Bret Harte on Korach

June 20, 2014
Bret Harte (public domain)

Bret Harte (public domain)

When Korach and his followers are swallowed up by the earth in this week’s Torah portion, I am always reminded of Bret Harte’s quip about Oakland’s relative quiet during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: “There are some things the earth cannot swallow.”

It really isn’t a funny line, if you’re an Oaklander, especially if you remember Mother Earth shaking us all in her teeth during the 1989 earthquake. Or, I guess, if you’re Korach.

I am traveling and at the wedding of dear friends. Posts may be sparse and brief for a bit.


Where Did Korach Go Wrong?

June 18, 2014
"Korach" by Barry Pousman, some rights reserved

“Korach” by Barry Pousman, some rights reserved

This week’s Torah portion tells one of the saddest stories in the Torah. A cousin of Moses and one of the leading Levites, Korach ben Izhar is angry. He feels that he has been passed over for leadership of the family; he also feels that Moses and Aaron have taken all the power for themselves. In talking with his neighbors in camp, some Reubenites, he got angrier and angrier, until he and his friends have decided to make a rebellion. They and 250 men, leaders of the Israelites, come to Moses and tell him that he has to share the power. “All of Israel is holy!” says Korach, “Not just you!”

If you want to know the rest of the story, you can read it here. It’s very, very sad. Also violent. God rejects the rebels and they die horribly. We are left to wonder, where did Korach go wrong?

My favorite commentary on this story is from Accepting the Yoke of Heaven, by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Israeli philosopher and Torah scholar. Dr. Leibowitz points out that Korach misread the Torah. In Leviticus 19, God says, “Ki-do-sheem ti-hi-yoo:” “Be holy.” It’s a command, not a statement.

Israel is not yet holy. We are commanded to work towards holiness by doing mitzvot and studying Torah.

Korach’s feelings had been hurt and it clouded his judgment. Because his judgment was impaired, he made the command into a statement, to hear what he wanted to hear. Then, to compound the trouble, instead of talking it over calmly with Moses and Aaron (his cousins!) he talked up his anger with Dotan and Abiram, his neighbors from the tribe of Reuven. Everybody got madder and madder, and before they knew it, they were rebels, shouting at Moses. Things got out of hand.

That’s what happens when hurt festers, and is magnified by conversations with other angry people. In this case, a lot of people died. But I imagine if you think about it, you can think of other times when someone got their feelings hurt, and spread stories around among other angry people, and a community was damaged.

The lesson? That’s in the passage from Pirkei Avot that opened this post. The mishnah tells us that the 1st century students of Hillel and Shammai would argue in the academy, but then they’d hang it up for the day, and share meals. There were marriages between the two groups. They spoke with one another outside the study hall, sharing food and joy, despite the fact that they had serious disagreements about matters of Jewish law. Korach, on the other hand, stayed separate and angry, only talking to Moses after the trouble had blown up into a full rebellion. The students of Hillel and Shammai did not invest their egos in their arguments; Korach was all hurt feelings and ego.

For an argument to be “for the sake of heaven” it needs to be conducted properly, and it needs to be about the issues, not about personalities. May we learn this lesson before we wind up like poor Korach.

 

 


How to Write a D’var Torah

June 16, 2014
"Torah" by Ben Faulding (Some rights reserved)

“Torah” by Ben Faulding (Some rights reserved)

A d’var Torah [word of Torah] is a short talk or written piece about some passage of Torah, often taken from the weekly parashah [portion.]  Here are some basic steps to writing a d’var Torah:

1. Read the Torah portion. To find it, look at a Jewish calendar. Remember that Shabbat is Day 7 of the week – the last day for that Torah portion. So for Sunday through Friday, look to the Torah portion for the upcoming Shabbat.

2. As you read, make a list of the major events in the entire portion.

3. Take your list of events and turn it into a very short summary of the portion. Just hit the high points! This is just a quick summary, nothing more. That is Part One of your d’var Torah.

3. Now reread the portion. This time, watch for things that make you curious or that catch your eye. Make a list of those things, noting the verses in which they fall.

4, Read a commentary on the portion. You might read an ancient commentary, like Rashi, or a modern one, like the Women’s Torah Commentary, Etz Chaim, or Plaut. If you are ambitious, read a scholarly commentary like the JPS Torah Commentary. Again, make a list of a few things that you find particularly interesting.

5. Out of your list of “interesting things” from the portion and the commentary, choose ONE item that you find interesting.   This will be your “take away” item.  What ONE THING would you like people to remember from this portion?

6. Write a very short piece about your topic. You might mention:

  • WHAT IT IS – Name it.
  • CONTEXT – how it fits into the portion
  • MEANING – Explain what it means.  Translate if necessary.
  • SO WHAT? – What does this have to do with us?  OR- why did you find it interesting?
  • SOURCES – if you quote anyone, or repeat their ideas, be sure to give credit.  This is an important Jewish value, “speaking b’shemro.”

