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.


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!


“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!”


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,813 other followers

%d bloggers like this: