Category Archives: Divrei 5782

Nitzavim

Nitzavim

By Joel Elkins, September 24, 2022

I don’t usually put much stock in serendipity, but sometimes the universe conspires to try to convince me otherwise.

A while back I was given the assignment to give the dvar torah today on parshat Nitzavim. That same day, I had picked up from the library the book for my book club. I debated whether to start in on the book or to get a head start on the drash. I flipped a mental coin and the book won.

So I opened to the first page of Jonathan Sacks’ “A Letter in the Scroll” which begins with the story of a 15th Century Spanish rabbi named Isaac ben Moses Arama who was – I kid you not — preparing his sermon on parshat Nitzavim. Good one, universe. You’ve got my attention.So Rabbi Arama is sitting in his study and he fixates on the opening passage, where Moses gathers all the Children of Israel and says to them:

Atem Nitzavim, you are all standing here today to enter into the covenant of your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant not just with those standing here today, but also with those who are not with us.

Rabbi Arama then asks the same question that countless commentators have asked before him: It just said everyone was standing there — men, women, children, tribal elders all the way down to resident aliens, woodchoppers and water bearers. Who then are “those who are not here”? And he comes to the same conclusion that many others, including Rashi, Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra had come to before: this must be referring to future generations. The Talmud calls it “mushba ve-omed mi-Sinai” (already foresworn at Sinai). From the moment we exit our mother’s womb, for better or for worse, we are born into that covenant.

Later in his book, Rabbi Sacks asserts that the idea of a covenant between a people and its God is unique among the world’s religions. Ancient polytheistic religions believed that men were essentially serfs serving whatever god controlled the region. Christianity believes that man is tainted by original sin which only devotion to God can remove. Islam believes that man is called to absolute submission to God’s will. Judaism alone believes in a covenant, an ancient contract between the people and God.

But Rabbi Arama asks how future generations can be held to a contract that they did not agree to. The traditional answer is that the souls of all future Jews were present at that time, but they were not included in the “those standing here today” for the simple reason that they could not physically stand.
I’d like to offer a slightly different answer.

A little later on is the parsha’s most famous line:
הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ
I have put before you life and death
הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה
blessing and curse
וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃

Generally translated: “then choose life—so that you and your offspring will live”

Based on this translation, the whole process smacks of coercion. Follow my commandments and you will live and be blessed, do otherwise and you will be cursed and die. Like that famous midrash about God asking the people to accept the commandments while physically holding Mt. Sinai over their heads. Being bound to a contract which was forced upon you under pain of death is no way to go through life.

But perhaps there is another, more uplifting, reading. But for that, I will need to talk a little Hebrew grammar. In the Torah, there is something called vav ha-hipuch, a vav before a verb which changes a future tense verb to past and a past tense verb to future. Thus, yomar means “he will say.” Va-yomer means “he said.” Similarly, in the verse I just read bacharta means “you (singular) chose”; so u-vacharta – “you will choose.” But since Moshe is making a plea not a prediction, most translations change it to the cohortative “choose” — choose life.

But consider this: what if this is not an example of vav ha-hipuch, but rather a plain vav ha-chibur, the simple conjunction “and.” Then the verse would read “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse, and you chose life.”

In the traditional reading, life and death, and blessing and curse are seen as alternatives, choose (a) or (b). But in this alternative reading, as I will explain, they can be seen as two sides to the same coin.

In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve a choice. You can abstain from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and stay forever in the garden with all your needs provided for, or you may partake of the fruit of the tree and be banished from the garden, live on earth, till the soil by the sweat of your brow and give birth in pain. As we all know, they chose life.

I like to think of this not as a creation story but as a parable, that every soul is given this choice: you can remain an ephemeral, lifeless being and exist forever in the cosmos, or you can choose to live on earth, with all its ups and downs, its blessings and curses, life and eventual death. And of all the untold number of souls given this choice, only a small minority chose to take the red pill, choosing life with all its highs and lows, freedoms and restrictions, adventure and mortality. By very definition, each of us here is one of those bold few.

Perhaps this is what God, through his servant Moshe, was saying to the people then and, through our reading of this parsha each year, to us today. You knew the consequences of the choice I set before you and you chose life on this earth. But with that great power comes great responsibility. The price of experiencing this corporeal life is the occasional misfortune and heartache. Sure, follow my commandments and I will lessen those for you. But they won’t go away. They are, after all, a part of life.

In Jewish literature and liturgy, God is variously described as a master and we his servants, or as a king and we his subjects, or as a father and we his children. But according to Rabbi Sacks, the metaphor most embraced by the prophets is that of husband and wife, a covenantal relationship created and maintained by mutual commitment.

Married couples make a lifetime commitment to marry “for better or for worse, till death do they part.” But every now and then they may find it helpful to renew those vows. We have that same opportunity. Every year about this time, we participate in an intense 10-day couples’ retreat. We admit our mistakes from the previous year and re-commit to trying to do better this coming year. We share with our partner what we expect from them and listen to their needs of us.

Starting tomorrow evening, we will all be Nitzavim, standing before God in that annual couples’ retreat. As you beat your chest and try your hardest to be remorseful, imagine God saying to you: I set before you all the terms of the contract, life and death, blessings and curses. And with full knowledge of the consequences, you signed on the dotted line, you gave your informed consent, and you got life. Now, keep up your end of the bargain, and live it, fully and honorably.

Shabbat Shuvah — Who By Fire

Shabbat Shuvah — Who By Fire

By Melissa Berenbaum, Oct. 1, 2022

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.

If I were to recount a story about a man who runs away from his responsibilities, only to find there is no escaping those obligations, you would say you know the story. It’s the story of Jonah, which is read on Yom Kippur. The Book of Jonah is a parable, reminding us that it’s more or less impossible to ignore or turn away from God’s call and that God is merciful when we turn away from wrongdoing and evil and turn toward God.

But I do want to talk about another person, more contemporary, who may have thought he was running away from some of his commitments, but his running away was in fact running toward his responsibilities.

The year was 1973. The person is Leonard Cohen. He was then living on the Greek Island, Hydra, with a woman and their young child Adam, born in 1972. That life was already something of an escape for a man who grew up in Montreal in an Orthodox family at Sha’ar Hashomayim. His grandfather laid the cornerstone of the shul in 1921. At his bar mitzvah, Leonard Cohen was called to the Torah at Sha’ar Hashomayim – Eliezer ben Natan Ha-Cohen.

His life on Hydra, first with Marianne Ihlen (of the song Marianne) and then Suzanne (but not the same Suzanne of the song), was a simple, but hedonistic, life. He consumed a lot of drugs and created a lot of great music through the 1960’s. He was part of the same music scene that included Joan Baez, and he had achieved success and fame. But at 39, he was unsatisfied, unfulfilled and told people, including reporters that he was done with music and essentially had nothing more to say.

On October 6, Yom Kippur that year, Israel was attacked, as we all know, in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights. Israelis living outside the country scrambled to get home to join their units. And facing middle age, trapped by a family, blocked creatively and fed up with what the music business had become, Leonard Cohen made his way to Israel, to his myth home, as he called it. He intended to volunteer on some kibbutz that he knew would be in need of workers to replace the men who were being called into service. So done was he with music that he didn’t even bring a guitar with him.

Is he running away, or is he answering a call? Maybe he is more like Avraham… Hineni.

He had no specific direction when he got to Tel Aviv and went to a Café where he was recognized by some Israeli musicians – Ilana Rovina and Oshik Levy and they invited him to join as they were going to play concerts. He initially demurred, but after they requisitioned a guitar for him, he joined them.

We all probably have some familiarity with the USO shows that provide live entertainment to American troops serving abroad. These are lavishly produced entertainment spectacles that have been done since World War II. I remember them from the Vietnam era because they were filmed and then broadcast on American television.

Well, Leonard Cohen, Ilana Rovina, Oshik Levy and they were joined by Matti Caspi, were a long way from the USO shows. The first couple of concerts took place at air force bases, in a movie theater or similar auditoriums.

