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And We Were Grasshoppers: Shabbat Shelach, Friday, June 12, 2020

Sat, 2020-06-13 10:11

Tonight, I want to share with you the story of a kind and gentle soul – a child of God seeking the strength and the wisdom he feels he lacks. Seeking affirmation for the person he is. His story and his struggle are uniquely his own – but many of us will see ourselves in his mirror.

His name is Noah Hepler. And he’s the head pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Church of Atonement in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Now in his 30’s, he only been out thirteen years – and has found it hard to acknowledge his queer identity because of a childhood in North Carolina where he was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist denomination that taught that queer people would be consigned to hell. In his seminary years, he even tried marriage to a woman, thinking that would solve his issues – but he ended up coming out to his wife, getting a divorce, and then moving to Philadelphia to fully realize his identity.

That’s where the Fab Five of the Netflix program “Queer Eye” come in. Last summer, they responded to a – calling, so to speak – from members of Noah’s congregation, who wanted him to love himself fully and embrace his role as a leader. Noah was the subject of the first “Queer Eye” episode of the new season, entitled “Preach Out Loud.”

The guys arrive to find a man who is introverted and almost invisible in many aspects of his life – the way he speaks, the way he dresses, the way he lives – and even the space in which he lives. He has consigned himself to live in the parsonage next to the church, which is such a wreck that it’s unsafe and really uninhabitable.

Bobby Berk, who handles the design challenge, has to physically remove Noah from the manse and create a bright and cheery space for him in the church itself while the parsonage is renovated. Bobby also breathes new life into the church’s communal space and into the sanctuary itself.

But there seems to be a deep emotional reason why Noah accepts the way he lives, and this is what Karamo Brown finally coaxes out of him:

“I wasn’t able to come out until much later in life,” Noah tells him. “I wasn’t at the forefront of people leading the church into greater acceptance. I feel guilty. I have a severe case of impostor syndrome. Like – am I really the best person for them here?”

I think that, in some way, Noah had the courage to express what many of us feel – especially these days. If we don’t quite feel like impostors, many of us feel less than adequate to handle the Herculean tasks that have been thrown into our laps for months now. We may be home-bound parents, or physicians, or teachers, or front-line workers, or retail clerks – asked to perform double- and triple-duty for things we were never trained to do. I can’t tell you what a panic my fellow rabbis are in now, with High Holy Days fast approaching, because we are called upon to be preachers and pastors – but also epidemiologists and video producers and bouncers. That’s not quite our skill set.

And with all this, we now bear witness to the upheaval in our cities, where months of lockdown have added to the explosion of raw emotions since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

Even those of us who have for decades been (so we believed) active and committed to the cause of civil rights and the recognition of the dignity and worth of every human being – we are overwhelmed by the immense and rapid national movement of Black Lives Matter from the fringe to the forefront in a tense, hot summer. And we are called on by Jews of Color to actively and quickly develop programs of racial justice, equity and inclusion in our own communities.

This feeling of inadequacy, this guilt, this collective case of “impostor syndrome” – like, are we the best people for this job? – has echoes in this week’s Torah portion. God has told Moses to appoint a dozen scouts from among the tribes and send them into the Promised Land to see what lies ahead for the children of Israel.

Upon their return, only Joshua and Caleb call on the Israelites to move forward. They do not sugar-coat the challenge but insist, “surely we will overcome it!” (Num 13:30).

But ten of the twelve are so overwhelmed by what faces them in this unknown land – that they cower at the thought of fulfilling their God-given destiny:

“The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers,” they report back. “All the people that we saw in it are men of great size. We saw the Nephilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must surely have looked to them!” (Num 13:33).

“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must surely have looked to them!”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, a Hassidic leader in 19th-century Poland, says this was the sin of the scouts. We can understand, he teaches, the first part – because maybe that is how they saw themselves. But what difference should it make how we appeared to them? And what right did they have to say that, anyway– to presume to know how others see us?[1]

This is when our feelings of failure – that we are not smart enough, or brave enough, or strong enough — take over our lives. We not only feel our own inadequacy – we also believe that everybody else sees us for the impostors we are.

And so Pastor Noah acknowledged to the world – and personally to two immensely important forebears and role models in his church: Bishop Guy Erwin, the first openly gay bishop of the Lutheran faith, and Pastor Megan Rohrer, the first openly trans pastor in the Lutheran church.

“I keep running a negative script about myself in my head,” he told them, “because I didn’t step up within the larger story of the queer community. I haven’t gotten over it.”

But Bishop Erwin and Pastor Rohrer persist. They see Noah far differently than he thinks they do. Not for what he hasn’t done in the past. But for what he is doing now in his writing, in his preaching, and in his living example – which they assure him have touched many lives beyond the walls of his own church, and inspired and encouraged many in the LGBTQ community that they are welcome in sacred spaces.

“Our world needs you right now, it’s calling you,” Pastor Rohrer tells Noah. At which point he begins to see himself as far more than the modest little grasshopper. And he tells them the story of the one young man in his church whom he’s been waiting for years to come out – and who finally has, with Noah’s encouragement and love.

Bishop Erwin reinforces Noah’s new-found self-worth: “Every word of grace we say, it has an impact, whether we see it or not . . To do so as an out gay pastor, even without saying more than that, who you are preaches. And people need to hear that.”

This is the essence of the message of the spies. Joshua and Caleb will be chosen to lead the next generation of Israelites into the Promised Land, not because of their words but their example: their emotional strength, and their unyielding faith that God has great plans for the people.

And this is the essence of the message to us. Whatever we feel about our own inadequacies, people see us as loving and committed and trying our hardest to help – in the face of the greatest personal and professional challenges many of us have ever known. We may not be giants. But we are not grasshoppers.

“One of the greatest gifts of the Queer Eye team,” Pastor Noah said afterward, “is the gift of being able to see yourself through someone else’s eyes. Even though I constantly talk about God’s unending forgiveness and grace with others — I would rarely let that apply to myself.”

It’s time to apply self-care, patience, and forgiveness to ourselves.

As the sages of old teach us, it is not our job to fix the whole world – only to do our part. Sure, we may have a stiffer learning curve than we did six months ago. But cut yourself some slack. As everyone else knows, you’re worth it.

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



©2020 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. 67.

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A Single Breath – Shabbat Naso II, Friday, June 5, 2020

Sat, 2020-06-06 11:53

A month ago, in the terrifying depths of the Covid pandemic, I urged everyone to heed the advice of the wise and wonderful columnist Connie Schultz: Don’t forget to breathe. (Breathe).

The simple act of relaxing our bodies, taking in fresh air, and then releasing the stress and the pain and the toxins we hold too tightly inside of us. (Breathe).

A single breath. What a simple act of freedom. And, a month later, we realize: What a simple gift from God that can be taken away all too quickly.

It has been eleven days since George Floyd, a 46 year-old black man suspected of passing a counterfeit 20-dollar bill, died in Minneapolis, after a white police officer held him down and pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, while his fellow officers kept onlookers at bay. During the last three minutes, Floyd was unresponsive. But throughout the first five minutes, Floyd pleaded for officer Derek Chauvin to release him. “I can’t breathe,” he repeated over and over again. “I can’t breathe,” he begged. Until he couldn’t breathe anymore.

That gift from God, breathed into the dust of the earth to create the first human being, was taken away all too quickly.

For months, Americans have been terrified to take a breath in the wrong place, with the wrong people, lest we are struck down with this insidious virus. A virus we cannot see. A virus we cannot seem to track. A virus that can, and has, returned in places where people have dared to gather once again.

But Covid-19 is not the only viral threat to our nation right now. Bigotry and racism are also viruses that can spread through a community, any community. Like Covid-19 – like any other virus – bigotry and racism are carried and spread by hosts – people and web sites and social networking venues that spew hatred of the “other” – whoever that other may be. And as we have seen, over and over again, our nation offers far too many hosts, whose breath is a foul stench that taints everything with which it comes in contact.

We Jews understand these diseases of paranoia and ignorance and stereotyping and conspiracy theories. We know how terrifyingly quickly they spread. We know how dangerous they are. We have been targeted as “the other” for two millennia. We have been dispersed, expelled, and slaughtered en masse. And even here in 21st century America we are not safe, as the Tree of Life murders have taught us so clearly.

