On 9/11: Reflections on Amalek

September 11, 2014
9/11

U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson, taken 9/15/2001

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! Deuterononmy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we read only a short time ago as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must remember: to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.


What is Shabbat Nachamu?

August 8, 2014
"The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl" by Victor Raphael

“The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl” a meditation on Isaiah 40:1 by Victor Raphael

We’ve been through a lot in the past few weeks, haven’t we? This year, it wasn’t just in the liturgy and the calendar: it’s been a hard time for Israel, for a lot of people in the Middle East, and for the world. So this week, I will likely listen with tears in my eyes when I hear the familiar words of Isaiah: Comfort, comfort, My people!

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu.” It takes this name from the beginning of the Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) this week, Isaiah 40:1: Nachamu, nachamu ami! [Comfort, comfort, My people!] After the terror of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish People turn to God and to one another for comfort.

There’s a lot of midrash on this passage: who is comforting, who is comforted, and how? The rabbis speculate whether it means comfort as in “There, there” or comfort as in “strengthen.” There is even a midrash that suggests that it is God who needs comforting, after the terrors of Tisha B’Av!

The problem of suffering has puzzled human beings forever. Often suffering comes to those who have done nothing wrong. Sometimes wicked people thrive. How shall we make sense of it all?

I read this line in my own way. I think Isaiah is telling us that to get comfort, we need to give comfort. There is much undeserved suffering in the world, and I am not qualified to judge who “deserves” or does not. What I know is that a lot of us are hurting. This Shabbat, when we feel we need comfort, may each of us reach out to someone else and say, “Take heart.”

Shabbat shalom.


Who was the Prophetess Huldah?

August 1, 2014
Part of the Book of Deuteronomy, from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Part of the Book of Deuteronomy, from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Josiah, King of Judah, wanted to do the right thing. He was aware that the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been wiped out by the Assyrians, its ten tribes scattered to the four winds. Judah was smaller and weaker. The king believed its best hope for survival lay in its covenant with God.

So he ordered that his officials would audit the funds at the Temple, and then use them to put everything there into perfect order. It had fallen into serious disarray over the 300 years since his ancestor Solomon built it. Hilkiah, the High Priest, was in charge of the work.

Hilkiah found a scroll stashed away in the Temple. He read the scroll, and realized immediately that it might be important. He gave it to Shaphan, the king’s secretary, who took to King Josiah and read it to him.

Josiah was horrified by what he heard in the scroll. He stood, and tore his clothing, and ordered Shaphan to take the scroll immediately to the prophetess Huldah to see if she thought it was genuine. If it was indeed the scroll of the law, the kingdom was in worse trouble than he had known. They were doing everything wrong. Shaphan and Hilkiah took it to her, and this is what she said:

This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read.  Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’  Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord.  Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.”

So they took her answer back to the king. (2 Kings 22: 15-20)

Scholars today believe that that scroll was the Book of Deuteronomy. King Josiah used it for a blueprint for his reforms, and the Kingdom of Judah survived for the rest of his reign. Unfortunately his heirs were not good kings. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and carried the best and the brightest of the people off to exile.
The Temples are long gone, but the Book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim, is with us to this day. When we read it, let’s remember Huldah: prophet, scholar, and advisor to a king.


Joshua and His Trees

July 10, 2014

With Jim, at Joshua Tree National Park

I love this photo. It was taken in one of my favorite places, and it’s me and my kid. (OK, so he’s a 30 year old man now, he’s still my kid.)

The place is Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The weird looking plants around us are Joshua Trees, yucca brevifolia. They are native to the southwestern deserts, especially the Mohave Desert.

Joshua trees live in a harsh environment to a very great age; some have lived almost a thousand years. In the springtime, if the winter has been wet enough and there has been a freeze, the tree blooms. Its flowers are heavy clusters of blossoms the size and appearance of quail’s eggs, and they have a pungent stink.