And almost from the start, Cohen’s inspiration and creativity were re-ignited. He began sketching out “Lover, Lover, Lover” on the first day he played and introduced it at the second show at Hatzor Air Base. Here are some of the lyrics:

I asked my father, I said “Father, change my name.”
The one I’m using now it’s covered up with fear and filth and cowardice and shame.
The refrain: Lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, come back to me.

Matti Friedman, author of Who by Fire – Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, speculates that this verse relates to the widespread practice of exchanging diaspora Jewish names for Hebrew names, as part of the process of integration and assimilation into Israel. We all know Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir.

And a later verse:

And may the spirit of this song
May it rise up, pure and free
May it be a shield for you
A shield against the enemy

Cohen wrote in his notes that he hoped that this song might offer protection to the soldiers about to embark on their missions. Did he really think a song could protect soldiers facing war? Or was he fulfilling his responsibility and obligation, as a Cohen, to offer the priestly blessing to the soldiers who were about to embark on life-or-death missions?

Hineni.

And the refrain…. Lover, lover, lover, lover (and a few more) come back to me. We don’t know exactly the context. It could evoke God’s presence as in Shir Ha Shirim, or a conventional expression of one missing another, as a soldier missing a girlfriend.

It’s well documented that the concerts had a big impact on the soldiers. The music provided an escape – from the danger, the threat of death, the reality of death and injury. And Cohen was well known in Israel, having performed there in 1972 and through his albums.

Matti Friedman’s book recounts many of the concerts – none of which were filmed or taped. He tracked down soldiers – now grandmothers and grandfathers – who attended these concerts, most of which were in the Sinai, closer to where the battles were being waged. They were impromptu performances, with little equipment like speakers and lighting. Oshik Levy’s description of a typical concert – an officer takes them in the desert at night in a truck. “The front is close but he doesn’t know how close. They stop by a few big artillery guns clustered in the sand. Everything is completely black. Does anyone want to hear some music? Some dirty soldiers gather around.” He “builds a stage of ammunition crates and arranges a truck’s headlights for illumination. They start singing. Suddenly an artillery officer says politely, ‘Can you stop for a moment,’ and shouts ‘Gun three!’ The ground shakes and the air ripples with the force of a projectile. Everyone is deafened for a few seconds. They begin singing again.”

The memories of those who saw Cohen perform are sharp and precise. A soldier named Shlomi recalls an attack on the Africa side, after Israeli troops had crossed the Suez. An Egyptian plane overhead, firing at the soldiers below. One soldier manning a machine gun on an armored personnel carrier shot the plane down. Later Shlomi, after roaming through the desert looking for fuel cans returned to the improvised base camp and recalls hearing a voice. He said he felt like Moshe, hearing the voice and he walked toward it. He saw someone sitting on a steel helmet resting on the sand, with a guitar, singing – it was Leonard Cohen.

There could be much to say about the battles of the Yom Kippur War – 2600 lives lost. How perilously close Israel was to the precipice. And I’m sure many here (not including those in the 20s and 30s group, and I would add even those in their 40s) can remember where they were and how they learned that Israel was being attacked and what they did to offer help and resources to the Jewish state.

But this is about Leonard Cohen’s journey and the significance and impact his experiences in Sinai had on him and its relevance to this season of return and repentance. Cohen was reluctant to talk about his experiences in the Yom Kippur War, of being up close to war and its horrors, to see young men die. He did return to Hydra, to Suzanne and Adam, probably to appreciate the mundane and ordinary, which is what the war was waged to protect. They had another child and he began writing music again…. he had something to say. This rebirth gave us “Hallelujah” and “Dance Me to the End of Love” and so many others.

So we come to Cohen’s version of the U-ne-taneh Tokef…. Who By Fire. He wrote it just months after his experiences in the Sinai. And it was released in 1974 on the first album following the war. Think about the prayer, recited on Yom Kippur and shortly after, Israelis learned the nation was under attack. From the shul to prepare for reserve duty – nothing could be more dramatic, more real than listing the ways peoples’ lives could end in the coming year and going off to defend your country.

Cohen, who grew up in an Orthodox synagogue and knew the prayer, its meaning and significance – all knowing God who inscribes and seals mortals for the coming year, who will die and who will be born, who will die in the right time and who will die an untimely death, who by water, who by fire …. And you know the rest.

He took that prayer with his experience in Israel, among soldiers, and gave us Who By Fire –

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

Matti Friedman tells the story of Kibbutz Beit Hashita, that tragically lost 11 of its young men in the Yom Kippur War – the next generation of the kibbutz. This was a particularly secular kibbutz where the members didn’t really observe Yom Kippur. After the war, Yom Kippur became a day of mourning on the kibbutz. Some years later an Israeli songwriter, Yair Rosenblum, visited Kibbutz Beit Hashita where he wrote a new melody for the U-netaneh tokef. He combined European cantorial melodies, Sephardic tunes and modern Israeli music. That melody is used in many Israeli synagogues. And then Israeli singer Aya Korem translated Cohen’s song into Hebrew and layered it on to Rosenblum’s melody. Listen here.

Leonard Cohen seems like Jonah – in that he tries to escape. But his escape route brings him right back to his roots, to who he is. He had to go back out on the road doing concerts around 2009 when he discovered his manager had stolen his savings. He played in Israel, and if you go to the Anu Museum in Tel Aviv, you can see a clip from that concert at the end, when Eliezer Ha-Cohen raised his hands, parted his fingers and blessed the crowd with the Priestly Benediction and left the stage.

May our t’shuvah be meaningful and fulfilling. G’mar hatimah tovah. Shabbat shalom.

Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo

By Rabbi Jim Rogozen, September 17, 2022

You see that little bracketed word in the Prayer for the State of Israel? שתהא ? I saw that word for the first time 4 years ago when we came back to LA. I don’t like that word!

That word takes the assertion – that Israel is ראשית צמיחת גאוּלתינוּ reishit tzemichat geulataynu­… the initial sprouting or flowering of our redemption – and pivots away from it, turning it into a hope: “may it someday be” the place of our flowering redemption.  תפילה לשלוֹם מדינת ישראל

The prayer was written by Israel’s chief Rabbis Yitzhak haLevi Herzog and Ben Zion Meir Uziel, and had the support of various Rabbinic groups around the country. It was first published in the religious Zionist newspaper Ha-Tsofeh on September 20, 1948. We are 3 days away from the prayer’s 74th anniversary

Even with all that Rabbinic support, this prayer was not universally accepted. Why? Because people have been debating the concept and the timing of Geula — redemption — for centuries.

Geula can refer to several things: physical freedom (like escaping Egypt), or leaving Galut (the Diaspora) to go to Israel. Some say it refers to the ultimate perfection of humanity preceding the Messianic Era.

For some, Geula required introductory conditions, referred to as Ithalta d’Geula, to be in place, such as fruits and plants being tended again in the Land of Israel or new building projects happening in the city of Jerusalem, or people moving to Israel.

It’s important to note, though, that these conditions rely on human activity. But there were opinions that any human intervention in the process of Geula was not just irrelevant, but harmful. Here’s just one thread:

The following verse in Shir HaShirim is repeated three times:

הִשְׁבַּ֨עְתִּי אֶתְכֶ֜ם בְּנ֤וֹת יְרוּשָׁלַ֙͏ִם֙ בִּצְבָא֔וֹת א֖וֹ בְּאַיְל֣וֹת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה אִם־תָּעִ֧ירוּ
וְֽאִם־תְּע֥וֹרְר֛וּ אֶת־הָאַהֲבָ֖ה עַ֥ד שֶׁתֶּחְפָּֽץ׃

I adjure you (or make you take an oath), O maidens of Jerusalem,
By gazelles or by hinds of the field: Do not wake or rouse Love until it please.

Rabbi Yosi in Ketubot 111a claimed that these verses represent three “oaths,” two of which were binding on the Jewish People. One of them is  שֶׁלֹּא יַעֲלוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחוֹמָה meaning that Jews should not ascend to Eretz Yisrael “as a wall” — in a large group- but little by little. The second oath is that Jews will not rebel against the rule of the nations of the world. Pushing for a wholesale return to the Land, and establishing a new State of Israel, were seen as breaking these promises.

This is why, even now, 74 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, many Orthodox Rabbis believe that there is still no halakhic obligation for anyone to move to Israel.

