Torah portion: The mystery of limited vision, Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

We are often reminded in our lives about the limits of what we can know, what we ought to know and what we can’t know. Tragedies, heartbreak and, yes, abundance all remind us in their own way that there is so much to life that is unknowable. 

This existential frustration is most famously framed by this week’s parsha, Chukat, and the story of the Red Heifer. This mysterious, colored cow that brings purity is relegated to the parts of the Torah that cannot be known. Part of the conundrum is the law that those involved in preparing the Red Heifer become impure, while the one it is prepared for becomes pure. This contradiction gives birth to mystery. Mystery implies a limit in our vision.

Moses was told that he would be limited in vision long before this episode. The Torah recounts God’s exchange with Moses: “Then I shall remove my hand and you will see my back, but my face may not be seen” (Exodus 33:23). This is how God makes known to Moses the limit of human vision. 

The Talmud compares the world in which we live to night. Imagine that you are driving a car at night on the highway in the middle of nowhere. There are no lights on the road and you wonder why the road curves so much and in such odd ways. You assume that the individual who built this road was utterly incapable. Little do you know that were it to be day, you would notice that the area around the highway is filled with mountains, rivers, and numerous other natural obstacles that offer good reason for the road to constantly curve.

The message here is that sometimes in order to understand, we must see the entire picture. One more illustration that gets the same point across but in a subtly different way: Imagine peering into a doorway and noticing two people engaged in an aggressive struggle with knives. On impulse you run into the room and tackle the two individuals to the ground. Suddenly you hear in the near distance, “Cut! Cut!” As it turns out, you have just barged into a movie set. Many times we are missing an important piece of information when we fail to see the whole picture.

This Chukat message is essentially what the holiday of Purim and the Book of Esther are all about. The miracle of their story is hidden within the text, and we are challenged to see the entire picture — to stand from afar and reveal the magnificent tapestry. The Talmud wonders where Esther is alluded to in the Bible. The Talmud turns to the words in Deuteronomy: “V’anochi haster astir panai ba’yom hahu” (But I will surely have concealed [astir] my face on that day) (Deuteronomy 31:18). Esther’s name, which has the same root letters as astir, indicates what is hidden.

According to Jewish law, there is a specific way to read the Book of Esther scroll. The reader unfolds the entire scroll before beginning because it is essential that we see the whole picture. Likewise, God’s name seems to be totally absent from the Megillah because it is our job to lift the curtain masking the real story.

Jewish tradition has a Written Law (the Bible) and an Oral Law (the Talmud). The essence of the Oral Law is about revealing the hidden. It is there to reveal the message hidden within the Written Law. 

The Talmud presents the opinion of Rav Dimi Bar Chama, who says that God held Mount Sinai over the Israelites, forcing them to accept the Torah. The Talmud then questions the legality of this acceptance, as it was against their will. The answer to the challenge is based upon a verse in Esther (9:13): “They kept and received,” which teaches us that the people reaffirmed their commitment to the Torah, thereby asserting their voluntary acceptance in the days of Esther.

Why would they need to reaffirm their commitment if the Israelites already declared at Sinai, “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7)? An ancient source called the midrash posits that they voluntarily accepted the Written Law at Sinai but not the Oral Law. The acceptance of the Oral Law was affirmed in the days of Esther. Based upon our thesis, we can say the reaffirmation was an expression that the holiday of Purim is a time when we have to bring God out from the hidden domain. It is a day that focuses on seeing the entire picture. This is why they accepted fully the Oral Law on this day, for that is the nature of the Oral Law — taking the commandments in the Torah and revealing their true detailed makeup.

It is critical that we begin to see the full picture, for without it everything in life seems so disjointed and distant. This is precisely our relationship with God. It seems to be hidden. We at times feel that we are so far from God. But were we to understand the greater scheme, we would see how close to Him we actually are.

The feeling of distance and detachment is, more often than not, a foible of our limited vision. We tend to see with tunnel vision and ignore God’s hand in our daily lives. Every breath, every movement, every passing step is a miracle. Life’s many tender dances are all signs that we stand right next to God.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh in Los Angeles.