The fact is that hatred of the “other” is hated of all “others.” Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays, women. Anyone who does not fit what some people in this country have decided is the epitome of being a true American is a potential target. That’s why, long before Covid-19 shut us out of our Temple building, we had fortified it so that we could feel safe within.

As Jews, we have been targeted. But as a group of mostly middle-class white people, we have little to no clue what it’s like to be targeted every day. Bicycling while black. Jogging while black. Shopping while black. Bird-watching while black. Coming to the attention of police while black. Former Maryland congresswoman Donna Edwards wrote this week, “I do not know a black family that does not have a story.” But I don’t know a white family that does have a story.

And George Floyd is the latest in a long list of names of those who took their last breaths at the hands of those charged with protecting them:

Tamir Rice, LaQuan McDonald, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. And so many more.


George Floyd isn’t the only reason for the protests – both peaceful and destructive. He is only the latest. I do not in any way condone violence and the destruction of property. I am heartbroken for the small-business owners who have waited so long during the pandemic until they could reopen their doors – and now have no doors to reopen. I am sick for the people who depend on the businesses and the jobs that have gone up in flames. But I also cannot condone unthinkingly brutal tactics by those whose job is supposed to be keeping the peace. Violence cannot stop violence. It can only stoke its flames. Flames that suck up all the oxygen and leave all of us breathless.

But breathless for us is different from voice-less for people of color. Dr. King taught us that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Though he disagreed with the use of violent tactics, he surely understood its cause. “I can’t breathe” is the final gasp of human beings who have been ignored, beaten down, rejected, demeaned, deserted.

When Dr. King went to Memphis, where he would be assassinated, he did so in support of black garbage collectors who were being paid a pittance. They wore t-shirts that said, simply “I Am A Man.” All they wanted was for people to listen to their pleas and dignify their existence.


The language of our Torah brings us to the recognition of this dignity. In the Torah portion that many communities around the world continue reading on this Shabbat, God commands a census – one of many in the Bible. This time it’s a counting of the clan of Gershon, Levites who have the honor of serving in the Tabernacle. But an on-line essay by Chaplain Barry Pitegoff, who serves on the staff of Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York, drew my attention to the actual language of the Hebrew: “Naso et rosh b’nai Gershon.”

Now, this could mean simply to count each one of the Gershonites. But naso et rosh literally means “lift the head” of each person, individually. Lift the head. Look into that person’s face, look into his eyes. See each person’s inherent worth. Acknowledge to this person in front of you that they do, indeed, count. Acknowledge it publicly and powerfully.

The dignity of every human life is a fundamental belief in Judaism. The Torah condemns the spilling of blood. The rabbis teach that one person’s blood is as precious as another’s. The Mishnah, the foundational work on which all Jewish law is based, teaches that we all were created from one single human being so that no one – of any place, of any race – could claim superiority over another. We are all equal in the eyes of God, and so we should be in the eyes of each other. There is no “other.” There is only “us.” Naso et rosh – and see and listen and honor.


If the protests of this past week have taught us anything, it is that every single human being has the right to be heard, and seen, and honored, and that every single human being has the right to demand this right for themselves and for others. Behind the Covid-19 masks that so many marchers have worn are the faces of the young and the old, the professional and the student, people who are white and people of color, people who have jobs right now and people who do not. People who fear law enforcement – and people who are part of law enforcement.

In Columbia, South Carolina this week, news cameras captured a remarkable and beautiful sight. As a group of protesters sat and prayed silently in front of the state house, a group of city police officers on the opposite site of the barricade faced them and knelt down silently with them. The chief of police was among them.

All over the country, we have seen places where violence born of anger, resentment and frustration has been stoked by heavy handed tactics of police and military in riot gear, shooting – sometimes targeting — with pepper balls and flinging gas. And we have seen places where the violence has abated when police and military take a calm posture – and even take a knee in acknowledgement of human dignity.

It isn’t happening everywhere. But it is happening. People are looking into each other’s eyes and seeing, not an enemy to be feared or attacked, but a human being to be acknowledged, seen and heard. Naso et rosh.


Yesterday morning, as we were walking our dogs through our little neighborhood down here, we saw that the daughter of one of our neighbors had drawn two posters that she hung from the back-yard fence. One was a rainbow, and over it she had written, “We are all in this together.” The other was a quotation from our prophet Jeremiah – a rather a-typical quote for a man known more for his chastising than his cheeriness:

“For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you – declares the Eternal – plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a hopeful future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Jeremiah’s promise is given in the plural — aleichem – to all of us. But God’s hope-filled plans can only come to fruition when we work as God’s partners – work that all of us do for the welfare of all of us.

But: Rabbi! What is the work that we’re supposed to do?!

Well, if you’re like me, you’ve read and received a lot of advice from a lot of people this week on how to respond – to the anger, to the violence, to the systemic racism that has been part of this nation since before it was a nation. One suggestion does not fit all people or situations. And while I’m not one to rely on memes to get a message across, here’s one I’ll share with you that might be helpful:

Some are posting on social media

Some are protesting in the streets

Some are donating silently

Some are educating themselves

Some are having tough conversations with friends & family

A revolution has many lanes – be kind to yourself and to others who are traveling in the same direction.

Just keep your foot on the gas.


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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

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“Returning To Sinai” – Shabbat Behar-Bechukkotai, Friday, May 15, 2020

Sat, 2020-05-16 10:25

This was the week I finally did it. I made time for a project that I have put off for the past two years since we moved into our current house – and, truth be told, for some years before that. This was the week I started opening up boxes and bags of family memories bequeathed to me by my late father, Big Art. He seems to have never thrown anything away – including his own elementary-school report cards, lots of photos of a very little me – “Number One Child and Grandchild” – and my “Baby Book.” All of which unveil all kinds of information that I never knew before.

Back in the day, baby books were not scrapbooks. They were records of a baby’s family and early experiences.

I know from this baby book, for example, that I laughed out loud for the first time at age three months, at which time I also made very clear my likes and dislikes. I learned to climb stairs at nine months. And I was continually walking by the time I hit 13 months old.

Here, under health, I discover that I had both Chicken Pox and German Measles within a few months of each other before I turned seven, and that my first train ride was when we lived in Colorado. I was in kindergarten, and we rode all the way to Philadelphia and back.

The information has been meticulously recorded, through most of elementary school. Some things are a surprise – I was obsessed with Popeye, for example. Some things shouldn’t be a surprise at all – like also being obsessed with Lassie.

Many of these details explain a whole lot about how I became who I am today.

This Shabbat, we conclude our reading of the Book of Leviticus with a double portion, B’har-Bechukkotai. The title “B’har” refers to the first verse:

א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר:

God spoke to Moses on Har Sinai, on Mount Sinai[1]

Now, that statement by itself seems unremarkable, right? God talks to Moses all the time. But the timing here is a little bizarre. As my colleague Cantor David Berger of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago writes in this week’s on-line commentary,[2] “Why mention that now? Why, after the whole Book of Leviticus with all its many laws and details, does the Torah suddenly return us to Mount Sinai?”

Cantor Berger explores a number of traditional sources, but the one that draws my attention is that of Nachmanides – a Spanish sage of the 13th century also known as the Ramban. The Ramban doesn’t think this statement is out of place at all. It is, he believes, one step in the larger story. First came the revelation to Moses on Sinai, then the second set of tablets after the peoples’ idolatry with the golden calf. That’s when Moses explained God’s command to build the Tabernacle, so that the people would be assured of God’s presence in their midst and not turn to golden idols.

After that, says the Ramban, the people needed to understand how to use the Tabernacle and the altar, so God gave the priests all of their rules about the cult and the sacrifices that make up the book of Leviticus. Here, at the end of the Leviticus, God returns to the laws that apply to every Israelite, as a reminder that Torah is for everyone.

Writes Cantor Berger: “Returning to Sinai, according to Ramban’s teaching, means connecting our immediate story to the larger narratives of our people and our tradition.”

That is, of course, what we do at every Jewish festival – including our re-enactment of the acceptance of Torah at Sinai in our upcoming holiday of Shavuot.

But I think each of us returns to Sinai in our own way, in our own time, for the same reason: To connect our personal life stories to the larger narratives of the families we come from, and to their traditions.

