, so have we. We, like the Israelites, have learned to cope. And we have grown wiser and kinder as a result of living ba-midbar.

The rabbis teach that the Torah was given in fire, in water, and in the desert. Each signifies a different kind of sacrifice.

“Given in fire” – this comes from a folk tale that Abraham was willing to jump into a fiery furnace rather than renounce his faith. This was the great faith of an individual.

“Given in water” – this is the story of Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped into the Sea of Reeds even before it parted, with all the Israelites behind him. This was the great sacrifice of the entire people.

“Given in the desert” — this was ongoing sacrifice, which lasted for forty long years.[1]

We have seen all of these types of sacrifices made in every community throughout our country in the past fifteen months:

  • The individuals who jumped into the fire – who placed everyone else’s welfare above their own health and safety: front-line medical professionals, first-responders, school custodians, grocery store clerks.
  • The whole communities who waded into unknown, waters: teachers, parents, food-bank workers, social workers.
  • Americans of every age, who have patiently donned masks and washed their hands, kept their distance, and got vaccinated as soon as they were able — aching to hug their loved ones, get on an airplane, have dinner with friends. And now, finally, having their prayers answered because they acted immediately and kindly and responsibly.

All of these sacrifices have made 15 months seem like forty years, haven’t they? But here we are – at least me and Earla and a couple of other people working on the transition this weekend – so that all of us can say “here we are” next Friday night.

We will ask for your continued patience as this process unfolds. Masking and distancing in the sanctuary – and yes, getting your vacccines as soon as you are able. We have been, like our ancestors at the beginning of Sefer BaMidbar, starting out on a journey full of fear and worry and faith. We are, like our ancestors at the end of Sefer BaMidbar, at the bank of the Jordan River, eager to cross over, but not yet in the Promised Land.

And we know, like our ancestors once they did ford the river, that the journey to true freedom requires constant vigilance, and responsible behavior. If they can do it, so can we.

You know, the first thing that happens in Sefer BaMidbar is that God calls on Moses to take a census of the people – well, at least of the men. But it wasn’t just the numbers that God was looking for. Moses and Aaron were to go from clan to clan, b’mispar sheimot, recording every single name.

We have recorded so many numbers over 15 months – those who have died, those who are hospitalized, those who have recovered, those who have received vaccines. But we must remember every count is about people. As our tradition says of the Jews in the census, “each is important in himself. Each must accordingly feel the great responsibility he has for all his actions, for every action of his can improve the condition of the world.”[2]

This is our mission and our responsibility. Each and every one of us has the power to help and to heal – both ourselves and one another. We have learned during this pandemic just how important it is, that we be able to rely on each other. Out of tragedy, this is our gift. A gift we must treasure and share, as we move out of the darkness of the wilderness toward the light.

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

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Torah Gems Volume III, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg and translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House Ltd., 1992), p. 7. Quotation from Bamidbar Rabbah 1.

[2] From the source known as “Shaloh” in Torah Gems, p. 8.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

The Value of Rituals – Shabbat Ahare Mot / Kedoshim Friday April 23, 2021

Sat, 2021-04-24 12:36

Solemnity. Silence. Grace. As I watched the funeral of Prince Philip last Saturday, these were the words that came to mind, as the 99-year-old consort of Queen Elizabeth was remembered and then laid to rest on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

For me, though, the overwhelming feeling was sadness, seeing the Queen sitting all alone at the end of the pew in St. George’s Chapel, distanced by what seemed miles from anyone else in her family. We were told that it was because of COVID restrictions – that she and her husband had been in a safety bubble alone, with just a few aides. Still, that aloneness seemed to multiply the sadness of the queen losing her husband, her support, her comfort of 73 years.

But in focusing on the details – the faces, the spaces — I had missed something really important. As Washington Post’s senior culture critic, Robin Givahn wrote afterwards, the royal funeral was a reminder of the value of rituals.