So how could Rabbis Herzog and Uziel make the claim that Israel is Raysheet Tzmichat Geulataynu- the beginning of our Redemption?

Here’s a story: Rav Herzog was in the US in 1943 as the Nazis were moving into North Africa. People begged him not to go back to Israel because it was too dangerous. He said, “The Nazis won’t go into Eretz Yisrael.” Where did that come from?

It came from the Ramban’s commentary on Vayikra 26:16. In what probably sets a record for the longest Ramban comment, he says that there are two tochechot (or rebukes) in the Torah (B’chukotai and Ki Tavo­ – this week’s pasha), each of which mentions exile as a punishment for not observing the Torah. Since it only mentions two exiles, with only the second one being a complete redemption (what Ramban called a havtacha shleima – a full promise) we can assume there won’t be a 3rd.

Another source comes from the book of Amos 9:15

And I will plant them upon their soil, וְלֹ֨א יִנָּתְשׁ֜וּ ע֗וֹד מֵעַ֤ל אַדְמָתָם֙ Never more to be uprooted from the soil I have given them.

And in Sefer Yechezkel 36:8 on, v. 12

 “I will lead the people—My people Israel—to you (the Land), and they shall possess you. You shall be their heritage, וְלֹא־תוֹסִ֥ף ע֖וֹד לְשַׁכְּלָֽם and you shall not again cause them to be bereaved.”

Rashi says that means, the people will not be driven out of the Land.

Arbabanel says: כי לא ילכו עוד בגלות – They will no more go into exile.

And the Malbim says the Land will be from that moment on a ירושה עולמית – a forever inheritance.

In 1967 Rav Shlomo Goren channeled Rav Herzog’s reasoning when he predicted that while the Arabs would soon invade Israel, they would not prevail. Why? Because there could never be a 3rd Hurban – destruction.

Rabbis have debated the value and potency of the Torah’s curses and predictions for centuries. Some say prophecies of punishment can be reversed… by doing Tshuva…look at Sefer Yonah. Some say a positive prophecy (like Amos and Yehezkel) cannot be canceled under any condition.

And some argue that prophecies weren’t guaranteed because they were often conditional.

That’s why, as early as 1956, Rav Soloveitchic wrote that while God had invited the Jewish People into a relationship, including settling the Land of Israel, after 8 years of the new State, the Jews hadn’t responded strongly enough and that there was a need for further spiritual elevation.

So, that little word — שתהא — that someday the State of Israel might be or would be the initial sprouting of our redemption — leaves us with some questions.

Are we waiting for God or are we in the middle of Geula? If so, how long will it take? Is there something we should be doing?

Or, as Rabbi Stewart Weiss phrased it: Have we entered the Messianic Age or is this just “Galut with a Kotel?” His answer: we have entered the process of geula, but redemption is a just that, a process, not perfection.

I understand both sides to this issue. It is only natural for us be wary of reading God into specific events or agendas. We’ve seen too much of that, in the U.S. and around the world. And we have our own history of false messiahs, generational trauma, and cynicism; too much to blindly accept such a huge theological shift.

But for those in doubt, for those who don’t want to go “all in,” Rabbi Alan Haber offers an interesting intellectual bridge. He quotes the Rambam in Hilchot Melachim that someone who compels all of Israel to follow the Torah, and fights on behalf of God, can be considered b’hezkat mashiach – a tentative, presumed Messiah, even if he performs no miracles, and no matter the outcome. This was based on his analysis of Bar Kochba, whom Rabbi Akiba thought was the Messiah, at least until Bar Kochba was killed in battle.

Rabbi Haber suggests that because we are witnessing the fulfillment of so many Biblical prophecies we should see ourselves as b’hezkat ithalta d’geula – we should presume or act as if we are at the beginning of the geula, and we should do everything we can to move things along.

I like this idea. It’s motivating, it elevates our actions, linking them to a greater cause, for both Israel and all of humanity. It’s a very reasonable “as if” approach.

By way of comparison, look at the Prayer for Our Country in the Siddur. The founding fathers, with their deist theology, didn’t assume for a moment that God had a special relationship with the U.S. When we ask for God’s help in bringing about peace and justice in our country, we are basically asking God to maybe step in once in a while.

Let’s face it: Israel’s challenges are many. The government there does things that drive us crazy! And God, for some reason, refuses to issue regular updates about where we are on the Geula timeline. But to use a version of T’filla l’shlom Medinat Yisrael that treats Israel as if it’s just another country, waiting for God to someday get involved, makes me uneasy.

Remember what Yaakov said, having spent his first night away from home and seeing the ladder up to heaven in his dreams?

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣ש ה’ בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי

“Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know [it].”

Yaakov, at that moment, pivoted in terms of how he understood what he was living through.

Herzog’s original prayer challenges us — every week — to pivot — to pivot away from doubt and historical fear, and to step towards understanding the founding of the State of Israel, with all its warts and wonders, as the beginning of a divine process which just might generate some faith for the future.

As we get further into the High Holiday liturgy, it’s important to remember that each word we say, or don’t say, can make a world of difference.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Vaetchanan

Vaetchanan

By Henry Morgen, August 13, 2022

Shabbat shalom. I’d like to remember my father-in-law, Hank Weiss, on the occasion of his yahrzeit that we observed a couple days ago. Here are a few words about him: Hank grew up in New York. He was trained as a weather forecaster in World War II, stationed in Greenland where he helped our forces anticipate adverse weather conditions from D-Day and beyond. Upon returning to the United States, he joined his family that had moved to Los Angeles, and completed a degree in meteorology at UCLA. He served as a weatherman and on the SCAQMD for a period of time. Later he was a rocket test site safety engineer for Rocketdyne. He headed-up several different departments there, and after a brief retirement, he went back to work for the Aerospace Corporation supporting the space shuttle program. He was always interested in people and was skilled at talking with nearly everyone on nearly any topic. Where he had strong differences of opinion, he generally found ways to shuttle them to the side rather than unnecessarily heat things up. In his later years he returned to painting and drawing. He kept in touch with friends and relatives via eMail and phone calls. For the last couple decades of his life, he was considered the patriarch of the family.

Turning to this parsha, it is totally loaded with material to discuss. It would take days to really deal with all of it. It’s got G!d reiterating to Moshe that he’s not going into the promised land. It speaks of the incredible and amazing power of G!d and how generous G!d has been to the Israelites. It’s got the second recitation of the decalogue. It’s got the Sh’mah with the v’ahavtah. It’s filled with Moshe reminding the people about all the places they’ve been and how they’ve behaved over the 40-year wandering. And in multiple places it anticipates the lack of faithfulness to G!d that will come once the people are in the land.

Today I’m just going to focus on the opening lines of our parsha and see what we can learn from Moshe’s relationship with G!d as he pleads, one last time, to enter the land. For context, let’s recall that Moshe is the youngest and last remaining sibling in his family. His older sister, Miryam, one of the people directly responsible for saving his life as an infant and the source of water during the travels through the desert according to the Midrash, died shortly after we learn how to perform the ritual of purification. It is this ritual that informs us how to prepare a body for burial. Now the people are without a water well, and this leads to the second “water from the rock” incident. G!d decrees that both Moshe & Aharon will die in the wilderness. In fact, Moshe is directed by G!d to walk away from the camp and transfer the priestly vestment to Aharon’s son, Eleazer. There Aharon is to be buried. Now Aharon, his older brother who was his spokesman to Pharaoh and who’s lineage will inherit the priesthood, is gone. Moshe is now alone. There is no mention of his parents coming out of Egypt. There is no mention of his sons after the revelation at Sinai. He’s already been told by G!d, at the same time that Aharon was told, that he would not be entering the land. There is a succession plan in place: Jehoshuah ben Nun will take the helm as they conquer the land. Furthermore, in the last few verses of our last chapter he has just reminded the people of the successes G!d has afforded them to take possession of land on the east bank of the Jordon. The conclusion of the long struggle to guide this often-rebellious people to the promised land is at hand!

