Rabbi Amy Joy Smallwas is the Senior Rabbi of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue of Burlington, Vermont from 2016. Previously, Rabbi Small worked in Jewish innovation by creating and directing Deborah’s Palm Center for Jewish Learning & Experiences in Morristown, New Jersey. Through Deborah’s Palm Center, Rabbi Small taught and facilitated Jewish experiences for adults, emphasizing questions from our everyday lives, explored through Jewish texts and ideas.
Rabbi Small has served congregations in New Jersey, Michigan and Indiana. She is a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, where she served on the board for many years. She is a fellow of Rabbis Without Borders and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Storahtelling Maven, and was awarded a Doctor of Divinity, Honoris Causa, from RRC in 2012.
This week’s Torah portion – Parashat Bo(Exodus 10:1-13:16) – features the final three plagues of Egypt, the People of Israel’s departure from Egypt, and the first Passover celebration. Our discussion focuses on the idea of maintaining positivity and recognizing the point of view of the other in our struggle for Justice.
by Uriel Heilman, JTA | PUBLISHED Mar 18, 2014 | Video
Is this what the Red Sea looked like when the waters came rushing back after the Israelites had crossed?
Watch this flash flood from Israel’s Negev Desert as an empty riverbed comes roaring back to life.
Webinar podcast of Rabbi Naomi Levy’s book ‘Hope Will Find You’
The Jews of Kaifeng, China
by David N. Myers | PUBLISHED Aug 15, 2012 | Cover Story
Jewish liturgy and ritual frequently remind us that the Israelites were scattered to the “four corners of the earth,” as symbolized by the four fringes of the tallit, or prayer shawl. The extent of the geographic dispersion of the Jews over millennia has been vast, ranging from Baghdad to Burma, Marrakesh to Melbourne, Jerusalem to Los Angeles.
But it wasn’t until I arrived in China for a two-and-a-half week stint to teach Jewish history that I realized just how dispersed these “four corners” are.
In Kaifeng, where Jews once lived — and still do — I witnessed the past and present of one of those dispersed “corners.” I also learned what it is like to teach Jewish history in China, where the field of Jewish studies is undergoing a surprising growth spurt.
The absence of a firm trail of historical evidence leads some to maintain that reports of a medieval Jewish presence in China are unfounded. I tend to agree with another group of scholars, who believe that there was such a presence — and that Kaifeng (pronounced “Ky fung”), in Henan province, is the oldest known Jewish community. This group argues that Jewish merchants, most likely originating in the Middle East, traveled along the vaunted Silk Road and made their way to and through China as early as the seventh century C.E. A document written in Judeo-Persian detailing business activity dates Jews in China to the early eighth century. Meanwhile, scholars surmise that sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries C.E., Jewish traders — likely of Persian origin — laid roots in Kaifeng. Kaifeng was no mere station along the Silk Road, and surely no backwater. It was one of the “Seven Ancient Capitals of China,” serving as the administrative center for five dynasties. Even more remarkably, Kaifeng was reputed to be the largest city in the world in the 11th and 12th centuries, with a population estimated at between 700,000 to 1.5 million. The list of other leading urban population centers in this period includes Córdoba (Spain), Constantinople (Istanbul), Cairo and Baghdad, all of which were or would become home to large populations of Jews. In fact, the Jewish romance with the city was not a modern invention. In a city, one could find a spirit of openness, new ideas and, of course, abundant commercial opportunities. In this sense, it would be no surprise that Jews made their way to medieval Kaifeng.
Kaifeng in its golden age was a masterfully designed city, with three sets of city walls, at the center of which was the elaborate Forbidden City where the emperor and his court were located. The Jewish community lived within the city walls, dwelling in close proximity to the community’s first synagogue, built in 1163, whose construction was commemorated in a stele dated to 1489. Unlike many of their medieval co-religionists, the Jews of Kaifeng, it appears, were largely unscathed by discrimination or persecution. The Song Emperors, based in Kaifeng, held the Jews in high esteem. And the Jews maintained good relations with their local Chinese neighbors.
It is reasonable to assume that amiable relations hastened the pace of cultural integration. Within several hundred years, many of Kaifeng’s Jews, who at their peak numbered several thousand (some estimate as high as five thousand), lost knowledge of the Hebrew language. And yet, a key feature of traditional Jewish life remained throughout the entire existence of the community, even up to today: Jews in Kaifeng abstained from eating pork. Another distinctive feature of the Kaifeng community also survived: One of the Song Emperors, who could not pronounce the Hebrew names of the Jews in his realm, bestowed on them seven Chinese family names that are still in use today.
The existence of this community was unknown to the West until 1605, when the intrepid Jesuit scholar and missionary in China, Matteo Ricci, received a visit from a Kaifeng Jew in Beijing. After an initial confusion in which the two thought they belonged to the same religion, Ricci recognized that he was dealing with a previously unknown phenomenon: a native Jewish community in China. This well preceded the later communities established in the late 19th century in Shanghai and Harbin.
A model of the Kaifeng synagogue at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Some decades later, the city of Kaifeng, including its Jewish community, confronted a major disaster. In 1642, a devastating flood of the Yellow River wreaked massive destruction upon the city, killing large numbers of residents, including Jews, and laying waste to much of the city’s infrastructure, including the synagogue. The glory days of Kaifeng as a world center of commerce were over.
After the flood, the Jews did manage to rebuild their synagogue, distinguished, like the original one, by a large Chinese-style roof, along with a number of other distinctive Chinese features. But the community’s best days were past. Fewer and fewer Jews attended the synagogue or had familiarity with Jewish ritual. In 1841, another major flood hit Kaifeng, again destroying much of the city, including the second synagogue. And this time, no communal institutions were available afterward to provide support or services to Kaifeng Jews.
One might assume, on the basis of this story, that the history of Kaifeng Jewry has come to an end, a victim not of anti-Semitism but of Chinese hospitality. My visit to Kaifeng suggests otherwise. My host in China, professor Xu Xin, one of the founding figures of Jewish studies in China (about whom more later), took me to visit Esther Guo Yan, a woman of about 25 or 30 who preserves one of the seven Jewish family names. Esther is the granddaughter of the last renowned Jewish notable from Kaifeng, and she runs a tiny, rough-hewn shrine to the history of Kaifeng Jewry. She waits for the occasional tourist to find her home, which is located in the historic Jewish quarter. Her interests are both to recall the old Jewish community and to bring knowledge about Chinese culture to what she refers to as her “hometown,” Jerusalem.
Indeed, a strong connection to Israel marks the larger group of Jewish descendants whom I met in Kaifeng. I first visited them at the end of their weekly four-hour study session of English and Hebrew with their ebullient, chain-smoking Israeli teacher, Shulamit Gershovich, who had been sent by Shavei Israel, an international group that seeks out lost Jews. She is concluding a six-month stint teaching the Kaifeng group and lives in one of the two rooms that now serve as a kind of community center under the name Beit HaTikvah (House of Hope). This name was bestowed by the center’s founder, a young American Jew named Eric Rothberg, who began to work with and teach the group two years ago.
On a Thursday evening, I met with a group of eight students, some of them bearing the ancient names of Kaifeng Jews who, thus, are “descendants,” and others who have no Jewish blood but are married to descendants. Here in Kaifeng, as in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the most important criterion of Jewishness is not the rabbinic standard of matrilineal descent. Rather, it is the willingness and desire to be a Jew. Against remarkable odds, the members of Beit HaTikvah are assiduously studying what it means to be a Jew. Though a small number of younger family members have been sent off to Israel or the United States to study and undergo formal conversion, the majority of the 25 or so attendees at Beit HaTikvah are on their own path of Jewish self-discovery in China, where they likely will remain. (I should add that, in the ancient and venerable ways of the Jews, there is another group of a similar size studying at a different locale in Kaifeng with a Messianic Jew named Tim Lerner, though I did not get to meet them.)
Without a doubt, the highlight of my time in Kaifeng, and a reflection of the group’s indomitable spirit, was the Shabbat I spent at Beit HaTikvah. I was brought to the Friday night gathering by Ari Schaffer, an Orthodox undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, who is conducting research on the community. The small, nondescript room was filled with some 25 people, ranging in age from 16 to 75. On one wall was an unusual array of symbols: the flag of the State of Israel on the right, the flag of the People’s Republic of China on the left, and in the middle, the Shema prayer flanked by a pair of Hebrew words, shemesh and kamon.
Shemesh means sun. Kamon’s meaning is a matter of dispute; some scholars believe it refers to an angel, while others maintain that it connotes moon. In any case, this pair of words seems to have served a sort talismanic function for the community.
