What did the Romans destroy?

August 1, 2014 § 2 Comments

Next Tuesday is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when both Temples – the first and the second – fell. The First Temple fell in 586 BCE, destroyed by the Babylonians. According to the tradition, the Second Temple fell on the very same date – the ninth of Av – nearly 600 years later, in the year 70 of our secular calendar, this time at the hand of the Romans.

Up until the destruction of the Temple, the primary approach to worship in the Ancient Near East had been animal sacrifice: you bring an animal to the priest, who slaughters the animal in a ritual fashion, burns part of it, and then splits it between you two. The priest gets a portion as his fee, and you have the rest.

And the purpose of this sacrificial system, at least in its ancient form, was to maintain the order of the cosmos.

The Temple, behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies, was the point where heaven and earth meet. The priests were charged with keeping this system going, and preventing the profane elements of living from reaching the holy.

So when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, they destroyed more than a mere building – they destroyed the entire structure of Israelite worship.

And the Romans were fairly thorough in their destruction: they set it on fire, desecrated its precincts, and forbade any further use of the Temple.

If you go to the area of the southern wall excavations in Jerusalem, in fact, you will walk along the Roman street, and encounter the pile of rubble left behind from their efforts that day. In nearly 2000 years no one has cleaned it up. At this point, it is no longer possible to clean it up: those stones are our history, a moment frozen in time.

In the wake of that destruction, however, the ancient rabbis had to rebuild. They had to create a structure for worship that was not dependent upon sacrifices. They had to create a religious self-understanding that was not dependent upon being settled in the land. They had to create a pattern of observance that was not dependent upon what had been destroyed.

Now, the rabbis asked themselves, how do we continue, now that the central cult is gone?

These ancient rabbis, convening in Yavneh, on the banks of the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) started the process of rebuilding.

They sat together and reasoned amongst themselves: God’s love for us is manifest in the commandments, right? So if we are commanded, and it is no longer possible to fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, then there must be a metaphorical way to do it. If the Temple is not standing, then we shall dress our scrolls as the High Priest. We will transform our kitchen table into the Temple altar. We will offer the words of our mouth in place of sacrificial offerings. And so on.

All of this was done in the context of the existing structure of law, faithful to its spirit yet also radically different in its execution.

Piece by piece, ritual by ritual, each new thing was mapped out, conceptually linked to the ancient practices yet also fundamentally transformed.

And this process of transformation was so successful, and so complete, that it is hard to think of Judaism as being any other way.

So much so, in fact, that later generations were prompted to ask: Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? That is to say, if God knew that it would one day change to another form of worship, why ask for sacrifices in the beginning? Why not identify the proper form of worship and require that of the Israelites?

Consider, for example, the answer that Maimonides gives.

For Maimonides, the highest form of worship was the contemplation of God, but the level of discipline needed to accomplish it remains well outside of the capabilities of the masses.

God therefore allowed the sacrificial cult to flourish, as it provided a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp.

Moreover, it helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God.

As he argues: If God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.’” The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompts God to provide an alternative.

In Maimonides’ view, these older forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’ part, for they were an accommodation to the weaknesses of human beings.

Immediately following the fall of the Second Temple, however, when the sacrificial cult was no longer operative, prayer-forms were left to the individual to create on an ad hoc basis, without a formal structure.

Thus, he argues, these new prayer-forms were created by the Men of the Great Assembly, sages who were guided by a true apprehension of reality. They created a structure that might be used by worshippers to perfect themselves, so that over the course of many years they might learn the highest form of contemplation.

Maimonides retains a certain nostalgia for the ancient prayer-forms, but one also senses from his text that these newer innovations are in many ways better than what had gone before, in that they are less visceral and more intellectual.

Looking at it from the perspective of the ancient rabbis, these changes to the ritual and theology of Judaism took an enormous leap of faith: where did they find the courage to make such changes?

Looking at it from the perspective of the later rabbis, however, these changes were not changes at all: they were simply what Judaism must be. It is hard to conceive of Judaism as looking any different than it does now.

Thus the interesting thing in all of this, of course, is how different it really has become: the worship of the heart is a far cry from the physicality of cutting animals to dash their blood on the altar and burn their entrails.

I would argue, therefore, that the strength of Judaism lies in our ability and willingness to adapt. We bewail the awful events in our past – these events have shaped us, and are part of our identity – but they do not define us.

We are able to create and build anew. We continuously construct a Jewish self-understanding that is both wildly different than what came before yet also very much its fullest expression. And in this ongoing process we are ever renewed.

‘Who died and made you king?’

June 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

In this week’s portion, a band of men led by Korach challenge Moses’ leadership of the Israelites.