Like the Israelites of old, we sometimes need to be reminded of where we have come from – and of how far we have journeyed. Returning to Sinai, for us, means opening up memories that help us understand what has made us the people we are today.

Those memories can be both happy and painful. I found that, this week. They remind us of the people we have loved and lost along the way, and of places we yearn for that no longer exist or no longer belong to us. The Jewish nation is like that, too. Many Jews still mourn the destruction of the Temple. We all mourn the destruction of European Jewry.

But we are all grateful for the great rabbis and the unknown ordinary Jews who made new lives for themselves wherever they found themselves, and who used Torah and tradition to create the rules and structure that united their communities.

So, too, each of us finds joy and comfort and confidence in our own journeys.

There’s one big difference, though. For the Jewish people, the revelation at Sinai is a single momentous event that shaped the destiny of an entire nation. For each us individually, I think, our Sinai is really a string of smaller events and situations that we internalize and build on, that take us from there to here.

Here’s my baby book again. Under “Baby’s Diet,” there was not a single new food introduced to me that I did not like, including fruit, vegetables, and Jello. (Yeah, that sounds about right). One of my favorite TV shows, it turns out was “Lassie” – something I did not remember but which makes perfect sense to anyone who has been to my house any time in the last 30 years.

There are also detailed descriptions of my first five birthdays, and my first four years of school after that. Every birthday was celebrated in a different place, including four different homes. And from Kindergarten through third grade, I already had attended four different schools in three different cities, in two different states.

My dad was a government contractor. We moved around – a lot. I would go on to attend a dozen schools before I hit college, including three overseas. All that moving got to be common. And it never has bothered me to move from place to place. But some of my siblings didn’t fare so well and don’t cope so well with change. And that, too, has shaped who they are today. Even sharing many of the same childhood experiences, our own personal Sinais are very different from one another’s.

In a way, I think our ancestors’ experience of the revelation at Sinai had that same effect. Some remained faithful. Some rebelled – with tragic consequences. Some passed their faith, and their history, and their traditions down to their children and their children’s children. Some fell away.

As the Jewish world approaches the festival of Shavuot, we mark this event that brought us together as a nation in so many different ways. Some of us revere the traditional ideas about what Torah is – concepts that were crystallized by the great rabbis of the Middle Ages. Others of us see Torah through a modern lens and fresh interpretations that keep Torah alive and relevant for us. But somehow – in some extraordinary way – our own personal journeys from Sinai have brought us to the same place – to celebrating the same holy day. No matter how we got here – here we are, together. Not just as a community, but as a people.

So yes, after all this time since we made that covenant – after being buried in the details of building the tabernacle, and establishing the rules of the priesthood and the sacrifices; after being snowed under by all of the regulations about families and communities and business deals and our judicial system – after all that: Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe b’har Sinai. The Torah takes us back to what’s most important.

Judaism does not live in the rules and regulations. It lives in the relationships – with God, with each other, and within ourselves. It lives in the vow we swore to be faithful, as God is faithful. To be loving, as God is loving. To be committed to each other, as God remains steadfast with us.

Throughout our lives – just like for our ancestors here in the Torah – our hearts and our minds will be brought back to Sinai. We will remember how we began, and how we have journeyed, and how we have become the people we are. We may not know where our journeys from Sinai will lead us next. But we know the strength and the wisdom and the relationships we have cultivated up to today will guide us through the challenges of what may come.

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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Leviticus 25:1

[2] Cantor David Berger, “Are There Limits to the Revelation Received at Sinai?” published May 13, 2020 on https://reformjudaism.org


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A Second Chance – Parashat Emor, Friday, May 8, 2020

Sat, 2020-05-09 11:33

In sports, we call them do-overs. In school, we have make-up days. Whatever name we give them them, they are times when you get a second chance to be part of something you’ve missed, or to improve something you’ve messed up.

Judaism has that too. Today is a unique day on our calendar that we call Pesach Sheini – a “second Passover.” It marks the day when somebody who was unable to participate in the Passover offerings at the proper time can do so one month later.

Let’s recall that, in the book of Exodus, God tells the Israelites in the second year of their wilderness trek to bring the offering of a lamb on the afternoon of the fourteenth day of Nissan and to eat it that evening, roasted over an open fire and eaten with matzah and bitter herbs, just as our ancestors did on the night they left Egypt.

The overwhelming importance of Passover is reiterated in this week’s Torah portion, Emor. God lays out to Moses the entire calendar of the year, starting with Shabbat and including the three pilgrimage festivals and the High Holy Days. The dates are very specific: the seventh day of the week for Shabbat, for example. The first day of the seventh month for the day in which the shofar is sounded, which would be Rosh Hashanah. The tenth day of the seventh month for Yom Kippur.

The command to observe these festivals on these specific days is emphasized, not once but three times, when God calls them “Mo’adei Adonai” – set times of the Eternal that the people must celebrate as mikra-ei kodesh, as sacred occasions.

And yet – and yet there is one exception to this inviolable rule. And that is Passover.

But there were some men,” says the Torah in the Book of Numbers, “who were unclean by reason of [coming into contact with] a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those men said to them, “’Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the LORD’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?’”[1]

So God decreed that they got a do-over, a second chance, one month later – which falls today.

The exception to the rule proves, not that Passover is not as important as these other days – but that it’s more important. Because every faithful Israelite should have the opportunity to offer the paschal sacrifice and re-enact the seminal event in Israelite history that fashioned us as a people, saved and unified by God’s redemption.

We know how important Passover is – because we kind of missed it this year. It was the first event we had to cancel at the Temple, because it meant a lot of people sitting together, enjoying a catered meal and passing around the wine and the matzah.

It was the hardest thing we had to do. Compared to missing our seder together, it was relatively easy – under these extraordinary circumstances – to take our Shabbat worship and our opportunities for study virtual. And the turnout for all of our Zoom events has proved it was the right thing to do.

I know some of you shared a zoom seder this year with your loved ones, so that at least you could see each other. But we know it didn’t feel the same. There’s something about Passover that is unique. And that’s why our ancestors made accommodations.

We’re now looking to the near future, the next few months, to figure out what we’re going to do about more of these moadei Adonai, these “set times of the Eternal,” including summertime Shabbat and our Days of Awe. My great friend and colleague Rabbi Jeff Salkin, who — as he readily acknowledges — is hardly a radical about such things, has proposed moving the High Holy Days to Hanukkah, with some modifications to the liturgy. We know, of course, that Hanukkah is actually Sukkot moved back to the month of Kislev – which allowed the Maccabees a communal eight-day celebration when they wrested control of the Temple back from the Hellenistic Syrians.

I’m not sure we’re ready to be that radical here in Altoona, Pennsylvania. But rest assured we’re looking seriously at our options to choose the one that will bring us together in the safest way possible.

Safety, at this time of massive displacement, is paramount. So I do want to point out one really interesting detail of this week’s Torah portion. In the middle of the detailed description of the annual festival calendar, right in between the description of Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah, the Torah takes an astonishing detour with this one verse:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Eternal your God.”

Now, it may be this isn’t really an interruption at all. The Shavuot festival takes place at the time of the late spring harvest. So maybe the reminder to leave the gleanings in the field is connected directly to Shavuot. But it may also be, as the midrash teaches, that when we share our bounty with the most needy among us, it as if we offered it up to God. It’s our way of providing safety to people who are most vulnerable.

Leaving the gleanings in the fields – rather than requiring the poor and the needy to come personally begging to us – is God’s way of reminding us that all we have comes, in the end, from divine providence, and that any of us could be in a much worse position than we are. So when we leave food on one of the Porch Pantries in town, where people anonymously drop off what they can or come to take what they need, we are following exactly what God commands us here. It’s the same when we drop off groceries at one of the makeshift food pantries in town, or when a local farm or dairy donates food at a pop-up local distribution site: produce or milk that would otherwise be wasted.

This community – and our congregation – have come up with amazingly generous and creative ways to share. We are giving our neighbors the second chance they need – a do-over for something that was not of their own making.

If the midrash is correct, that means that, when we donate to others, it’s as though we are making offerings to God. Which is both a mitzvah and a blessing.

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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Numbers 9:6-7.

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“Don’t Forget To Breathe” – Shabbat Achare Mot – Kedoshim, Friday, May 1, 2020

Sat, 2020-05-02 09:53

Every media site and social-media platform is full of ideas these days on how to maintain your physical and emotional health during  this time of pandemic. But I always return to columnist Connie Shultz’s Facebook page and her oft-repeated and most important advice: Don’t forget to breathe.