Think of the frustration he must feel. He was raised in the court of Pharaoh and taught the tradition of the Hebrews by his mother at a young age. He attempted to right a wrong being done by a taskmaster and ends up being a fugitive to save his own life. He served as a shepherd for 40 years, which is quite a demotion from being treated as royalty. He was given a mission by “the one who will be who he will be” to take the Hebrews out of bondage by confronting the very dynastic leadership that raised him. He was reunited with his brother who served as his spokesman. He has defended both G!d to the people and the people to G!d for another 40 very challenging years. And now he’s being told, “mission complete. Your life will no longer be needed.”

Surely Moshe knows that human life is finite. And yet, he may have thought, to paraphrase Tevya: “What would be so tragic if I could live just a few months on the land itself?” G!d’s response is very curt: “Enough of this begging for more life.” G!d’s only compromise was to allow him to ascend a cliff and look at the land that the Israelites would soon inhabit. With this assurance in place, Moshe accepts his fate. He has argues and pleaded with G!d for 40 years. He knows his limits: what he can push for and where to hold fast. He now understands that with whatever time he has left, he must do all he can to admonish the people to be faithful to G!d and ethical with each other. It is from this realization that he begins his second rendition of recounting and paraphrasing the laws they have received with the hope that this generation will be more faithful to them than their parents had been.

Think of how both strong and humble Moshe had to be to pull this off. Unlike most people, he knows the end of his life is days or at most months away. He knows that the people depend on him as the conduit to G!d, especially now that Aharon and Miryam are no longer alive. He knows he must instill their confidence in Jehoshuah for the remainder of the mission to be successful. And he knows that the people’s faith in G!d and fidelity to the covenant is tenuous. Yet, he continues to teach and preach right up until the very end of his life.

And how do we honor such a person? One way is that we name the first five books of our Tanach after him. I have another couple insights to share that have also become embedded into our tradition. Back when Aharon died, we learn that he was mourned for 30 days. From this we learn that a brother (Moshe) is obliged to mourn the death of a sibling for 30 days. (Unfortunately, we don’t learn that about Miryam. We only learn that we should complain about not having any fresh water there.) But what about Moshe? He has no siblings, and we don’t have any information about his sons or his wife at this point. We learn that the community is obliged to mourn the passing of someone who has no specific relative for 30 days. And when does that 30 days start? They begin counting on the day of burial. We know when that was for Miryam and for Aharon based on the wording in the text. All we know is that Moshe went up to the mountain overlooking the land and never returned. We count the day after he left as the first day, because the text states that G!d buried Moshe there. And from this we learn that burying the dead is one of the highest acts of loving kindness that can be performed. Therefore, again, it becomes the community’s responsibility to see that one who dies is given a proper burial, especially if they have no family.

This would be a good time to plug the Hevra Kadisha, in which, with full disclosure, I am not currently a participant. For those that would be interested in learning more about it, there are several members among us who can further enlighten you. It is also important for us to continue to be the strong and engaged community we are during shivah periods. And I recommend that we think about how we could be a bit more supportive during the remaining 30 days of sh’loshim than we tend to be. Furthermore, as we grow older, I anticipate several of us, who do not have children, will outlive our relatives and spouses that would be obliged to formally mourn us. We may want to anticipate this and think about how we would commit to formally observing the sh’loshim period for one with no obligated mourner.

Our Torah continues to be an ever-renewing wealth of knowledge and inspiration every time we turn it over. I wish you all many more years of strength, prosperity and good health! Shabbat shalom.

Observations, Estimations and a Recommendation inspired by Parashat Pinchas

Observations, Estimations and a Recommendation inspired by Parashat Pinchas

By A.J. Happel , 23 July 2022
Introduction

I dedicate this drash to my ma (aleha hashalom), Marta Leah bat Dov v’Cora. I wish to reassure everyone, I am not here to discuss current politics, nor to rehash decisions from 30 years ago. I welcome discussion of the numbers I cite – preferably after Shabbat.

The p’shat of Parashat Pinchas concerns names, numbers, the enumeration of available military personnel (at that time, all male) and sacrifices. As replete as this parasha is, it is severely limited; it only shows one side of the picture. For this drash, I have taken the liberty of estimating some numbers based on other sources to project more of the picture. But first, bear with me as I make a couple of obvious observations, before providing estimates and, as a consequence, a recommendation.

Observations and Estimates
First Observation

One hundred millennia ago, give or take 10,000 years, our forebearers brought forth on this planet a new species, human beings. And they’ve been doing it ever since. From that beginning until modern times, multi-generational families consisted of two groups, male and female, co-existing simultaneously together yet separate. Each group was constrained not to cross the line of behavioral norms for their assigned gender role. These norms were often regulated by overt means such as restrictions on apparel and on the use of tools and weapons.

The division between the groups is clearly represented in Torah, which admittedly was written primarily by, of and at least in some cases for men. Despite the extraordinary number of women named in Parashat Pinchas, we recognize that the numbers listed herein do not enable us to compare the two halves of society.

In fairness to Torah, women are rarely represented in history texts and scientific studies written prior to the 21st century. Even today, historical and statistical research funding is imbalanced, in part due to the significance of defense-related studies, which are still predominantly the domain of men. Many of these often publicly funded studies highlight the valorous sacrifices of men throughout history.

Second Observation

What about the women? There are fewer than 50 women listed by name in the Chumashim. Out of the 54 par’shiot, this parasha is singular in that it alone names 8 women: a religious prostitute, 5 upstart virgins, a woman who never dies and Moses’ mom. It’s a very diverse group. They were unusual by the mere fact that they were named. Yet we know little about them, what their lives were like, what chance they stood of living. We know even less about the masses of women, and men, who were not named. So, I estimated the likelihood for two gender-specific causes of death prior to modern times.

First Estimate

Let’s start with the men, by examining historical statistics for military combat fatalities, not for just one battle or war, but across broad ranges of time and geographical location. What danger did an average man face in military service? Did the average man actually serve in a military capacity? (3000 years ago – he probably did, at least once. 300 years ago – probably not.) I exclude the effects of plagues and other epidemics, which likely affected the civilian as well as the military population. Because of plentiful data availability, I cite herein statistics from what I would call proto-modern wars, namely the Crimean War and the U.S. Civil War. Granted ancient warfare differed significantly in scope, duration and nature from those of medieval and proto-modern warfare; but, I think we can assume that military fatality numbers in ancient times did not exceed those of the mid-1800s. In fact, I suspect they were in general lower. I stop at the year 1870 for two reasons: 1) because stopping at that date excludes the 20th century, which used heretofore unknown technologies and which would skew the fatality numbers for both military combatants and civilians; and 2) because I want to contrast military fatality numbers, which focus on men, against pregnancy fatality numbers from another set of estimates, which focus on women.

In the Crimean War, British fatalities in action and of wounds for those assigned to combat was 4%. In the U.S. Civil War, combat deaths were 6% for the Union and 7% for the Confederacy. These numbers prefigure the lethality of modern technology against Napoleonic military tactics (e.g., Charge of the Light Brigade and Pickett’s Charge). Hence, the per-war likelihood of our average man dying in combat was roughly 5%, or 1 out of 20. Although some men fought in more than one major war, most did not. The probability could be much higher for specific individuals and forces, depending on circumstances, geographical location and number of wars fought. These percentages do not include deaths by diseases, which accounted for 2 out of 3 military deaths in the U.S. Civil War. (For comparison, the fatality rate in WWI for the world’s mobilized forces was approximately 13%, a little less than 1 out of 7.)

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (zichrono livracha), as he pointed at the base of the back of his skull, taught that one should use one’s “reality checker”. I.e., does it seem correct? So, I want to add a quick reality check to the above. In the classical ancient period, the Romans considered decimation to be a devastating defeat. Decimation is the loss of one out of ten. Losing 10 percent of your army in a war was significant, exceptional, worthy of memorializing.

Second Estimate

To compare the challenges faced by the two halves of society prior to 1870, let us look at historical fatality rates due to reproduction. Finding sources for this is much more difficult. The World Health Organization has a lot of current data; but, historical data is very piece meal. I relied on studies done by researchers from Oxford University, based on records from 1800 to 1950, and I cut their plots off at 1870. I erred on the conservative side (using lower numbers). I also included a per pregnancy fatality rate from a Scandinavian study of circa 1800, which was considerably less than the Oxford rate. I will not spend time here on the details of what was included, what was not included, nor how I sifted through plots and synthesized results. Please see me later about those details.

