Meditating spies

Ah, so much chaos, so little time.

In this parsha we deal with the message of the spies; insecurity leading to depression and fear; rebellion and anger by the people, Moses and God; and several severe punishments, including the major one of wandering in the desert for an additional 40 years and the minor one (in size and scope, but not in significance) of killing the Shabbat wood collector. We end with a collective breath, and more importantly, a call for awareness and attention to the inner workings of our soul, with the final paragraph instructing us about tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of our garments and tallitot (prayer shawls), which is said daily as the third paragraph of the Shema prayer.

Why is there so much disillusionment, fear and unsettling behavior in this parsha? And what can we learn from the chaos?

In practicing and teaching Jewish meditation — a central focus of my rabbinate work alongside my passion for social justice and peace — I have come to understand that an awareness of our inner spirit can greatly affect how we interpret events in the world around us, as well as how we perceive ourselves and how Judaism can help ground us in lives of meaning and fortitude. After 12 years of almost daily practice, I understand that each day brings new challenges and new barriers, along with old habits and lifelong obstacles, all of which are trying to thwart my progress.

As we say in the liturgy: Just as God renews each day, so, too, must we renew. And this is what I see happening in Shelach Lecha, albeit in reverse order.

The lack of confidence that the spies bring back — embodied in the famous line, “And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33) — is a classic case of not being fully aware and awake. The fear that the spies bring back, which may have been justified, overtakes them and causes the entire Israelite people to lose faith, lose hope and react with chaotic perplexity.

In meditation, one can begin to develop a sense of connection to God, one’s own heart and the notion that the more awareness we have in our life, the better decisions we are able to make. We don’t read of the spies taking any time to process their findings, meditate on their experience before sharing it; rather, they blow into the camp, rally the fears of the people and cause a scene that cannot be stopped, one that will climax next week with the rebellion of Korah.

I find it fascinating that this one line about the grasshoppers speaks volumes about the inner life of the spies. Their real mistake was not in sharing their fears, but rather in not being present in their sharing, such that they conveyed not only physical fears, but also their own unprocessed and undifferentiated emotional and spiritual fears.

Moses loses control of the people and almost loses control of the whole exodus enterprise. According to the Talmud, the spies, and thereby the entire people, actually think that not only can’t they overcome the inhabitants of the land, but that even God is outmatched.

In a challenging reading of the text, Sotah 35a says that Numbers 13:31, which reads, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than we,” should be read, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than Him [God].” They translate the word memenu, as “than him,” rather than the traditional reading “than us.” So, in their fear, the spies not only reject the notion of conquering the land, they reject the whole premise that God is with them at all. Without a sense of presence and consciousness, God is lost to them.

And, it is this mentality that causes the overreaction to the man collecting wood on Shabbat. There is so much fear, so much confusion and lack of confidence that the people, including Moses, don’t know how to respond.

I don’t see this story as one telling us that we should kill all those who break rules on Shabbat — we would all be dead! Rather, it’s a parable of what happens when we don’t bring ourselves fully present to any situation in our lives, including religious practice. When we act out of fear, we don’t make good decisions.

It is for this reason that I see the final portion about the tzitzit fitting in. When we stop to contemplate the higher meaning and value in life, a connection to God and our souls, we find ourselves making more healthy decisions. Reading back the idea of tzitzit into the rest of the parsha, I see it as coming as a corrective to the series of fear-induced decisions that plague the people, leading to chaos, 40 years of wandering in the desert and killing someone for a small violation of a newfound religious practice. By taking time to breathe and notice the tzitzit, we find a way to operate more calmly, with greater confidence coupled with greater humility. This combination is a hallmark of Jewish meditation, one that is signified by the gathering of the tzitzit. Certainly, if our ancestors had practiced a bit more awareness meditation, imagine how differently things might have turned out.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He welcomes your comments at

Mikvah: Calming Waters for a Chaotic Life

The first time I saw a mikvah I had no idea what it was. My college roommate took me to a small building behind her synagogue that looked like a storage unit. We entered a dimly lit area where a small, green-tiled pool dominated the shabby room. It was hardly appealing, and I was shocked when she told me that Jewish women immersed themselves in it before they got married.

“My mother told me that the rainwaters that fill it are like the waters of Eden,” she said as we left.

The next time I encountered a mikvah was in “The Ritual Bath,” a mystery novel written by Faye Kellerman. While the moving descriptions of the Orthodox women who went to the mikvah had a powerful hold on me, I never thought that I would go to one myself.