What Givahn was absorbing was the spectacle in its wholeness and fullness. The sound of the pallbearers’ footsteps on the gravel. “A distinct, rhythmic crunch,” she wrote, “of eight men moving in perfect unison across the unruly gray stones. It was a small thing – one of countless small acts, tiny gestures and solitary moments that added up to a display of the humanizing and forgiving power of rituals.”[1]

Prince Philip, like everyone else in the royal family, was a complicated man who left a complicated legacy. He was part of a family of immense wealth and privilege whose members sometimes wear that responsibility gracefully and often do not. Philip himself could be incredibly insensitive or politically incorrect in public comments. The portrayals of him in numerous films and TV shows – most recently on “The Crown” – attempt to show his flaws and humanity in the stateliness of a proud man bound to his duty through his wife.

But the funeral itself seemed to – at least temporarily – erase any negative thoughts people had about Philip. Thousands of people flocked to the town of Windsor to pay their respects despite the fact they couldn’t get anywhere near the funeral or even the procession. Millions of others – like me – watched on television, live or on highlights later on. Most of us are not monarchists – some were watching more out of curiosity as to whether Philip’s grandsons William and Harry would behave themselves – and yet there’s something about these rituals that we find immensely compelling.

Robin Givahn had, I think, a good explanation for that. “Rituals,” she wrote, “simplify the complex.”

I think they rather neatly encapsulate for us all of our emotions and experiences and wishes and dreams – allowing us to cope with loss, for example, by allowing us to show our grief and sadness in a very public way we might otherwise avoid. Hence the scene of Queen Elizabeth, a most private person, allowing herself to be shown on camera to the world all alone at the end of the church pew.

Jewish rituals – including mourning rituals – serve the same function. The tearing of the k’riah ribbon as an outward manifestation of the tear within us, and a sign that we are someone to be cared for by others. The week of shiva, when we allow ourselves time for ourselves. The year of mourning, remembering our loved ones through kaddish one Shabbat after another. The dedication of a memorial marker after the end of the year, as we return to that sacred space at the cemetery, to recognize just how far we have come — from the immediacy of loss to the warmth of remembrance.

Reading this week’s Torah portion, I wondered how Aaron ever coped.

Remember that he had lost his two oldest sons in the episode of “eish zarah,” alien fire – when God not only rejected the unwelcome offerings they attempted to make but also consumed them in the fire itself. They died a wretched death, as Moses told Aaron essentially that this was God’s will. Vayidom Aharon – “and Aaron was silent.”

The bodies were borne out of the camp. Moses ordered Aaron and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Itamar, not to tear their clothes or bare their heads – the two signs of outward mourning. They were not to leave their posts inside the Tent of Meeting. They were to get back to work immediately.

But then there’s the beginning of this week’s Torah portion.

Aaron is commanded to make special sin offerings at the altar on behalf of himself and his family, to purge the taint of his sons’ transgressions. And then he is told to do the same on behalf of the entire Israelite nation.

Aaron purges the Tent of Meeting, sends a goat into the wilderness carrying the sins of the people away, and then purifies himself, bathing in the Tabernacle and putting on clean vestments.

I’ve always looked at this as so cruel of God. But reading these verses now, I wonder if I was wrong about that.

The text itself says that these rituals took place ahare mot – after the death of Aaron’s sons. But how soon after? It seems to be a continuation of the narrative. But Aaron’s sons died six chapters ago. Our whole long double portion last week about leprosy and isolation and healing and reunion – all that was a huge pause in the narrative. And maybe that was intentional.

I wonder if the rituals described this week are actually meant as a kindness to Aaron, who had remained so stoically obedient and silent in the face of the death of his precious sons. Maybe this was commanded by God to allow Aaron to mourn through the blood and the fire and the water – the public rituals that gave his life meaning in the first place. Without allowing for sympathy for the sinfulness of the boys, maybe it was a way for God to allow the people to publicly sympathize with the grief-stricken father.