‘God is a fraud’

In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotecha, Moses faces the fragility of life as he watches his sister, Miriam, struggle with tzara’at, a dangerous skin disease. Overcome with anguish, Moses cries out to God. His five-word prayer, the shortest recorded in the Torah, beseeches the Holy One: El na r’fa na la (O God, please heal her). God hears, and miraculously Miriam is healed (Numbers 12:1-16). For some, this parasha provides comfort that, indeed, our prayers for healing work. And then there are people like Sarah.

Sarah walked into my office, sat in a chair and confessed, “My mother doesn’t know me anymore.” Tears began streaming down her face. I recognized that a while had passed since I had seen her around the synagogue. She continued, “My mother sits in the convalescent home, weeks now after her fall. Her hip is on the mend, but her mind continues to deteriorate. I tell her, ‘Ma, it’s me. Your daughter.’ Sometimes she looks confused. Sometimes she smiles. Then … then it is as if she’s gone. She just doesn’t remember me.”

‘God is a fraud’

“Rabbi, I haven’t been to services in months. I really want to come to temple — to be with friends, to hear the cantor’s calming music — but I can’t. Every time I hear the  misheberach [prayer for healing], all I can think is that God is a fraud! I wanted to come by to tell you that. So you will know.”

God is a fraud. Those are harsh words, but not the first time I have heard that sentiment. Still, the concept is not nearly as harsh as the new life stage into which this woman and her mother had entered. Roles had suddenly switched. The nurturing mother and her rebellious daughter became the cared-for elder and the care-taking adult. Neither saw it coming; neither was prepared for the emotional, spiritual and physical turmoil this change forced upon them. Neither could understand why the Source of Life would allow their lives to become so painfully messed up. 

God is with you in your pain

So I held onto Sarah’s hand as she cried in my office. We spoke about God. I said, “The Holy One can hold onto both your love and your frustration. Even your anger. Your pain will not, and cannot, overwhelm God like it so often overwhelms your relatives and friends. The Source of Life stands with you throughout all the stages of life, not just the easy or the pleasant ones. Know that when the exhaustion overwhelms you such that you wonder if you can even get out of bed to face a new day, God is there patiently prodding you on. When sadness seeks to smother you, God offers you the strength to still play catch with the kids, or sit down and cuddle with your husband.

“You know, the misheberach [like Moses’ prayer for Miriam] is about healing, not necessarily curing. In my reading of Jewish tradition, I have not found any guarantee that God offers a cure. To cure is to remove the illness, the depression or the disease from our bodies and minds.

The promise of wholeness and healing

“The One Who Heals always offers us, and our loved ones, the promise of refuah, of healing. Healing is about finding a way to face whatever is ahead. It is about shalom, that sense of wholeness amid the brokenness of our lives. Healing is about ometz lev, the courage to go on and face the new day.

“So perhaps next time you hear the misheberach, you will think of your mother, and ask for shalom. Maybe you will say it for yourself, asking for the strength to get up each day, the courage to sit through the visit with your mother, to have the willingness to do homework with your kids even though you really just want to collapse into bed. 

The One Who Heals surrounds you always

“And maybe, just maybe, you will remember that even in the midst of your suffering, God — the One Who Heals — is with you, surrounding you, holding you, helping you carry on. And reflecting God, we at Congregation Or Ami are prepared to listen and hold your hand through it all.

“Remember, too, that the misheberach, like most prayers of healing, can be a source of comfort for you, when you are ready to receive its blessings.”

It was not long before we began seeing Sarah at services again. More recently, she began to reach out to other adults struggling with the newfound role of being caretakers. Together they are finding a way to offer each other support. 

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. His recollections about his Grandmother Esther’s bout with Alzheimer’s is published in “Broken Fragments” (URJPress, 2012). He blogs at and tweets @RabbiKip.

Howard Berman versus Brad Sherman, by the numbers

The biggest challenge in covering the congressional race between Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman lies in determining how to judge the two men and compare their performances in Congress.