After candlelighting, Gao Chao, the leader of the small community, began to sing “Yedid Nefesh,” the medieval poem sung at the outset of Kabbalat Shabbat. Typically enough for this community, Gao Chao is not of Jewish descent. He is married to a descendent, but has taken on the responsibility of learning Hebrew and Jewish prayers so as to serve as the prayer leader on Friday nights. He led the community through Kabbalat Shabbat, with members joining in in their Chinese-inflected Hebrew (which was rendered into Chinese characters for them to follow). The degree of ritual fluency for a community that does not include a single halachic Jew and has been studying Hebrew intensely for only two years was remarkable. The community chanted with gusto and competency many of the standards of Jewish liturgy and custom on Friday night: “Lechah Dodi,” “Ve-shamru,” and “Shalom Aleichem.” It was particularly moving when the congregation joined with Gao Chao to sing the penultimate line of the Friday night Kiddush: “For You have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the nations, and with love and good will given us Your holy Shabbat as a heritage.”
After services, the entire group sat down to a potluck vegetarian Shabbat dinner, my first with chopsticks as the utensil of choice. Dinner was tasty and spirited, but a mere prelude to the memorable post-meal singing. We sang the grace after meals and then spent several hours singing zemirot and other Hebrew and Israeli songs at the top of our lungs — aided, it must be said, by a potent Arak-like beverage native to the region. One member of the community — not herself a Jewish descendant, but married to one — had assumed the Hebrew name Netta. She seemed to know virtually every Hebrew song sung. She had an infectious smile, beautiful voice and a true sense of oneg Shabbat — the joy of the Sabbath. Other members did not know many of the songs, but added their own enthusiastic and well-timed rhythm by clapping and pounding the table.
The one song that all knew was the one whose name adorns the current Kaifeng community: HaTikvah. At a certain point in the midst of the cacophonous frivolity, the group rose as one to offer a sonorous version of “Hatikvah” — in Chinese! Those of us who knew followed in Hebrew. It was another stunning moment in an evening of stunning moments. Few of the community members are likely to make aliyah, but somehow they have managed to develop a strong bond with and sense of pride for Israel. There was also a strong sense among all of us present of the past and future shared by Jews. Assembled at a long Shabbat table in Kaifeng, we experienced, in the rawest and purest form I’ve ever witnessed, the unbroken spirit that links Jews scattered over the four corners of the world, from California to China.
Families reading together: Two summer novels for children
Dems to Palin: Bring up Rev. Wright, we’ll bring up Rev. Muthee [VIDEO]
By Eric Fingerhut | PUBLISHED Oct 8, 2008 | Elections
WASHINGTON (JTA)—As Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin attempts to inject Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor back into the presidential campaign, the Republican vice-presidential candidate is facing increasing questions about her own associations with clergymen.
This week, in an interview with William Kristol for his New York Times column, Palin suggested that more attention should be paid to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, calling his sermons “appalling” and arguing that Obama had effectively condoned the comments because he didn’t leave the church.
Obama supporters in the Jewish community counter that they are ready to fight back with their own barrage of guilt-by-association attacks. They note Palin’s presence in church when speakers praised Jews for Jesus, suggested that terrorism in Israel was divine retribution for rejecting Christianity and argued that corruption would end if Christians took control of the financial sector.
In addition, a prominent Democratic strategist and liberal bloggers have responded to Republican efforts to link Obama to a domestic terrorist-turned-education activist by noting that John McCain once served on the board of an organization accused of anti-Semitism.
Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, reiterated his objections to such attacks, but said that if Republicans are going to engage in them, they should “have to answer for their own problems.”
“What’s good for the goose,” he said, “is good for the gander.”
Last spring, during the Democratic primaries, a firestorm erupted over Wright, Obama’s longtime pastor and a man the U.S. senator from Illinois had identified as a mentor. After video clips surfaced of Wright shouting “God damn America” on the Sunday after the Sept. 11 attacks, and criticizing U.S. support of Israel, Obama eventually cut ties with the retiring pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
In recent weeks, the Republican Jewish Coalition has run advertisements playing up Wright’s controversial comments and Obama’s connection to him. Palin, meanwhile, has taken the lead in injecting the issue into the national political conversation.
Some Democrats say this is a risky maneuver, given the emerging details about clergymen who have appeared in her churches. Two weeks before being tapped for the GOP ticket, Palin was in attendance at her current congregation—Wasilla Bible Church—when a leader of Jews for Jesus described terrorist attacks against Israel as “judgment” against those who have not accepted Christianity.
While a spokesman for Palin has said that the Republican running mate rejects this view, the McCain-Palin campaign has declined to say whether she shares her pastor’s general support for Jews for Jesus—a group that Jewish organizations accuse of using deceptive tactics because it tells people they can embrace Jesus and still remain true to Judaism.
Asked this week whether the Alaska governor would condemn the missionary group, McCain-Palin campaign spokesman Michael Goldfarb told JTA that “vice-presidential candidates cannot be in the business of condemning religious groups who do not commit violence” in a country that guarantees “freedom of religion.”
Goldfarb added that it is “extremely inappropriate for any elected official” to comment “on any religious group” and its mission. “That’s a fundamental breach of the separation of church and state,” he said.
Fred Zeidman, co-chairman of the Republican Party’s Jewish outreach in 2008, said in an interview with Shalom TV last month that Palin “needs to answer” questions about her feelings on Jews for Jesus “to have any credibility for all citizens. I don’t think there’s any question about that. And if the answers are not to the liking of the Jewish community, I think that becomes problematic.”
On Monday, Zeidman told JTA that the campaign’s response “was not the best answer in the world.” He added that he “would love to hear” Palin’s thoughts on the issue “from her mouth.”
Zeidman was also quick to emphasize his view that Obama’s 20 years in Wright’s church was a much bigger issue than Palin’s attendance at one speech at her church.
Goldfarb, the campaign spokesman, said Palin wouldn’t be opposed to talking about her religious beliefs, provided she was asked about them by interviewers in the next few weeks.
Attention has started to shift to Palin’s involvement in a second service, this one in 2005 at the Wasilla Assembly of God church, just a few days before she announced her run for governor. The video of the service first gained attention because it shows a Kenyan pastor, Thomas Muthee, blessing Palin, and urging Jesus to protect her from “the spirit of witchcraft.”
In recent days, however, critics increasingly have focused on the speech that the clergyman gave before he brought Palin to the stage.
Muthee called for “God’s kingdom” to “infiltrate” seven aspects of society, including economics.
“It is high time that we have top Christian businessmen, businesswomen, bankers, you know, who are men and women of integrity, running the economics of our nations,” he said. “That’s what we are waiting for. That’s part and parcel of transformation. If you look at the Israelites, you know, that’s how they won. And that’s how they are, even today. When we will see that, you know, the talk transport us in the lands. We see, you know, the bankers. We see the people holding the paths. They are believers. We will not have the kind of corruption that we are hearing in our societies.”
Given Muthee’s linking of Israelites and banks, some observers and critics have concluded that the statement was anti-Jewish. But, a McCain adviser countered, when read carefully it is clear that the statement was not at all critical of Jews.
The ‘Israelites’ video
The adviser, John Beerbower, said that the term Israelite “refers to the biblical kingdom, not the modern state,” and that Muthee is speaking of the “restoration of the Davidic kingdom,” a key element of evangelical Protestantism. He added that the statement can be read as a “compliment” to Jews, because he is actually saying that the Israelites were people of “integrity,” and still are today.
As for Muthee’s comments about wanting to see Christian men and women running the country’s economy, Beerbower said the clergyman was merely expressing a desire to see the Christian men and women who are in those positions act with integrity.
Dewey Wallace, a professor of religion at George Washington University who teaches on Christianity in the United States, agreed that the reference to “Israelites” could be viewed as “a bit of a compliment” to the Jewish people. But he said Muthee’s reference to “top Christian businessmen, businesswomen” went beyond a desire for men and women of “integrity” in banking; rather, it’s a wish for evangelical Christians to serve in those posts.
He noted, though, that Muthee was not targeting Jews with his comments, but all non-born-again Christians.
“I don’t think Jews need to be more concerned than Episcopalians,” Wallace said.
Goldfarb noted that Palin had actually left Wasilla Assembly of God as a member in 2002 and was only visiting that day. He argued that just because Palin sat in the audience or came up on stage did not mean she agreed with all of Muthee’s remarks—which, he added, were somewhat difficult to understand.
Rabbi Jack Moline, religious leader of a synagogue in Alexandria, Va. and a leader of the new group Rabbis for Obama, downplayed the importance of Muthee’s blessing of Palin. He said that what people do in their house of worship can look foreign to anyone who doesn’t have a background in that tradition.
Another front in the “guilt by association” war was opened up on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” when Democratic strategist Paul Begala pointed to McCain’s stint on the board of the U.S. Council for World Freedom. Begala identified the council as an “ultra-conservative, right-wing group” that the Anti-Defamation League said had increasingly become a gathering place for extremists, racists and anti-Semites.
“That’s not John McCain,” Begala said, but warned that the GOP candidate “does not want to play guilt by association or this thing will blow up in his face.”
An ADL spokesman said the group was currently looking for a copy of that report, which was published in 1981.
A New York Times article from 1986 reported that the ADL, in a letter to the group’s founder, John Singlaub, said that since he took over in 1981, the retired major general had “brought about a considerable cleansing of the organization.”