Let me be clear, I did not do a research project on this. I just did some spreadsheet calculations using online information to get an approximation.

An approximate, admittedly imprecise, but I think accurate estimate of likelihood of fatality due to all pregnancies throughout the reproductive lifetime of the average woman prior to 1870 is 25%.

As the history books record, wars throughout history were gory. Not so long ago, so was childbirth. In some places it still is. Taboo as the subject was, the reality of what was happening in every household in every generation could not be completely ignored. The final reality check is hidden in Torah itself. The women’s mortality numbers are embedded in the stories of the four mothers. 1 out of 4 died.

Conclusion
Recommendation:

So, what is the take-away message? What is the significance of this to Conservative Judaism and to us as members of this kahal? We are here because Conservative Judaism speaks to us, and we want to pass a fitting message on to the next generation.

The theological commitment of the Conservative Movement was “we affirm our faith in the Creator and Governor of the universe”. May I add, the manifestation of this faith was to maintain Halacha (or at least a knowledge of it), and to use Halacha to inform the ritual practices and the moral and spiritual processes of Jews living in the modern world? Conservative Judaism is a movement born of the human need to intimately remind ourselves of our past as we move forward in the modern world. We do this by offering prayers every day, individually and in daily minyanim. But we also must listen for the kol d’mamah dakah, the soft, elusive, ephemeral, resonating, permeating, penetrating message, which is the response to prayer.

From the Zugot 2100 years ago through the Rishonim several centuries ago, the rabbis formulated liturgy for the public to preserve and to perpetuate the faith. I cite my teacher, Rabbi Joel Rembaum, who scarcely a year ago reiterated in a zoom lecture that the most fundamental prayer of Judaism, the Sh’ma, is Torah text augmented by the rabbis to suit the needs of an evolving Judaism (and I add: the needs of evolving Jews), while simultaneously maintaining the uninterrupted integrity of any given line of Torah. This careful, painstaking development continues under the Acharonim to the present.

The Conservative liturgy has over time been refined to express an evolving understanding of historical liturgy and to address the concerns of modern Jews.  Our liturgy has been deliberately constructed to direct our thoughts and to remind us of our responsibilities. In addition to our duty to commit to serving HaShem and to healing this world, we also have a duty to remember our ancestors – all of our ancestors, and to honor their sacrifices. What better embodiment of Frankel’s “positive-historical Judaism” could there be than to honor the sacrifices of our forebearers? Since we cannot call them all by name, Traditional Judaism recites the archetypal names of the three fathers. The Conservative Movement also offers the recitation of the names of the four mothers as optional.

Now we are engaged in civil strife over reproductive issues; nonetheless, this is an age when medical technology can significantly reduce the dangers, including fatalities, of pregnancy, so much so, that even our awareness of the past dangers is slipping away. We are forgetting. To forget the sacrifices made by so many women for the sake of human existence would be inexcusable, even unforgiveable.

I therefore conclude that Conservative Judaism, by its raison d’etre, ought not to merely permit the inclusion of the Imahot. It ought to require the inclusion of the Imahot lest future generations forget the sacrifices of our foremothers. This would be fitting recognition of the sacrifices of the roughly one out of four women who gave their lives that we all might live.

As a layperson, I respectfully submit this suggestion to the Kahal for consideration. Shabbat shalom.

Shelach Lecha

Shelach Lecha

By Harry Eskin, June 25, 2022

Shabbat shalom.

This week’s parasha depicts a significant national calamity. When the time approaches for the Israelites to enter the land of Canaan, Moses sends twelve leaders of the people to scout the land and bring back a report. When they return, ten of the scouts say: Yes, the land does flow with milk and honey, but the inhabitants are big and powerful and we don’t stand a chance against them. Despite the protestations of Caleb and Joshua, the two dissenting scouts, that the land is attainable, the community gives up hope, weeping and lamenting: לוּ־מַ֙תְנוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם א֛וֹ בַּמִּדְבָּ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה לוּ־מָֽתְנוּ — “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we might die in this wilderness.” As punishment, God sentences the Israelites to forty years of wandering in the desert, leaving the adult generations to die without reaching the Promised Land. The people’s lament becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: וּפִגְרֵיכֶ֖ם אַתֶּ֑ם יִפְּל֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֥ר הַזֶּֽה — “But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness.” The irony is striking: in their rebelliousness, the members of the generation of the Exodus, who had so recently been so near to holiness, miraculous redemption and Divine revelation, so drastically decline in their spiritual standing that in accordance with their own words they are condemned to perish while wandering in the desert.

Our Sages point out that the scope of this national calamity was not limited to the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness. According to the midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah: וְאָמַר לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אַתֶּם בְּכִיתֶם בְּכִיָּה שֶׁל חִנָּם לְפָנַי, אֲנִי אֶקְבַּע לָכֶם בְּכִיָּה לְדוֹרוֹת — “The Holy Blessed One said to them, ‘You have wept for nothing in front of Me; I shall establish this night for you as one of weeping for generations.’” That night, the midrash specifies, was Tish‘a b’Av, which was decreed to be the date of the destruction of the Temple and the onset of exile from the Land of Israel — the land the scouts had rejected — in addition to numerous other devastations throughout history traditionally understood to have fallen on that day.

Today, in this country, we find ourselves experiencing a prolonged succession of national calamities, one on top of another. Massacres of innocent people, of children, while legally the stage is set for vast expansion in the proliferation of weapons of mass murder; assaults on the civil rights, liberties and basic humanity of many of our most vulnerable: immigrants, transgender people, gay people, people policed by law enforcement and people who are incarcerated; measures that respond to the crisis of homelessness not by helping to house people or provide them with basic resources but by punishing people for being poor in public; and, most recently, the denial of reproductive autonomy, namely the right to have an abortion, which, if carried out, will result in an increase in hardship, suffering and death among pregnant people — a burden that will fall particularly hard on the poor and on communities of color.

More and more, it seems like the country around us resembles סְדֹם — Sodom, whose sin the Sages understand to have been cruelty to the needy and the vulnerable. This sentiment is not far removed from another midrash on this week’s parasha, describing God’s reaction to the people scorning God’s Promised Land: אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֲנִי הָיִיתִי סָבוּר שֶׁאַתֶּם נַעֲשִׂין כָּאָבוֹת: כַּעֲנָבִים בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְלֹא הָיִיתִי סָבוּר שֶׁאַתֶּם נַעֲשִׂין כִּסְדוֹם — “The Holy Blessed one said, ‘I had thought that you [the Israelites] would become like [your] ancestors [who are described in the book of Hosea] “as grapes in the desert”; I did not think that you would become like Sodom.’”

At a time like this, the plight of the generation of the Exodus can feel somewhat familiar. Many of us here have more or less recent memories of bearing witness, in years and decades past, to some of the greatest glories in our country’s history: to the long-overdue and hard-won expansion and codification of civil rights for marginalized communities, to the attainment of reproductive rights, to the moments when our country came closest to fully living up to its stated values of liberty and justice for all. And it is almost unbearably painful for those among us who witnessed these victories, and those among us who fought and sacrificed to achieve them, to see them broken and undone, or dangerously close to the verge of it. Losing or coming close to losing things so foundationally important to us, facing this magnitude of harm, confusion and grief, can feel like exile, like being cast off to wander or perish in a wilderness.

But as hopeless as this situation might seem, it is of paramount importance not to give up. We should not follow the example of the Israelites in this parasha, who responded to a discouraging report by crying out that death would be preferable. Rather, we ought to follow the example of Caleb and Joshua, who stood up to the majority despite the risk, and were rewarded with a share in the Promised Land after forty long years. We ought to follow the example of Moses, who, when God proposed to wipe out the Jewish people and make a new, bigger and better nation for Moses, said no, pleading with God to use God’s Attribute of Mercy and spare the people. Moses understood that his people, in spite of its rebelliousness and its fall from grace, was nonetheless God’s people and still worth saving. The generation of the Exodus might have been denied entry to the Promised Land due to their actions, but their children were still worthy of it. And we, too, must stand up for each other and do what God commands us to do in the way we treat our neighbors, in the way we care for the most vulnerable members of our communities, in the way we must build a society on justice and compassion, no matter how high the odds are against our succeeding in doing so. It is appropriate to take time to grieve, as Caleb and Joshua rent their garments, but if we give up altogether, we doom ourselves to die in the wilderness, forfeiting the inheritance that was promised us.