In their increasingly intense contest, the two veteran Democrats each has portrayed the other as, to put it mildly, an ineffective lawmaker. Such exchanges were a major part of a recent Berman-Sherman debate at a Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association meeting, as well as at other confrontations. Reports on the campaign are based heavily on these two-way attacks, which aren’t helpful to Angelenos trying to figure out whom to choose in the polling booth. But their records are hard to quantify. As a friend who covers Congress said, “so much of what happens back here occurs out of public view.” That certainly is the case with a bill that wasn’t introduced by either Berman or Sherman. It was this year’s huge transportation bill, which will provide the Los Angeles area with a billion dollars for transit and other projects and create thousands of jobs. California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer was a co-sponsor, but that term doesn’t adequately describe the extraordinary maneuvering and persuasion she had to use to get such a measure through a deadlocked Congress.

I’ve been exploring the Web site, which tries to solve the dilemma by collecting information on legislation in Congress from a variety of government sources and then crunching the data. The founder, Joshua Tauberer, started it has a hobby while an undergraduate in 2004, and it is the go-to site for statistical analysis of congressional action.

I’ve written briefly about GovTrack before, and I am drawn to it by my interest in using statistical analysis for subjects that have long resisted it — such as sports and politics. I was an early purchaser of “The Bill James Baseball Abstract,” which, beginning in 1977, brought revolutionary statistical analysis to a sport long ruled by folk wisdom and vague instinct. James’ method was the subject of the book and movie “Moneyball.”

Tauberer is the Bill James of Congress. His site includes voting records, bills introduced and passed and signed into law and committee memberships. He subjects each bill’s journey through Congress to a statistical analysis, which he translates into rankings of Senate and House members. The most interesting part is his ranking of members on leadership and ideology.

On a chart showing these two categories, Berman ranks as a moderate, slightly on the left side of center. He is high on the leadership scale, which Tauberer determines, in part, by looking at the clout of those co-signing Berman’s bills. If you get a lot influential cosigners on your bills, it makes you a leader under the Tauberer system.

Sherman is slightly to the right of Berman on the ideological scale, and below him when it comes to a leadership ranking. Berman is rated a leader, and Sherman rank and file.

Sherman might argue with that. On his bill waiving the visa requirement for Israeli visitors to the United States, he had as co-signers such Democratic leaders as Steve Israel and Jerrold Nadler of New York. And both Berman and influential Berman supporter Rep. Henry Waxman were co-signers of Sherman’s bill to prevent state and local governments from banning male circumcision.

Still, Tauberer’s leadership rankings reflect the status of the jobs they have held in Congress.

Berman, elected in 1982, was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats controlled the House and now is its highest-ranking Democratic member. He is the second-ranking Democrat on the prestigious Judiciary Committee and a member of its intellectual property and Internet subcommittee, of vital interest to his many film industry constituents. Sherman, who took office in 1997, has not reached such high positions. Nevertheless, he is a member of the financial services and foreign affairs committees, and is the highest-ranked Democrat on its terrorism and trade subcommittee.

GovTrack also lists every bill that members have introduced. I read summaries of them and found what I expected, a number of moderate to liberal measures reflecting each authors’ interests. Berman introduced a version of the American Dream Act, speeding the way for children of undocumented immigrants to get an education; a measure strengthening First Amendment rights; a bill helping Salvadoran immigrants; a measure for arms control in the Middle East.

Sherman introduced measures requiring the breakup of “too big to fail” banks, hedge funds and insurance companies; imposing sanctions on countries buying Iranian oil products; toughening laws governing China trade. In his first year, he introduced a bill requiring members apply in writing for a pay raise, which undoubtedly antagonized a number of them.

Chasing down their bills is important. Reading the summaries gave me a picture of the congressmen on the job. Combining that with GovTrack’s statistical analysis, I felt I got a handle on them as congressmen. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, as GovTrack notes, of the 11,553 bills in the current Congress, only about 5 percent will become law.

Statistical devotees — baseball followers of “Moneyball” and political managers — will tell you that the intangibles also are important.

That’s why in the weeks remaining before the November election, journalists and voters should make an effort to come to see Berman and Sherman in person at their forums and debates. It takes an effort to get there, but you may be rewarded with a worthwhile show that can help you make up your mind on Election Day.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Rhyme and Reason: Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

This week’s portion bears one of the Torah’s great enigmas. What exactly did Moshe Rabbeinu do that prompted God to bar him from crossing the Jordan into Israel?

What was the infraction?