An Arizona Republic article from that same year said McCain had been trying to cut ties with the group for two years.
Singlaub told The Associated Press on Monday that he didn’t recall McCain’s efforts to leave the group, but he also said the Republican was not an active participant in the organization.
A pastor who blessed Sarah Palin’s run for Alaska governor said Christians should emulate “Israelites” and run the economy.
The 2005 video of South African Pastor Thomas Muthee laying hands on Palin, the Republican vice-presidential pick, surfaced this week on the Internet.
Muthee precedes the blessing with a sermon calling for Christians to assume control in seven areas of society.
“The second area whereby God wants us, wants to penetrate in our society is in the economic area,” he said in the sermon. “The Bible says that the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous. It’s high time that we have top Christian businessmen, businesswomen, bankers, you know, who are men and women of integrity running the economics of our nations. That’s what we are waiting for. That’s part and parcel of transformation. If you look at the — you know — if you look at the Israelites, that’s how they work. And that’s how they are, even today.”
The pastor also calls for Christian control of schools.
“We need God taking over our education system,” he said. “Otherwise we, if we have God in our schools, we will not have kids being taught, you know, how to worship Buddha, how to worship Mohammed, we will not have in the curriculum witchcraft and sorcery.”
It’s one of the great mysteries of the Jewish tradition. Every year, Jews around the world gather around a seder table to retell the story of our people’s liberationfrom slavery. You can read a thousand articles, talk to a thousand rabbis, and they’ll all say the same thing: At the Passover seder, we retell the story of the Exodus.
There’s only one problem with this statement: It’s not really true.
At least not if you go by the traditional definition of story.
Pay attention to every word when you go through the haggadah this year, and ask yourself: Where exactly is the story? Especially all you folks in Hollywood — agents, screenwriters, producers, actors — who live and breathe stories every day. Is this an actual story you are reading? Where’s the buildup? The character development? The narrative flow? The climax?
The haggadah, as handed down by our rabbinic sages, breaks all the rules of good storytelling.
Sure, there are snippets of story here and there: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but Hashem our God took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”; “The Egyptians did evil to us and afflicted us and imposed hard labors upon us,” and so on.
But the bulk of the haggadah is a mercurial mash-up of commentaries and biblical exhortations. A minute into the “story,” for example, we are mired in a Talmudic discussion between Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah and four other rabbis in Bnei Brak on the subtleties of a particular phrase in Deuteronomy — as they debate not the Exodus itself, but simply when and how often they should study it.
What comes next? Well, had the writers concerned themselves with the basics of storytelling, they might have continued like this:
“The year was 1445 B.C.E. The Israelites are now captives in Egypt, and the time of Joseph, the Jew who became prime minister in Egypt, is long forgotten. The ruling Pharaoh fears their numbers. The Israelites are an estimated 2 million in number. Moses, who had been raised in Pharaoh’s court, is now living as a shepherd in the desert.
“As he is tending to his flock, Moses sees a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames. He goes to the bush, and, to his astonishment, God speaks to him from it: ‘Come now, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, so that you may bring forth my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’
“It took some convincing to get Moses to agree to the task. Moses was not a good speaker and he feared that he would fail. But still, he listened to God and set out with his family on the long trek to Egypt.”
The story goes on, and it’s an epic one, full of high drama and human conflict. Unfortunately, most of it is not in your haggadah.
Instead, after the Talmudic debate in Bnei Brak, the haggadah continues with one of the great non sequiturs of Jewish liturgy: The Four Sons. Think about it. What do these four characters have to do with the story of the Exodus? In Hollywood parlance, they don’t even establish a subtext, or plant the seeds for a future plot twist. They just show up.
So what gives here? Why is our annual night of storytelling so devoid of actual storytelling? How can we ask Jews to relive the story of their people if we don’t explain it to them — and make it part of the official liturgy? How can we expect them to embrace and discuss a story that looks so disjointed and full of holes?
Sometimes I think we should contact the Creative Artists Agency and ask them to produce the world’s most compelling retelling of the Passover story. Can you imagine the haggadah that an elite team of Jewish screenwriters and producers could create? Families and seder participants would be riveted to the page. The tension would build as each person would take turns reading from this extraordinary story — and no one would think of asking, “When do we eat?”
This all sounds so logical and wonderful that I feel like calling CAA right away. But before we rush off and rewrite our 2,000-year-old liturgy, it’s worth asking one key question: Why would our brilliant sages tell the story of the liberation of the Jewish people in such a mercurial and fragmented way?
The usual answer is that we are encouraged to fill in the holes with our own questions and discussion. This response has never satisfied me. I don’t know about you, but I’m more likely to discuss a story and ask questions if the story is told clearly and completely.
No, I think it’s possible that our sages had something deeper and more subtle in mind. Maybe, just maybe, our sages were elusive in their writing because they didn’t want us to get overly attached — to our own story.
This thought occurred to me during a recent Friday night meal at my place with two great thinkers from Israel (Avraham Infeld and Gidi Grinstein). We were talking about the need for Zionism to renew itself, and in doing so, to make sure it doesn’t stay too stuck to its old narratives. Yes, it is critical to remember the stories and lessons of our past, but not in a way that deadens our thinking in the present or stops us from considering new ideas for the future.
In that spirit, it could be that our sages gave us a more grainy and less explicit version of the Passover story so that we could review it from a healthy distance — and not get so enmeshed in the drama that we fall prey to triumphalism or victimhood. In other words, they wanted us to own the story, rather than have the story own us.
Maybe that’s the great hidden lesson of Passover: We can become slaves to anything, even to our own amazing story.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“But if you do not completely drive out the inhabitants, those who remain will be pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will harass you in your own land” (Numbers 33:55).
God awarded the land of Israel to His chosen people, but He didn’t just give it to us on a silver platter. He expected us to work for it by draining the swamps, working the soil, planting our crops and, yes, driving out the indigenous nations whose crimes against God and humanity no longer allowed them to remain in the Holy Land.
God was very careful to warn the Jews to be extremely thorough in the process of removing the enemy from the land. Anything short of complete segregation was unacceptable. By allowing a remnant of the evil culture to remain in our midst, we would not be fully removing the cancer; it would grow back and infect us with a vengeance. These nations would become “pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides.”
God then warns the Israelites what will happen if we don’t complete the task (Numbers 33:56): “The very thing that I intended to do to them I shall instead do to you.”
A debate once ensued between two schools of rabbis. Would the Israelites be worthy of punishment if, despite their best efforts, they were simply unable to drive out the indigenous idolatrous peoples from the land of Israel? Or, put another way: Are the tragic consequences of allowing the enemy to remain in our midst Divine retribution from God or simply the cause and effect of allowing bad people to live together with us?
If this was a Divine punishment, then we would expect God to understand if, despite our best efforts to heed Him, we simply weren’t strong enough to finish the job. On the other hand, if the Torah is describing a natural cause and effect, it shouldn’t make a difference whether we’ve tried our best or not. The foreign nations and their gods would harm us irrespectively.
One rabbi therefore understood God’s admonition that He would do to us what He intended to do to our enemies as a punishment for our sloth and noncompliance, and that this was a continuation of the previous verse of the nations being thorns in our sides. The other rabbi argued that, no, the first verse is a natural cause and effect and has nothing to do with how hard we work. Only the second verse addresses what will happen if we slack off on our task.
It certainly behooves our military and political leaders in Israel to study our parsha and its simple and obvious message. In a utopian, messianic world, Rodney King’s plea of everyone getting along is wonderfully appropriate. Unfortunately, our enemies have yet to beat their swords into plowshares, and as much as we would like to dismantle our own military, we have to deal with the cards that we’re dealt.
Similarly, even though Robert Frost was speaking critically of the man who said, “Good fences make good neighbors,” the criticism was due to the neighbor’s lack of desire for openness and friendship.
Sadly, when the neighbor is hostile and bent on my destruction, good fences, barricades and walls do make for as good of a neighbor as possible under the circumstances. (Of course, this fence-building does not preclude efforts at converting our bad neighbors into good neighbors and trying to get them to like us. But until they do love us, the fence must remain.)
Whether or not one gets catharsis from pointing a finger at the current Israeli leadership, the result is the same. The Torah teaches that it really doesn’t make a difference whether it’s our fault or not – for our own survival, we must segregate ourselves from those who wish us harm. Without strong borders for the people of Israel, we will continue to suffer from the “pins” and “thorns” our enemies continue to lob at us, be it in Sderot, Kiryat Shemoneh or in any other city in Israel.
As we go through this three-week period called the Bein HaMetzarim, a period of introspection over our own contribution to the breakup of the nation of Israel and our exile from the land, it’s worthwhile to contemplate two things: One, what can I do on a religious/spiritual level to help my people, especially my brethren living in Israel today? Two, what can I do on a natural/physical level to make our people more secure from terrorist attacks and future wars?