To parents trying to work at home and see to their children’s education: Don’t forget to breathe.

To front-line workers in health care and food service and public protection: Don’t forget to breathe.

To all of us trying to get through one day to the next: Don’t forget to breathe.

Especially when we are protecting ourselves and our neighbors by wearing protective masks and it’s hard to do it – take time to breathe.

It may sound obvious. But I don’t think so. We supposedly have time on our hands these days, but if you’re like me, you are over-doing everything, every day, and always thinking you’re not doing enough. I think we forget how much just sitting still and having a deep breath in and out can steady us.

So let’s do that now. On the count of three, let’s breathe.

I think of this time of year as a divinely ordained big, deep breath. We are in the middle of the counting of the omer. On the calendar of life, it’s the time in Israel when farmers prepare to gather their late-spring crops. On the sacred Jewish calendar, it marks the passage of time between Passover and Shavuot – between the redemptive salvation of the Exodus from Egypt and the redemptive covenant of Torah at Sinai.

In some traditional communities, it’s treated a period of semi-mourning – ironically, in remembrance of the deaths of 24-thousand students of the great Rabbi Akiva, who died in a horrific plague that swept through Israel. Other than one day – Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of out of 49 — weddings do not take place and new clothing is not worn. People don’t get haircuts – a restriction that applies to all of us in this year of plague.

And in the Jewish mystical tradition, the counting of the omer, day by day, is treated as a time of transformation – a “cosmic cleansing,” as one Kabbalah web site put it. During these weeks – seven weeks signifying the number of wholeness and holiness – we take time to reflect on our own paths to wholeness and holiness. As we inhale, what harmful elements are we taking in? Anger? Selfishness? Frustration? Stubbornness? As we hold that breath in, how are we processing and breaking down what is harmful? As we exhale, how are we transforming what is harmful into what is helpful, peaceful, kind, generous, and patient?

Each week of the omer, we look at one of the seven basic human attributes that make up who we are. Each day of each week, we look at how this attribute intersects with another. Today is the 23rd day of our count – the second day of the fourth week. This week, we work on the value of netzach, or endurance, and today, we consider how it intersects with the value gevurah, or discipline. Endurance and discipline. How very appropriate.

Endurance and discipline, like any of the seven human attributes, have both positive and negative qualities to it. So we need to be honest with ourselves: Is our endurance out of strength or weakness? Are we just being stubborn and stuck in our ways, or are we working toward something better for the world? Can we discipline ourselves to get out of the rut we’re in and break bad habits? Can we commit ourselves to changing our thinking and our behavior, so that these two elements combine to make us strong in a healthy and productive way – not only for ourselves but for all the other people who need our love and our commitment and our constancy, now more than ever?

If we take that deep breath and do just one good thing we might not otherwise have done, we have brought divine love into the world.

This week we read the Torah portion called Kedoshim – holiness. How very appropriate. We are called by God: K’doshim t’hiyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai elohechem. “You shall be holy for I, the eternal God, am holy.”

This command, this challenge, is directed toward Kol adat b’nai Yisrael, the entire Israelite community. The self-reflection we do each day of the omer may be intensely private and unique and personal. But actually bringing that change into the world – walking that path to a better life — can only be achieved when we stick together and support each other. The mitzvot that the Torah outlines this week run the gamut from ritual to business ethics to family relationships, to how we treat the most vulnerable people in our communities. K’doshim tihiyu demands that we take the divine spark that we cultivate during these days, and release it into the world to make the world better for everyone.[1]

K’doshim tihiyu. Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Worka once asked: Can God demand that a human attain the level of holiness? And he answered: God does not demand that we become as holy as angels – because that’s impossible. All that God demands is that each of us attain the level of holiness of which we are capable. In whatever circumstances we find ourselves, advance a little at a time into our holiness.[2]

That’s what counting the omer is all about. Walking day by day, a little at a time, into your holiness.

Be brave. And don’t forget to breathe.

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


©2020, Audrey R. Korotkin


For more guidance on counting the omer, visit these web sites:



[1] See the commentary in Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 693.

[2] Torah Gems Volume II Shemot and Vayikra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg and translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1992), p. 309.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

A Time To Heal: Tazria – Mezora – Friday, April 24, 2020

Fri, 2020-04-24 21:20

Yes, this is the dreaded double portion Tazria-Metzora, in which we are told the details of how to deal with cases of impurity in our communities – including women’s impurity, diseases of the skin, and even uncleanliness of household items and the house itself.

Commentators will point out that, even though the Torah looks with sympathy on one who develops an infection like this, the Sages saw this as a chance to make a moral point. The rabbis believed that when someone showed a disease like this on the outside, it was a reflection of a sickness on the inside. In other words, they believed, you were sick because you had sinned.

But the Torah doesn’t say that. Nowhere is the afflicted person accused of any kind of transgression. The rabbis might, for their own reasons, have interpreted these chapters as a way of rooting out moral rot in the community. But that’s not what’s really happening here.

So let’s see what’s is.

Leviticus chapter 13, verse 3, is our key here:

ג וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־הַנֶּגַע בְּעוֹר־הַבָּשָׂר וְשֵׂעָר בַּנֶּגַע הָפַךְ ׀ לָבָן וּמַרְאֵה הַנֶּגַע עָמֹק מֵעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ נֶגַע צָרַעַת הוּא וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן וְטִמֵּא אֹתוֹ:

The standard English translation of the beginning of the verse says, “The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body.” And at the end it reads, “when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure.”

But we are taught that there are no superfluous words in the Torah. So: Why the redundancy? The beginning of the verse already says the priest is looking at the affection – why does that need to be repeated at the end? The answer: it must refer to something else.

Meshekh Hokhmah, the Torah commentary written a century ago by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, Latvia, suggests that, indeed, the end of the verse means something quite different:

וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן וְטִמֵּא אֹתוֹ:

When the priest looks at HIM and pronounces him impure.

Him. Not it. First, the priest looks at the infection. Then the priest steps back and takes a look at the entire person. He looks at what is whole and healthy about the person who is suffering – not just at the affliction.

In other words, a person is not his or her illness. A patient is a human being who needs to be tended to, body and spirit. That’s why Aaron is chosen for the job. Nobody else will do.

Other than Moses, Aaron is the most respected person in the community. As the high priest, he’s the one who oversees the spiritual health of the Israelites – and here, their physical health too. Like the rabbis, the Torah does make the connection between body and spirit – but not in a negative way. Aaron is there as a healing presence.

It’s like being treated today by the top infectious disease specialist in the country. How would you feel if you were in the hands of the best of the best? Relieved? Hopeful? This suggests the Torah’s message is one of inclusion and not exclusion. It’s a message of holistic healing of body and spirit.

The priest comes, not just once to put the afflicted person into isolation, but once a week for however long it takes to see the person through to healing. Every week, the priest comes hoping to see the infection gone, so that the patient can once again take his place in his community – and do it as soon as possible.

What the Torah is giving us is not a plan for isolating people, but a path to healing and reunion. Because every single person counts. Every single person contributes. Every single soul is unique and precious and necessary to the life of their community. Every human life is to be celebrated and blessed.

As Jews, we appreciate the Torah’s understanding of body and spirit. Judaism and healing, intertwined. And I think it’s one of the reasons why medicine is such an honored profession in our community.

Yes, the stereotype of finding a “nice Jewish doctor” to marry is cringe-inducing. But the fact is that you are more likely to find a doctor inside the Jewish community. My colleague from Philadelphia, Rabbi Lance Sussman, discovered that, although Jews make up only two percent of the American population, over 14 percent of American doctors are Jewish. And that’s not to mention 26 percent of Nobel prize winners in medicine.[1] Closer to home, we are honored to have esteemed physicians in our own congregation and our broader Altoona community. They enhance our Jewish community and our entire community.

Think of the names of some of the hospitals in New York we’ve been reading and hearing about, where the staffs are at the white-heat center of the Covid-19 pandemic . Montefiore Medical Center, the primary teaching hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, was named for the 19th century British Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore, who took a special interest in modern healthcare.