The trees are known as Joshua Trees because when Mormon travelers saw them in the 19th century, they thought the trees looked like Joshua, lifting his hands to the sky in prayer. Now I have looked and looked in Torah, and in the book of Joshua, and I have never been able to find an account of Joshua lifting his hands in prayer. Moses does so, most famously in Exodus 17, when Joshua is leading the battle against Amalek, and things go well only as long as Moses’ hands are lifted up. But never could I find the story to which the Mormons referred. (Readers, if you find it, please let me know in the comments!)

But when I look at the trees themselves, I can easily imagine naming them for Joshua. They thrive in the wilderness. They are prickly, and stinky, and yet still they command my attention, pulling at all my senses. I imagine Joshua was such a man, different from Moses, perhaps more charismatic. Moses led the people out of Egypt, fussing and challenging him all the way. Joshua led them into the Promised Land, and they did not challenge him.

Joshua was born in Egypt. He was true to the covenant to his dying day. He led his people into battles and lived to a great old age, as do his namesake trees.


Pinchas: A Remedy for Extremism?

July 5, 2014
What are we to do with violence in Torah?

“Violent Volcano” by Trey Ratcliff

What are we to do with the violent stories in Torah?

Parshiot Balak and Pinchas bring us yet another disturbing story. After Balaam blesses the camp of Israel against his will, Moabite women visit the Israelites as they are camped at Shittim. They engage the men in “whoring” (there’s really no other way to translate liznot) and then invite them to the sacrifices to their god, Ba’al-peor. The people join in and the God of Israel is incensed, commanding Moses to have the ringleaders among the Israelites impaled. Moses makes the order, when a prince of the tribe of Simeon, Zimri, brings a Midianite princess, Cozbi, to the camp right in front of him.

Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, follows Zimri and Cozbi into Zimri’s “chamber”, and impales the two of them with one thrust of his spear. And in the following portion, titled “Pinchas,” he is rewarded by God, who says that the line of the High Priest will come from his descendants.

Most modern liberal readers go into shock at about this point. What? He’s rewarded for such awful violence, coming upon a couple in a vulnerable moment of privacy and running them through with a spear? And God commanded this, and rewarded it? Oy!

One interpretation of this story is that it is a warning against intermarriage. Hilary Lipka points out that first Zimri introduces Cozbi to his kin, which doesn’t look like “worshipping idols.” Secondly he takes her to his kubbah, a word that appears nowhere else in Torah, but which many translators interpret as “chamber.” She argues that this isn’t about idolatry, it’s about intermarriage. She also points out that it reflects a different point of view on intermarriage than another place in the Torah: Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest, and she’s a righteous woman! So perhaps this is an early example of the argument about intermarriage in Jewish tradition.

Another interpretation is that when God rewards Pinchas, he does so by giving his decendants an honor that will also be a burden. God recognizes the passion of Pinchas as matching the passion of God, and promptly gives Pinchas an outlet for that passion that will serve both to focus it and contain it. Being High Priest was a tremendous responsibility, because there were sacred duties that only the High Priest could do. He could not allow himself to be distracted from those duties, and he had to practice a high degree of self-control to carry them out. The descendants of Pinchas would not have the luxury of vigilantism, because they would have their hands full policing themselves.

Perhaps this story is a recognition that there are always going to be those among us who get carried away – maybe violently carried away – by their passion for God, and that it’s important to contain those passions. If the individual can’t do it for himself, maybe he needs to be given a job that will do it.

We are living in a passionate time, when many people seem driven to extremism and zealotry. I wonder if there are ways that those passions could be channeled into good?


“These People Scare Me!”

June 30, 2014
"Immigrant Rights" by Michael Fleshman, some rights reserved.

“Immigrant Rights” by Michael Fleshman, some rights reserved.

“These people are too numerous!”

The Torah portion Balak opens with the worries of Balak, son of Zippor, the king of Moab. He’s frantic about the Hebrews – there are so many of them! So he sends a message to Balaam, a powerful magician, saying:

“There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. 6 Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” – Numbers 22: 5-6.