Most students are taught that Moshe’s misfeasance was that he hit the boulder even though God told him only to speak to it. If Moshe and Aaron only had spoken to the boulder, the witnessing nation would have been overwhelmed by the miracle of an inanimate rock obeying, responding dutifully by providing ample water for 3 million people. Under that theory, proffered in the midrash Tanchuma and popularized for all by the premier Torah commentator, Rashi, Moshe diminished the awe by hitting the boulder. A thoroughbred runs faster at Churchill Downs when hit than when its jockey coos soft urging words. Presumably, a boulder responds to hitting, too. Thus, Moshe diminished the miracle.

Yet many of our greatest Torah commentators, including Rashi’s most prominent contemporaries, disagree with Rashi’s take — and with each other in deciphering this puzzle. First, they ask, is it less miraculous when hitting a boulder prompts it to give water? (Can you do that?) Indeed, in Exodus 17:5-6, the people also had complained of thirst, and God told Moshe to take his staff and strike a boulder. The water then miraculously flowed, quenching the nation copacetically. Besides, if God did not want the boulder hit, why did He tell Moshe to take his staff — a command virtually synonymous with Divine expectation that the staff actuate the miracle?

So what was Moshe’s bad?

Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra believes Moshe let the mass complaining get him flustered, breaking his prophetic concentration, resulting in a temporary failure when trying initially to implement the miracle by properly hitting. People saw nothing had happened. Having lost focus, Moshe needed to recapture his concentration, requiring his hitting the boulder a second time. That diminished the miracle.

Rambam (Maimonides), by contrast, discerns a rare temper outburst. Moshe, the most humble of people, seemingly lost his temper, according to Rambam, when he called the people “rebels.” Inasmuch as Moshe’s every action and word was that of teacher and role model, his anger — if Rambam perceives accurately here — would have taught that God does not want to be bothered when there is no water in the desert. But that was not God’s message. Rambam believes Moshe reversed a teachable moment into a wrong lesson.

Ramban (Nachmanides) disagrees. First, Aaron never lost his temper; yet God decreed against him, too. Besides, the people indeed were angering God; therefore, some tough talk from Moshe was appropriate. Accordingly, Ramban prefers Rabbeinu Chananel’s interpretation that Moshe erred in his wording of the rhetorical question he posed: “What? From this boulder shall we bring forth water for you?” It was not “we” who would be bringing forth water. It was God. Moreover, Ramban observes that, if Moshe and Aaron had proceeded with proper Divine focus and equanimity, only one tap of the boulder would have effectuated the miracle, but they instead needed to hit twice because a quietly controlled anger caused Moshe briefly to lose his Divine focus at the first strike.

So which is it? What, then, did Moshe and Aaron do that was wrong? Maybe God worded the Torah’s presentation cryptically to teach that, really, it is none of our business. These were our greatest leaders ever. The burden of leadership exposes individuals to public scrutiny. Fear of public scrutiny deters many great people from assuming leadership, often leaving mediocrities to take the reins. Maybe God wanted to assure us that there was rhyme and reason in His ending their lives on the Jordan’s eastern bank, on Holy Land that would be parceled to more than two tribes. Maybe He barred them in part so a new leader could lead a new generation into freedom in our own land. Maybe in part because, as leaders of the Exodus from Egypt, somehow it would not be fitting for these two leaders to enter.

God conceived the rhyme. They understood the reason. And perhaps it is none of our business other than to know that none of us is perfect, we all are held to individually tailored standards, and we should let our leaders live their lives without our holding them to subjective expectations that God would not countenance.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at

Call to war

There are powerful moments when life’s experiences bring deeper meaning to the Torah and her classic commentators.

It was Shabbat, June 5, 1982.

I was nearing the end of my first year abroad in Israel, and I spent that Shabbat in Haifa with my family. A few days earlier, on June 3, Israeli Ambassador to England Shlomo Argov was seriously wounded in an attack by three PLO terrorists. Reactions in Israel ranged from shock to outrage, and the winds of war were brewing.