Mount Sinai, now on the Upper West Side of New York, was the original “Jews’ hospital” in Manhattan, founded in 1852. Four decades later, Beth Israel Hospital was incorporated on the Lower East Side. Both were established to serve New York’s growing Jewish population, who were refused care at other hospitals in the city. Both now care for huge and diverse populations.

We know about the tremendous contributions Jews have made to medicine – here in the U.S., in Europe and in Israel. But the powerful connection Jews have to, and our respect for, healing professions goes back millennia.

The great 12th-century sage Moses Maimonides was a halakhist, a theologian – and one of the most famous physicians of his time, serving as court physician to Saladin, the great sultan of Egypt and Syria.

Centuries before Maimonides, the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 17b) had counseled that scholars should not reside in a city without a physician.

And back in the second century before the common era, the wise man known as Ben Sirach (38:1-15, edited) exalted the Divine call to healing:

“Honor the physician with the honor due him, according to your need of him, for God created him. . . The skill of the physician lifts up his head, and in the presence of great men he is admired . . . [God] gave skill to men that He might be glorified in His marvelous works. By them He heals and takes away pain.”

But all of this starts in the Torah. The gift of healing bestowed upon special people in our community. Their ability to treat body and spirit together. Their goal to return the whole person to the community.

If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it is the message from this one verse from the Torah: People are not their illness.

They all are mothers and fathers, sister and brothers, daughters and sons, wives and husbands, widows and widowers. They are police officers and nurses and health-care aides. They are lawyers and custodians and, yes, rabbis. Each one of them has a life from which they have been torn, and to which, we pray, they will return. Each of them has a team of healers who, we pray, will be successful in their work: the saving of one life. And the cure for us all.

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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, “Judaism, Medical Science, and Spirituality: A Brief History.” https://reformjudaism.org/print/225821

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

A Place Where We Belong – Shabbat Shemini, Friday, April 17, 2020

Sat, 2020-04-18 16:39

This past Tuesday, we began an adult-education program on “Pirke Avot,” the ethical teachings of the early rabbis. Pirke Avot is part of the Mishnah, the first effort by the sages two thousand years ago to select, organize and codify the mitzvot of the Torah for the Jews of the post-Temple world.

These sages provided the bridge between what we’d call Biblical Judaism – the way Jews lived and worshiped according to the commandments of the Bible – and what came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism. The sages, who witnessed the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans, and the slaughter and displacement of countless Jews, recognized that if they didn’t essentially re-imagine Judaism for a world without the Bible’s Temple, priesthood and sacrificial cult, Judaism would cease to exist.

What they did was quite extraordinary. They searched deeply and deliberately into the Bible itself to extract the underlying values of its narratives and its divine obligations. They focused on the things that Jews could do wherever they lived and however they made a living. They fashioned a judicial system that any community could create. They adapted the priestly rites of the Temple into a liturgy that any Jew could recite and follow – for sabbaths, feast days and fast days, and even every day.

The sages knew that what they were doing was brave and bold – and necessary. They also knew that their authority to do it would be questioned by a lot of people. And with good reason. What gave this group of scholars and teachers the right to re-invent Judaism for the world?

The very first paragraph of Pirke Avot seeks to answer this question:

“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient [in the administration of] justice, raise many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.”[1]

In other words, the sages themselves were the sole inheritors of the Torah and its traditions, going back in an unbroken line to Moses himself. It may have been a bold move, but it worked. Because the rabbinic Judaism they created – starting with the Mishnah – is the foundation of everything that we believe and study and do today.

Yes, the rabbis laid out this chain of tradition to justify their own self-defined status. But I think that, for us, what they did is so important for another reason. They assured the Jews of a post-Temple world – people who were left bereft, isolated, afraid, and vulnerable – they assured them that they were not alone. That they were not forgotten. That they belonged to a people and a mission thousands of years in the making. That no matter their location or their circumstances, they were still the beloved of God. And that, as much as they needed God, God needed them and their faithfulness, and their trust, and their love.

I can’t think of a more important message tonight, here, with you, together but separated. We, too, are victims of circumstances far beyond our comprehension or our power. But the rabbis teach us that, although we may be physically separated, we are not alone.

We have made that clear – YOU have made that clear – each and every Friday night that we are together. This pandemic is the most frightening, challenging, and disorienting thing to happen in our lifetimes. And yet here we are, several dozen of us, every week – smiling at each other, singing with each other, joining our voices in prayer even when the mute buttons are on.

What is happening tonight is just what our Torah imagined, long before the rabbis came to be.

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, describes the elaborate ceremonies on the eighth day of the high priests’ anointing in the Tent of Meeting. The priests – Aaron and his sons – are supposed to be center-stage of this impressive event. But the words of Torah give us a clue that something more important is happening.

“They [the people] brought to the front of the Tent of Meeting the things that Moses had commanded,” says the Torah, “and the community leadership came forward and stood before the Eternal.

“And Moses said to them: This is the thing the Eternal has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the Eternal may appear to you.’”[2]

Okay, Moses, what is it we are commanded to do? This…what? You’d expect that Moses would then detail some rules, some mitzvot, that the people have to do in order to feel God’s presence among them, right? But no, nothing. Moses then turns to Aaron to organize the offerings.

So let’s take another look at the text. I’m going to re-read it to you.

“They [the people] brought to the front of the Tent of Meeting the things that Moses had commanded, and the community leadership came forward and stood before the Eternal.

“And Moses said to them: ‘This is the thing the Eternal has commanded that you do, that the Glory of God may appear to you.’”

This: zeh ha’davr: This IS THE THING that God wanted you to do – THIS! What you’re doing right now! Gathering together, drawing near, everyone feeling a part of this and taking a role in making this happen! THIS is what brings the Glory of God here to dwell among you![3]

This “k’vod Adonai,” this “Glory of God” – In the Torah, this is often something that is a physical manifestation of God. The quaking of the mountain. The cloud descending. The pillar of fire.

But I think that k’vod Adonai signifies another physical manifestation. The Glory of God – is us. We become the Glory of God when we gather together, drawing near, everyone feeling a part of this and taking a role in making this happen.

Every single Friday night that we have been on Zoom, our numbers have far exceeded what we could expect on Shabbat in our sanctuary. Some of us are regular Shabbat goers. Some are not far from Altoona but not close enough to always be there. Some are far away – members who have moved to other states, relatives of members who have found their way here. Because in a world where so much is unknown and unsafe, this is a sanctuary.

I talk so much about how Friday night comes whether we acknowledge it or not. But we make Shabbat. Our gathering together – when we are so exposed and disoriented – this too is k’vod Adonai. And it is as powerful as a pillar of fire or the shaking of a mountain.

Like the sages of old, we are re-inventing Judaism for what we need now. We are, as Pirke Avot  taught us, “making a fence around the Torah” –protecting our traditions and our faith as we protect each other.

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



©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin




[1] Mishnah Avot 1:1

[2] Exodus 9:5-6.

[3] See midrash attributed to “M. Cohen” in Torah Gems Vol. II: Shemot, Vaykra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p., 264.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

How Is This Passover Different from Other Passovers? Shabbat Pesach 2020

Sat, 2020-04-11 10:08

So – the dogs are insane with cabin fever, and the husband is occasionally grumpy. I’m tossing on the same clothes for days in a row. And I can’t even indulge in spaghetti when I’m feeling a little low.

How’s your stay-in-place Passover going so far?

Truth be told, we had a really nice dinner at our Seder-For-Two on Wednesday night. Don said it might be the best brisket I’ve ever made – though I’m attributing that to Murray Avenue Kosher and not to my cooking prowess. That, and my Grandmom Freda’s roasting pan.

There were just a few things that Grandmom wanted me to have. A beautiful but simple Star-of-David necklace set with mother-of-pearl. Every spiral notebook with the detailed instructions for every sweater she has every made for anyone, ever. A few recipes that even I could handle (I do the holiday cooking). And the old Comet aluminum roasting pan that she always used to make her holiday brisket.

It’s not a fancy pan. I looked up “Comet Aluminum” on line, and apparently there are some coveted, fancy collectors’ items that go back to the Depression or before. This isn’t one of them. It’s plain, it’s rectangular, and it’s big and deep enough to handle a good-sized brisket.

That’s all I ever use it for. It comes out during Pesach prep while we’re changing to the Passover dishes and stocking the fridge full of Temp-Tee cream cheese and chicken soup. It carries the memories of decades of Passover Seders through the generations of my family.