“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’”[1]

Based on this introduction, we’re not sure what the core problem is. Moses has been the number one guy for some time now, working with his siblings to manage the crowd. He was the one who faced Pharaoh, and he was the one who brought the tablets down from Mount Sinai. He also was the one who prevailed when Aaron was involved in the incident with the Golden Calf. So to ask, at this point, why he raises himself above the Lord’s congregation seems a bit misplaced. Why is Korach raising this objection now? The text does not say.

“When Moses heard this, he fell on his face. Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen. Do this: You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the Lord. Then the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!’”

Why did Moses fall on his face? Usually, in the Biblical context, that phrase refers to a posture of worship. So he must have turned to God at that moment for support. But this action does not seem to have brought him a sense of calm. To the contrary, he continues:

“‘Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the Lord’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? Truly, it is against the Lord that you and all your company have banded together. For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?’”

Aha. Now we have a sense of Korach’s motive: he is seeking power. The objection raised here is not that Moses is doing a bad job or that Aaron is incompetent: rather, Korach and his band want to be the ones who do it instead.

“Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab; but they said, ‘We will not come! Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards, should you gouge out those men’s eyes? We will not come!’“

Their response sounds petulant. What, exactly, is their grievance here? That Moses led them out of slavery? That it is hard to live in the wilderness? It seems that their emotions have carried them away and they are simply enjoying being angry.

The text tells us that in response “Moses was much aggrieved.” His emotion is easy to understand in this context. He has spent year after year leading this group without any breaks, and this rebellion is all the thanks he gets. “And he said to the Lord, ‘Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.’”

I find that last comment fascinating. He tells God the score: ‘I have done no wrong here, so please don’t cooperate with them.’ As if God was not aware, as if he had to be concerned about God’s support.

This detail provides us with an interesting insight into leadership. We all know that it can be very difficult to take on that role – it carries with it the wellbeing and welfare of the whole group. We are aware that Moses has a whole web of considerations to take into account with every decision he makes. And Aaron is acting on behalf of the entire community when he serves as High Priest.

So when a high-ranking group second-guesses his motivations it destabilizes him for a moment. He is wounded by their remarks.

And we’ve all seen disputes like this one: Moses retaliates in anger, brings the issue to a showdown and the bitter ending involves a whole lot of people disappearing from the congregation.

In that regard, I think that this week’s portion serves as a warning rather than a model.

What should have happened here? How could this dispute been better managed? If this particular conflict was chosen as a case study by the Harvard Business Review, what steps would they suggest for closing the gap in perception between Moses’ understanding of his role and Korach’s?

I can tell you what I’ve learned, based on my own experience. Before I went to rabbinical school I was the Senior Manager of Marketing Communications for a division of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of California. And, in a congregational setting, I have seen a Korach-type rebellion unfold. This is what I have learned.

First, let’s start with the obvious: Korach is, of course, acting badly here.

When people act out, they do so because they are hurting. A person in a good place emotionally can bring up a difficult issue in conversation and talk through the various points rationally. Refusing to come to the table is evidence of emotional pain.

In other words: the rebellion is not about Moses or Aaron. They are probably doing a fine job at the heart of it. Their competence is not the issue.

The issue, rather, is a more complicated one relating to feelings of place and need. By that I mean: Korach is feeling invisible. He needs to have a place in the community, a way of answering the question, ‘and what is your role?’ He needs to be needed: to have a clear part in the overall process. Maybe he is aging and his kids don’t need him so much anymore. Or maybe he is young and has not yet found his place in the world. We don’t have enough of a biography to know for certain, but be we do know that Korach is feeling too small in his world.

On the other side of this dispute, we also know that Moses is not always great at delegating. We saw that in the first few months of leadership when he was given a lesson from his father-in-law Yitro. At that point in the narrative, Moses was listening to every single dispute brought before him by the Israelites. And Yitro explained to him patiently that he simply could not continue in this manner and suggested that he create a tiered court-system for hearing cases.

It would also appear, based on this narrative, that Moses is easily wounded: instead of taking the criticism in stride he forces a showdown. But a shoot-out always leaves someone dead – whether literally, as in the case of Korach who gets swallowed by the earth, or figuratively, as when a family or group of families leaves the congregation. It is infinitely better to negotiate and to listen.

What should Moses have done in this case?

He would have done well to create a tiered approach to the sacrificial service, along the lines of the court system his father-in-law suggested. He could have put Korach and his compatriots in charge of a type of sacrificial offering, so that they would also have a place in the hierarchy. Moses might not think that this arrangement is necessary, but he also has a tendency to over-estimate how much he can do himself.