As Robin Givahn wrote of Philip’s funeral, “[it] was a reminder of what these rituals can do. They don’t erase the flaws in the deceased but they afford the public an opportunity to make peace with them. They’re about endings, but also renewal. During a time of emotional upheaval, they’re guardrails to keep people from tumbling over.”

All of our Jewish rituals are really designed to do that. Including the one in which we are all participating right now. The making of Shabbat – turning Friday night to Saturday night into holy time in holy space – is the quintessential Jewish ritual. We take a few deep breaths, smile at the faces of the people we are so glad to see after a week of continual stress, and share songs and prayers and Torah. And the support of one another.

Like the pallbearers at Philip’s funeral, Shabbat allows us to be borne aloft in each other’s embrace, safe in the knowledge that we carry each other along, no matter what we’ve been through this past week.

This comfort in simple ritual is all the more important as our lives have been upended for more than a year now. When we, like the Queen, have been forced to live in bubbles, distanced from those we love and those whose company brings us joy. Thanks to science and medicine and public policy and individual commitment, we are close to coming out of our isolation.

And in a few weeks, we will be sharing sacred space for real rather than virtually, for the first time in fourteen months. We need it. We deserve it. And the rituals we will share will help mark this transition back to some semblance of normalcy with joy and thanksgiving.

In time of great uncertainty, rituals help us organize our thoughts and feelings. They reassure us that we can endure and triumph. They create a solid surface – a kind of sacred ground — for us to walk on, as our paths bring us back together.

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

######

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/04/17/royal-funeral-was-reminder-value-rituals/

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Peace: The Ultimate Offering. Shabbat Tzav & Erev Pesach – Friday, March 26, 2021

Sat, 2021-03-27 11:35

So, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been asking you to eliminate from your thoughts a lot of what’s in the Torah readings, to focus on what I’ve suggested might be the most important messages for us today. Two weeks ago, when we concluded this year’s reading of the Book of Exodus with a double portion just stuffed with details about the creation of the Tabernacle, I asked you to look away from that and focus on the Torah’s message at the very beginning and the end of the double portion: That Moses brought the people together for Shabbat before they went about their individual chores, and that they were brought together afterward, reunified for the bigger task that awaited them as they headed into the wilderness.

Last week, I asked you to try and ignore all the details of the priests: the fine garments, their elevated status among the Israelites – and focus on the lowly mincha, the offering of a bit of flour that so many Israelites brought. It was a reminder, I believe, that God treats everyone equally regardless of their social or economic status.

This week, as we read extensively about the preparations for the ordination of the priests and the details of how they are to perform their cultic tasks, I’m focusing again on one specific thing. One little detail in the way the Torah presents this story.

That detail is the order of the sacrifices that are described here:

“The burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being.” (Lev. 7:37)

It seems like first we have daily offerings, then offerings brought to purge transgression, and then the offering made on the day the priests were sanctified.

It would make more sense to wrap up with that one, with the special offering for the priests, since that’s exactly what’s happening here in our text. And yet it’s the zevach sh-lamim, the sacrifice of well-being, that is saved for last.

I think because that one is most important.

It is not lost on the sages that the word sh’lamin, wholeness or well-being, is a derivative of the word shalom, peace.

Here is the teaching of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a Chassidic master of 18th and 19th century Poland, as the Etz Chayim Torah Commentary describes it:

“Zot ha-Torah, the text begins, This is the Torah, and then renders the offerings by their root meanings: The Torah leads some people to olah (rising higher) and mincha (generosity), but leads other people to chatat and asham (feelings of guilt).

“The summary list concludes with sh’lamim, even as so many Jewish prayers, including the Amidah, the priestly benediction, and the Kaddish, conclude with shalom, ‘peace,’ the ultimate blessing.”[1]

Peace, the ultimate blessing.

In the Amidah: Praised are You, O God, who blesses Your people Israel with peace.

In the Priestly blessing: May God’s face shine upon you and grant you peace.