This is why the parasha that begins with the calamity of the scouts ends with the commandment of tzitzit, which we recite daily. ​​וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺ֣ת ה’ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם — “and it shall be your fringe, and you shall look at it and remember all of God’s commandments and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and your eyes that you lust after.” וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ — so that you do not follow, or search — a clear echo of the scouts at the beginning of the parasha who went לָת֖וּר — to scout the land of Canaan and were led astray by their fear and doubt. It is vital to continue defending our values and to not give in to the prevailing forces around us and even within us that act contrary to them. And in order to help us stay on this path, God gives us this commandment as something we can always look at, something to remind us constantly of who we are and who God wants us to be. לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺתָ֑י וִהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדֹשִׁ֖ים לֵאלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם — “in order that you may remember, and observe all of My commandments, and be holy to your God.” Does our destiny lie in exile in the wilderness, or in the Promised Land? Will we live up to the full potential of our peoplehood, or will we acquiesce to the policies of Sodom? It is our choice to make. The task ahead of us, to stand up for righteousness and justice in the face of calamity and adversity, is daunting, but it is a necessary task, and a sacred one. Remember.

Shabbat shalom.

Beha’lotkha,בהעלתך

Beha’lotkha,בהעלתך

By Zwi Reznik, June 18, 2022, Sivan 19, 5782

As is often the case this weeks Parsha covers a number of different topics. These range from lighting arrangements, the levites and their terms and conditions of service, Passover offerings, the divine cloud over the Tabernacle, Trumpets and their use, and of course Jews complaining about food, and the “inlaw” Miriam complaining about her brother’s wife.

What I wish to do today is talk about the Levites. I’ll note that I had a rather self centered thought about that since I’m Levi. However as I gave the topic further thought I noticed some other items of interest. Two weeks ago we looked at the assembling of the first Israeli army. In fact, Mitch Miller, our Darshan provided an interesting analysis of the size of that army. Chapter 8 of the Parsha provides a good deal of detailed information about the assembling of a different sort of military force—the Levites. An earlier view of the Levites may allow one to think of them as an army—e.g. The incident of the Golden Calf. Exodus 32:26 And Moses stood at the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, to me!” And the Levites gathered round him. 27And he said to them, “Thus said the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his thigh, and cross over and back from gate to gate in the camp, and each man kill his brother and each man his fellow and each man his kin.’” 28And the Levites did according to the word of Moses, and about three thousand men of the people fell on that day.

However in today’s Parsha we clearly move on to a very different view of the Levites and how they are to conduct themselves.

I also find myself considering some of the original Hebrew and how it appears in Modern translations. I find appealing an idea I first heard here for how God can change his mind on occasion when in conversation with Moses. That there is the Torah given to Moses and that there is a Torah in Heaven. While the Torah given to Moses is fixed the letters of the one in Heaven keep moving around. I want to apply that idea to some of the text. I like to think of that in the context of another recent Drash, given by Rabbi Laemmle last week, wherein she spoke of making a gender change in reference to the Birkat Cohanim. That reminded me that I often append the word אלמן to whenever אלמנה appears in our prayers, as when we note that God watches over the stranger, the orphan and the widow.

Consider the name of our Parsha, בהעלתך. It appears in Numbers 8:2 in the Alter translation as: ‘.2“Speak to Aaron and say to him: ‘When you light up the lamps, opposite the front of the lamp stand shall the seven lamps give light.’” In the JPS translation we get “2Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” If we look up בהעלתך  in a modern Hebrew dictionary we see the definitions: to raise, to elevate, to hoist, to reveal, to bring to light, to bring immigrants to Israel….So which is it. Turns out that the title of the Parsha shares the root lettersעלה  with the root of the verb להעלות which is of course to raise, to elevate, to bring up; .Seeing this varied understanding of the Parsha title casts a different light on how to interpret it.

When we move on to the section specifically dealing with the Levites we see in 8:11 in the Alter Translation “11And Aaron shall make of the Levites an elevation offering before the LORD from the Israelites, and they shall serve to do the work of the LORD. The JPS translation is similar with:” 11and let Aaron designate the Levites before the LORD as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may perform the service of the LORD. The original Hebrew is: 8: 11

וְהֵנִיף֩ אַהֲרֹ֨ן אֶת־ הַלְוִיִּ֤ם תְּנוּפָה֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה מֵאֵ֖ת בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהָי֕וּ לַעֲבֹ֖ד אֶת־ עֲבֹדַ֥ת יְהוָֽה׃.

If you have some familiarity with Hebrew consider the meanings, in context, of the verb הניף and the noun תנופה.

Now the phrase Elevation Offering has a plain meaning. It’s an offering made by a priest by raising it in his hands. Clearly there’s something else going on here. Aaron is not physically lifting up the Levites. However there is an act of elevation of some kind taking place. To what end is that. Well, God can speak for himself: 16For wholly given they are to Me from the midst of the Israelites instead of the breach of every womb, firstborn of all of the Israelites, I have taken them to Me. 17For Mine is every firstborn among the Israelites, in man and in beast, on the day I struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated them to Me. 18And I took the Levites instead of every firstborn among the Israelites. I would add my own interpretation here and say that there is a spiritual elevation and transformation taking place.

Moving on to the terms and conditions of employment. That is a phrase I learned when I was conducting negotiations on behalf of the faculty I represented at my college. Clearly God is not negotiating in this parsha, but he is specifying terms and conditions of employment when dealing with the Levites. What are those: 23And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24“This is what regards the Levites: from twenty-five years old and up, each shall come to do army service in the work of the Tent of Meeting. 25And from fifty years old he shall come back from the army work and shall work no more. 26And he shall serve his brothers in the Tent of Meeting to keep watch, but work he shall not do. So shall you do to the Levites in their watch.”  By the way the JPS translation uses the term “work force” rather than “army service” as Alter does. You may want to look at the orginal and see what you think.

In his commentary on Verse 25 Alter observes: The provision made here is for a kind of phased retirement. The defining term of difference is “work.” From the age of fifty, the Levite is relieved of heavy labor within the sanctuary, the responsibilities that were undertaken as a kind of equivalent for military service, but he continues to assist his brother Levites, evidently outside the sanctuary, in their guard duty. I find his use of the term “phased retirement” interesting since the California Community College System, which I’m retired from, also offers a sort of phased retirement which involves a reduced teaching load. Also note the phrase “guard duty”, clearly a military term.

At this point the Parsha is largely done with the Levites and I am largely done with my Drash. Things do not always go well for some of the Levites. Parshat Korach is coming up in two weeks and we already know what happens. The levites, of course, continue to come up in Jewish History. As we know everything changes after the destruction of the second temple and the role of the Levites is largely moot. We don’t even get preferential placement on the Aliyah list in many synagogues. One of the articles I read in preparation for this Drash notes that: The Book of Ezra reports that the Levites were responsible for the construction of the Second Temple and also translated and explained the Torah to the people when it was publicly read.  Another, even quotes an orthodox Rabbi, Menachem HaKohen Risikoff, in a short volume written after Kristallnacht titled The Priests and the Levites: “Today, we also are living through a time of flood, Not of water, but of a bright fire, which burns and turns Jewish life into ruin. We are now drowning in a flood of blood. … Through the Kohanim and Levi’im help will come to all Israel.”

Let’s take a different view of what Rabbi Risikoff means by writing “Through the Kohanim and Levi’im help will come to all Israel.”  As I noted above, the duties of the levites, and the kohanim, have been moot for almost two millennia. However, even when the Temple existed the Levites were not merely the attendants and servants of the Kohanim. They were the armed Guardians of the Temple. For myself I would like to think that there is a now, shall we say, a Levitical responsibility that applies to all of us, Levi or not. Teaching, as a member of this community, is an essential part of that responsibility. With that I’ll close my Drash.