In other words, had Moses displayed the best kind of leadership, he would have realized that it wasn’t all about him. It wasn’t, in fact, about him at all. The issue at hand was Korach’s place in the world. Had Moses taken himself out of the equation this event would have had a much happier ending.

It’s no his greatest moment, to be sure. But Moses is usually a better leader than that – so what is going with him? Why is he reactive rather than proactive in managing this dispute?

It is likely that Moses is feeling worn out at this point, and is suffering burnout. A good leader needs rest – which is precisely why he and Aaron should have been delegating tasks to Korach in the first place. So Korach had a legitimate concern; had Korach been a better leader himself, he would have been able to approach Moses long before the breaking-point. A well-run organization helps train future leaders so that they learn how to raise these concerns in a timely and appropriate fashion.

As this situation demonstrates, we don’t always act in our best interest, and we don’t always respond in the best way. Leaders get tired, followers get resentful, and everyone gets tired of wandering in the wilderness.

What works best, then? What can we do to make sure we stay on our good behavior, even when we’re hot, tired, and thirsty?

Rest. Take a Shabbat nap, go on vacation, get some time away.

And if a long break is not on the agenda, then at least take a small break: count to ten before responding. Count to 100 if you still don’t think you can respond without bitterness. Moses’ response of ‘falling on his face’ to pray for a moment was a good one – but he should have stalled even longer, until he could respond with equanimity.

But above all else: we should learn from this example the vital necessity of being kind. Most of our disputes are not important enough to have the earth swallow up our opponent. Have empathy for the other side, and focus on the issue rather than the person.

[1] JPS Tanakh, the book of Numbers, chapter 16.

Uniquely Jewish

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

I bought my tallit, this large one that I wear all the time, during my first year in rabbinical school. A group of us students made a special trip to the old city of Jaffa to visit the Gabrielli family’s storefront along the stone streets.

The tallit showroom is in the basement of their shop, featuring shelves and shelves of tallitot. The six of us students camped out there one afternoon, trying on every conceivable color and size. Red tallitot with black stripes; blue tallitot with grey stripes; white tallitot with rainbow stripes; Cotton, wool, and silk varieties; all kinds of handwoven tallitot were stacked on the shelves around us.

And it was wonderful to have my fellow-students help pick it out: they argued persuasively for the supersized black-and-white tallit that I am wearing today. I diligently tried on a whole stack of tallitot in smaller sizes – they were much less expensive, after all – but my crowd was absolutely convinced that I was best served by the full sweep of the largest size.

Had I been left to my own devices, I would have bought a more demure white-on-white silk tallit in the smallest size. But the consensus was that mine needed to be a graphic black and white, and larger than life, big enough to serve as a chuppah when I remarried. I am grateful to my friends for knowing that about me.

I have worn this tallit at all major life-cycle events since that time. I was ordained in it and got married under it. I wore it at the Western Wall for the Women of the Wall 25th Anniversary. It has become a part of my identity as a rabbi. Not that it is irreplaceable – for no object ever truly is – but it would certainly feel that way.

My kippah, however, is actually much older than my tallit: that’s why they don’t precisely match. I bought it at a URJ biennial convention before I ever applied to school, just after my conversion. I’ve worn the same one for twenty years now. Though it’s very pretty, it doesn’t have the same significance to me. For one thing, the kippah – the head covering that Jews wear – is not something from the Biblical era. It’s a custom rather than a mitzvah – it’s not a commandment – which is why we don’t say a blessing when we put it on our heads.

The tallit, on the other hand, is something entirely our own. The purpose of the tallit is to serve as the vehicle for the tzitzit, the knotted fringes on the four corners. That’s why there is such variety in the tallit design: it’s the placeholder. The fringes are what’s actually commanded.

In fact, the commandment to wear tzitzit comes from our Torah portion today:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.”[1]

Why are the tzitzit usually white if the passage says they must have blue in them? Apparently, the blue dye came from a sea snail that has since gone extinct. I have seen tzitzit in multiple shades of blue, done in the hope that one of the shades would be the right one. But the general ruling is that without the proper dye they should be left white.

The knot pattern itself is distinctive: the most common pattern found in the US is an Ashkenazi style of a double knot, seven spirals, a double knot, eight spirals, a double knot, eleven spirals, a double knot, thirteen spirals, and finally a double knot. There is a Separdic variation in which the spirals loop in on themselves to create a swirling spine down the length of the tassel. Though there are reasons for why that pattern, they all appear to be explanations after the fact. Why that pattern? It just is.

If you go to the Israel Museum, to the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept, you will see an exhibit downstairs of the other items they found alongside the scrolls. One of those items is a tallit, made of white wool with black stripes, with white knotted fringes. It looks remarkably like the traditional tallitot for sale on Ben Yehuda Street today, but for the 2000 years of wear and tear.

