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.


What Makes a Home Jewish?

June 13, 2014
How many Jewish objects can you identify on my shelves?

How many Jewish objects can you identify on my shelves?

In parashat Shelach-Lecha, we read about Moses sending 12 spies into the Promised Land to see what it was like: what grew there? Who lived there? What would the children of Israel face when they entered the Land?

If spies looked in your place, how could they tell that it is a Jewish home?

Would they see

Would they hear

  • Jewish music?
  • Hebrew prayers?
  • Hebrew spoken?
  • Radio from Israel on the computer?
  • a debate about ethics?

Would they smell

  • Jewish foods cooking?
  • Candles?
  • Havdalah spices?

Could they taste

Or could they touch

  • a challah cover?
  • a tallit [prayer shawl]?
  • Passover dishes?
  • Jewish art made by a child?
  • Shabbat candlesticks?

Can you suggest experiences they’d find in your home that would “give it away” as a Jewish home?

 

 


Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

May 12, 2014

Recently I attended the Christian funeral of a man who had been an employee and friend of my congregation for many years. He was a good man and dearly loved, and I would make a rough guess that there were as many Jews in attendance at his funeral as Christians.

We were all there to remember and say goodbye to a good man, a man without whom the world is a poorer place. Two communities with very different beliefs joined together in grief and love to remember Jim. At the same time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many differences between Protestant and Jewish funerals.

The differences boiled down to two things: the handling of the body, and the beliefs about afterlife.

• THE BODY – At this Protestant Christian funeral, the body of the deceased was dressed in his best suit and embalmed for display at the service. This was a bit of a shock to Jews in attendance who are not accustomed to it. The Jewish thinking is that it is disrespectful to look at the dead, and disrespectful to disturb the body other than washing and dressing it. The Christian thinking, if I understand it correctly, is to honor the dead by making the body look as good as possible before laying it in the earth, to provide mourners with a last memory.

• BELIEF – At a Christian funeral, there is a firm belief that this person has gone on to another life with God in heaven. The service made reference to this again and again, and the minister admonished the congregation to get into a right relationship with God, so that when their time came, they too would go to heaven. At a Jewish funeral, on the other hand, there is little if any talk about afterlife. Jews have a variety of thoughts about what happens after death, but our focus is on this life. At a Jewish funeral there is more of a focus on grief and on the importance of memory.

What was the same was the human need to stop and pay respect to a loved one who had gone from this life. We may believe different things about the mysteries of life and death, but Christian and Jew, we were awed to stand on the brink of eternity to say our farewells.

 


All in the Family

April 24, 2014
Different flavors of Jews on the streets of Jerusalem.

A wild diversity of Jews shop at Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem.

Tonight in “Intro to Judaism” class the topic was Ashkenazi history and culture. It’s a big topic for just 90 minutes.

Ashkenazi Judaism is that portion of world Jewry with its roots in Europe, except for Spain and Portugal. It is partly an ancestral thing, but also a category of ritual, custom, and Jewish law. The vast majority of American Jews are Ashkenazim (more than 80% by conservative estimates.) There are many subgroups and topics within the big umbrella of “Ashkenazi,” but one thing I noticed was that we kept wandering off topic.

One minute we’d be talking about Askhenazi customs, and then a student would ask a question that was more about Sephardic Judaism.  A few times there were questions about Mizrahi Jews, and other, smaller groups. And it hit me: we really are Am Echad, one People. As diverse as we are, it was impossible to talk only about Ashkenazim. The other groups, the other threads just kept creeping into the discussion.

Here in the United States it is particularly impossible to separate the ethnic groups. The first Jews in North America were Sephardim, Jews with roots in Jewish Spain, even if they actually arrived from Brazil, or England, or the Netherlands. While they are today a minority of American Jews, it was they who set the tone for Jewish life in America, who served in the Revolutionary Army, who were well-regarded by George Washington.  They built the first synagogues here.

Not all individuals with Sephardic ancestry go to Sephardic synagogues, either: I know several Reform rabbis of Sephardic descent, and many more families who claim both a Sephardic heritage (or a Mizrahi heritage) and attend Reform or Conservative synagogues.