Granted, Grandmom Freda was the cook I’ll never be. Like her sewing, which was her profession, she cooked by feel and taste and experience. She knew when a dough was ready for rolling, and when an egg was cooked just long enough. She wrote recipes down for me that I wanted – but I always have had the feeling that she occasionally left out an ingredient or two, or changed the amounts just a little bit, so that nothing would ever taste exactly the same as it did at Grandmom Freda’s house.

That wonderful, stone-faced semi-detached home – what in Philadelphia they call a “twin” – is where I essentially grew up. Grandmom Freda and Grandpop Mike moved in when I was about two years old. It was the typical move to what were then the suburbs of Northeast Philly – the Jews and the Italians moving together from the south side of the city to a place where there was more privacy and a little front yard. I was there a lot – my dad was a government contractor and we were constantly moving for his work. So Grandmom and Grandpop’s house was really home.

Grandmom’s holiday meals were epic affairs with all the cousins and aunts and uncles – both actual relatives and close friends of theirs that we always called aunt and uncle. My grandmother’s rule was, “If there’s nothing left over, you didn’t make enough.” There was always plenty left over to take home.

Grandmom Freda was a modern woman for her time. But I have a feeling she’d draw the line at Seder by Zoom. She needed everyone physically with her – the noise, the laughter, the corny jokes, the aromas wafting from the kitchen.

That’s what made Passover for her – and for us. Her slightly battered Comet aluminum roasting pan is my reminder of what Passover ought to be – and will be, God willing, by next year.

I have no doubt that I have an idealized recollection of those meals. Surely, not all the matzah balls were floaters, and not every brisket was more tender and tasty than the last. Grandmom can’t always have been the perfect host. She had to have gotten tired and cranky at some point. But her unending love for us overshadows all of that in my memory.

Tired and cranky is what a lot of us are feeling these days, and there’s no way to sugar-coat that. The stay-in-place orders that led to long-distance Seders this week, and that have brought us together on Zoom every Friday night, are really getting old. As much of a blessing as it is to share Shabbat with those of you who are far from Altoona, it’s unsettling to not physically be with people every day, and to have our daily routines so rudely interrupted for the foreseeable future.

We are all trying so very, very hard. Carting bags of donations to the food bank. Home-schooling children. Trying to care for patients and clients while maintaining a safe distance from them. We want to put up a brave front and be the best of ourselves. Careful and cautious. And it’s utterly exhausting.

God knows that. In the special Torah portion that we read on the Sabbath during Pesach, we go back to the Book of Exodus and Moses’ plea to God to protect and support him and the Israelites as they depart Egypt and journey into the unknown.

God makes this pledge to Moses:

“I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name ‘Adonai.’ I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”[1]

It’s a strange turn of phrase that. A teaching credited to Rabbi Ya’akov Mosheh Harlap, a beloved 20th-century teacher in Jerusalem, gives us this:

I will be gracious to whom I am gracious.” People generally get tired of helping others. If a person helps another person, the first time he does so gladly, but by the second or third time it becomes a burden to him. But with God, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” – forever.[2]

The promise God makes is eternal, but it’s also conditional – only God decides who will receive Divine grace; Moses cannot demand it. And yet it seems to be the opposite for us. Our promises can only be made for the short span of our lives – but they are expected to be unconditional. We must be kind. We must be generous. We must respect the dignity of every human being. It is inherent in the covenant that Moses and the people have just accepted at Sinai on behalf of every single Jew of every single generation to come – including us.

No wonder we’re so tired. No wonder we mess up. No wonder we lose focus and our minds wander. No wonder that, even though we have all this time to fill up, we seem to get less done. We’re expected to do it all. And when the ties to each other are frayed as they are now, and when we feel like we’re doing all of this, all alone, it’s overwhelming.

I’m guessing Moses must have felt that, too, in that moment. I’m guessing God recognized what a huge burden that was. Just a few verses later, God comes down to Moses in a cloud. The Torah says Vayit-yatzev imo sham – that God actually stood with Moses at that moment. And God recited these words:

יְהוָֹה ׀ יְהֹוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת: נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה

Adonai, Adonai! God, merciful and gracious; slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.[3]

These are the words that we normally recite on the High Holy Days. But it’s no coincidence that we also recite them on Passover – and especially on this Passover. They are a reminder to us that no matter where we are, no matter how far away we are from home and those we love, no matter how tired we are, no matter how much we think we could or should be doing more – no matter what, God is gracious and merciful and forgiving.

And because Torah teaches us to follow God’s example, to walk in God’s footsteps – we, too, must be gracious and merciful and forgiving. Of ourselves.

God expects of us what we are physically, and emotionally, and spiritually, and financially, and intellectually able to give. We should expect no less of ourselves – but need not demand more.

So, yes, think of others during these days of Passover. But take care of yourselves.

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

©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Exodus 33:19

[2] Torah Gems Volume II Shemot, Vayikra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 221-222.

[3] Exodus 34:6-7.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“In a Perfect World . . .” Shabbat Tzav Friday, April 3, 2020

Sat, 2020-04-04 10:09

“This story began with percentages and numbers. Now, it’s names.” That’s what Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal wrote this week about life in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic – New York City.

Those of us around the country see the numbers growing exponentially day by day – of the sick and the dead. Of the doctors and nurses and ambulance personnel and hospital custodians fearing exposure because of emergency and safety equipment desperately needed but not delivered. But we cannot know what it’s like the way a New Yorker can.

“Everyone here knows someone who’s sick with it,” Jason Gay writes, “or at least someone who thinks they’re sick with it, because the testing is still short, and the hospitals are urging the manageably unwell to ride it out at home . . . Everyone’s got a co-worker, a friend, a family member. . . And the sirens, it’s a real thing.”

It’s bad in New York. It’s getting there in other cities. It’s all around us here in central Pennsylvania, where people in just the last few days are finally taking social distancing seriously in grocery stores and on sidewalks and in the post office.

And we’re all scared. We’re scared because we don’t know who’s carrying it without knowing it. We’re scared because it’s impacting young people, too, not just the elderly. We’re scared because, despite our best efforts, it seems to be an equal-opportunity catastrophe.

Except when it’s not. Jason Gay, while praising the indominable spirit of New Yorkers helping each other with kindnesses great and small, pointed out that for some, it’s more difficult than others:

“The people getting hit the hardest are the vulnerable,” he wrote. “Inequities of the system that were always there – job security, health care, access to technology – have been brought into sharp relief.”

And as I read his column this week, the inequities were jumping off the page at me. Below his column, on the sports page, was this headline for a story by NFL reporter Andrew Beaton:

“The Sports World Went Dark. NFL Teams Spent More than $2 Billion in a Week.”

I don’t begrudge professional football players their salaries. They are the talented elite, and, for many of them, their pro careers are notoriously short. But couldn’t this auction of talent known as free agency have waited?

The juxtaposition of these two stories in Monday’s paper made it all the more startling.

As Jason Gay noted, protecting and coping are more difficult for vulnerable people than for many of us. So each of us copes the best we can with the tools we have on hand, understanding that the system is not equal. It’s not at all the system we might hope for at this moment. It’s certainly not world that the Torah imagines it might be.

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives us God’s command to Aaron and his sons, the soon-to-be anointed high priests of the Israelite nation, as to how they should conduct the offerings that the people will bring them at the altar. The command is highly detailed, because there are a lot of offerings.

There are offerings for every day and on special festive days. There are sin offerings and guilt offerings from those who have offended in ways big and small. There are offerings of well-being given by those who want to give thanks to God for making it through a difficult time. And there are votive, free-will offerings, from those who just want to thank God for their very existence.

The bottom line is: Every Israelite will be bringing offerings on a regular basis for reasons and for seasons. Every Israelite, old or young, rich or poor or just getting by. They each get an equal turn. They each get the time and attention and respect of the priests. Eish tamid tu-kad al-ha mizbeach, the priests are told: “You shall keep a perpetual fire going on the altar; it must not go out.”[1] Because all the people will need it, all the time.

Notably, the guilt offering and the sin offering – the huge unblemished animals that people bring in repentance, to atone and receive God’s forgiveness – aren’t the only gifts that God deems to be “kodesh kodashim” – “most holy.” The meal offering, too, is described this way. The lowly meal offering. The handful of flour and oil that is partially burned on the altar and then turned into simple unleavened cakes – matzah – for the priests to eat.