In the Kaddish: May the one who makes peace to reign in the high heavens bring peace upon us here on earth.

The ultimate blessing saved for the very end of our most powerful moments of prayer. Moments of loss and grief. Moments of celebration and hope. Moments of unity, when – like our ancestors as they completed their work on the Tabernacle – we gather together however we are able, to hold each other up. To bless one another with peace.

Saturday night, we begin our second Passover unable to celebrate together. Some who have been vaccinated might finally be with their children and grandchildren. Maybe that beautiful reunion is what the prophet Isaiah imagined in promising redemption to the people: “All your children shall be taught of God. And great shall be the peace of your children.” (Isa. 54:13)

But as a congregation, we’ll have to wait yet another year for the warmth and laughter, the hugs and the shared cups of wine.

So as we give each other virtual hugs and long-distance wishes for a happy and beautiful Pesach, we remember that, at the end of our journey through this wilderness – this journey of loss and fear and isolation – at the end of it is shlamim, wholeness, and shalom, peace.

And that is worth everything we must endure to see the journey to its end. As the old civil rights song taught us: Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.

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

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Eitz Hayim Torah and Commentary (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), pp. 621-622.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

A Cosmic Call – Shabbat Vayikra Friday, March 19, 2021

Sat, 2021-03-20 13:59

It looks for all the world like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie: A team of antiquities experts and archaeologists rappelling down a harsh and unyielding desert mountainside, over cliffs, down gorges and into ancient caves – with names such as the “Cave of Horrors” — in search of the treasures of the ancient world.

For four years, this team from the Israeli Antiquities Authority searched more than 500 caves of the Judean Desert south of Jerusalem, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found 70 years ago. They were armed, not with knives or pistols like in the movies, but with metal detectors and drones, seeking out tiny artifacts that would teach them more about Israel’s past.

This week, we learned of their remarkable success:

Dozens of fragments of Biblical texts, which may have been secreted away in the caves during the failed Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans in the second century.

Coins minted by those Bar Kochba rebels to declare their independence from Rome.

Also uncovered: the six-thousand year old mummified skeleton of a child, and an intact basket that is more than ten thousand years old and may be the oldest in the world.[1]

But it’s the Biblical scroll fragments that most fascinated me. All of them date from about the first century, and they are in Greek. Pieced together with care and delicacy, they were found to include portions of the twelve books of the Minor prophets.

What’s crucial about them, according to researcher Oren Ableman, is that they contain textual variants that have never been found in any other manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. Joe Uziel, who heads the Dead Sea Scrolls Unit for the Israel Antiquities Authority, said this gives us a better understanding about how our Bible as we know it came to be:

“When we think about the biblical text,” Uziel said, “we think about something very static. It wasn’t static. There are slight differences and some of those differences are important.”[2]

Some of the new fragments contain verses from the prophet Nahum. Others come from the exilic prophet Zecharia, who wrote after the destruction of the first Temple in the sixth century before the Common Era.

Here is part of the Zecharia text that the team was able to piece together, as they shared it in English:

“These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates. And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate – declares the Lord.”[3]

For researcher Oren Ableman, these specific verses lay out clearly the concept of equal justice for all that, in his words, “are read by people and are meaningful to people to this very day.”[4]

To which I would say: Amen.

Finding any of these scraps of text is a miracle. But finding these particular verses makes this a find of cosmic importance. And I do not think it is coincidental that these words from Zecharia have reached across 25-hundred years of Jewish history to speak to us on this very Shabbat.

The truth is that God’s demand for equal justice for all people is proclaimed time and again in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. But it is not exclusive to the prophets.

In fact, it goes to the heart of the Book of Leviticus – in Hebrew, Sefer Vayikra – which we begin reading tonight.

It’s all too easy to miss the message. After all, the focus is on the priests – who hold an exalted position in ancient Israelite society.