References:

1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levite

2)https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Levite

3)https://www.jpost.com/judaism/the-takeover-of-the-levites-and-emergence-of-a-jewish-elite-628811

4)Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

5)Jewish Publication Society of America. Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures–The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, Jewish Publication Society. Kindle Edition.

6)Westminster Leningrad Codex. The Hebrew Tanak: Hebrew Bible Edition (Kindle Locations 8900-8902).  . Kindle Edition.

Naso

Naso

By Susan Laemmle June 11, 2022

After the death of our grandchild in November, among the expressions of comfort spoken was yehi shmah barucha: May Esther’s memory be a blessing. Seven months later, I begin to understand the complex richness conveyed in those three Hebrew words.

“May their memory be a blessing” comforts the mourner while honoring the memory of the person they mourn. It asks something for the dead while also acknowledging — and ideally easing the pain of — the living. This short sentence is, in itself, a kind of blessing.

What does it mean though for blessing to flow when we remember someone who’s died? And how does that connect to other situations in which human beings convey or receive blessing? In this Dvar Torah, I’ll consider these questions, then focus on the influential blessing contained in Parshat-Naso — Birkat Cohanim, the Priestly Benediction — and finally come to rest on an important, in a way revolutionry context in which Birkat Cohanim appears.

In a religious environment, uttering a blessing acknowledges God as its source. Blessing is a common religious act in virtually all belief systems — indispensable in celebrations, initiations, and rites of passage. Blessing generated by remembering refers to the continuing benediction that a dead person leaves behind — from their good deeds, teachings and example; perhaps also from their sheer life force, their having been a vital person in the world, whose vitality touched our own. Wishing someone fond memories of their loved one to sustain them through their grief can be helpful, but it is something different. Esther’s memory being a blessing refers to the continuing positivity that the world derives and that continues to enrich Esther’s collected legacy into eternity.

If a deceased person can radiate blessing upon the living, then can’t living people achieve a similar effect? Genesis Rabbah teaches that Abraham blessed everyone and was constantly blessed in return, and that his ability to bless was passed on to Isaac. And Megillah 15a states that “the blessing or curse of an ordinary person should not be taken lightly.”

Overall, Judaism does not reserve the power to bless to a specific class of Jews. And yet Parshat Naso establishes the Aaronite Priesthood’s power of blessing the Jewish People within a specified envelope of instruction: And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them . . . Here comes the three-fold Birkat Cohanim itself and then: And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel and I will bless them.”

Most commentators take the final avarchem — “I [that is, God] will bless them” — as referring not to the priests being blessed by God after they bless the people, but rather to the people gaining God’s blessing as a result of the priests channeling it. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: “There are no magic powers inherent in the priest or in the blessing. The intention of the one who pronounces it is an essential part of the blessing; indeed, it is their attitude that turns the formula into a blessing.”

And yet, Birkat Cohanim itself has great power — in a way that Nechama Leibowitz succinctly articulates: “The three sections of the priestly benediction illustrate an ascending order, starting with human beings’ material needs, then dealing with our spiritual wants, and finally reaching a climax combining both these factors together, crowning them with a blessing of peace. This ascending order and increasing surge of blessing is reflected in the language and rhythm. The first phrase consists of three words, the second of five, and the third of seven.”

The rhetorical and spiritual power of the words themselves, along with their ancient lineage going back to Temple days, communicated itself beyond Judaism to Christian and other settings. And within Judaism, Birkat Cohanim became increasingly decentralized, with shlechai-tzibur as well as rabbis and cantors summoning it to bless congregants, wedding couples, and bnai-mitzvah.

Years ago, one of my children suddenly became fearful before falling asleep, even with a regular bedtime ritual that included reading aloud and lullabies. Wracking my brains to come up with something potentially helpful, I drew up from Jewish wellsprings the bedtime Shma. To this I added Birkat Cohanim, although it’s not part of the traditional Shma al ha-mitah. The effect was near magical; within a couple of days, sleep came without resistance, derived from a feeling of safety not achievable through music, literature, and parental presence alone.

On my end though, reciting the three sentences’ heavily gendered Hebrew hit me as it hadn’t before. Should I continue using language that was so heavily skewed as masculine when conveying blessing to a female child? On the spot, I transformed the final indirect object from l’cha to l’ach — which felt like a good compromise between truth and tradition.

In my opening preview, I said that this Dvar Torah would come to rest on an important, near-revolutionary context in which Birkat Cohanim appears. That context is when parents bless their children at the Shabbat or Holiday table. Could there be a more decentralized, democratized expansion of what was originally a responsibility of Judaism’s priestly class? Indeed, this expansion includes mothers as well as fathers in many Jewish homes.

As we know though, the traditional parental blessing begins in a strongly gendered way by taking Ephraim and Menashe as the model for boys and the four Matriarchs as that for girls. Until seven months ago, I hadn’t given this bifurcation a moment’s thought whenever I felt the Torah-based aura of Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s children waft over all children present in our or another Jewish home. I had even taken upon myself to extend Blessing the Children to the family members who regularly participated in zoom Shabbat dinners throughout the first long Covid year. But when Esther’s sibling Rachel gently, respectfully queried my using the traditional formulation even after we had become aware of there being a “gender component” to Esther’s death, the scales fell from my eyes and I was unable to experience Blessing the Children in the same way.

Sometime after that, I found the section entitled “Queer or Chosen-Family Blessing for the Children” on Keshet’s website, to which I direct you for its full range of creative resourcefulness. In the end, I was not satisfied with Keshet’s way of simply combining Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah with Ephraim and Menasche. For as we all have been impelled to learn or at least hear, many young people see themselves as what English hasn’t found a better way of putting than “non-binary.” And so, I wound up adding Jonathan and Ruth to the list, as the best I could do for biblical figures who seem to have experienced closeness, even intimacy, across the gender divide.

For me then, what I’ve labeled the radicalism of ordinary Jewish parents blessing the young people of their household week in, week out, has become even more radical by becoming more inclusive. Or perhaps it’s just more truthful about, and accepting of, the variety of children who emerge into our families.

I conclude with hallowed language about blessing, not from a Jewish source but from Shakespeare. After Hamlet confronts his mother in the closet scene of Act III, he utters these luminous words: “Once more, good- night. And when you are desirous to be blest, I’ll blessing beg of you.” When the Cohanim blessed the people, surely blessings returned to them. When parents bless their children, do not these children bless them in their hearts?

May the circle of blessing that flows from God to human beings, and from earth into eternity, expand — bringing us peace and protection during these continuingly demanding, achingly irreplaceable times.

Shabbat shalom!

 

Parshat Acharei Mot

Parshat Acharei Mot

By Rabbinic Resident Jacki Honig, April 2022/Nissan 5782

If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, this week’s parsha contains the verse that launched a thousand drashot. We read Leviticus 18:22, a verse that many of us find challenging to our modern sensibilities:

וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃

As translated by JPS: Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.

I ask myself, as I often do, where do I find myself in this parsha? In this verse? Well, I know Julia is the poet, but I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing a short poem I wrote in October of 2016:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Surprise, I’m queer,
Thought it’s time the world knew.

That’s it – that’s where I find myself in this verse. A human who believes in Torah and halacha and Jewish communal life, and also definitely, unquestionably queer and attracted to people of all genders.

In 2016 when I came out publicly for the first time, I was working at a synagogue (6 synagogues actually) and felt mostly secure in my job and my life. I felt like I had the privilege to come out and be a model of observant queer life for many of the teens (queer and otherwise) that I worked with. I didn’t really ask anyone before I did it, partially because I was afraid they’d say no, tell me to stay in the closet. I was definitely worried about the backlash though – would I be fired? Would parents say that I wasn’t qualified to work with their teens? Would I be accused of grooming or turning the kids queer? Not like they weren’t already, but that’s neither here nor there……Turns out  I didn’t get fired, and in the end only one parent called the synagogue to complain about it, as far as I know,  so my story has a mostly happy ending at least.

