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

[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.

The Ethics of Factory Farming

May 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Does it matter how we treat others?

Our tradition says that it most certainly does matter. For example, let me cite a small but telling detail from this week’s portion: “no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.”[1]

Why should it matter when we slaughter two animals? Why should it be that a day must separate these two events?

Maimonides argues in the Guide for the Perplexed that killing them in sight of one another will cause the mother great pain: “There is no difference,” he writes, “in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings.”[2]

We are taught by our tradition to care about the feelings of animals.

I do think, in fact, that Maimonides would be horrified at modern methods of factory farming, in which animals are treated as living meat rather than as sentient beings with feelings.

The laws of kashrut – the laws of kosher food – are supposed to prevent that kind of thing. But there are, of course, kosher factory farms as well – it is indeed possible to be a scoundrel within the boundaries of the law, and it is possible to find ways within the laws themselves to transcend their concerns.

Even so, I have no doubt that Maimonides would decry them. In his view, it would be the individual who is at fault here, not the law.

Maimonides makes the argument, in fact, that our traditions and our laws seek to train us to be better people. If you observe all the commandments, he argues, then you will perfect your soul. I think that he has a strong argument here. Our tradition provides a structure by which it might be possible to develop an ethical sensitivity to others.

But what happens when the laws themselves appear to be the problem? I will give you an example from this week’s portion: “If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.”[3]

It sounds pretty violent, doesn’t it?

As the modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz writes, “Few are the verses of the Bible which have been so frequently and widely misunderstood by Jew and non-Jew as verse 24:20…This misconception has transformed our text into a symbol, the embodiment of vengeance at its cruelest level. One who wishes to express his opposition to forgiveness, concession, and compensation, insisting instead on his pound of flesh, on retaliation of the most brutal and painful kind, resorts to the phrase: ‘eye for eye,’ a formula which conjures up a vision of hacked limbs and gouged eyes.”[4]

But that’s not what it means. Whenever we read this text, in fact, I am quick to point out that the ancient rabbis believed that it meant monetary payment for damages rather than an actual maiming. Here’s one of many such statements:

“It was taught in the school of Hezekia: eye for eye, life for life, and not a life and an eye for an eye, for should you imagine that it is literally meant, it would sometimes happen that an eye and a life would be taken for an eye, for in the process of blinding him he might die.”[5] For the rabbis, an ‘eye for an eye’ means ‘the payment of money equivalent to the worth of an eye for the loss of an eye.’

Even so, Leibowitz notes, this argument “does not rule out the possibility of this being merely an apologetical explanation, a later toning down of ancient barbarity, humanization of the severity of the Torah by subsequent generations.”[6] It could be that the rabbis are trying to tame a vicious verse.

In her work, however, Leibowitz makes a strong argument on the basis of the verse itself for reading the verse as requiring monetary payment. I think that she is correct. Her proof takes several pages of her text to complete, so I will not address it here. But you’re welcome to look it up if you’d like to work through it yourself.

Instead, I’d like to address a larger issue: does it matter how we treat others?

I’d like to go back to our original example, the example of the herd animal and her young, in which our tradition asks us to care about the feelings of animals.

There’s a lot of wisdom in that; as those who have ever worked in the field of spousal abuse know, how you treat animals is predictive of how you will treat people.

In the human-animal relationship, the difference in power is magnified. If you use that power to be absolutely domineering over animals, it is likely – predictive even – that you will do the same to humans that you perceive are weaker than you. Adopting the habit of treating animals well means you are more likely to treat humans well.

And this point relates directly to my sermon from last week, when I suggested that our jokes matter quite a bit.

As I said then: Atrocities happen in places where it is acceptable to marginalize the other. If you can joke about a group as being stupid, foolish, or undeserving, they will be treated as such.

And, as I argued last week: yes, there is a major difference between naming your sports team after an ethnic slur and committing atrocities on the basis of that slur. But, as the German example shows, it’s nonetheless entirely too close for comfort.

So let me expand that argument this week: yes, there is a major difference between putting animals in pens no larger than their bodies and putting people in similarly-sized pens. But, as the German example shows, it’s nonetheless entirely too close for comfort.

The factory farms need to stop, for our own moral good.

What can we do, then, as individuals? What can you do, if you’re not about to start a national campaign against the maltreatment of animals?

Know where your meat comes from. And when you can’t find meat humanely slaughtered, eat vegetarian. Don’t eat fast food – and if you do, don’t order meat from the dollar menu. You know what they had to do to get it down to a dollar. It isn’t worth it.

In other words, what is needed in our day and age is a tenacious idealism: we should not let what ‘is’ eclipse the view of what ‘ought’ to be.






[1] JPS translation.

[2] As translated in Nehama Leibowitz, “Emor 2: It (The Mother) and Its Young,” in Studies in Vayikra, p. 389.

[3] JPS.

[4] Leibowitz, “Emor 11: Eye for Eye,” in Studies in Vayikra, p. 494.

[5] From the Babylonian Talumud, Bava Kamma 83b-84a, as quoted in Leibowitz, p. 497.

[6] Leibowitz, p. 494.

Where Am I?

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