The vivid, detailed descriptions of how the animals are slaughtered, cut up, and burned are fascinating for some people and horrifying for others. And the whole exercise has been anachronistic for two thousand years.

And yet, just in the first few verses of Leviticus, we glean something much more important. Not all the offerings are cattle or sheep or goats, which are a precious commodity. Some people come offering pigeons and turtledoves. And others bring a handful of flour, which is mixed with oil and essentially baked into griddle cakes.

This meal offering, which in Hebrew is called mincha, is of particular interest to the rabbis, who searched for meaning in every word of Scripture.

Chapter two – in the middle of this week’s parashah — begins with the words

וְנֶפֶשׁ כִּי־תַקְרִיב קָרְבַּן מִנְחָה לַיהוָֹה

We would usually translate this as “When a person presents an offering of meal to the Eternal . . .”

But the Midrash sees something deeper. Here, the rabbis point out that the first word, “nefesh,” is unique to the meal offering. It appears in connection with none of these other voluntary offerings like cattle or goats or even birds. “Nefesh” isn’t a person but a soul, or – more literally – a life. And so they teach:

“A voluntary mincha is likely to be the gift of a poor person who could not afford anything else; all the more must we value it aright. Once, a priest expressed contempt for the handful of flour a woman brought to the Temple, saying, ‘See what she offers! What is there in this to eat? What is there in this to offer up?’ But then God rebuked the priest in a dream: Nefesh – God reminded him. ‘She offered her very soul.’”[5]

This same Midrash makes it clear that God not only values equally whatever offering people are able to bring – but that even the most rich and powerful man in the land does not get special treatment from heaven.

“King Agrippa[6] – who reigned over Israel in the early first century — once wished to offer up a thousand burnt offerings in one day. He sent word to the High Priest: ‘Let no man other than myself offer sacrifices today!’ But there came a poor man with two turtle-doves in his hand, and he said to the High Priest: ‘Sacrifice these!’ The High Priest responded: “I cannot. It is the king’s command.’

“The poor man was beside himself. He pleaded with the High Priest, saying: ‘My lord High Priest, I catch four [doves] every day; two I offer up, and with the other two I sustain myself. If you do not offer them up, you cut off my means of sustenance!’ In other words, every single day, he offered to God no less than he kept for himself. He was sure that God was, in turn, rewarding him for his most generous gift by making sure that he always caught enough. His family, he was sure, would starve if he wasn’t able to make his daily offering at the altar.

“So the priest took them and offered them up.

“That night, King Agrippa had a dream in which he was told: ‘The sacrifice of a poor man preceded yours.’ The king was furious. He strode up to the High Priest and chastised him, saying: ‘Did I not command you thus: Let no one but me offer sacrifices this day?’ The High Priest replied: ‘Your Majesty, a poor man came with two turtle-doves in his hand, and he said to me: I catch four birds every day; I sacrifice two, and from the other two I support myself. If you will not offer them up you will cut off my means of sustenance. Should I not have offered them up?’

“The king was chastised for his arrogance. He told the High Priest: You did the right thing.”[7]

If we look at these opening chapters of the Book of Leviticus through the eyes of the rabbis, we see that they are really not about the trappings of the priesthood. They are about the equal opportunity to please God that the altar offers every single person.

Whether they can afford a bull, or turtledove, or a handful of flour – the what’s important is that they give what they can. All of these, according to the Torah, give off a ray-ach ni-cho-ach L’Adonai — “a pleasing odor” to God. And it is the simple meal offering shared with the priest that is declared to be “kodesh kodoshim” – a most holy offering to God.

As the Sefat Emet – the great sage of 19th-century Warsaw – explained: when the opening of Leviticus says, “When an individual brings an offering to God” – what it really means is “every person must bring of himself” to God.[8]  What’s important is not the value of the gift in dollars or shekels. What’s important is the open heart that compels us to give.

This, too, I think, is a discovery of cosmic importance. It speaks to us of the same eternal value of equal justice for all that inspired archaeologist Oren Ableman as he pieced together the words of the prophet Zecharia from those tiny, ancient fragments.