As our discussion went on tonight, I stopped trying to drag the discussion back to the Ashkenazim. It was clear that the topic would wind up back there soon enough. I watched what we were doing, and realized that this is what we always do: you just can’t talk about one corner of Jewry without eventually talking about all of Judaism.  If we talk about something Reform, sooner or later someone will reference “the Orthodox” (which drives me crazy, since Orthodoxy is hardly a monolith – there are divisions within it, too.)  Next week, when we talk about the Sephardim in class, I’m sure we’ll be back to the Ashkenazim before I make it out of the 16th century. If we talk about American Jews, sooner or later the topic will come around to Israel, and if you talk about Judaism in Israel, here comes the Diaspora! And this past week, everyone’s been worrying about the Ukrainian Jews!

What I learned tonight in class is that while Jews are diverse, we are also truly one big noisy sometimes dysfunctional family. We are so much One that we are truly inseparable, living in relation to one another.

Am Echad – One People.

Image: Emmanuel Dyan, some rights reserved.

 


What Makes Jewish Food Jewish?

April 11, 2014

 

Chess Pie

Chess Pie

“People assume that the Ashkenazi way of doing food is the crux of what Jewish food means. The reality is that Jewish food is a text, and there’s different types of text. Oral and written, of course. And then you have the text of the land of Israel. Then comes the diaspora itself. In other words, it’s your personal identity with the text, the idea of Israel, and where we live.” – Michael Twitty, in an interview for Chow, 4/10/2014

Michael Twitty teaches remarkable Torah. He is Jewish, African American, a food historian and chef, and he has a way with words. The interview above (click that link!) is chock-full of interesting insights about Jewish food.

If I ask a random American what “Jewish Food” is, likely they’ll say something about deli food, or bagels. However, Jewish food is much more varied than that. There’s Sephardic food, replete with rice and rich flavors, and the food of the Israeli street (falafel, anyone?) Digging deeper, there’s the food in every Jewish home, which is as individual as Mom’s best recipes and Dad’s skill with the grill. Jewish food is any food Jews eat around the Jewish table, which over time becomes infused with Jewish meaning.

An example: I grew up in the American South, and on holidays we had something called chess pie.  Every slice is a sliver of gooey sweetness. The first few years I was a Jew, I made the typical Ashkenazi things for Rosh Hashanah, but eventually I switched over to making my chess pie, because I don’t know of any sweeter dish on earth. For me and my family, it’s a Rosh Hashanah dish now, and every bite includes not only sugar, butter, and spices, but the hope for a sweet year. I swear it made the pie taste even better.

Another example, this one for Passover: A friend gave me her mother’s recipe for brisket, a very elaborate and wonderful old Hungarian recipe. I made it, and tinkered with it, and fiddled with it, and a few years ago I realized that it had morphed into something entirely different, a brisket that was a mix of the original recipe and the techniques I learned from my grandmother.  Here it is, and unlike the chess pie, it can be made kosher for Passover:

Passover Brisket

beef brisket, approximately 1/2 lb per person
2 cans tomatoes, with liquid
1/2 potato per person, carrots, and onions to cover the bottom of your roasting pan
fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Buy brisket for the number of people you have coming. I normally figure 1/2 pound per person.

In a deep roasting pan, put a layer of cut up potatoes, carrots, and onions.

Cut the brisket into as many pieces as you need to to handle it easily.

Brown the brisket on all sides on the stovetop over high heat. Brown the fatty side first, then brown the other sides of the meat in the fat.

Put the browned pieces of brisket in the roasting pan on top of the vegetables.

Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground mustard.

Deglaze the browning pan with a cup of wine (I use red, white is OK, do not use a sweet wine.)

Add 2 large cans of whole tomatoes, cut up, to the browning pan and bring it to a near-boil.

Pour the liquid over the meat and veggies, cover the pan (either with a lid or foil, but get a good seal) then put in the oven.

After 15 min, reduce heat to 300.

Allow it to cook until the meat is falling apart. Normally I cook it for 8 hours or even more.

Remove the brisket to a carving board and allow it to rest for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice perpendicular to the grain.

Strain out veggies, reserving liquid, and put them in a separate bowl.