I had a surreal experience at synagogue that Shabbat morning. The Torah portion was Beha’alotecha, which contains one of the most famous verses in the Torah: “Vayehi binso’a ha’aron vayomer Moshe, kuma Hashem, v’yafutsu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’san’echa mipanecha [When the ark was set forth, Moses would say, Advance, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You].” As we read this call to war by Moses, the synagogue’s building continuously shook to the rumbling of helicopters and F-15 fighter jets. When I peeked outside, I saw miles of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) jeeps, tank transporters and armored personnel carriers, all heading north. I had a front-row view of the IDF’s massive call-up of troops on their way to the region’s first real “war on terror.”

The Netziv commentary to the Torah says that the word “oyvecha” (your enemies) means “one who hates you deeply in his heart, and wishes nothing but to inflict harm upon you.” Rashi says that the word “m’san’echa” (your foes) means “those who pursue you with the intent to kill you.” These words from our Torah portion were what I both heard and felt that Shabbat as the IDF entered Lebanon, where the PLO had built a terrorist “state within a state.” Moses’ call to war rang clearly as the IDF was on its way to confront an enemy whose long record of hatred, harm and pursuit with the intent to kill included hijackings, massacring school children and staining the Olympics with bloodshed.

What does it mean to go to war and confront an evil enemy? You never really understand that until it gets up close and personal. I learned that part of the parasha the next morning, June 6 — the first formal day of the Lebanon War.

Through heavy traffic, I made my way back to my yeshiva. I attended Kerem B’Yavneh, a Hesder yeshiva where Israeli young men enroll in a five-year program that combines Torah study with service in IDF combat units. I studied there during the second semester of my senior year of high school, and I was scheduled to return to Los Angeles that week for my YULA graduation.

Running from the bus stop, I went straight to the beit midrash, where my chevrutah (study partner) waited for me. “Let’s begin studying, we don’t have much time,” he said. I didn’t understand what he meant, but I soon found out. I once again heard jeeps screeching outside, along with buses. Two IDF officers came into the beit midrash, which was filled with hundreds of young men studying Talmud. They approached the front of the room, and a sudden silence fell over us as they began to read names and numbers.

I sat there watching the entire beit midrash clear out. When my chevrutah’s name was called, he looked at me with a smile and said, “I have to go now, please promise me that you won’t leave, and I promise you that I will return here to continue our studies.” He hugged me and ran out.

I followed him to see all of the boys and some of the rabbis boarding the buses with their IDF duffle bags. Along with my chevrutah were Chovav Landau, who always opened his home to us students from abroad, and Yehuda Katz, who was one of the yeshiva’s top Talmud students.

As the buses rolled away, I witnessed something incredible. With full awareness that they were on their way to war, these boys broke out into songs of faith in God. The buses rolled away in the dust, and the voices of hundreds of boys faithfully singing continued to echo in my heart. I went back into the beit midrash, where about 25 of us remained.

I never went back for my YULA graduation. Instead, that summer included attending Chovav’s funeral, studying in the beit midrash (my chevrutah did return) and reciting psalms for the return of Yehuda Katz (who is missing in action until this day).

Thirty years later, I continue to pray for Yehuda’s return, much like I pray that this generation will not have to endure another war. Moses indeed declares a “Call to War,” and despite this, the Israeli governments have made multiple “Calls to Peace.” Are the Palestinians listening?

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC), an international organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. He is currently launching the SEC’s new Makor program (

Enemy in Our Midst

“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.

In the Name of God?

“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

Mourning Miriam

Moshe was one of a kind. “None ever rose again like Moshe.”

At the same time, in very powerful ways, Moshe and Miriam were two of a kind.

Their personalities
and passions overlapped generously. And despite being separated over decades during Moshe’s extended sojourn in Midian, their destinies and their souls remained intertwined. When one of them left this world, the other descended into grief-stricken crisis.

It’s not just that Miriam — and Miriam alone — watched over 3-month-old Moshe as he lay among the bulrushes on the Nile. It’s that (as the text and the Midrash co-mingle) Miriam was the first of the two siblings to boldly confront authority, and to fight for the preservation of her people. When, under the boot of Egyptian oppression, her father Amram publicly declared his intention to desist from having any further children, it was Miriam who forcefully objected.

“Father, you are worse than Pharaoh,” she said. “For Pharaoh declared death only upon the Israelite boys who would be born. But you have pronounced sentence upon both the boys and the girls.”