Does this sound familiar? Remember back at the beginning of Exodus, when the Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” said:

“Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.” – Exodus 1:9-10

One of the things I love about Torah is the deep insight into human nature. It is an ordinary human impulse, when we see strangers becoming “too numerous”  or “too mighty” to start worrying that they may be a threat to our well-being.

The genius of Torah is that in describing a normal reaction to something that happens from time to time (“Too many outsiders!”) it chooses to do so from the point of view of the strangers. The Israelites had to leave Egypt because the Egyptian Pharaoh had the normal sort of fears about strangers. Now the Moabite prince is worried about the same thing. We get a clear picture, reading this story, identifying with the Israelites, of what it is to be unwanted outsiders.

Interwoven with these stories we are given commandments:

Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 22:21

and again (many times, actually):

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. – Exodus 19:34

It is good to recognize human nature; that’s reality. But Torah calls us to something higher than ordinary impulses. It calls us to holiness, which is an opposite of ordinary. The test of this comes when we try to live in the ordinary world. Not everyone plays by these rules!

Living a life of Torah means living a life of risk. Will those strangers take advantage of me? Will there be enough to get by? One of the ways to see the Talmud as a series of conversations about (among many other things) practical conversations about how we will live this out in the world. Lucky for us, we can access thousands of years of discussion on how to live the commandments in the world.

Fulfilling ritual commandments is challenging. Fulfilling these ethical commandments that challenge our very nature is the work of a lifetime.


Korach at the Wedding

June 21, 2014

IMAG0172This is a sermon I delivered at at Israel Congregation of Manchester, Vermont on Shabbat morning, June 21, 2014. It is intended to be heard rather than read, so I have left it in my “sermon format” to give readers a better sense of how it sounded. The occasion was the aufruf of Yuval Sela and Rabbi David Novak.

The fact that the reading of Parashat Korach usually falls in the month of June is evidence that God has an annoying sense of humor.

Here we are, a congregation gathered from the four corners of the world to celebrate a wedding, a covenant of love, in the month traditional for weddings, and what are we reading in the Torah?

Korach.

How can we possibly speak of Korach and at the same time, speak of love? 

Korach is the disgruntled relative at the wedding.  

Korach stood at Sinai, at the wedding of God and Israel and seethed because he felt slighted.

Korach dealt with his troubles not by talking quietly and directly to Moses or to God, but by gossiping with the neighbors, working himself and them up into a fury.

Korach is the one with legitimate questions and hurt feelings who in his unhappiness stirred up an entire community and brought them to disaster.

THAT Korach.

And yet here we are, talking about Korach.

__________________

As with all of Torah, there is always more to notice.  

Dr. Jacob Milgrom, in his commentary on the book of Numbers writes that the theme of Parashat Korach is “encroachment upon the Tabernacle.” He suggests that the real issue here are the boundaries of the Tabernacle, and the boundaries on the behavior of those who guard it.

The Tabernacle, the Mishkan, stands at the center of this Torah portion as surely as it stood in the center of the camp of the Israelites.

They had built it according to God’s command, 

Va’asu li mikdash, v’shochanti b’tocham  (Exodus 25:8)

“Let them Build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.”

The Mishkan, the Tabernacle, is that dwelling place. It is not a house for God – God needed no house and certainly could fit into no container. God cannot be put in a box.

The Mishkan is instead a visible sign for the Israelites of the covenant, the Brit, between the People Israel and God.

It stands at the center of the camp, because the Brit itself is at the center of the relationship between God and Israel.

Although it is referred to most often as Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting, it is much more than a tent. It is a complex of concentric walls forming an outer shrine and an inner tent, the Kodesh Kodeshim, the Holy of Holies, in which the Ark of the Covenant was placed.

From the point of view of the average Israelite, the Mishkan must have been much more than a Dwelling, an address for God.

It was the container for unimaginable Power. 

It was the locus of the Kavod Adonai, usually translated as the Presence or the Glory of God.

At this point in the narrative, as the story of Korach begins, there has already been one disaster at the Mishkan, a disaster with fatalities.