Judaism has always called upon us to live in both the spiritual and the physical worlds. Let us take charge and make ourselves a better, stronger nation.
Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.
“Oh God, open all doors for me. Oh God, who answers prayers and answers those who ask you, I am asking you for your help. I am asking you for forgiveness. I am asking you to lighten my way. I am asking you to lift the burden I feel….
God, I trust in you. God, I lay myself in your hands. I ask with the light of your faith that has lit the whole world and lightened all darkness on this earth, to guide me until you approve of me. And once you do, that’s my ultimate goal.” This prayer was found in Mohammed Atta’s luggage.
The mere thought of asking for God’s help in carrying out the atrocious attacks on the World Trade Center towers is chilling. But shockingly enough, there are rabbis who actually believe that Muslim extremists succeed in their homicide bombing missions and other acts of terrorism because they pray to God. According to these people, invoking the name of God, the merciful one, before any action will guarantee success, no matter what you wished for.
This attitude, coming from Jewish leaders, is both ridiculous and scary, but as often happens it stems from misinterpretation of traditional texts. The texts in question are a saying in the Talmud (Berakhot 63:1) that one should always ask God to guide him, even for dvar averah, literally “a sin.” This can be construed as suggesting that before committing a crime one should pray to God, but it is clear that this saying refers, as Nachmanides suggests, to all earthly matters.
This saying means that even when engaged in the most mundane issues one should be guided by the perspective of the Torah.
Another source people rely on is the statement that a cat burglar prays to God before breaking into a house. There is no doubt the author did not approve of such behavior, but rather wanted to show how sometimes we can mislead even ourselves with false religiosity. How pitiful is the image of a man about to commit a crime and infringe upon the rights of others, asking, maybe even devoutly so, for God’s help.
Lastly, the story of Balaam in this week’s parsha was brought up by a friend of mine to prove me wrong. The Israelites were clearly terrified by this wizard’s immense power.
If prayer cannot be used to perpetrate crimes and damage people, why were they so scared?
This is exactly the lesson the Torah wanted to teach us as well as the wandering Israelites. They had to realize that they stood to receive blessing or cursing, Divine abundance or wrath, not according to the prophetical prayers of Balaam but according to their conduct. Balaam thought he could manipulate God by using charms, chants and altars, but God proved him wrong. When he turned to the desert to curse the Israelites only blessing poured forth, because this was what the people deserved. As our rabbis taught us, it all depends on you: “Your deeds will bring you closer; your deeds will drive you away.”
If we keep insisting that prayer works for any purpose, or for that matter that any prayer works, we are degrading the concept of prayer and we reduce the image of God to that of a large vending machine in heaven. All you have to do is deposit the right coin, say the right formula, and the desired product will be provided whether it is health or death, a petition for help in doing acts of lovingkindness or carrying out terrorist attacks.
We have to understand that prayer is not an automatic process. It is an act of self-judgment and evaluation, reflection and meditation. Prayer reminds us how insignificant we are, but at the same time encourages us to do the best we can and realize the great potential God has given us.
We tend to catalog people by how frequently they visit shul, but the truth is that people can go and pray three times a day, yet it will have no effect on them. They would be just like the ancient Israelites who twice lost their Temple because they thought that as long they pray or bring a sacrifice they can do whatever they want. You cannot lead a double life. You cannot ask God to help you in your daily chores if they include cheating, embezzling or anything that impacts others negatively.
The main goal of prayer is to help us improve ourselves and become better people so we can help others and make this world a better place. It would be preferable, if there is no other way, to dedicate less time to prayer but to make sure it will be quality time and that each word of our prayers, be it in Hebrew, English or any other language, will penetrate our hearts and drive us to bring about positive changes.
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Almost 10 years ago to the day, I was interviewing at Adat Ari El for the position of assistant rabbi. The parsha on which I had to speak was Terumah. I wondered if there was any chance I would get the job.
Let me explain.
Some Torah portions lend themselves very easily to sermons. Yitro, which contains the giving of the Ten Commandments has lots of material about which to talk. Others are more challenging, like Tazria-Metzorah, which has extensive discussions about skin diseases, inflammations and rashes.
Terumah focuses on the details of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites were to carry with them through their wilderness sojourn. So we read about the height, width and length of the various items in the Mishkan, like the ark, the menorah, the altars and with what and how these things were to be decorated and covered — a dream for an interior decorator but a nightmare for a fifth-year rabbinical student looking for a job.
However, details communicate to us. They convey messages about our priorities, values and beliefs. Similarly, the details surrounding the Mishkan — whether something was covered in gold or bronze, where it was located and how was it made — contain their own lessons and meanings.
We see an instance of this in the rabbinic commentary on the wood used to build the Mishkan. In this week’s parsha, we read: “You shall make the planks for the Mishkan of acacia wood, upright” (Exodus 26:15).
The rabbis ask the following question: Why does the Torah insist on acacia wood? What is so special about it over and against other wood? Their answer is at once succinct and profound: Because it is not wood from a fruit-bearing tree.
What does this mean? Just as the Mishkan cannot be built by destroying that which gives food and sustenance and provides for the future, so, too, we cannot build our religion on beliefs, practices and attitudes that are destructive to those around us at the same time. God is the source and creator of all life, and it is God that permeates and infuses the entire world around us. Therefore, it is illogical to build a house dedicated to God that destroys that which God has made at the same time.
And what is true for God’s house is also true for us as individuals, for what are we if not portable tabernacles for God’s presence?
When we are little, we learn that what goes up must come down. It is the most basic rule of gravity and the first one we learn as children. But as we grow older, we learn a new twist on this basic law: I can build myself up by putting others down.
However, if we truly want to live life to the fullest and embrace it to the greatest extent possible, we need to find the inner resolve and sense of self-worth to feel good about who we are in a manner that does not put down others.
Hence, be it as religious tradition or an individual, the Torah teaches through a seemingly minor detail a crucial lesson: If we wish to find holiness comparable to the Mishkan and draw closer to God, it can only be done when we create in a way that does not also destroy at the same time. Our own growth can only be sanctified when it does not come at the expense of others.
Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is a rabbi at Adat Ari El in Valley Village. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Shabbat we read the portion of Ki Tavo. In it, Moses tells the Israelites that if they obey all the commandments, they will be blessed with good food, good weather and a good life. But if they disobey the commandments, they will be cursed with misfortune.
I do not believe that God punishes people for not obeying him. Rather, people often cause their own misfortune by not learning from their mistakes, and I think that is what the Torah is telling us. The victims of Hurricane Katrina did not, by any means, bring this natural disaster upon themselves. We know that no one deserves to go through such horrors — and we need to reach out as much as possible to help.
Kids Can Help Katrina Victims
A Call to Jewish Schools
Please send us details and photos of the hurricane relief
Each night before retiring, the great Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav would make a list. At the end of a long day, he would write down all the wrongs he had committed — against other people, against God, against himself. Nachman would read the list over and over again, with increasing levels of agitation and remorse, until he welled up with sorrow.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are encouraged — commanded really — to write something down. Upon crossing the Jordan River and entering the land of Israel, the people are to “set up great stones, and coat them with plaster. You shall write on them all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3). The commandment seems clear enough: to convey a message in writing. Yet generations of debates have ensued over what words, exactly, were to be inscribed on those stones. Was it the entire text of the Torah — what we call the five books of Moses? Or, was it just a list of mitzvot (commandments), which encompass the legal aspects of the Bible? Or perhaps these stones simply reiterated the Ten Commandments, and that was the “Torah” spoken of in the verse. What was on these stones?
The answer to this question remains a mystery. We don’t know for certain what words were inscribed. But we know something was written. In the end, what is meaningful was not what they wrote, but that they wrote. Immediately upon arriving in the land — after 40 years of desert wandering — the Israelites took the time to record something. They created a monument with words — words perhaps recounting their history, their trials, their legal system, their beliefs, their collective wisdom.
For us, this is a season of building monuments with our words. Throughout this month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our tradition invites us to think, in detail and with brutal honesty, about ourselves. We are encouraged to devote these days to a cheshbon ha’nefesh (inventory of the soul) in which we evaluate our behavior over the last year and humbly seek to make improvements.
During these days before the New Year, we — like the Israelites who were at a dramatic, transitional moment — also stand at the edge of a precipice. The work of looking deeply within can be terribly dangerous. The liturgy of the High Holidays suggests three possible ways to best approach the challenges of this season: through tefillah (prayer), tzedakah (righteous works) and teshuvah (repentance). In other words, the liturgy teaches us to do a cheshbon ha’nefesh by turning in three different directions: turning upward (to God, in prayer), outward (to others, in acts of righteousness), and inward (to ourselves, in contemplation and improvement).
Each of these turnings — containing the power to make radical change — is done with words. The Israelites at the Jordan River also understood this. As they literally walked out of their old existence and into a new one, they marked their transition with words. And God commanded that their enormous change be accompanied by words not just spoken, but written. Once the wisdom was inscribed, it somehow seemed that much more real.
When Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav sat considering his own behavior, he, too, opted to go even further than the spoken word. He, too wrote down the inventory of what he might alter in himself. Why? Why not just stop at speaking the words? It is said that after repeatedly reading the list, he felt such great sorrow that he started to weep. The teardrops would fall upon the written words, and actually blur them beyond distinction. By reading the words he had written, he moved himself to the depths of emotion that might affect real change in the days to come. Perhaps this is the truest meaning of the phrase of greeting we use on Rosh Hashanah: Shanah tovah tikatevu: May you be inscribed — and may you inscribe yourself — for a good and sweet new year.
This column originally appeared Sept. 15, 2000.
Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is founder and facilitator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for parents of special-needs children. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
There is a remarkable place I go to, about once a year. It is a spot on the Oregon coast. And I mean, literally, a spot. When I stand on that spot,
I can see the whole world — all of it.
Straight ahead, I see the Pacific Ocean, waves rhythmically approaching and departing, humming a calming melody. Far in the distance, the ocean meets the horizon, and they melt together into a line of perfect milky blue beauty. I turn slightly to the left, and take in the dark, 10-story-high jagged rocks, partially eroded by centuries of contact with the water. They are lifeless on their peaks but play host to starfish and sea anemones at their feet.
Directly behind me, a neighborhood of houses. In one of them, many loved ones are collected — at this moment just waking up together, and discussing the swift recent departure of a flock of sea gulls and the possibility of locating crab shells on the beach. Behind the houses is a forest — a deep, damp, evergreen Oregon corridor — perched just above the sea line. And to my right — really, at my feet — I observe a small creek, originating from that perched forest, carrying its tiny stream from far away into the great, rushing ocean. Around the creek, and in it, are hundreds of smooth stones, created from years of weathering. The stones await the arrival of my young son, who will spend hours among them, touching them, moving them, tossing them back into the water.
From that spot I can see the whole world. I can see life and abandonment and flight. I see unspeakable beauty and I can see years of confrontation. I can see love, togetherness, petty arguments and laughter. I see things that never change and things that never stay the same. And I can see isolation and community, growth and stagnancy, big picture and tiny details.
And all from standing in one spot.
This week’s Torah portion starts with a potent word: re’eh — see. God says to the Israelites: You have the opportunity to experience the bounty of blessing, or to feel the burn of curse — it is up to you, dependent on your behavior. And God begins this speech with the word re’eh. God says: See. Open your eyes! Take a look. Israelites, re’eh: For a moment, stop moving. Stop walking, stop running, stop eluding, stop covering, stop blocking. Plant your feet firmly on the ground. Just see. Look around. Stand in place and use your sight. There are visions to behold. Pictures to take in. Details to note.
This command is not just for the Israelites wandering in the desert, but for us, too.
Sometimes this is the hardest of all the Torah’s commands — harder than keeping kosher, praying regularly, giving tzedakah, teaching our children and lighting Shabbat candles. It’s hard, because most of us don’t like standing in one place for too long. And when we do, we prefer to have our eyes closed.
But the Torah’s job is to challenge us toward kedusha, to encourage us to wrestle with human nature. See, the Torah says, because once you have really looked, you will comprehend both the blessings and the curses. You will understand the light and the darkness around you.
As the month of Elul — preceding the High Holidays — draws near, we enter a season of seeing. In the coming month, find a spot for yourself. Look at your ocean. Be baffled by the enormity, and its raw, impossible beauty. Note time’s erosion of some things and its fertilization of others. See, too, the small trickle feeding into the enormous sea. Consider each rock that is part of the stream. Observe the constancy of the evergreens of your life. And crane your neck to really look into your house. What is going on in there?
This month, find yourself the spot from which you can see your entire world. Re’eh — look — to begin the work of teshuvah.
Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is founder and facilitator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for parents of special-needs children. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With great sadness my friends decided to divorce in January 2001. They had given themselves one year into the new century to see if they could make it work, and it didn’t seem as if they could. Then, in 2002, they happily reconciled. When asked why, they say Sept. 11 brought them back together; it helped them refocus their priorities.
They bought a house they both love and they remodeled it together. Their tastes were suddenly so similar, and these days they could compromise so easily when necessary. Nothing was hard, not even when the contractors “needed a little more time,” not even when the previously undiscovered foundation crack swallowed the money intended for the new kitchen, not even when their new foster child made the quarters a little tighter than they’d anticipated.
Unexpected “set-backs,” the kind of thing that used to have them yelling at each other, suddenly seemed funny, led to changes in plans that led to whimsical changes in design. It’s a beautiful house — they love it. It’s a beautiful home — they love each other. They feel so grateful to be together again.
Perhaps you know my friends. Or are them. Perhaps you’ve experienced such a reprioritizing in your life. It doesn’t only come on the heels of tragedy or even of the unexpected, but it often does. It often takes something “big” to shake us up, to cause us to change. It doesn’t even always take so big a change; sometimes it just calls for a different lens, another focus, a new appreciation. Marcel Proust, author of “Remembrance of Things Past,” wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
A new lens, another focus, “new eyes,” a new appreciation are what happens in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, the estranged Israelites, God and Moses all reconcile, deciding to try again instead of giving up on one another. And it is in the ecstasy that comes with giving a relationship another chance that the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), the exquisite portable sanctuary with its ohel mo’ed (tent of meeting), is built in the wilderness.
Indeed, the description has inspired (and made jealous) generations of synagogue fundraisers, for Moses tells the Israelites that God wants gifts only from “the willing of heart” (Exodus 35:5), and soon the artisans and builders charged with the actual construction come to Moses, saying:
“The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that God has commanded to be done.”
Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!”
So the people stopped bringing: their efforts being more than enough for all the tasks to be done (Exodus 36:5-7).
Midrash tells us that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur, and the medieval commentator Rashi suggests that on the next day came the events of this Torah portion, when Moses began instructing them on the building of the Tabernacle. Just as we begin to build our sukkot — cleverly designed, cheerfully built, lovingly decorated by families working together — on the very evening Yom Kippur ends, so, too, in the wilderness did our ancestors (“all whose hearts are moved to do so” [Exodus 35:5]) begin their building of their protective shelter, the Mishkan (the dwelling place), on the day after Yom Kippur.
The lost faith of the Golden Calf, the anger of the broken tablets, the forgiveness in the new tablets, the heartfelt building of the Mishkan come to tell us that a post-traumatic moment is a time when fear can give way to relief, despair to hope, anger to forgiveness, hate to love. It’s been a difficult time in our world: terrorism, war, tsunamis, earthquakes, torrential rains, hurricanes, epidemics, diseases, abuses, deaths of world leaders, overthrown governments, elections, recalls, judicial decisions, constitutional amendments, and the list goes on. Whether as a couple, a family, a congregation, a community, a neighborhood, a city, a state, a nation, a holy land, a world — perhaps now would be a good time to “see with new eyes,” to look inside and find our “willing hearts.” Perhaps now would be a blessed time to begin (or continue) building a home together.
In last week’s Torah Portion, the Israelites sat back and watched as God brought seven plagues upon the Egyptians. This week, in Parshat Bo, we read of the last three plagues. All of a sudden, the Israelites are told that they must help God in the last plague by smearing the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their houses. This was so that God will know not to strike those houses with the plague of the first-born and would “pass over” those houses. But didn’t God know which homes were Jewish?
God decides it is now time for the Israelites to become a nation, and to do that they must take action and learn about right and wrong. So God says: you must participate in your release from slavery. You will become free – and with freedom comes responsibility.
All About Egypt
This is the last week the Israelites will spend in Egypt. Have you ever been to Egypt? Do you know where it is? Unscramble the words to discover what continent it is on and which countries border
It is back to school and back to lessons. In this week’s parshah, Pharaoh learns a few lessons, too – seven, to be exact.
But, Pharaoh is a slow learner – and it will take three more lessons (in next week’s portion) to make him finally realize that the God of the Israelites is stronger than he is. Let’s hope you don’t need any plagues to teach you what you need to know!
An anagram is a word or phrase whose letters can be rearranged
to form a different word or phrase. Try this one on for size:
THE “IN” BEAR
Take the letters in this phrase and turn it into one word that
Imagine yourself forgotten, without anyone to protect you. Ruling powers are oppressing you and killing your children. The purported
“reason” is economic, but a deep hatred based on mere difference underlies this attempted genocide. Helpless, you cry out. Who, in heaven and on earth, will hear your cries and move to save you? Awaiting relief, what do you do?
Now, imagine that you are privileged — a son or daughter of the ruling class. Your life is comfortable, even luxurious. You witness the sharp contrast between your situation and the suffering of the underclass. They are slated to die, and your cooperation, whether tacit or overt, will help make it happen. What do you do?