The great 15th century Spanish sage Isaac Abarbanel wonders: Why should this be? Why would unleavened cakes made with a handful of flour be as important to God as the animals whose burned flesh is described as a pleasing aroma for God?

And he answers: The meal offering too is “most holy,” in honor of those who bring an offering to God despite their poverty.[2]

The size of the gift isn’t what’s important. What’s important is what it means to the donor.

The Midrash[3] teaches:

Once a woman brought a handful of fine flour (for a meal offering), and the priest despised her — publicly humiliated her — saying: “See what she offers! What is there in this to eat? What is there in this to offer up?”

But that night, it was shown to him in a dream: “Do not despise her! It is regarded as if she had sacrificed her own life.”

The poor person’s handful of flour is equal in God’s eyes to the wealthy person’s bull. This is a system designed for inclusion of opportunity, and equality of treatment. It is the ideal that the Torah strives for and that God encourages us to follow.

In fact, the command to keep the eternal flame – the eish tamid – burning (Lev. 6:6) comes in the verse right before the description of the simple meal offering (Lev. 6:7). God seems to be emphasizing to us that the eish tamid needs to be there most especially when the poor approach, because they are the people most easily forgotten and imperiled in a less equal world. As the Midrash[4] also teaches: “The altar is enhanced by the sacrifice of a poor person.”

“Kodesh kodashim” – in a perfect world, all of these are most holy. In our imperfect world, all of those who serve on the front lines and put their lives at stake are most holy. But so are those who bring companionship to a lonely neighbor, or who take from their own cupboards to bring to the food bank. This is the great equalizer – we bring the gifts we have to give.

And because of that, the eish tamid still burns. It burns because we keep it burning – inside our homes, and inside ourselves. As Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook wrote a hundred years ago in pre-state Israel:

“We are taught that a person who extinguishes even one ember on the altar has violated the prohibition that “it will never be put out.” This is all the more true for one who extinguishes an ember of the spiritual fire in the spiritual altar – the Jewish heart.”[5]

As we approach Passover, our zman cheiroteinu, our season of our peoples’ deliverance, we pray for peace and healing and comfort for everyone – and we work to make it so, bringing the light of holiness into the world with each great act of kindness, no matter how small it may seem. The Torah’s message is that we all have something to give. So give what you can in this perilous time.

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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Lev. 6:6

[2] The Commentators’ Bible The JPS Miqraot Gedolot Leviticus, edited, translated and annotated by Michael Carasik (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2009), p. 41.

[3] Leviticus Rabbah III:5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Torah Gems Volume II Shemot/Vayikra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 256.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Everything Is Uncertain – Shabbat Vayikra, Friday, March 27, 2020

Sun, 2020-03-29 09:26

So I have a special anniversary coming up in a couple of weeks. You won’t find it on the Temple web site or as a special event on Facebook. And this year, you won’t even sweat over your tax returns, since the federal government has pushed back the filing deadline to mid-summer. But April 15th is still a red-flag day for me, nonetheless. On April 15th, 1998, I was diagnosed with Stage Two breast cancer.

I’d found the lump in my right breast two and a half years earlier, during the ten days of penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – a time when we are told God holds life and death in the balance. But it took two and a half years and a change in my medical team to find a surgeon who would take out something that clearly didn’t belong there.

I don’t know if it would have been cancerous had it been removed when I found it. I don’t know if it went from not-cancer to cancer at some point. I don’t know why I was lucky that, if it had to be cancer, it turned out to be the old-lady slow-growing type. Basically, there’s a lot I still don’t know.

At the time, the uncertainty of not knowing how or if I would even survive was terrifying. In the five years after, there was the uncertainty of the cancer returning even with extended medication. Two years ago, twenty years after the surgeries, there was uncertainty whether some shadow that appeared in my left breast was cancerous. It wasn’t, but I had it out anyway, to relieve any of the uncertainty – in the knowledge that that nagging feeling would never go away.

Columnist David Brooks, in the New York Times this week, likened the fear and the uncertainty the world is now experiencing with coronavirus to what we cancer patients go through individually. He called it our “wisdom.” I’d call it more of a truth. The truth that we just can’t know.

“Don’t expect life to be predictable or fair,” he wrote. “Don’t try to tame the situation with some feel-good lie or confident prediction. Embrace the uncertainty of this whole life-or-death deal.”[1]

I don’t know that I embrace the uncertainty as much as just cope with it day by day. But he’s right about wanting all the facts, about not wanting anything sugar coated. I wanted to know the whole truth. I wanted to know what my short-term chances were with every different kind of chemotherapy, and what months of daily radiation would add to my long-term chances. I wanted my decisions to be based on the best information available, and I wanted it from the smartest and most experienced medical professionals I could find.

That’s exactly the same thing that everybody wants today.

Back then, I knew nothing they said or did gave me a sense of certainty. But as long as I could trust that I was being told the truth, as much as they knew it, it did give me hope. It gave me – and still gives me – a deep appreciation for what I get to do for a living. Blessing people and times and seasons. Sharing the most intimate times in families’ lives. And looking forward to the next Shabbat with joy.

David Brooks calls that humility. “There’s a weird clarity that comes with that embrace” of uncertainty, he wrote. “There is a humility that comes with realizing you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life. When the plans are upset, there’s a quieter and better you beneath them.”

The greatest of our rabbis had that humility. Generations of them had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem, the slaughter and exile of the people, the martyrdom of their teachers – all, they believed, part of a great plan that God had laid out for us, but that we could not yet understand.

They taught: “Eileh olam k’minhago noheg” – and yet the world pursues its natural course.[2] Sometimes it makes no sense. Sometimes it’s just not fair. But as David Brooks recommended to us, the rabbis embraced the uncertainty, not expecting what they could know of this life to be predictable or fair.

What we who have battled illness know, and what the rabbis experienced – that’s the whole world now. That’s everybody from here to Italy and back. We are all, Brooks writes, “connected by a virus that reminds us of the fundamental fact of interdependence.”

The irony, as he points out, is that at the same time we share a universal experience, we are all practicing social distancing. We are all sitting in our own personal space, all sharing the same fears and challenges. We should have been the generation that could handle being along together. After all, that’s really what social networking is, right? Instant chats, ephemeral images, there and gone – leaving us alone again.

And yet, we have discovered through living in these bubbles at least six feet apart from each other that we really, really need each other now more than ever. When we are told we cannot have social contact – that it’s no longer a choice – we really crave it.

Brooks writes that there’s a reason for this. The social connections that we get through SnapChat and YouTube and incessant texting — that’s not enough. What we crave is not social connections – but social solidarity. The sense that, not only are we all in this together, but we all desperately need each other to get through it.

The concept of social solidarity is written into the very verses of Torah that begin the Book of Leviticus this week. God calls Moses into the just-completed Tent of Meeting and tells him to give this message to the children of Israel about the sacrificial worship that is soon to begin there:

אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַיהוָֹה מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה מִן־הַבָּקָר וּמִן־הַצֹּאן תַּקְרִיבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶם:

When any of you presents a korban offering to God, you shall bring your offerings of the cattle, of the herd or of the flock.

But the Hebrew leads us to something deeper. It starts out in the singular “Adam ki yakriv” – when a man, an individual, brings the offering. And then it says “takrivu et korbanchem” – “You” in the plural, any of you, all of you shall bring the offerings forward.

Why does it do that?

Rabbi Isaac Karo, who created an extensive commentary on the Torah in early 16th century Spain, said it referred to something the sages of the Talmud taught: “If a person has fulfilled a single commandment, he is fortunate, for he has tipped both himself and the whole world to the side of merit.”[3] In this case, he said, when one person brings a sacrifice to God, he helps not only himself, but the entire world.[4]

That’s social solidarity: Every good thing should be seen as a common good.

We’re pretty lucky if we’re just dealing with kids at home with a dwindling supply of toilet paper. It’s annoying, yes. And boring. But think of the bravery of all the people practicing social solidarity on our behalf. The exhausted doctors and nurses and support personnel in the hospitals, terrified because they don’t have the protective gear that they need and deserve. The police officers trying to persuade recalcitrant business owners to follow the governor’s orders to close. The grocery store employees diligently restocking packages when they don’t know where the boxes have been or who’s been touching them.

