Shabbat Shalom! Korach

We need Shabbat so much this week – as we have so often of late – and this week’s Torah portion is a challenge. It contains the story of Korach, the Levite who felt slighted by God and by Moses. The portion is difficult to read on many levels – it is a complex text with many problems for understanding and the end of it is emotionally charged for many of us. It is one of the most famous stories in Torah, and it has resonance for today, for sure.

Have I intrigued you?  Parashat Korach is Numbers 16:1- 18:32. For some ideas about interpretation, here are some divrei Torah:

How Not To Have A Conversation by Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot

Praise the Contrary and Its Defenders by Sue Schwartz

Korach and the Un-Holiness of Racism by Dr. Shaiya Rothburg

Korach at the Wedding by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Korach, Privilege, and Striving for More by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Korach: the Brexit Challenge of its Day by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Claims and Flames by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Philando Castile. Alton Sterling.

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.  – Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

Two entire worlds disappeared in the last 24 hours when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling died at the hands of police. Witnesses recorded both shootings, and the police do not look good in the video.

Late last night, my son posted on his Facebook page: “I am up late tonight, unable to sleep, sad angry and scared. I didn’t know these men, but I could have. Next time this could be someone I know and love.”

Do not tell me that “All Lives Matter.” I know that. The question is, do we American taxpayers know it? Because right now it looks as if we do not know it. It looks like those in power in America believe that black lives don’t matter. It looks like we and our police believe that all African American males are so dangerous that one must shoot first and ask questions later.


That is why it is necessary to say #BlackLivesMatter. We say it because we must learn it. “All Lives Matter” is a platitude that attempts to cover our inadequacies with the obvious. #BlackLivesMatter points to the problem – the fact that this morning, two more families are without beloved fathers who were primary breadwinners.

Two entire worlds were destroyed. It matters.



The Agony of Ramadan, 2016

Image: Aftermath of the July 2016 Baghdad bombings, picture via Tasnim News.

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. – Elie Weisel

More than 250 Muslims have been slaughtered in the past week, if you combine the death counts from Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, and Medina.

The cruelty of those attacks is magnified by several factors. First, they fell just at the end of Ramadan, before the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, a festival on a par with Christian Easter or Jewish Rosh HaShanah. A time of joy has forever been turned to a time of mourning for hundreds of families. Secondly, many of those affected by the explosions and fire in Baghdad were already suffering from more than a decade of war. Third, the attack in Medina was an attack at one of Islam’s holiest sites: imagine a terrorist attack on the Vatican, or the Kotel.

And yet: where are the “Je Suis Istanbul” signs? Where are the facebook memes? Where is the sympathy and solidarity that Paris, and San Bernadino, and Orlando received when there was mass murder? Could it be that we are indifferent because most of the victims are not white? Could it be that we are indifferent because most of them were Muslims?

Someone is going to point out to me that there was celebration in Palestinian Gaza after the bombings in Paris. That has more to do with Hamas (the terrorist organization that currently runs Gaza) than it does with the fact that they are Muslim. I attended an iftar meal in Daly City, CA with Muslims shortly after Orlando, and I can tell you that they were horrified by the shooting. There was not one bit of celebration, no word of justification, not even a little dig about the fact that most of the victims were gay men.

In a New York Times article, journalist Anne Barnard explores some of the political and global reasons for the apathy (and if you are doubting that it exists, she also documents and quantifies it.) My concern here is specific to Jews: I want to suggest that Jewish tradition and the Jewish experience demands that we care.

The Hebrew word for mercy, rachamim, is closely related to the word for womb, rechem. Just as we speak of mothers carrying their infants “under their hearts,” we must carry the suffering of the world under our own hearts. The High Holy Day liturgy warns that those who were without mercy for their fellow human being will face a merciless Judge on Judgment Day. And yes, we may have suffered at the hands of those without mercy but that never justifies any action on our part that is merciless: we must care.

Yes, we are exhausted from mourning the deaths of our own. A little Jewish girl was stabbed to death in her bed by a terrorist. An Israeli family was attacked in their car, the father killed, the mother seriously injured. But did you know that it was also two Arab Palestinians who responded with first aid and comfort for the children after that attack?

Elie Weisel told us repeatedly that we must care about the suffering of others. We must care even when we are exhausted, when we have compassion fatigue, when we are tempted to confusion. We must care, and we must give voice to our concern. 250 human beings died in the past week, died by means so horrible we cannot linger on the thought. We must care.

No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them. – Elie Weisel

The Stealth Rabbi Strikes Again

Image: Nine Jews demonstrating against Trump’s racism. Three people in this photo are rabbis – can you tell which ones? Photo courtesy of Bend the Arc, a great social justice organization.

If you say “rabbi” to most people, the image that comes up is a bearded man. I don’t look like that rabbi.

Actually, I look like my grandmother: Irish-American, round, soft, motherly, maybe grandmotherly. My haircut (a buzz cut) disrupts the effect a bit, but it doesn’t make me look more like that mental image of a rabbi. I usually wear a hat, which might be a kippah (looks like a rabbi) or an A’s baseball cap (not so much.)

As a result, I often surprise people; I’m a stealth rabbi. “What do you do?” someone will say to me, as Americans do, and I will reply, “I’m a rabbi.” If they identify as Jewish, this may produce a panicked response:

“Oh! I’m Jewish. Well, I’m a bagels and cream cheese Jew, you know, not religious. Seinfeld. …” And then they will tell me why they haven’t been to synagogue, or what’s wrong with synagogue, or who drove them from synagogue… I listen. Usually it’s a long speech.