7. Remember, you are not here to teach Biblical Literature or World History.  This is a “Word-of-Torah.”  Focus on ONE THING, and it will be good.

8. Write the closing.  Divrei Torah should always end on an “up” note.  One strategy is to repeat your main point, with a wish that our lives be enriched by the insights of this portion.    

9. Put the paper away for at least 12 hours, then look at it again.  Does it follow the format (summary/topic/closing)?  Is it the right length?  What single thing will your listeners or readers carry away?

10. Read or publish the d’var Torah.

If you get stuck at any point, this is a time when it is good to have a rabbi or Jewish teacher to help you. If you contact them with enough lead time, they can be an excellent source of ideas and advice.

B’chatzlecha! – good luck with your first d’var Torah!


Scouting Conversion

June 9, 2014
Mikveh, Oakland, CA

Mikveh, Oakland, CA

I’m celebrating an anniversary this week.

There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.

The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.

What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.

Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”

The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.”  In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.

There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder.

My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Some discover that their relatives have unpleasant ideas about Jews. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas – and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.

It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.

After a year of study, that process was well underway. I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.

The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.

It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wildnerness that we can become our truest selves.


“Please God, Please Heal Her!”

June 6, 2014
Pleading Rocks by Patrick Tanguay

Pleading Rocks by Patrick Tanguay

In this week’s Torah portion B’ha-alot’kha (Numbers 8:1 – 12:16) we have a very famous story. The Israelites are camped at a place called Hazeroth. Aaron and Miriam, brother and sister of Moses, are talking to one another about Moses. First a little gossip: “He married a Cushite (Ethiopian) woman!” and then, “God has spoken through each of us, too!” – with the implication that they resent Moses’ high position as leader of the Israelites. The irony of this is that Aaron and Miriam are quite famous in their own right. Aaron is the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Miriam is beloved by the Israelites; from other stories in the Torah, we know that the Israelites loved her. A miraculous spring rose wherever she pitched her tent, providing the whole community with water. And yet the two of them are kvetching that Moses gets too much attention! God hears them, and summons the three siblings to the door of the Tent of Meeting. God says to Aaron and Miriam, in front of Moses, “Lookit, you two: I talk to prophets like you in visions, but when I talk with Moses, it’s mouth to mouth! How dare you speak against Moses!” Then God departs in a huff, the cloud rising from above the Tent. When the cloud goes, the three of them are horrified: Miriam’s skin has turned sickly white, and she is covered with flakes. It is the terrible condition tzara’at, which is sometimes (mis)translated as “leprosy.” It is not the same as the illness Hansen’s Disease, also called leprosy. The laws for tzara’at are commanded in Leviticus 13-14, and the essence of them is that a person with the disease cannot stay in the camp. Consider for a moment what that means: Miriam has to leave the Israelite camp. She has to pitch her tent outside the camp, without the protection of the warriors. Wild animals and marauders could get her. Her miraculous spring will not be available to the thirsty Israelites, either. This is a disaster. Aaron, whose skin is unaffected, goes into a frenzy of guilt. “Moses! Don’t hold our sin against us! Please pray for her to be healed!” By asking Moses to pray, he demonstrates that he heard and understood what God said: Moses is closer to God than he. Aaron admits that he can’t do anything for Miriam, but that Moses might be able to help. And Moses does indeed pray for his sister. His prayer is short and direct: “Please, God, please heal her!”  And God relents, saying that she will have to suffer seven days of exile outside the camp, and then her skin will clear and she can return inside the camp. The whole camp waits for her, and then they move on. This is an interesting story on many levels. On one of the simplest, it is an illustration of how seriously our tradition takes the sin of talking about another person, even if what is said is true. Aaron and Miriam were envious of their brother – but notice, the sin isn’t their envy, it’s the talk that gets them in trouble. Emotions are natural parts of the human experience. It’s what we do with and about them that matters. Another thing that always strikes me about this story is that even though Moses talks with God “mouth to mouth” (what a curious phrase!) Moses’ prayer gets a rather reluctant response from God. He says, “Please, God, please heal her!” but the illness will still have to run its course. We learn from this that it is OK to pray for sick people, but that it is unrealistic to expect miracles.  One thing that people sometimes take away from this story is that illness is a punishment for sin. It’s important to realize that tzara’at is not leprosy, and is in fact not an illness as we understand illness today. If you read Leviticus 13-14 carefully, you can see that it doesn’t behave like a sickness. It is more an outward manifestation of the condition of the soul; only a priest can diagnose it, for one thing. For another, houses and clothing can get it. I read the passages about houses and clothing in Leviticus as a warning to us NOT to mistake it for leprosy or any other regular human illness. Have you ever prayed for someone else to be healed? What is “healing”?

Image: “Pleading Rocks” by Patrick Tanguay, Some Rights Reserved.