They’re doing it to get paid, yes. But they know there are risks. And they’re taking those risks to help the entire world.

So we do what we can. Blair County Mutual Aid has places where you can drop off food and paper goods and baby supplies on peoples’ porches, where neighbors in need can come pick them up. (A very Jewish concept, by the way, that goes back to the Torah and to the anonymous distribution of alms at the Temple).

Parent volunteers are distributing take-out, drive-up breakfasts and lunches in school parking lots all over town to their kids’ classmates who might otherwise go without.

Libraries and art museums and music centers and Broadway show producers are opening up their archives and their streaming services for free, and internet providers are giving away connections for families in need.

Every single one of you here tonight has tipped the scale toward merit – not just for yourselves but for all of us. You’ve helped make a minyan for someone who needs to say kaddish. Or someone who just needs the gift of Shabbat to bring a little peace and comfort into an otherwise tumultuous time.

When this is all over – and, eventually, it will subside — I hope people remember how important social solidarity is. I hope they – you, us – will keep making Shabbat, and providing meals to kids, and playing music for elderly neighbors. I hope all of us remember these moments, what it feels like to be alone and afraid and full of uncertainty – and that we will be the ones who will be there for someone else who feels the same way.

Do we really embrace the uncertainty? I don’t know. Maybe we just deal with it the best we can. But the best way we can do that is together.

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


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] David Brooks, “Screw This Virus!” New York Times, March 19, 2020.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 54b.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b: “R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon said: Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority [of deeds, good or bad], if he performs one good deed, happy is he for turning the scale both for himself and for the whole world on the side of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for weighting himself and the whole world in the scale of guilt.”

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

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Vayakhel Gathering From Afar for Friday, March 20, 2020

Mon, 2020-03-23 11:38

The following sermon was delivered during a Zoom-room Shabbat Worship service, the first from Rabbi Audrey Korotkin and Temple Beth Israel during the current coronavirus pandemic:

This is something I honestly never thought I’d be doing.

People think I’m pretty tech savvy. Which is both puzzling and kind of scary. Somehow I guess I seem competent at this stuff. But really – we just got technology to do what we needed to do. I can see and hear you, you can see and hear me. And we picked this platform because it’s the most inclusive way we could be together – without actually being together.

We are now living through a situation we call, in Hebrew, Sh’at had-chak, a time of emergency, a time of distress. In all aspects of our lives, we have to behave and follow rules that have never applied before – not in our lifetimes, anyway.

We must stand at least six feet from anybody else. We must refrain from public places where fifty or more would gather – or in some cases, ten or more. We must spend a good 20 seconds washing our hands, throughout the day. We must clean and sanitize every surface we touch, and then clean ourselves.

We must follow what amounts to rationing rules in supermarkets – no more than two packs of frozen vegetables at Wegman’s, which had no frozen vegetables to begin with. Normally many of us would be preparing for Passover. But our community seder – one of the highlights of our time together – is cancelled. And so, of course, are the Shabbat services where we gather in the sanctuary, hug each other, give each other kisses, and share food and company around a common table.

Our children are out of school. Many of us are working at home but many others of our neighbors aren’t able to work at all.

And with all the displacement and insecurity we have to deal with, our community, like so many others across the country, has pulled together – each of us for each other.

Schools and community groups and kind individuals are making sure children get breakfast and lunch every day in pick-up lines that, for now, replace the free or reduced-price meals they would get at school. A handful of people have created Blair County Mutual Aid, to share information on where people can get assistance and support, from child minders to food assistance to diapers and wipies for their babies – to how to file for state unemployment benefits.

Remember a year and a half ago, when I gave a series of sermons based on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?” It was Mister Rogers who said: “Always look for the helpers.” We have met the helpers. And they are us.

But prayer is supposed to be both communal and personal – each of us praying our own needs but in the safety of a sanctuary and a kehillah kedosha, a holy congregation. And that is one thing that this sh’at had-chak has taken away from us, at least for a while.

We cannot accept this as the new normal – the social distancing, the praying via zoom. But Judaism does allow us to take control of the situation and, as the Psalmist wrote, et la’asot[1] – to act on God’s behalf in this time of distress.

As you know, I’m a long-time member of the Reform movement’s Responsa Committee. We take questions from colleagues all over the country that reflect difficulties and conflicts in their communities that they cannot solve by themselves.

And here’s what they all needed to know this week: Is it Jewishly acceptable to allow us to do exactly what we’re doing tonight: creating a minyan via the internet?

Some years ago, our committee took this question and looked at the halakhah and Jewish tradition and said: No. If you absolutely, positively cannot physically be at services, you can dial in. But you must be connecting with an actual, physical minyan of at least ten people that is holding services together.

But that ruling was designed to deal with the limits of technology in normal times. It did not account for anything like this time of distress that’s been visited upon us now. It was right that they asked – and it was right that we responded quickly.

So we did. With circumstances changing daily, and with a lot of colleagues already on-line last weekend, we said yes. In a time of distress, when we cannot and should not be physically together, we can be virtually together. We should strive for as much inclusion and participation as possible – which is what we’re trying to do tonight. And special events should be either cancelled or delayed, because the health and well-being of every single person in our community is of utmost importance.

We’re reminding people that this is not the new normal, and that these guidelines are designed to be only temporary – until the experts tell us it’s safe to be together again.

But it’s not just the medical and scientific experts we listen to. We have guidance from our own Torah. And here I want to thank our colleague Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal from the Rabbinical Assembly, who drew our attention to this teaching during a webinar this week updating clergy on the coronavirus.

At the beginning of this week’s double Torah portion, which concludes the book of Exodus, Scripture says:

א וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּה יְהוָֹה לַעֲשׂת אֹתָם:

“And so Moses assembled all of the community of the children of Israel. And he said to them: These are the things that God has commanded that you should do.”

“Vayakhel” – Moses assembled. But just how did he do that? All those tens of thousands of people? How in the world did he manage?

Rashi – Rabbi Sh’lomo Yitzchaki, the 11th century French sage considered the greatest of all Torah commentators . . . Rashi took note of the way the Torah phrases this:

Vayakhel, Rashi said, is a causative verb form. That is, it’s not a direct action. He said, “For one does not gather people together with the hands; rather, they are assembled by his word.”

Not everyone was able to see Moses in person, right?  But his word – his message – traveled through the community, even to those farthest away from him. It was as though every single one of them was close enough to hear him perfectly.

And what was the very first mitzvah – the very first divine command that Moses then taught? “Six days shall work be done,” Moses told them, “but on the seventh day there shall be a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to God.”

The most important thing, when he brought the people together with his voice, was honoring and observing Shabbat.

Now, you might think that’s weird. Isn’t Yom Kippur more important? Or Rosh Hashanah, or the eve of Passover?

Actually, no.

Jewish law has this rule: Tadir V’she’eino Tadir, Tadir Kodem. Something that occurs regularly takes precedence over something that occurs irregularly, or less often.

We’ll miss our Passover seder together. The Bar Mitzvah will be postponed. But Shabbat! – Shabbat is so important, precisely because it does come every week. Because it is the great gift that God has given us, as a kehillah kedosha, to be together every seven days, to share each others’ joys; to mourn each other’s losses; to celebrate simply getting through another week.

It’s so important that the normal conventions of how we are supposed to gather together are in abeyance at a time of distress. And yet we have this: Vayakhel. As the people were gathered together by Moses’s voice, so too we are gathered together by our voices. We are united by our rituals. We are blessed by the care we show to one another. We are reminded that any space can be made sacred space.

There are actually people in this Zoom room tonight who don’t often come to Shabbat services in the sanctuary. Some live a distance away. And while I would love to see all your smiling faces in person when this sh’at had-chak is over, the fact that we are all tuned in tonight is a sign of the importance we all place on our time together.

For now, we take advantage of the opportunities we have, of the technology we’ve created, to be as close as we dare to be.

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



© 2020 Audrey R. Korotkin






[1] Ps. 119:126 עֵת לַעֲשׂוֹת לַיהֹוָה: “It is time to act for God”

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

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

Mon, 2019-12-09 13:59

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jacob?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Gen: 28: 20-22

[2] Gen. 32:2-3.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog


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