Interestingly enough, while I had made a particular choice to not ask my boss or anyone else at the synagogue, I hadn’t even thought to check what our movement had to say about same-sex relationships, and in particular bisexuality. I’ll be honest, in retrospect I’m glad that I didn’t, because I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t have come out if I had read our movement’s positions on same-sex partnership.

In 1992-1993 and again in 2005-2006 our movement took up the issues of same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian rabbis. It began, in 1992, with a conesnsus statement from the law committee stating that Conservative Rabbis would not perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, would not admit gay or lesbian students to seminaries, and  would leave the decision of other lay leadership up to each individual synagogue. At the end, though, it said that we “affirm gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps, and schools.” A total of 12 papers, including the consensus statement, were passed that year, with Rabbi Joel Roth’s paper, titled “Homosexuality” being the most in-depth look at the topic. He took an incredible deep dive, attempting to seek out what this word “toeva” means, what the implications of that are, and what is the actual thing that the Torah is attempting to ban. He came to a conclusion that all forms of homosexuality are forbidden, not just lustful relations, but also long-term stable partnerships. I do appreciate , though, his insistence that there is “no defensible grounds for asserting that toeva refers to inherent abhorrence rather than to attributed abhorrence.” I am also so impressed by Rabbi Roth’s insistence that this is a rule for us, the Jews, and that marriage equality should be the law of the land. This teshuva is challenging, and thankfully the issue was revisited, even if it was more than a decade later.

In 2005, during this revisitation, Rabbi Roth stood by his position again. This teshuva passed and remains a valid stance for rabbis in our movement to take: no gay or lesbian rabbis or cantors, no same-sex commitment ceremonies, and it is up to individual rabbis to decide about gays and lesbians in other leadership roles, just for a quick summary.

And we also got another teshuva, written by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner This teshuva, while challenging, is incredibly important: it allowed me to be here today.

They tackled 3 questions: what guidance does halacha offer to Jews attracted to people of the same gender? What intimate activities are permitted or prohibited? And how shall Conservative Judaism relate to gay and lesbian couples?

Their conclusions were progressive for the time and opened doors to many people previously excluded from communities,  particularly seminaries. They opened the door to professional schools and institutions, like Ziegler, to gay and lesbian students, and took a “not quite now, but soon” stance on same-sex marraige, and encouraged committed relationships.

It’s not all joy and triumph, though, there are two challenging pieces. First, there are rules particularly about what sort of intimate acts gay men in particular may not engage in.  Second, particularly troubling for me and other queer folks who do not identify as gay or lesbian, is their conclusion specifically for people who are bisexual: heterosexual marragine between two Jews remains the halachic ideal.

For people who could only find happiness and fulfillment within a same-sex partnership, the rabbinic prohibitions are suspended for kavod habriut, for their dignity. But for me, and others like me, our dignity cannot come first and we must follow the rabbinic prohibition and limit our choices to people of the opposite gender.

This teshuva, which allows me to be here today, was progress in 2005. If it had not been for that I would not be here as the out queer, rabbinical student that I am.

And it’s not enough. We can do better. We must do better. It can be a matter of life and death.

The 2021 Trevor Project Survey of Youth Mental Health found that 42% of of queer youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, that number was even higher for bisexual youth. Queer youth are FOUR times more likely to -attempt- suicide than their peers. A 2016 review of research by UCLA School of Law found 17% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults had attempted suicide during their lifetime, compared with 2.4% of the general U.S. population. And in 2021 they also found that bisexual respondents were about 1.5 times more likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts, compared to gay and lesbian respondents.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Adult respondents to the UCLA School of Law survey who had not experienced discrimination were half as likely to have attempted suicide in the past year. And, according to the same Trevor Project survey, having at least one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt among queer young people by 40 percent.

We know that accepting adults change lives for queer youth. And I can say with confidence that accepting community and peers have changed my life, too.

1992 was a generation ago. 2005 was half my lifetime ago. The world is changing, the world has changed, and our movement must, too. AND we sit in a place of tension as Conservative Jews. We walk in this world and see what goes on around us, and we are also firmly committed to the ideal of halacha and Jewish living. There aren’t easy answers to these questions, it is not easy to strike the ideal balance between tradition and modernity.

But it doesn’t mean that we don’t ask the questions. These rulings have real implications on real lives, mine included. It’s up to everyone to figure out how to ask hard questions, dig deeply, and build an inclusive, welcoming movement and community. We’re here, we’re queer, and our lives depend on it. Shabbat shalom.

 

 

Ki Tisa

Ki Tisa

By Joel Stern – February 19, 2022

The D’rash is based on this 3-minute video, so please click and watch it before reading.

https://youtu.be/Sq7EwryJqJI

Why did I tell this story using origami? What was different about your hearing the story while I was dramatizing it by folding a square of paper, rather than just hearing the story alone?

Well, for one thing, folding the paper stimulated your curiosity. You wanted to see where I was going. You wanted to see how my words would be reflected in the folding action. You were engaged with what was happening.

Also, it was a multisensory experience for you. You were using your eyes as well as your ears. Research has shown that multisensory learning can be more effective for many people than unisensory learning, because it keeps them more engaged.

Here’s another reason you paid attention: A story is an abstraction of an experience. When you only hear my words, the experience remains abstract, intangible, conceptual. When I augment the story with a physical act — folding paper, the abstract becomes tangible, more real.

Do you see any parallels with our story of the Golden Calf in this week’s Parasha? The people wanted, needed, in fact, a physical manifestation of God. Moses was their link to God. He was for them, in many ways, the physical embodiment of the Divine. With Moses gone, the people’s link to God was even more tenuous, and during a prolonged absence, that link had broken. They could no longer accept divinity in the abstract. They needed a physical presence. Hence, the Golden Calf.

But here’s the great irony of the story. God understands this need of the people for a physical presence. Just before sending Moses back down the mountain with the first set of tablets, He tells him that he has endowed Bezalel and Oholiav with the skills necessary to make the Ohel Mo-ed, the Tent of Meeting; the Aron la-Edut, the Ark of the Pact, along with its cover; plus all the furnishings of the Tent; and the priestly vestments. Bezalel and Oholiav were even tasked with pressing the oil to anoint the priests, and preparing the aromatic incense!

God understood the people’s need for a beautiful prayer space: an attractive ark, stately looking priests, and a religious atmosphere. He wanted to engage all their senses, recognizing that these things can enhance sacred experience, even faith.

If only the people had been more patient! Instead, they built a Golden Calf. And as punishment, Moses sent the Levites out to slaughter the 3,000 sinners among the people.

Some commentators understood that the severity of the punishment was due to the fact that the people refused a direct relationship with God, but preferred an intermediary — Moses, or, in his absence, an idol. God was offended. It’s kind of like a wife no longer wanting to communicate directly with her husband, but through her lawyer.

But, after all, as creatures of the flesh, it’s understandable that the people were apprehensive about such a intimidating relationship. Say the wrong word and ZAP! Weren’t they, as physical beings, simply doing what came naturally?

If that’s all we are as humans—physical beings—then the people’s actions were totally natural, and the punishment was completely unjustified.

But the Torah teaches us, through this story, that we’re not just physical creatures. We also have a spiritual side.

Immediately after dictating the physical requirements of the Ohel and the Aron, God charges Moses: Ach shabtotai tishmoru… “Nevertheless, you must keep My Sabbaths.” And then… V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et haShabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam… “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.”

God is saying, yes, as physical beings you need a distinctively beautiful space in which to encounter the sacred. That’s provided by the Ohel and the Aron. But you also need a sacred time during which the possibilities for a spiritual experience are enhanced. We can enter that sacred time by observing the Sabbath.

As humans, we need both sacred time and space, the abstract and the concrete, the spiritual and the physical, the holy words and the two tablets on which they were written, the story and the folded paper.

This is who we are, the Torah teaches — creatures of spirit and flesh. And by nurturing both sides of our nature, we can be partners with God in B’rit Olam — a covenant spanning all of time… and all of space.

I sense that the paper Tablets may not have quite satisfied your need for a physical token of this D’var Torah. So in that spirit, I offer this origami Golden Calf. Remember, it’s not to be worshipped!

Shabbat Shalom!