What’s a D’var Torah?

June 6, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zA reader asked: What’s the difference between a “drash” and a “d’var Torah?”

First of all, let’s talk definitions:

DRASH is an interpretation of something in scripture.

e.g. Rabbi Akiva gave a drash that explained the crowns on the letters of the Torah scroll.   OR

e.g.: “That’s an interesting drash,” the teacher said, after Abe speculated that perhaps the burning bush was a door into another dimension.

D’VAR TORAH (duh-VAHR toh-RAH) (literally, a “word of Torah”) is a short teaching linked to a passage of Torah. (Please do not refer to it as a “d’var.” That means “a word of,” which is annoying; a word of what?)

e.g. Will you give a d’var Torah to open next week’s meeting?

While we’re at it, let’s look at some related D (for Dalet) words:

DRASHAH (drah-SHAH) is the same as drash, but usually refers to something more formal, like a sermon or lesson.

e.g. On the High Holy Days, Rabbi Cohen’s drashah might be as long as 45 minutes.

A DARSHAN (dar-SHAHN) is a man who gives a drash. When a woman does it, we call her a DARSHANIT.

e.g. I asked Rivka to be the darshanit for next week’s service, but if she can’t do it, ask Robert to be the darshan.

MIDRASH (mi-DRASH or MID-drash) – See What is Midrash? 

e.g. The story about Abraham’s father the idol maker is a midrash.

——

So the answer to the original question is “not much!”


Hearing Voices in the Bible

May 30, 2014

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Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… Ecclesiastes 1:2

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending a class led by Rabbi Steve Chester at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley. He explored the resonances between the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and Tony Kushner‘s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

There is no direct connection between the two: Kushner’s play is not “about” Ecclesiastes. But the lecture set me to thinking about the many and varied voices in the Tanach (Jewish Bible).

There are very few pretty stories in the Bible, if you think about it.  Ruth is a sweet story, I admit. But most of the rest of our Bible stories involve carnage or trickery or dysfunctional families. Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister several times, with the result that she wound up in other men’s harems. Isaac, the gentlest of the patriarchs, was deceived by his son Jacob. Jacob cheerfully manipulates and steals from his brother. It goes on and on; the Book of Judges is one long nightmare.

Some people ask, quite reasonably, why all this stuff is there in a supposedly holy book. Ecclesiastes, in particular, is written in a bitter and cynical voice. What possible edification can anyone get from that?

The answer to that will depend on your orientation to scripture. I am a modern Reform rabbi, and I approach these books both as the product of divine inspiration as well as as the product of human hands. The books are holy because they have been recognized as holy for thousands of years, and because the faithful have continued to find something they need in them.

The genius of these books is that they are not a collection of nice easy stories in which everyone gets what they deserve. They are, instead, a collection of voices and experiences from the full range of the human experience. Some voices in Scripture insist that God is fair and wise and indeed, everyone gets their just desserts (that voice is named Deuteronomy.) Some voices in Scripture remind us that life is not fair, and even go so far as to question whether God is fair (Job.) Some voices are angry at God (parts of Lamentations) and some are young and not much concerned with God, reveling instead in physicality (Song of Songs). Kohelet, the voice in Ecclesiastes, is old and cynical. He’s seen it all, and it all disappoints.

When I am sitting with someone who is having a hard time, I do not usually have words to offer that are going to make everything “all better.” Face it, sometimes there is nothing on earth that will truly console those in deep suffering: the man who has lost his child to a senseless crime, the woman who has lost the love of her life, the person who has seen their life’s work go for nothing. What I can offer that person is evidence that they are not alone in their suffering. I don’t know “exactly how they feel” but there are voices in the Tanach that come pretty close. Those voices can help put words to feelings, and rebuild the connections between a suffering person and the rest of the world.

I think one can make a good case that Hannah was suffering from depression in the book of 1 Samuel , and that King Saul suffered from bipolar disorder. Ruth was a poor foreign woman in an unfriendly land. Jeremiah was persecuted by the authorities despite the fact that he was a messenger from God. David’s children were a terrible disappointment, except for Solomon, whose children were also a terrible disappointment. Families are mostly dysfunctional.

The people and the voices in the Bible are not goody-two-shoes. They make awful mistakes, they do dreadful things, and terrible things happen to them. And that is the point: they are us.

At the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob dies, and Joseph’s brothers fear that he is finally going to take revenge on them for selling him into slavery many years before:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:15-21

That’s the message: we human beings are fallible and frail. We make tragic mistakes, we are selfish, we are vengeful, we are vulnerable to bad luck. However, we can also be agents of good in the world. We can make small differences. We can forgive and cherish and do good deeds. And sometimes things do work out well. Most of all, we are not alone in our experience. As Kohelet says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

That is not always a bad thing.

Image by Sonny Abesamis, some rights reserved.


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