This is not a theoretical values clarification exercise. It is, in broad strokes, our Torah portion. In Shemot, the Israelites live out the first scenario. A new king arises, who “did not know Joseph” (1:8). The Israelites are enslaved and afflicted; their male children are to be murdered. The motives are ostensibly practical: “Let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and join our enemies” (1:10). Yet Pharaoh undermines the economic benefit of having slaves by denying them straw to make bricks (5:7). Ultimately, he sacrifices his regime and his life in a prideful effort to destroy the Hebrews. Against this senseless and murderous oppressor, our ancestors can only cry out. They fear that any intervention will make their situation worse (5:21).
According to the midrash, however, the women manage to maintain hope; they insist on procreation — despite the death sentence against their sons. The challenge by women to Pharaoh’s decree is established in the Torah itself: Moses’ mother and sister are proactive, hiding him in a basket and returning him to his mother once he is discovered. The midwives may be Hebrew or Egyptian (the text is ambiguous). Either way, their civil disobedience against Pharaoh’s edict to kill Israelite male babies is remarkably brave. If Israelite, the midwives defy everything about the status quo, asserting a power no one would dream of according them. If Egyptian, they risk their lives for slaves unrelated to them. Either way, their success in deceiving Pharaoh depends upon his dehumanization of the slaves.
The midwives evade their assignment, saying: “[The Hebrew women] are not like the Egyptian women; they are chayot [lively or, according to the midrash, like animals who give birth to litters] and deliver before the midwives come to them” (1:19).
This week’s portion also imagines the position of the child of privilege. Pharaoh’s daughter has compassion for a Hebrew baby and saves him, despite her father’s decree. Moses, who grows up in Pharaoh’s house, is filled with rage against the oppressors. Caring figures display mercy and fury, saving and killing, in response to genocidal acts. But individual action itself cannot, by itself, be effective. Nothing less than massive social change will suffice. Saving the enslaved requires miracles, battles, and the downfall not just of individual oppressors, but of the entire regime.
How well have we learned these biblical lessons? What would we really do?
Today, sadly, we have the chance to find out, because Pharaoh is alive and well in Darfur. The people of Darfur, like the Israelites, seem to have been forgotten, for they are without allies willing to protect them. The United Nations and our nation have failed to act quickly or decisively. The Janjaweed militia, aided by a corrupt and oppressive Sudanese regime, is persecuting civilians and killing children. The purported “reason” is economic, but a deep hatred based on mere difference underlies this attempted genocide. The goal is a land-grab — ironic, given that the land has never been rich and is now ravaged by war and fire. In fact, an ethnic rivalry (Arab Muslim vs. African Muslim) seems to be at least as powerful a cause for violence as the lust for property. Women in Darfur are dehumanized, as they were in ancient Egypt. Rape is routinely part of war and of life.
Today, we Children of Israel, descendants of a slave people, find ourselves in the position of the children of privilege. We may feel compassion and we may feel rage, but what are we willing to do? Nothing less than massive social change will suffice. Saving today’s subjugated peoples will, as in days of old, require miracles and battles. It will necessitate the downfall of both individual oppressors and entire regimes. To make this happen, we must follow in the footsteps of Shifra and Puah, midwives willing to help birth freedom even at the cost their own safety. And we must be sure not to fulfill the slave’s worst fear: That inadequate intervention will make a hellish situation even worse.
Do we hear the cry of the oppressed? This week’s portion is not about “them” — or then. It is about us — and now. To learn what Jews are doing and can do for the people of Darfur, visit www.jdc.org, www.ajws.org or www.socialaction.com, “for you know the soul of a stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
Author’s note: The recent, massive suffering in Asia may eclipse, for some, the chronic pain of Africa. It’s tempting to turn away from the affliction in Darfur because it is so awful to recognize that we have stood idly by the blood of our neighbors. Of course, we need to help on both continents. But, in the face of genocide, nothing should distract us from voicing, meaning, and enforcing the message “never again.”
Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Encino (www.makom.org).
Do you have a backyard? Is it green and full of flowers and trees?
In Matot-Masei, we learn that God believes green space is an absolute necessity. God tells the Israelites: “Set aside some of your land for the Levites, so they can build towns. Make sure that there is lots of pasture surrounding the town. No one may build in the area that has been assigned for green.”
It is God’s commandment for us to keep the spaces around our homes green. So, let’s keep it clean and let’s keep it green!
Until July 18, there will be an HIBXETI at the KIBLLASR Cultural Center about EJSW in ancient YPGTE. If you go there on July 17, you can also participate in an HEOCALARCLOGI dig.
Solve the scramble and visit there this weekend! And even if you don’t make it, send in the answers to email@example.com for a prize.
Our Torah portion devotes more than 60 verses to the census of the Israelites. After the counting is done, the Torah adds: "Among these there was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron the priest when they recorded the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, ‘They shall die in the wilderness.’ Not one of them survived, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun" (Numbers 26:64-65).
We learn much about Joshua, his flawless character and heroic acts, in the book named for him. Moses had passed the leadership onto him. However we’ve known little about Caleb.
This week, a new scroll was unearthed in an archaeological dig in the heart of Hebron. At long last, the Scroll of Caleb has been found. I am proud to print the opening chapter of this outstanding discovery:
I, Caleb son of Jephunneh from the tribe of Judah, am one of only two survivors of the 40-year march across the wilderness. My name simply means "dog," and I am loyal as one, as I told Joshua, "While my companions who went up with me took the heart out of the people, I was loyal to the Lord my God." Only I and Joshua were witness to all, the brutality of Egypt, the trials of the desert, the revelation of Mount Sinai and the crossing of the Jordan into this bountiful land.
Many look at me and ask, "Why him? He is neither more noble than his sojourners, nor more clever. He has not the strength of giants nor the dreams of a prophet." They see the power that Moses, that servant of God, bestowed upon Joshua, how Joshua split the Jordan river, brought down the walls of Jericho and made the sun stand still so the earth skidded through the sky as if on a slick sapphire pavement.
"But this Caleb," they say, "this old dog, what is unique about him? What magic does he possess?"
I have been a good man, none can contest that fact. I was one of the 12 spies Moses sent to scout the Promised Land. Ten returned to dishearten the people with fright of ferocious natives. Only Joshua and I brought a positive report, and it is written of me, "Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, ‘Let us by all means go up and we shall gain possession of it.’"
I hushed the people when no one could, and quieted their fears. I told them the truth about that blessed land where every tree tumbled with bright, ripe fruit. I have proved myself to be a brave and strong commander, defeating the Anakim whom all else feared.
"These things he’s done," they say, "are admirable things. However, they are not nearly the same as making the sun stand still!"
And so, curious ones, I will answer your inquiry upon this parchment, and seal it here in Hebron, for a future age to discover and wonder about. I will tell you now exactly who I am, and why I merited entrance into the land.
I am you. Yes, I, Caleb son of Jephunneh, am you, you in the business suit, you in the summer dress, I am you when you were in the desert thousands of years ago. And I am you now. I am you when you look at yourself and see not the long shadows of the past but the blossoming future. I am you when you look at your neighbor and see no ugliness there but God’s radiant image. I am you when you feel not like a grasshopper beside the people you admire, but a worthy colleague, and equal. I am you when you hush your doubts about yourself, quiet your fears, and rise to your glorious potential. I am you when you pass your hand over the heaps of the world and find there the jeweled spirit just underneath the husks. I am you when you replace "I wish I could" with "Yes, I can." I am you when you walk into a roomful of strangers with your head held high instead of skirting the wall, afraid someone will see. I am you when you are a breath of love in the world. I am you when you stop worrying how people will consider your ideas.
It is true, I am no Joshua. I cannot make the sun stand still. But I did reach the Promised Land as he, because I was true to myself and loyal to my God.
And you, too, will reach your promise, when you are true to your highest self. You are as worthy as I, and you need not be afraid of your potential. You were created for a reason. No creature big or small is superfluous in this abundant garden. Just as I, from Egypt, reached the Promised Land, you, from whatever low place you think you are, can reach your promise, fulfill it and enter the living dream.
In the Torah portion Ki Tisa, the Israelites take one ingredient — gold — and they melt, bake and mold it into a calf because they are fearful that Moses will not come back down the mountain. It turned out to be a bad idea and God became very upset with the Israelites. It is never a good idea to try to make anything when we are full of fear.
if you feel scared, take a big breath, relax your body and think carefully about what will be the wisest thing to do next.
Calling all junior chefs ages 15 and under…
Bring your fabulous charoset creations to the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles.
When: Sunday, March 28 from 12-3 p.m.
Where: 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 120, Los Angeles, CA, 90048
One of you will WIN and everybody will get a prize. Starting at 3 p.m., Judy Zeidler and other celebrity chefs will gather to select the Best Charoset in the West. Please send your name, address, phone number, e-mail address, age and ingredients to the above address.
In our Torah we have reached Parshat Mishpatim. The Israelites have just been given the Ten Commandments, and now God spends a whole portion giving them laws that they will have to observe when they reach the Land of Israel.
It can take a long time to study something new: six to 12 months to prepare for a bar/bat mitzvah, four or more years to complete college, and even longer to learn about a new country. So even though they won’t get there for another 39 years, God is getting the Israelites ready.