In other words, wearing tzitzit is not simply one of the commandments: it is also a practice uniquely our own, one that stretches all the way back to the Biblical period.

It is likely that the tallit gadol – the grand tallit like what I’m wearing now – was originally worn as an outer cloak; eventually it became a prayer garment, worn in the morning during the shacharit prayer service, at the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, and when leading services. We also wear one here when doing an aliyah, which are the blessings before and after the Torah reading.

But the tallit gadol is not the only kind. Traditionally, there is also an undergarment that is worn every day, all day, as the first layer of clothing. It is called a tallit katan (small tallit) and it is usually a kind of tank top or bib that you pull on over your head. You may have seen the tzitzit from one of these: some men tuck the tzitzit in, so that they are not visible; others like to pull them out, so that they dangle from the edges of their shirt. That’s usually how they outfit the character Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Both options are supported by the tradition.

Traditionally, of course, this mitzvah of wearing the tallit katan was reserved for men. The verse has been interpreted to mean that only men are specifically required to wear it. So, if you were shopping for a tallit katan you were necessarily shopping in the men’s section. For traditional women, it is inappropriate to wear men’s clothing – that’s why traditional women always wear skirts or dresses – so it is a genuine barrier to the performance of the commandment if the only ones available are sold in men’s sizes in the men’s section.

When I first saw the notice on the internet regarding a new company Netzitzot [see https://www.netzitzot.com/about-us.html] that sells the tallit kaftan for women I decided to buy one in support of this new company. I wanted to help make it possible for women to fulfill this commandment, but I did not have a clear sense of what I was planning to do with it myself. Bring it to my Introduction to Judaism class, perhaps, for show and tell? Wear it on occasion, perhaps?

The morning after its arrival, I put it on to see how it felt. And I found that there was a certain sense of rightness to it, a sense that a missing piece had been fulfilled. I had wanted to fulfill this commandment but it was not open to me. And now it was.

So I started wearing it as often as possible while also taking steps to keep it freshly laundered. It did not take me long to decide I was going to need a full set.

Thus I have taken on the daily mitzvah of wearing of tzitzit. Why should that be something so satisfying to me? Why should a tank top with fringes make a difference, you ask?

The odd thing about ritual: it is always a bit arbitrary in its structure. Why fringes? There is no clear rational answer as to why this and not that.

But it also has a certain logic to it: you wear something on your body as part of your person to remind you, in those moments of transition and vulnerability, of the grander structure.

And that is indeed what it means to be a Jew: to see godliness in the smallest detail, and to do so in the context of a tradition that extends well into the past, and to do so with the intention of continuing well into the future.




[1] Numbers 15:37-40, from the JPS translation

Does God Punish Us with Illnesses?

June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

For the sin of gossiping against Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called onto the carpet, and God tells them in no uncertain terms that Moses is special: God speaks to Moses face-to-face. No one else can claim that honor. And then God’s presence departs from them in anger.

As the cloud leaves, Miriam is suddenly covered with white scales.

When Aaron sees her, he immediately assumes that the illness is a punishment for her sin. The timing of the affliction would suggest as such, given that it happened in quick succession. And he says to Moses, “Please my lord, do not hold a grudge against us for acting foolishly and sinning. Let her not be like a stillborn child…” In other words, Aaron’s narrative – the story he tells himself – is that she is now ill because they sinned. In his view, God punishes us through illness and death.

Aaron’s explanation is the one usually adopted by commentators: Miriam was punished for her sin.

The problem with this explanation, however, is that it makes the unreasonable assumption that illness and death occur as a result of God’s anger with us over having done something wrong.

But notice that Moses does not validate this explanation. He does not concern himself with questions as to why she is ill: he simply says, “O God, please heal her.”

And more importantly: God never says that her illness is a punishment.

Look at what God says in response: “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been embarrassed for seven days?” I believe that the phrase ‘spit in her face’ is intended to call up the image of a father so angry that he is yelling at her, so close to her that he is spitting in her face. Imagine that her earthly father was so angry as to yell at her in this manner, and imagine that she agreed with him. Wouldn’t she be mortified at her behavior? How much more so, then, if it was God who is angry?

In other words, God tells Moses that Miriam is profoundly embarrassed. In this context, in fact, her scaled skin appears to be a physical expression of her emotional state, a stress reaction to having been reproached by God for her bad behavior. In other words: it is not a punishment  for her sin, but a symptom of her distress at having been so wrong.

And so, in response, God explains to Moses that she needs time to heal herself. She needs to sit outside of the camp and watch the world go by for about a week until she has recovered from the shock and anguish.