They think I’m going to pass judgment upon them, and I’m not. Depending on the story, I’m sad that Jewish community didn’t work out for them, or appalled at what drove them away. Mostly, I’m sad that they have no idea what Judaism is for; their Jewish identity is a ball and chain they drag along through life.

What I’d like to say to them, if we had longer for a real conversation, is this:

I’m not here to judge you. As a rabbi, it’s true, I sometimes function as a judge, but only in very limited situations. Mostly I’m a teacher, because learning is at the heart of Jewish life. So relax: I’m harmless!

Would you like to take that ball and chain, and turn it into something a little easier to carry around? Maybe into a walking stick, something to support you when you are tired and afraid? Or maybe into a beautiful box of treasures, an inheritance of marvels?

All you need to do is open your mind and heart to learn. You pick the topic: what’s bugging you about life? There’s are several Jewish approaches to it, I promise you. Or, if you are really adventurous, what about Judaism bothers you? Let’s look critically at the tradition, and find new bits of it. Let’s debate! Let’s play with it, have a good time!

There’s the wide world of social justice work that Jews have been doing forever. There are great organizations just waiting for you. Whatever is your passion, you can pursue it as a Jew, with other Jews, amplified far beyond your social media or letter to the editor. You can tap into the riches of the tradition to support you in that work, too.

If food really is at the heart of Jewish identity for you, let’s look at that. There’s more than bagels out there for you to enjoy. There’s the myriad of Ashkenazi and Sephardic cuisines, and Middle Eastern food. There are chef/scholars like Michael Twitty, who explores the places where African and Southern and Jewish foods intersect. There’s Tami Weiser, who will give you beautiful recipes and invite you to think about them.

My role as a rabbi is to be a resource. I have spent years cramming my head and heart full of Torah, and learning the sources so that I can make them available to you. Some rabbis, congregational rabbis, create and maintain environments where Jews can be Jews – where you can be Jewish. Not all those environments are like the synagogue you remember. Some rabbis are chaplains, committed to hanging in there with people who are suffering. I’m a teaching rabbi: I am here to help you learn.

And yes, we’ll have bagels.

Elie Weisel z”l

Elie Weisel survived the Shoah. More than surviving, he insisted that we talk about it. He insisted that our talk not be an exercise in self-pity, but that we cultivate a willingness to put ourselves on the line for any group of people denied the dignity of their own humanity. He did so himself, time and again.

Now he is gone, but his words remain.

If you have not yet had a chance to read one of Mr. Weisel’s books, start with Night. It is one of the world’s great books.

Lawrence Plus Three in Arabia

Anderson.LawrenceCurrently I’m reading Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson. The title is a little misleading; this book is not just a book about T.E. Lawrence, although his is the most completely fleshed out story. The book also deals with three other Europeans who shape the story of the Middle East in the early 20th century. By drawing back to focus on more than just the romantic figure of Lawrence, Anderson offers us a better understanding of the history and its consequences.

Anderson’s four figures:

T.E. Lawrence needs no introduction (surely) – Lawrence of Arabia? Peter O’Toole on a camel? He was a British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat in the Middle East during WWI.

Aaron Aaronsohn was a Jewish agronomist and Zionist. He was born in Romania but moved at age 6 with his family to Ottoman Palestine. His father was one of the founders of Zichron Ya’acov, now a thriving city in Northern Israel. He would have been among the Founders of the State of Israel had he not been killed in an air crash over the English Channel in 1919.

William Yale was an American civil engineer and executive with the Standard Oil Company of New York, which sent him to Istanbul and then Cairo to explore for oil. In 1917, he was appointed special agent in Cairo for the U.S. Department of State, and the next year he was given a commission as Captain in the U.S. Army and was assigned as an advisor to British General Allenby in Palestine.

Curt Prüfer was a German diplomat from 1907 until 1945. He served primarily in the Middle East although he finished his career in WWII in Brazil. He was one of the architects of German policy towards the British in the Middle East, and thoroughgoing antisemite.


This history is mostly about the Great Powers of Europe, not the Turks or the Arabs or the Palestinians. I might argue for a different subtitle: How the European Powers Laid Waste to the Middle East with Some Help from Standard Oil.

I confess to reading about Aaronsohn with some special interest: only he, among the four, regarded the Middle East as his home. I was also curious because, frankly, I’d never heard of the guy and he’s important both as a Zionist and as an agronomist. He was one of the people who “made the desert bloom;” without his work, Israel today would look very different.

Another thing that interests me about this book is its account of the Armenian genocide. I had heard of it, of course, but now I can see how it happened. I now understand its connection to the Nazi Final Solution: Germans like Prüfer were watching very closely to the Turkish policies and to the inattention of the world.

I’m only about half way through the book, and I already feel that I understand more about the modern Middle East. If you have read it, or in future read it, I hope you’ll leave your impressions in the comments here.

What is z”l?

Z”L after a person’s name means that that person is dead. It is an abbreviation for the Hebrew phrase Zichrono livracha. [Of Blessed Memory.] The feminine form is zichronah livracha. The correct way to pronounce the abbreviation is “zahl.”

Jews love acronyms. If there is a phrase that takes a long time to write, why not just abbreviate it it? Added bonus: that way you don’t have to spell it! And if you put a vowel or two back in there, you can make it into an acronym!

When a word in Hebrew is abbreviated, there’s a little sign put into the letters that remain to clue you in to what’s going on. It looks like a lone quotation mark and most people refer to it as a “choopchik.”


Z”L  = Zichrono  + choopchick + Livracha = Of Blessed Memory, or “ZAHL”

in Hebrew, it looks like this:


And for your further edification and amusement, here’s a list of other common Hebrew and Hebrew-ish acronyms.