Several years later, I made a decision that was life-altering: I decided to leave my law practice and pursue my passion for Jewish learning. I wanted to do something special and spiritually significant to elevate my choice into something more than just a career change. That’s when it hit me. I would begin my journey into Jewish learning by preparing myself in a very Jewish way: I would study the texts about ritual purity and go to the mikvah. To this day, it stands as one of the highlights in my quest to find ways to live a meaningful Jewish life.

Traditionally, the mikvah is a thoroughly private experience, so I feel somewhat uncomfortable writing about it. But I take some comfort in knowing that along with other traditional Jewish rituals that are being redefined today, there is renewed interest in mikvah observance as modern Jewish women discuss, explore and participate in mikvah for the first time.

The laws of family purity, or taharat hamishpacha, date back to biblical times. There are a lot of misconceptions and negative connotations about these laws, which have been viewed by Jews who are not familiar with the reasons behind the laws as primitive or demeaning to women. But the mikvah lies at the heart of Jewish life because it offers us the opportunity to become spiritually pure and to perpetuate Jewish life and Jewish living.

Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18 prohibit marital relations during a woman’s menstrual cycle and for seven “spotless” days thereafter. A woman goes to the mikvah to become spiritually pure — not physically clean, as those who misunderstand the ritual suggest. If we understand menstruation as a reflection of a woman’s unique potential to create life, then we can appreciate a ritual that honors the renewal of a woman’s capacity to conceive.

Mikvah attendance requires conscious, vigorous preparation, including bathing, washing and combing the hair, cutting fingernails and removing all jewelry, makeup or anything that is a barrier between a woman and the mikvah waters. It gives a woman the opportunity to luxuriate in being “squeaky clean” and offers a time to focus on the miracles of being a woman.

Mikvah has traditionally been used for conversions, kashering utensils and preparing the dead for burial. But today, Jewish women are reclaiming mikvah to celebrate important lifecycle events and provide meaningful rituals in times of loss, tragedy and sickness. Women also go to the mikvah to mark the onset of menopause, the end of a marriage, a trip to Israel and, in my case, a change in careers.

Many community mikvahs are open to all Jewish women before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the purpose of spiritually preparing themselves for the year ahead. What a wonderful mitzvah to add to our lives as we embrace the New Year and the joys of being a Jewish woman.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at

Meet the Fockers


If the religion of Ben Stiller’s character, Gaylord “Greg” Focker (pronounced Faw-ker), was hinted at in the movie, “Meet the Parents,” there’s no escaping it in its sequel, “Meet the Fockers,” in theaters this week.

The first time around, audiences rooted for Greg, as he tried to find common ground with his WASPY soon-to-be in-laws, Dina and Jack Byrnes, played by Blythe Danner and Robert DeNiro. Now all that’s left is for the in-laws to meet each other.

This time, we’re on Focker turf, at the tiki-style abode of Greg’s parents, Roz (Barbra Streisand) and Bernie (Dustin Hoffman), in Coconut Grove, Fla.

The loud, affectionate, occasionally crude, left-wing bohemian Fockers are essentially the polar opposites of the Byrneses. And so the fun begins, as Greg tries to convince his future father-in-law that his family won’t be a “chink in the chain” of his lineage.

“If you really boil it down, it’s sort of the difference between cats and dogs,” producer Jane Rosenthal said, “The Byrneses have Jinx the cat, who’s back, and the Fockers have Moses, their dog. So it’s cat people vs. dog people, really.”

Moses the dog is just one of many Jewish nods in the film. There are Yiddishisms like bubbeleh, meshuggeneh and Rozaleh.

There is Bernie’s greeting to his son when he first arrives: “You look like a young, Jewish Marlon Brando.”

There is Roz’s classic greeting as she hugs Greg: “Honey, you feel thin. Have you been eating?”

And then there’s the incident with the foreskin….

Of course, in the tradition of “Meet the Parents,” chaos ensues when these two families get together.

Even if the plot does feel forced at times, for those who subscribe to the belief that other people’s pain is funny, “Fockers” has a good chance of amusing.

“Meet the Fockers” opens Dec. 22.


Jews in Venezuela: A Vanishing Community?

These are sad days for the Jewish community in Venezuela as many begin to question whether this country, once so hospitable to Jewish life, can still be called home.

As the country faces nearly its sixth week of a devastating strike calling for early elections or the resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venzuela’s economy, already set to shrink by 6 percent this year, has been hurled into utter chaos. Poverty levels are estimated at 80 percent — a tragedy for one of the wealthiest and most stable countries in Latin America.

The economic deterioration that began with the Latin America debt crisis of 1983 and has continued unabated is now coming to a head under the rule of Chávez. A former army officer and ex-coup leader, Chávez has initiated a self-styled "revolution" marked by fiery, anti-wealth rhetoric and little action. His close ties to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and leftist policies have deeply polarized the country, with two entrenched camps on both sides of the strike — neither of which is showing any signs of backing down. After a month of paralysis, more people are armed, food and supplies are growing scarce, and oil production has ground to almost a halt. The nation is on the brink of chaos, and anything could happen.