This incredible discovery, in a dusty cave in a forsaken desert half a world away, comes to us at a most crucial moment in our history. A moment when so many of our communities are beset by fear, and baseless hatred, and suspicion of the “other.” A moment when justice and fairness and kindness and compassion must prevail.

A moment when we must bring – and give – of ourselves, and challenge others to do the same. A moment that those who come after us must be able to look back on with pride, just as we do with these fragmentary reminders of the gifts we have inherited over the generations.

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

####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.timesofisrael.com/dead-sea-scroll-discovery-brings-tantalizing-prospect-of-more-yet-to-be-found/

Accessed March 17, 2021.

[2] https://apnews.com/article/new-dead-sea-scrolls-israel-19844d3eb208190914182e78d9d79aac#:~:text=JERUSALEM%20(AP)%20%E2%80%94%20Israeli%20archaeologists,Rome%20nearly%201%2C900%20years%20ago. Accessed March 17, 2021.

[3] Zech. 8:16-17

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/16/world/middleeast/dead-sea-scrolls-israel.html. Accessed March 17, 2021.

[5] Leviticus Rabbah 3:5. See Gleanings on Parashat Vayikra in Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005), p. 680.

[6] @10 BCE-44 CE.

[7] Davka Corporation Judaic Classics version 3.3. ©1991-2009  Institute for Computers in Jewish Life.

[8] Torah Gems Volume II: Shemot, Vayikra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 243.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“Your People ARE My People” – Shabbat Ki Tisa, Friday, March 5, 2021

Sat, 2021-03-06 11:45

 “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Eternal do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

These are the immensely powerful words of Ruth, the Moabite woman widowed after the tragic death of her Israelite husband. All alone in the world, she seeks out her mother-in-law Naomi and pledges her undying and everlasting commitment to be a member of the Jewish nation.

Back in the patriarchal narratives of the Book of Genesis, it was presumed a woman, when she married, became part and parcel of her husband’s household. But that wasn’t enough for Ruth. She didn’t want to be regarded for who or what her husband had been. She wanted to declare her own intention – what was in her heart and her mind.  And her intention was to live as a Jew. To become a Jew in her own right.

Jewish tradition welcomes Ruth as a Jew and uses her as the example of how to become a Jew. And she is so beloved by the rabbinic tradition that King David himself is said to be descended from her. And he’s about as Jewish as you can get.

Ruth’s years living in a Jewish household, her vow to Naomi, and Naomi’s warm acceptance of Ruth, form the foundation for how we, even today, accept candidates for conversion to Judaism.

Except when we don’t.

A ruling of the High Court of Israel this week righted a terrible wrong in the matter of deciding who is a Jew in the Jewish homeland itself. The court affirmed that Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism performed in the State Israel are valid for the purposes of the Law of Return.

Here’s how the New York Times explained it:

“Israel’s “Law of Return” gives foreign-born Jews, or anyone with a Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse, the automatic right to claim Israeli citizenship. Those who convert to non-Orthodox Judaism in another country have been able to gain Israeli citizenship for decades.

“But on Monday, the Israeli Supreme Court struck a symbolic blow for a more pluralistic vision of Jewish identity: It granted the right to automatic citizenship to foreigners who convert within the state of Israel to Conservative, also known as Masorti, or Reform Judaism.”[1]

In other words, these Jews must automatically and immediately be accepted as citizens of the State of Israel because there is no doubt as to their status as Jews.

This has been a hard-fought battle over 15 years of lawsuits by the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. They were up against decades of Orthodox control over matters of personal status. In fact, ever since the founding of Israel, the civil government has largely deferred to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, which rejects the very notion that more liberal forms of Judaism are even really Jewish.

For 15 years, the High Court has delayed and delayed and delayed this decision, hoping that the Israeli political leadership would come up with a solution, an agreement that everybody could buy into.