I think, in fact, that it is important that she is outside of the camp for the span of a week. This process of repair does not involve days of introspective brooding inside her tent. It is better that she be out in the fresh air, where she can watch the clouds scuttle by and listen to the sound of leaves. To heal from her affliction, she needs to pay attention to the movement of ants and become familiar with the play of sunlight on blades of grass. We all need a break sometimes to let it all wash over us, to just be still.

What we see here, in fact, is several different responses to the stress of having been wrong before the Lord.

Aaron does not say anything about his own guilt; he focuses on others. His altruism might also be a dodge of his own responsibility.

Miriam, on the other hand, directs her emotions inward, so that they become physical manifestations of her distress.

Moses, of course, was not one of the guilty parties, but his response is interesting nonetheless. He focuses on the task at hand: to heal her.

And God’s response to his plea is to draw attention to Miriam’s emotional state. God’s response, in effect, is to say, ‘I can’t heal her, as this is a manifestation of her own distress. Only Miriam can heal herself, and they only way to do that is for her to spend some time experiencing the painful emotion directly. And the best way to do that is to spend some time in nature, away from the camp and all its motion and noise.’

Anyone who has ever been to AA or Al-Anon or who has had to watch an addict struggle with that affliction understands the wisdom of God’s response: only Miriam can heal herself.

What we also see here is a certain wisdom as to what kinds of actions are healing for us. God’s suggestion to Moses has several gems for us to use: the first one is the awareness that there is no need to move on just yet, for it is possible to sit still for a while. There are things that need doing, but it is likely that most of the things that need doing can be put off for a few days, particularly if you should need to spend some time to recuperate.

In fact, God seems to be very concerned with our need to rest: are we not commanded to rest every single week, on Shabbat?

Another pearl of wisdom: the observation that spending time in nature is healing. Just knowing that you are a part of a larger chain of being, an endless symphony of movement around you, is comforting. And this observation is one is backed by scientific research: a study of brain waves found that just walking among the trees calms us. It is good for her to go out camping for a while.

And there is another gem: we should note that our physical distress might have emotional roots. Our mind-body connection is profound; some afflictions require that the emotional scars are healed before the physical ones recede.

The story we tell ourselves in the wake of an illness will define how well we respond to that illness. There are tales that lead to blind alleys and tales that lead to healing. Listen to God’s response, rather than Aaron’s: instead of viewing illness as God’s punishment, we should give ourselves time to heal.






Live Long and Prosper

May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

When I go to visit congregants who are ill or recovering, I usually give a blessing when I leave, in the form of a prayer for healing. The first part is the usual mi sheberach formula in Hebrew (‘May the One who blessed…’) and the second part is a list of the things we are hoping will happen. A blessing is more than the expression of a good wish for someone: it has an element of the transcendent in it

This week I had the good fortune to hear a scholar with an international reputation speak about issues related to this week’s Torah portion. Dr. Ruth Calderon is a Member of the Israel Knesset who was invited by the Jewish National Fund to speak about her book, A Bride for One Night.

The book is quite wonderful, and does not lack for content directly relevant to our portion this week. Since our portion this week features the priestly blessing, however, I thought that I would share with you a selection from her work regarding the High Priest and a blessing.

In her work, Dr. Calderon draws from the Talmudic text, using a compact and enigmatic story from the Talmud as the basis of her extended retelling. In this case, she is relating the story of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, who had at one time, prior to the destruction of the Temple, served as the High Priest. In the story, Rabbi Yishmael tells of an encounter with God during Yom Kippur, when God was made manifest to him as another human being. Come and hear; this is his story.

“Yishmael senses a presence. Someone is watching him. He stands in place enveloped in the smell of the incense, his eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness. Someone is sitting there. Is there someone else in the sanctum? Did he make a wrong turn? His heart flutters as if caught in a trap. He does not feel like the high priest, on whom all of Israel’s hopes are bent; he does not even feel like an ordinary priest nor even like a regular human being.

“From behind the pillar of smoke, he sees light.

“‘Achatriel Yah Adonai Tzvaot,’ his lips murmur.

“Across from him is a high and lofty throne. Should he prostrate himself before it? He dares to raise his eyes and is greeted by a stormy visage.

“‘Yishmael, my son, bless me.’ He is being addressed by name, as a man addresses his fellow. ‘ Yishmael’ – pronounced just as his mother would say it. ‘My son.’ This is a face-to-face encounter, filled with grace, like a meeting between a father and son. But bless me? What could that mean?