Venezuela’s present predicament is particularly disappointing. Once viewed as a beacon of democracy in a region dominated by military dictatorships, Venezuela had enjoyed nearly a half-century of stability and economic growth — thanks largely to its great reserves of oil. The resulting opportunities drew substantial numbers of Jews to Venezuela.

Although Jews began immigrating to Venezuela at the beginning of the 19th century, it was not until after World War II that most Jews arrived and formed a strong and vibrant community. The Jewish population received yet another boost after the Six-Day War in 1967, when a large influx of Sephardi Jews from Morocco arrived and settled mostly in the capital of Caracas.

At the peak of the boom years, the ’60s and ’70s, it was estimated that affiliated Jews numbered approximately 30,000, split evenly between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Middle-to-upper-class professionals and business owners established associations, schools, synagogues and community centers. They developed deep ties to the country and a strong sense of patriotism. They acculturated and settled into a comfortable "live-and-let-live" rapport with the government — the government welcomed the community and the Jewish community kept a low profile.

A snapshot of the Jewish community at present shows a different picture. On the economic front, many Jews, just as the population at large, are slowly being squeezed out of the middle class. Once lucrative professions now barely pay enough to make ends meet. An experienced university professor, for example, now makes approximately $200-$300 a month. This forces professionals to become small entrepreneurs, or leave.

Dr. Marcko Glijenschi, founding member of the Confederation of Israeli-Venezuelan Associations, an umbrella organization that organizes the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in Venezuela, reports a notable increase in assistance recipients. An average caseload prior to Chávez was around 100 cases; it now is approximately 400. In addition, the requests are changing from items such as matzah and candles to staples, such as soap or toothpaste.

Another telling event is the recent closure of one of the campuses of the well-established day school in the old Jewish neighborhood of San Bernardino in Caracas. The 450-student school was under financial strain. Its capacity to provide aid to an increasing number of families requesting scholarships, or enrolling their children and not keeping up with payments, became impaired by the simultaneous reduction in donations.

All this may seem reminiscent of Argentina. But according to Venezuelan community leaders, the Jewish community’s present predicament is not the same. Argentina’s social structure was different, with a large Jewish proletariat class. By contrast, Venezuela’s Jews are mostly middle to upper class. Argentina has seen a full quarter of its Jewish population slip into poverty, while in Venezuela, the Jewish community’s economic problems are, so far, small enough to be handled locally, within the community. Resources are strained, however, and time is running out. The red flags have been raised, prompting a visit from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to instruct community leaders as to what to do if the situation deteriorates.

Although these events are alarming, the greatest current threat to the community is widespread emigration. Since the 1980s, Jews have been gradually emigrating due to worsening economic conditions. Under Chávez, the trend has become dramatic. Glijenschi comments that prior to Chávez’s election in 1998, the population of affiliated Jews numbered 20,000; now, it has shrunk to 14,000.

The custom of sending college-age children abroad — often to the United States — to get a university education and then return to settle in Caracas, is now turning into a slow emigration pattern. Children are no longer encouraged to return. In addition, many Venezuelans are physically leaving the country, but still keeping business ties. Finally, young professionals facing an unpromising future are being forced to leave. Just recently, for example, 250 professional Jewish Venezuelans met in Miami to discuss prospects for immigration to the United States and a new life. Understandably, the mood has become bleak and pessimism prevails. Will the community survive?

Rabbi Pynchas Brener, head rabbi of La Unión Israelita, a large modern Orthodox temple that also runs a day school and community center for approximately 1,500 families, sees three potential scenarios, all linked to the outcome of the present conflict: If Chávez stays in office, and continues present policies, Jews will continue to emigrate at the rate of 2 percent to 3 percent a year, slowly but systematically shrinking the community; if Chávez succeeds in his Castro-style "Bolivarian Revolution" and implements extreme leftist policies, 50 percent of the community would leave rapidly; and, if Chávez loses the present conflict and resigns, the community would be invigorated by the return of 30 percent to 50 percent of the recent emigrants.

Ena Rotkopf, director of the Venezuelan Federation of Jewish Women, agreed: "If the situation changes, I have no doubt that those who emigrated will return because our community is very united, the country is beautiful, and the Jews who left have very deep ties. Our present leaders are all graduates of our day schools, they love their community, they love their country."

Julie Drucker, a language and marketing consultant for the Latin market, grew up in Venezuela and lives in Los Angeles. She can be reached at