Keep it Clean
Every day is Earth Day! Jews are always thinking of ways to protect our Earth and keep her clean. Sam Avishay from Castlebay Lane Elementary School took Third Place in the Grade 4-5 Division in this year’s LADWP Environmental Student Poster Contest. Along with the award, Sam also took home a $200 savings bond.
Here is what Sam Avishay, of Northridge, has to say about our relationship with the Earth: “If we continue to litter, cut down trees, and pollute our air and water it will reduce the quality of our life and we are also hurting nature, animals, and all living things. We live in a beautiful place and it is our job to protect and keep it clean and i think our generation needs to do a much better job of that.”
Sam has drawn a crest that is divided into four sections. Can you tell me what he has drawn?
Last week’s Torah portion ended with a dramatic cliffhanger. A plague was in progress, punishing the Israelites for worshipping the false gods. Despite earlier prohibitions and the snare of idolatry, an Israelite man openly brought a Midianite woman into the camp. (Commentators infer that the two had sex.) While others wept, Pinchas pierced the couple with a spear, and the plague was suddenly halted. Pinchas risked both his life and the priesthood. The families could have sought revenge, and priests who kill are normally ineligible for service.
This week’s portion delivers the surprising conclusion: "Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned My wrath from the Israelites in his zealousness with My jealousy in their midst, so that I did not wipe out the Israelites in My jealousy. Therefore say: ‘Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; it shall be for him and for his descendants after him an everlasting priesthood…’" (Numbers 25:10-13).
The story of Pinchas offers obvious parallels to current political divides. Is Pinchas a religious extremist — the sort who will kill others and himself (without negotiation or due process) for the sake of a cause he knows to be more valuable than human life? Or is Pinchas fighting another kind of extremism — the sort that says nothing is worth dying or killing for, and considers tolerance the ultimate value; the sort that can only stand by and cry in the face of evil?
Pinchas has both admirers and detractors among the commentators. Yet, even those who extol his zealousness distinguish between what Pinchas did and what we should do. According to tradition, Pinchas had a unique gift; he acted without self-interest; his soul and heritage were pure. It would be hubris to attribute to ourselves Pinchas’ capacity for spiritual insight or assign ourselves the right to use his methods. When rabbis enumerate the extraordinary qualities necessary for a zealot, the message is clear: Don’t try this at home.
Some commentators question not only how universal Pinchas’ example is, but how justified it is. The Kotzker Rebbe suggests that Pinchas was intended to succeed Moses as leader. Following this episode, however, Joshua was selected instead. A priest can be zealous for holiness, but the national leader must be kinder and more patient. As Rabbi Elie Munk wrote regarding Pinchas: "It is good to be a strict zealot for oneself, but for the public good one must be imbued with ahavat Yisrael [love for the Jewish people]."
Perhaps Pinchas is given the covenant of peace not so much as a reward, but as a corrective. "Pinchas, in your zealousness, you have undervalued peace. Let peace be the gift and marker of your eternal priesthood."
Years ago, my father, a wonderful and easygoing rabbi, gave a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Uncharacteristically, he shook his fist and raised his voice in disapproval over some vital issue that has, of course, been completely forgotten. The legacy of the story is not in the details of my father’s rightful claim, but in what Morris Mandlebaum said to him about it. Every synagogue, I hope, has a Morris Mandlebaum. Deep and sweet, he retired at age 65 to do mitzvot full time and lived another 30 years. Morris found my dad after services. With great love in his voice, he said: "Rabbi, don’t be angry at the Jews. They’re the only Jews you’ve got."
Our holy prophets preached noble and righteous indignation, but prophecy has ceased. Today, acts of reprisal, pride or self-promotion pose as righteous indignation. Occasionally, an angry or zealous outburst might be an unselfish and sincere response to evil. Mostly, however, outbursts are a form of idolatry. According to the ancient rabbis, rage is self-worship. The implied question behind most indignation is: "How dare they do that in front of/without/to me?"
The debate about Pinchas reminds us — however exceptional he was — of the human tendency to get caught up in our own egos. Therefore, it is a religious duty to be zealous and scrupulous about zealousness and scrupulousness themselves.
This biblical episode does not conclude with the blessings given to Pinchas, but with the names of the offenders: "The name of the Israelite who was killed …. was Zimri, son of Salu, leader of an ancestral house of Simon … the name of the Midianite woman … was Cozbi, daughter of Tzur, tribal head of an ancestral Midianite house" (Numbers 25:14-15). These are not anonymous, faceless sinners. They were human beings, created in the Divine image, with names and parents and tribes. If you have the courage to spear them, have the courage to acknowledge them, too. Because these are the folks you’ve got. Each is precious.
"Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002," by Charles Enderlin (Other Press, 2003).
I once asked King Hussein of Jordan whether he considered Zionism legitimate. Did he accept that there was any historical basis to the Jews’ claim to a portion of Palestine as their homeland? He looked at me as if I were from Mars and ducked the question. Later, he told a Jordanian colleague that only a Jew could have posed such a strange question. Perhaps by the time of his death in 1999 he had softened his view. But his reaction still exemplifies that of the vast majority of Arabs today.
Even the many who favor peace with Israel under certain conditions accept its reality but not its legitimacy. On the Israeli side there are similar denials. Ask most Israelis about Palestinian nationalism or the centrality of Jerusalem to Palestinian history and you will get a dismissive wave of the hand and a lecture asserting that there was no Palestinian identity until the Arabs invented it as a weapon to wield against Israel. While covering the conflict, I was struck by how fundamental a gap these perceptions represented. But when the Oslo peace framework was signed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in 1993, I started to reconsider. When I asked officials on both sides to reconcile their contradictory versions of history, they would do that dismissive hand wave and say the past was no longer their concern. I wanted to believe them.
Following the failure of the Camp David peace summit in 2000 and since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada shortly thereafter, it seemed clear that the process could never succeed without a more fundamental reassessment of competing versions of the past. Reading "Shattered Dreams," by Charles Enderlin, reaffirms that concern. Until the two sides teach their children what it means to have stood in the shoes of their adversaries — something the Israelis began doing but stopped, and something the Palestinians have never done — the chance of real peace remains slim.
"Shattered Dreams" is a deeply reported and scrupulous account of seven key years in the history of the conflict — from the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November of 1995 to the first election of Ariel Sharon a little more than two years ago. Enderlin has been the Jerusalem bureau chief for one of French television’s main stations for the past 13 years. He persuaded a number of officials to allow him to interview them on videotape during their negotiations on the condition that he not broadcast the tapes before the end of 2001. Later, he interviewed them again, and persuaded many to share notes from secret meetings. From these he produced a documentary that was shown in numerous countries, and on PBS last summer.
This book is a written record of those interviews and notes. When it appeared last year in France, it was a best seller. Fortunately, it has now been translated into English by Susan Fairfield. Unfortunately, "Shattered Dreams" has a slightly amateurish feel. It is written entirely in the present tense, which becomes irritating. The story gushes forward with little context or analysis. But this also proves to be a kind of virtue. As Enderlin moves from event to notes to taped interview, you have the refreshing sense that you are not being spun. He is simply seeking to represent reality in its complexity — the personalities, the accidents of fate, the sins of omission and commission. In fact, despite the book’s narrative flaws, it offers the most complete and balanced picture yet of the failure of the Middle East peace process.
The accepted story in the United States is that at Camp David, after several years of halting negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat some 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a reasonable deal on Jerusalem. Arafat balked, made no counteroffer and, two months later, gave his real response: the violent uprising, complete with suicide bombings. Enderlin’s story makes clear that there is truth to this version but, by itself, it will not do. Unless you understand the way Barak ignored the Palestinians in 1999 in a failed effort to cut a deal with the Syrians first; unless you see the accelerated level of Jewish settlement building; unless you grasp the dynamic by which the Israeli right interrupted the peace process, forcing Barak to pull back, you will not have a complete picture. In this book, we learn what was offered at Camp David — 76 percent of the West Bank — and how it grew to 92 percent the following January before talks broke down. Errors, misjudgments, false moves and internal tensions — Israeli, Palestinian and American — are all part of the sad story.
One example concerns the visit of Sharon, then the leader of the opposition, to the holiest Muslim site in Jerusalem, followed by the uprising. Israelis have long argued that the visit was an excuse for an already planned uprising. The Palestinians have said the violence was spontaneous. Enderlin shows that it was the poor judgment of an Israeli deputy police commander — based on faulty intelligence — that set off the worst of the violence, which was then taken over by Palestinian leaders seeking to make their mark. Perhaps the biggest problem, the book shows, is the claim over that plaza of the mosques.
This brings one back to competing narratives. There is no neutral name for the plaza. The Muslims call it the Haram al Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, while for the Jews it is the Temple Mount, where the first and second Jewish Temples stood. Palestinians refuse to accept that the spot ever contained the temples, despite near unanimity on the point among archaeologists and historians. Every time the issue came up at Camp David, the Palestinians would say the site was uncompromisingly Muslim. As the top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, put it to Enderlin, using the Arabic name for Jerusalem: "For Islam, there was never a Jewish Temple at Al Quds."