“Yishmael does not understand what the One seated on the throne wants for him. The sound of his voice and the words that he speaks do not accord with his expectations. For a moment he fears that a foreign god has penetrated the inner sanctum and has sat upon the throne. But then the seated presence calls him by name. In that moment Yishmael divests himself of his role as high priest and becomes only himself. He listens. He tries to overcome his fear and his preconceived notions. He wishes to be fully attentive, freed from his anxieties.

“Suddenly he understands. Yishmael is showered in blessing, and he is ready to bestow blessing on others. The words come to him with love: ‘May it be Your will.’ The words follow one another without any effort on his part, like a person praying for the well-being of a friend. ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy overcome Your stern attributes.’ He enjoys this newfound generosity of spirit. He is happy that he wants to bestow goodness. He glances at the seated presence with a hint of embarrassment.

“He continues: ‘And may You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy. And for their sake, may You go beyond the boundary of judgment.’ The seated presence nods graciously. Yishmael’s doubts are assuaged. He knows what to do next. He comes to the ark and places the fire pans between the two cloths. He stacks the incense on the coals, enters an outer chamber and offers a prayer, keeping it short. He does not want to worry the people outside, who will be concerned about the fate of the priest in that holiest of chambers and the holiest time of the year.

“Truly how splendid was the appearance of the High Priest when he exited the Holy of Holies in peace, without any harm.[1]

An interesting aspect of this story is the shift from a ritual activity – the slaughter of animals – to the spoken word. According to this text, spoken blessings occurred even at the time of the Temple. And, as the story indicates, they were indeed welcomed by God. This could be a backward projection or a historical record; we do not know.

Nonetheless, the priestly blessing, a blessing that appears in the Torah, has long been a part of the liturgy of the synagogue, the institution that replaced the Temple cult. After the destruction of the Temple, the priests no longer sacrifice animals; they become, instead, the bearers of God’s blessings for the congregation.

In Reform congregations, the priestly blessing is often invoked in a sacred moment before the ark in the context of life cycle events. But it appears in a different form in more traditional contexts. Listen, for example, to the recollection of civil rights lawyer Rachel Farbiarz of its recitation in the sephardic synagogue of her youth: “At a specified time in the service,” she writes, “the community’s kohanim discreetly excused themselves to perform their preparatory ablutions. The faint sound of the priests’ shuffling was followed by a call-to-attention–Koh-Haahh-Neeeeeem!–summoning them to their posts before the ark. The men of the congregation gathered their children and their children’s children under the prayer shawls they had drawn over their heads.”[2]

“The kohanim faced them, cloaked too in their billowing shawls. Their arms outstretched, their fingers extended and conjoined in the cultic v-shape.”

The ‘v-shape’ she mentions is one that any fan of Star Trek will recognize: Leonard Nemoy, also Jewish, adapted this hand-sign for use in a Vulcan blessing, ‘live long and prosper.’ What looks like a v-shape, however, is actually a different letter entirely. The ‘v’ is created with the pointer finger and middle finger on one side and the ring finger and pinky finger on the other. However, if you include the thumb, the fingers form the three arms of the Hebrew letter shin, the letter that appears on all mezzuzot, those little boxes we hang on doorposts. The letter references one of the names of God. Like the mezzuzot, the priests become the vessels for conveying God’s omnipresent blessing.

Ms. Farbiarz continues: “the priests swayed and chanted the blessing–distending its syllables, trilling its notes. Only after the kohanim had finished the blessing did the face-off of masquerading ghosts end: Modestly, the priests turned their backs to the congregation and took down their shawls, unveiling themselves before the ark.”[3]

Note a key difference between this blessing and the one relayed by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha: this one is not done face-to-face, in a direct encounter. As she explains: “I actually was not supposed to have witnessed any of this. All of us, kohanim and congregation alike, were to have had our eyes closed or averted downward, to shield ourselves–it is traditionally said–from the awesome power that emanated from between the kohanim’s fingers.” One is expected to look away and not gaze upon this source of holiness.

Ms. Farbiarz has an interesting explanation for the reason why the blessing is chanted in this manner: “I have always suspected,” she writes, “that we protected ourselves not only from the Divine, but also from something very human: the tendency to turn an act of blessing into an act that invests one group with power at the expense of the other. The tented shawls, the downcast gazes, shield the community from the inevitable psychological contortions that easily transform a blessing into an act that underscores the hierarchy between blesser and blessed.”[4]

Thus, in her view, this practice democratizes the distribution of blessing: “The kohanim cannot see those upon whom they confer God’s blessing and the congregation cannot identify the priests who have done so. Rather than simply given or received, the blessing is instead resident within a community of both givers and receivers.”[5] There is no intermediary here.

Taken together, these two stories point to the fundamental paradox of blessing: in one sense the giving of a blessing is very much an interpersonal event, a face-to-face encounter with the other.