Just after their ordination as Kohanim, two of the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu got all excited and made an offering before the Mishkan.  It was a youthful improvisation, a fire that had not been commanded by God,

an Esh Zara, a strange fire.

And to the horror of those watching, the Fire of God rushed out from the Mishkan and 

v’tochal otam – it consumed them – it ate them up.

So from the point of view of the average Israelite, the Mishkan was likely both a sign of joy, a sign of the covenant and the protection of God, and a fearsome locus of unpredictable power.

That thing could kill you.

But Korach was no ordinary Israelite. 

He was a Levite, and a prince among the Levites, a close relative of Aaron and Moses. He was sure of his merit, of his fitness to stand before the Mishkan with incense in his firepan.

So when Moses responds to Korach’s challenge by saying, 

“Come to the Tent of Meeting with a fire pan and incense and fire, and bring your 250 followers with you with fire pans of their own” Korach did not blink.

He showed up, with 250 followers and the fire pans and the fire, and as we know from the portion, it ended in disaster.

Korach and his followers were swallowed by the earth, a terrifying sign of the disapproval of God. Fire again came forth from the Mishkan, and there were fatalities.

And it did not end there. The people were angry with Moses, God was angry with the people, and there were more deaths, more disaster before the narrative finally closes.

When it was all done, the Israelites were terrified of the Mishkan. 

So as often happens in the Torah, a passage of narrative is followed by a passage full of commandments. God gives Israel a set of commandments for guarding the Mishkan and for the job descriptions and perquisites for its keepers, the Kohanim and the Levites.

——————–

But what can any of this have to do with Love?

The Mishkan was a visible sign of the covenant between God and Israel. 

Again and again in our tradition, human love is held up as an analogy of that covenant. The entire book of Song of Songs, a book of love poetry, is traditionally interpreted as an account of the love between God and Israel. Hosea the prophet spoke of love and its disappointments,and many medieval piyyutim, liturgical poems, illustrate the bond between God and Israel as bonds of love.

That analogy holds up because Love is not the sweet, sugary, hearts and roses thing that sells on Valentine’s Day. 

Real love between human beings is sweet, but it is also powerful. It can be terrifying to truly love another person, to feel that your destiny is no longer yours alone, but is joined with another.

Ask any love struck adolescent about the delightful lure of love. 

Ask any lovers. 

And ask any poet, any cop, any divorce attorney about love’s destructive potential.

Like the Power that dwelt within the ancient Mishkan enclosure, love has the power to transform, to do miracles, to break hearts, to heal or to wreck lives.

All love has this power: love between parent and child and love between friends,

but especially the love that transforms two separate people into one flesh, one heart, one household.

————-

We are gathered here this weekend to build a dwelling for the love between David and Yuval.

They will set boundaries according to the laws of Moses, and the laws of the state of Vermont.

This dwelling, this mishkan, this marriage will be a sign of their covenant. 

It will be at the center of their camp, their home. 

All of us who are married, or who have been married know that simply building the mishkan is just the beginning. The covenant of marriage is a covenant between two people who do not know what lies ahead, what joys, what sorrows.

But at the heart of their home they have this covenant, this dwelling place for the power of love between them as they travel through the midbar, the wilderness of life.

It is up to the married couple to live out the details of the covenant, to faithfully observe its upkeep, just as the ancient Kohanim and Levites kept up with the details and routine of the Mishkan.

It us up to all of us, their family and friends and community to honor this marriage that is about to be,to respect its boundaries, and to respect the power of the love that dwells within it.

Let Korach be a warning to us all about the consequences of encroachment upon the tabernacle, about the necessity of boundaries and about the power of holiness.

May David and Yuval’s home always be a sanctuary.

May this mishkan, this dwelling place, this covenant that they are building hold up against the vicissitudes of a crazy world.

And may each of us find our own home in the camp of Israel: Married and single, gay and straight, old and young let us live out our destiny to become a holy people,

A people with God in our hearts.

Shabbat shalom.


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