Put the liquid in a saucepan on the stove and heat to reduce it for a gravy.

 

Are there any foods that have taken on Jewish meaning in your Jewish home? Share recipes if you are willing!

Image: Chess Pie, by Kristen Taylor. Some rights reserved.


After Shabbat – What then?

April 5, 2014

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Once I got used to keeping Shabbat, I began noticing a change in my Saturday evenings, after Shabbat was done. During Shabbat, I direct many thoughts to “the back of the stove,” the mindspace where my unconscious may be working on it, but my conscious self is not allowed. When a nagging worry shows up to nag, I push it to the back of the stove. When a possible solution to a work issue shows up, I shove it to a back burner to cook some more. At the time, it’s a relief – I don’t have to do that now. However, it gives the half-baked idea some additional cooking time, and builds a little pressure to get on with it come Saturday night.

Thus Saturday evenings went from a time generally wasted to my most productive night of the week. Havdalah is made, ending with Eliahu HaNavi, and I rise in a ball of energy, pulling the pots to the front of the stove.  Suddenly I’m cooking with gas.

What is Motzei Shabbat (the evening after Shabbat) like for you? Is this “burst of energy” just my little quirk, or is it a common thing?

Image: CC Joyce Cory, Some rights reserved.


What Kind of Jew are You?

March 25, 2014

Are you ethnically Jewish, or culturally Jewish? A religous Jew, or a secular Jew?

In all the loaded discussions of “who’s a Jew” we sometimes lose sight of the many ways that one can be Jewish.

Ethnically Jewish – Do you have a parent who’s Jewish? For much of the Jewish world, that question is worded: Is your mother Jewish? The American Reform Movement broadens that to “a Jewish parent,” provided you were also educated as a Jew. Another way to say it is that they have “Jewish blood” or a “Jewish heritage.” Judaism actually includes many ethnicities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian Jewish, Iraqi Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Yemenite Jewish, etc. A person who is ethnically Jewish might or might not feel much connection to other Jews.

Culturally Jewish – Is there some aspect of Jewish culture in which you participate? Does your family mark Passover with some kind of seder? Do you belong to anything Jewish? Do you give to anything Jewish? “Cultural” implies some kind of participation in a culture. “I eat bagels” doesn’t quite do it – a Baptist in Omaha might eat bagels. But do you perk up your ears and feel a sense of kinship when you find out that such-and-such a movie actor is Jewish? Did you have a visceral reaction to the news about Bernie Madoff – did you feel linked to him, even though you never met the guy?

Secular Judaism – “I’m Jewish but not religious.” There’s a long tradition for secular Judaism. Sometimes Christians are puzzled by Jews who don’t go to synagogue or don’t believe in God but who feel fiercely connected to the Jewish People. That’s because Judaism is more than a religion, it’s also an ethnicity, a culture, a whole civilization and worldview. Secular Jews are no less Jewish than their religious cousins, and many are no less serious about their Judaism. Many of the founders of the State of Israel were (or are – a few are still alive) secular Jews.

Religious Judaism – In general, Jews who attend services, observe religious holidays, etc, although you’d be surprised at some of the overlap with other groups. Some synagogue goers go for the Jewish culture available there, not for religious content per se. There’s a joke that circulates about a man who goes to daily minyan and who tells a story about his friend Abe: “Abe goes to minyan to talk with God. I go to talk with Abe.” Synagogues were the first Jewish cultural centers, and they continue to fill that role for some Jews  today. But there are also Jews who believe in God, who have lively spiritual lives, and some of them go to synagogue – and some don’t.  Go figure.

There are also an increasing number of people in our communities who have been with us since Biblical times: people who live with Jews even though they themselves aren’t Jewish. Generally they find their way to us because they love someone Jewish. Some eventually choose to become Jewish; some have good reasons for not converting. But it is important to remember that in every gathering of Jews, there will also be some people who weren’t “born that way,” and others who are with us for love. Some raise Jewish children, and thereby participate in the Jewish future. At any rate, whenever you are in a Jewish community, remember that they are part of us, too: the Book of Ruth reminds us that King David had a Moabite great-grandmother.

How do you identify Jewishly? Do you find these labels useful, or limiting?


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