Yet, at the same time, giving a blessing is a profoundly transcendent act, otherworldly in its content, metaphysical in its transmission, for it references the Holy One of blessing.

May you experience shabbat peace.


[1] Ruth Calderon, “Yishmael, My Son, Bless Me,” A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales translated by Ilana Kurshan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013), pp. 141-2.

[2] Rachel Farbiarz, “Birkat Kohanim: Blessing of the Priests or of the Community?” in http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/naso_ajws3.shtml

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

What counts most?

May 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week’s Torah portion is all about counting: taking a census of the Israelites as they head toward the Promised Land. At first blush, a census does not seem to be the most interesting topic. For most of us, it’s right up there with accounting rules and seating charts.

Hear, for example, Eli Horowitz’s reflection on this portion: “The Bible is, of course, full of excitement: fighting and feasts and sex and weird food rules and weird sex rules. It’s a real page-turner, no doubt. But amid those rollicking good times, every now and then there’s a…pause. A moment of reflection, or a meditation on core values – or, in this case, the logistical procedure for a regional census, followed by detailed results of said census and also some discussion of campground zoning.”

“Of course, that’s just a rough summary,” he continues. “The actual text gets much juicier. I mean, this census isn’t going to just organize itself, is it? Of course not, and don’t worry – the Lord has thought of everything. For example, you were probably wondering who was going to help Moses and Aaron count the members of the Asher clan; well that’d be Ocran’s son Pagiel.”[1]

He admits that the portion is probably “sounding a little dull” and, as a result, he finds that he is “left looking for lessons, the essential truths at the heart of this seemingly mundane recitation.”[2]

That would make two of us. What should we make of this accounting?

In the case of Horowitz, he asks a series of rhetorical questions: “Does this passage teach us the benefits of taking stock, counting up who we are and what we have? Or is it, perhaps, a meditation on neighborhood dynamics, urban planning, the diverse roles that make up a community? Maybe. It’s possible,” he writes. [3]

But he doesn’t sound convinced: “Maybe, “ he writes, “what we’re reading here is just a reminder that sometimes things are a little…boring. Some days you might find yourself spending hours rearranging your living room, or alphabetizing your record albums, or choosing which among your children will serve as specialized ark-porters.”[4] Sometimes life involves rather dull moments, it seems.

But I find that I am not so moved by this description. My own sense, based on my own lived experience, is that even the mundane moments have the potential to be transcendent. The rearranging might give you a new view on things. The alphabetizing might reacquaint you with who you were when you bought those albums. The choosing among your children forces a re-examination of your relationship with them.

Many of us, in fact, find greater resonance in the mystic viewpoint: the mystics hold that the world is suffused with meaning, a glorious transcendence that we, on rare occasions, are most privileged to witness.

In search of such meaning, then, perhaps I could tell you a few small facts: Did you know that when counting a minyan — the ten Jews needed for a quorum to pray — that it is traditional not to count each person but to say ‘not one,’ ‘not two’ and so on? Or, alternatively, to use a prayer or verse that has ten words in it, assigning each person a word in the verse until the quorum is reached?

The reason for this custom of not-counting reaches back to this week’s Torah portion: Jews are only to be counted when God asks for a census; to do so otherwise might lead to a plague. We may number our days — as the Psalmist exhorts us — but we may not number our Jews, at least not until God says so.

Yet, of course, we want to. Counting defines our reality: to not count is to not be present, to not be noticed, whereas ‘to count’ is to matter.

This issue is precisely why Reform Jews and other liberal denominations count women in the minyan: the women need to matter as much as the men. The women should also be counted, noticed, and heard. The men are not the only ones who ‘count’ in our congregation.

And further, we find that we want to count our households. We need to have an accurate count for the purposes of budgeting and planning. Our congregation’s size also determines the rate of dues for the Union for Reform Judaism. We need to know who’s in and who’s out, who has moved and who has stayed invested in our community.

In that sense, then, it seems most appropriate that we encounter this portion in the week immediately preceding our annual meeting. This coming Wednesday is the date of our annual census: we number our households and take a vote on the basis of that number, setting the bounds of our budget, and defining the congregation’s priorities.

And in that context, an accurate count will define what we can and cannot do: we need to know what is in the bank accounts, how many households will contribute to our shared community, and what kinds of dreams we may dream.

Yet even more is at stake than that. This week is, in fact, a big week for us, for you and for me, for we are entering into a longer-term contract together.

What that means, of course, is that our reality will change. My role has already shifted in the past few months, changing bit by bit as the congregation looks out over a long stretch of unbroken time with the same rabbi.