At one point in December 2000, an Israeli negotiator actually offered, without Barak’s permission, Palestinian sovereignty over the plaza as long as the agreement contained the words; "We know that the Jews maintain they have a religious connection to what they regard as the Temple Mount."
Incredibly, the Palestinians refused.
Middle East peace, then, has foundered on many things — occupation, broken promises, violent attacks. But in the end, this book suggests, until there is a mutual acceptance of competing historic and religious claims, a lasting solution will not emerge.
"The ideals that form the moral compass of Western civilization, the belief that every human being has value, the belief that no one is above the law, the belief that how each of us treats our fellow human beings matters — these were all the gifts of the Jews."
So declares Carl Byker, producer-director of "Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites," who has devoted four film hours to trace how a tiny, insignificant tribe exerted such an enormous impact on the history and moral outlook of the rest of the world.
"Kingdom of David" is an ambitious undertaking. It combines a history of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E. to the Roman conquest of the first century C.E., together with a parallel track on the evolution of the Jewish religion and of its written and oral law.
The film balances drama with instruction by using actors to recreate the daily life and bloody battles of half a millennium, alternating with the commentary of noted scholars.
And bloody battles they were — by and against a succession of conquerors, from the Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians to the Greeks and Romans. The slaughter, often triggered by desperate Jewish revolts, left the Jews again and again at the edge of extinction, only to recreate themselves and rise again.
To its credit, the miniseries presents both the traditional biblical version of Jewish history, counterpointed by the findings of archaeologists and modern scholarship.
The latter proposes, for instance, that instead of the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were natives of the land of Canaan, and lower-class natives at that. One scholar observes that by conceiving stories to define their identity, "It is as if the stories created the people, rather than the other way around."
Local scholars are prominent among the commentators, including Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Perry Netter and David Wolpe, author Jonathan Kirsch and professor Ziony Zevit.
Among the narrators are Keith David and actors Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Rene Auberjonois and F. Murray Abraham.
"Kingdom of David" may not represent the very deepest interpretation and analysis, but it is an accessible and lively survey of the genesis of our heritage.
The two-part miniseries will air at 9 p.m. on May 14 and 21 on KCET.
This is what happens in this week’s parsha. In Parshat Pekuday,
Moses gives the Israelites an accounting of how much gold, silver and copper
was contributed to build the mishkan (the Tabernacle that held the Ten
Commandments). This helps the Israelites to truly own the mishkan — it is their
own creation that they can now offer to God. Moses knew that doing the math
helped the Israelites feel good about their generosity.
March 8 is International Women’s Day!
The first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United
States in 1909. It became International Women’s Day in 1911, when European
women joined the movement to promote and protect the equal rights of women.
Only a few days later, the famous and tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire
occurred in New York. More than 140 working girls, mostly Italian and Jewish
immigrants, were killed. This spurred women around the world to join the
movement to improve women’s working conditions, salaries and participation in
politics. Women have come a long way since those days.
In Parshat Yitro, God gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments. Some are commandments of thought: “Do not covet your neighbor’s possessions.” Some are commandments of speech: “Do not swear with God’s name.” And some are commandments of action: “Do not steal” and “Keep the Sabbath.”
The Pilgrims of New Salem, Mass., were so moved by the stories of the ancient Israelites that they thought of America as their Zion and New Salem as their Jerusalem. They based their first Thanksgiving celebration on the pilgrimages the Jews were commanded to make to Jerusalem on Sukkot. There, the Israelites offered the first wheat and barley of their fall harvest to the Temple.
A Different Pilgrim
Here’s another idea of something to do during your Thanksgiving break — read the story or watch the video of “Molly’s Pilgrim.” It is based on the children’s book by Barbara Cohen (Lothrop Lee & Shepard) and winner of a 1985 Academy Award. It tells the story of a young Russian Jewish immigrant who comes to America with her parents to escape religious persecution. Instead of acceptance, Molly finds a group of insensitive classmates who make fun of her. A lesson is learned that “it takes all kinds of pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving.”
Even if the reader is a person who does not regularly attend Shabbat worship services when the Torah is read, the text of Nitzavim will be somewhat familiar, inasmuch as it is offered not only as a reading during the Sabbath we are about to observe, but it is also presented as the Torah text in the midst of the morning of Yom Kippur. So, even the least observant among us, when wending their way to a synagogue to observe the High Holidays, ought to find this material from Deuteronomy to be not at all strange.
In his final days, Moses is reminding the people, whom he has led for 40 years, that there was that unique moment when they gathered together to receive the word of God, and that the message delivered was not for them alone, but for everyone that would follow.
I find myself especially interested in the posture the Israelites assumed when they were receiving God’s words, as transmitted via Moses. Our tradition teaches that every man, woman and child who was assembled at Mount Sinai when Moses descended from the summit heard his message while standing at full attention.
That really comes as no surprise. After all, when any of us are in the presence of a truly important person, or when we ready ourselves to be the recipients of a very significant message, it’s difficult to imagine that we’d be anything less than completely attentive — both physically and mentally.
I believe that from this, we are to learn how important it is for all of us to determine what is really vital and what is merely superficial; and then to be completely attentive to the former while letting the latter simply blow away.
Just imagine how much time we waste reading, viewing, listening to, talking and thinking about trash. It’s within this context that Moses Maimonides proved to be totally accurate when he declared that most of us are "ignoramuses," not because we are stupid, but because we don’t actualize most of our intellects. He was critical of the fact that we choose to be lazy and wasteful of many opportunities to learn and to do.
Nitzavim tells us to pay attention to — and then to act on — what’s significant, and to ignore anything and everything that isn’t.
Another lesson we learn from this text is that the Israelites all stood together, and that successive generations of their progeny — and that includes you and me — have a Torah mandate to be part of a unified entity which is accepting of the lessons that are imparted in the Holy Scroll, and that we are ready to use them to positively affect our lives and the lives of each person with whom we interact.
Thus, when I hear some Jews deriding others with whom they may have a disagreement, when I’m in the company of those who insist that they are "more Jewish" than others and when I’m subjected to derision because I’ve expressed an opinion that seems to be at odds with mainstream thinking, this kind of projected negativity, and an obvious lack of cohesiveness, challenge the demand found in Nitzavim. We are told to stand together — certainly not as mindless robots, but as discerning individuals who embrace the moral truths found throughout the Five Books — and to vouchsafe the freedom of will that is guaranteed to all of us in these precious tomes.
So, just as we are to be attentive to the instructions provided to us in the Torah, we need to pay attention — with unconditional nonjudgmental objectivity — when we are in dialogue with those who express opinions that are similar to our own, as well as when we are exchanging ideas with those whose opinions and/or orientation are unlike the ones we champion.
After all, not only do they deserve to be heard, but they also may even say something which could be life-altering, if we but take the time to really listen.
In these parshot, Moses wraps up all he has to say to the Israelites. When he is done speaking, he will take leave of them and die. He says: “Please remember all I have instructed you to do, so that you will lead happy and fulfilled lives.”
As Labor Day approaches (Sept. 2), we think of all the people who work hard to feed their families. Jews have always been very involved in helping those in need. They have established labor unions; they have fought for fair wages; they have led movements to improve factory conditions. This is what Moses is talking about. There is an expression in Hebrew: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” (all of Israel is responsible for each other). That is good. But it is even better when Jews prove that they feel a responsibility toward the rest of humanity and the world.
We are entering the homestretch. Aug. 9 is the first of Elul, the last month in the Jewish calendar. It is a time when Jews around the world begin to prepare for the High Holy Days by saying prayers called “Selichot.” These are prayers to ask forgiveness of God. It is said that after the Israelites sinned at Mt. Sinai by worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses went back up for another 40 days and nights and prayed for forgiveness. He started on Rosh Chodesh Elul (the first day of Elul) and was forgiven on Yom Kippur.
Elul is your opportunity to think about your Golden Calf: What did you do this year that you regret? Was it a video game you became obsessed with? Was it an overwhelming desire for all your clothes to have a certain logo on them? Did your parents get mad at you because of these things, or did you neglect friends who weren’t dressed as “cool” as you were? The great thing about this month — and Yom Kippur — is that you get to make a fresh start every year!
Ack! Summer’s halfway over. I hope you’re having a great summer. Are you at camp? Did your parents take you on a fun trip? A cruise, perhaps?
In this week’s portion, Moses asks the Israelites to remember that while they are about to enter a rich and fertile land, “flowing with milk and honey,” they must always remember those who need help: the orphan, the widow, the stranger and the poor.
So, while you continue to enjoy your summer, maybe you can also think a little about someone who needs your help. That kid down the block who has no one to play with. Or maybe you can pay a visit to the Jewish Home for the Aging or bring some food to a homeless shelter. You can brighten up someone else’s summer, too!