When that clearly wasn’t going to happen, the Justices decided it wasn’t right to make these people wait any longer. With this 8 to 1 ruling, these people – converted by Reform and Conservative authorities in Israel — can now be welcomed immediately as Israeli citizens.

This is a great moment for religious pluralism in Israel, and for recognizing the diversity of the Jewish nation. As Judge Esther Hayut, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court stated in the ruling:

“The purpose of the Law of Return is to encourage any Jew – whether they were born as Jews or chose to become part of the Jewish people through conversion – to make Aliyah (to immigrate) to Israel.”[2]

The response of the ultra-Orthodox establishment has been predictable – and predictably ugly — with just three weeks to go before new national elections. One television ad produced by the United Torah Judaism political party depicted Reform Jews literally as dogs.[3]

Another ad, produced by the Shas political party, was particularly disgusting in its racism. It showed a picture of three Black men, with the tag line:

“Jews branded kosher by the High Court. Danger! Thousands of infiltrators and foreign workers will become Jews through Reform conversion. Only Shas will preserve a Jewish state.”[4]

The fact of the matter is that the worldwide Jewish community is incredibly diverse – and growing more so. And we are enriched by that diversity in background, culture, race, and language.

In the words of Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who is the head of the Reform movement in Israel and a Knesset candidate with the liberal Labor party in the upcoming elections:

“If the state of Israel claims to be the nation-state of the Jewish world, then the state of Israel must recognize all the denominations of Judaism and imbue them with equality and respect.”[5]

And that is exactly the way that our tradition and Jewish law teach that we should welcome each and every person who converts to Judaism. In the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 47b), the rabbis proclaim that once a convert undergoes the ritual immersion in the mikveh,

הרי הוא כישראל לכל דבריו, “then he is an Israelite in all respects.”

In fact, Jewish law declares that not only is that person fully Jewish now, but they were all along. The rabbis of the Talmud (Shevuot 39a) note that Moses, in his farewell address (Deut. 19:14) declares that the covenant with God is valid with “all who stand here with us this day.” But then the rabbis ask:

“How do I know that the subsequent generations, and the converts who will convert in the future, were also included [in the covenant]? [Because] the verse continues: “And also with he who is not here with us this day” (Deuteronomy 29:14).

For every person who ever will convert to Judaism – embracing our faith and our history and our people with all their beings – their souls were present at Sinai. They are imbued with the same cosmic light that shone in Moses’s face when he brought the tablets inscribed by God’s own hand down from the mountain in this week’s Torah portion – when, the Torah says, all the people saw Moses , וְהִנֵּה קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו his face was radiant (Exodus 34:30).

For those who embrace Judaism in our own day, wherever they may be, that spark of divine light has always been inside them, and we have helped to bring it to the surface. I see it in the face of every single conversion candidate who emerges from the mikvah, the ritual immersion, knowing that they are – at that moment — k’yisrael b-chol d’varav – fully a Jew in all respects.

It should not matter if they are here in our own congregation – as we welcomed three new Jews just weeks ago – or if they live in the State of Israel. It should not matter if they are welcomed into the Jewish people by Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox authorities. And now, thanks to the Israeli High Court, it doesn’t. The justices have declared what we have known all along: There is more than one way to be Jewish. Even – and especially – in the homeland of all the Jews.

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

#####

©2021 Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/01/world/middleeast/israel-jewish-converts-citizenship.html

[2] https://wupj.org/news/2021/03/34332/statement-israel-supreme-court-rules-in-favor-of-recognizing-reform-and-conservative-conversions-an-historic-achievement-of-the-impj-and-irac/

[3] https://forward.com/news/465162/netanyahu-allies-compare-reform-jews-to-dogs-in-racist-election-ads/

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/israels-high-court-says-non-orthodox-converts-are-jews/2021/03/01/53eca24c-7ac8-11eb-8c5e-32e47b42b51b_story.html

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

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.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

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.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

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