These days, I am less and less of a logistical administrator and more and more of a spiritual leader. These days, I am called on for more and more pastoral care. That’s wonderful news, really, and I am honored to serve.

It is, at the core of it, an expression of trust: I’ll be here for you when it counts.

[1] Eli Horowitz, “B’midbar (‘In the Desert’),” Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah, Roger Bennett, ed. (New York: Workman Publishing, 2013), pp. 244-5.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

Why do we need to rest?

May 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Shabbat renews us in two ways.

First, the prayerful aspect of Shabbat provides the structure by which we enrich our spiritual lives. By engaging in regular prayer we are able to learn how to connect to what is greater and grander than us.

The discipline of prayer also increases our resilience, making it easier to rebound and rebuild when tragedy or difficulty strikes. I have found from my own experience, for example, that prayer changes the nature of my self-talk, that internal narrative, to give me the strength to overcome obstacles. When I hear myself falter, the language of prayer fills in those spaces and reinforces my resolve to move forward. It provides a reminder that I am not alone. I am a theist: in those moments, I sense the presence of God.

But even if you have your doubts about God, it is possible to sense that the community itself is behind you. And, if my own experience might be a guide, if you engage in regular prayer you will also eventually find your way to God, to a deeper and richer understanding of your relationship to the ultimate.

But Shabbat also provides us with a second source of renewal in the form of unstructured time, a space in which we might physically and emotionally recharge as well.

This sense of Shabbat is profoundly liberating. As the Torah commentator Doron Danino writes, “In the ancient world being a slave meant absolute subservience and unending work for one’s master; the Sabbath extricated the slave once a week from subservience to his master. Thus the Sabbath essentially curbed and restricted the institution of slavery, from which we can understand its association with the exodus from Egypt.” [1] Shabbat is the source of our freedom.

But we forget that sometimes. We all know that we need to take time off. It’s one of those things that we fully understand intellectually: of course it’s not possible to work continuously without stopping. But sometimes we try to do so anyway. In fact, I must admit, it’s a lesson that I learned first-hand this semester, the hard way.

Shabbat is, of course, at the very heart of my spiritual experience. The lighting of candles, the family dinner, the rhythm of prayer all nurture my heart and soul and provide a connection with the source of it all.

Nonetheless, the funny thing about rabbinic work is that in many ways we’re busier on Shabbat than most weekdays. In my household, we refer to Fridays as ‘six shot Fridays’ because it means that I drink three espresso drinks instead of my usual two. I want to be a bit pumped up because I routinely see more people on Shabbat than I do the rest of the week. But that fact is also one of the key reasons why Shabbat is very much the highlight of my week.

But that’s not the only busy time. Between the congregation, the university, and the community, there is plenty to do, even before I factor in my family obligations. That’s not a complaint: it’s all good stuff. Sundays and Mondays are busy because they involve the Rabin Religious School. I usually teach at the university on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Monday nights are also meeting nights. Wednesdays and Thursdays are for teaching and meeting. I usually write my sermon on Thursdays, finalize it on Fridays, and then engage in pastoral care during breaks in between. Torah rolling takes place on Friday afternoons. Saturdays are usually devoted to community-building in one way or another.

In the midst of all of this, Tuesdays are my day off.

In the fall, I taught a course for the university in the honors program. In the spring, I was all set to do another honors course, but we (the board and I) received the request that I teach Introduction to Judaism. And it made sense to do so, for a variety of reasons, so we said yes. It was the right decision, and I don’t regret it. Nonetheless, it meant that I’d be teaching on Tuesdays instead of my usual schedule.

It doesn’t sound like much, really: I would be teaching exactly the same number of hours as I had been teaching, so it shouldn’t fundamentally change anything. I really wasn’t worried about it.

But time off is like sleep: you need a stretch of uninterrupted time on a regular basis. It is not enough to have a few hours here and a few hours there: you need to have a full day off. Three months later, I feel like I’m frayed at the edges. I’ve arranged to teach again next year, but on the stipulation that I only teach on Mondays and Wednesdays. I’ve learned something in this process.

It is simply not possible to work continuously: we all know this intellectually. Shabbat offers us the ideal of a full day off, one that offers structured time for spiritual reflection and unstructured time for physical and emotional rejuvenation. It is a worthy goal, a necessary goal.

So what should you do if you find that you are feeling frayed at the edges? The key question to ask yourself: are you needing more structured time – in the form of prayer – or more unstructured time – in the form of relaxation? Or are you deficient in both?

[1] Doron Danino, “Sabbath, Shemitah and the Hebrew Slave – Symbols of Freedom,” Rachel Rowen, transl. Bar-llan University Parashat Hashavua Study Center, May 4, 2013.


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