Amram accepted his daughter’s critique, and Moshe was born shortly thereafter. She prophesied that this baby would be the redeemer of Israel. When the baby was left in the water, she stood guard both over him and over the dream of freedom.

The impression that Moshe and Miriam were mirrors of one another is conveyed unmistakably at the very moment that the dream of freedom is realized. With the Egyptian horsemen at the bottom of the sea, Moshe leads the men of Israel in song, as Miriam leads the women. “I will sing to God for He has acted mightily” is the refrain they each inspire.

Later, when Miriam is stricken with tzara’at (often translated as “leprosy”), Aaron pleads with Moshe that he pray for her. According to the standard translation, Aaron pleads, “Let her not be as one who is dead … with half her flesh eaten away.”

But the medieval sage Rashbam (a grandson of Rashi’s), realized that the pronouns in Aaron’s sentence are not necessarily female. In fact, he says, they are male. And Aaron is pleading with Moshe to pray for Miriam’s recovery so that he — Moshe — not be as one half of whose flesh is eaten away. For Aaron saw and understood that Moshe and Miriam were in many ways two halves of a whole, with lives and passions that were overlapping and interlocked. If Miriam dies, Moshe would be half-dead himself.

All of this helps explain the astonishing and tragic turn of events described in today’s parsha. When the well in the desert runs dry, and God instructs Moshe to speak to the rock and elicit its waters, Moshe furiously lashes out against the people for their rebelliousness, strikes the rock with his staff, and incurs the Divine punishment of being barred from the land. What accounts for Moshe’s fury?

Rashi, deeply rooted in the Midrash, points out that the event immediately prior to the water crisis is the death of Miriam. For 40 years a particular rock had traveled with the people and, in Miriam’s merit, miraculously gave forth water. With Miriam’s death, the rock dried up, rolled away and found its place within the anonymity of the thousands of rocks in the desert. God’s command to Moshe that he “speak to the rock” set Moshe off on the seemingly impossible mission to locate that old familiar rock. The people grew weary and said, “What difference does it make from which rock you bring forth water?” Are not all rocks the same for God?

The people were right. But Moshe lost his temper. Not because God couldn’t bring water out of any rock that He wished. Not because the people weren’t legitimately thirsty. But because Moshe was heartbroken over the loss of his sister. And he didn’t want to find just any rock. He wanted to find her rock. To feel her presence, to be comforted over her death. Moshe’s fury wasn’t born of anger. It was born of grief.

We all encounter people who are sometimes angry. Often these angry people are those whom we care about deeply, and we are hurt by their anger. The story of Moshe and Miriam reminds us that anger is often not really anger that we are witnessing, rather an expression of grief over the loss of something important — a relationship, a belief, a hope, a dream. Each of us experiences loss differently. But we all need the same kind of understanding and patience from our friends. Even Moshe needed some.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Challenge Your Child

This was my bar mitzvah portion 51 years ago, and I still remember what the rabbi said to me about it on the pulpit. So for all you parents and rabbis who speak to young adults becoming bar or bat mitzvah, take note: your words just may be remembered.

My rabbi, Rabbi Louis J. Swichkow, spoke about the 12 spies. Only two of them had the faith in God and the courage to say that the Israelites could conquer the land of Canaan, but they were right. Indeed, the entire Jewish people had to spend the next 40 years in the wilderness because of the faithlessness of the majority’s report.

Because I had spent the previous summer at Camp Ramah, and because at the time you had to be taking at least six hours per week of Jewish studies during the year to go back to Ramah, I was going to continue with my Jewish studies after my bar mitzvah. Rabbi Swichkow therefore used me to say to the congregation that real leaders are often in the minority, but they, like the spies, are often right.

I was more than a little embarrassed about that talk. It was bad enough that I was being singled out in public; no 13-year-old wants to be seen as different from the crowd, even for purposes of praise. Moreover, in my case I knew that the praise was less than completely warranted.

After all, I was not continuing with my Jewish studies out of a pure desire for more Jewish learning; I just wanted to go back to Ramah! That made me feel guilty as well: I was being held up as a leader for reasons that were not worthy of real leaders who sacrifice something for the good of others. In my case, my motives were instead completely, and embarrassingly, utilitarian.

I have often thought about that talk. In part, I suppose, that is because even though I knew that the rabbi was not accurately describing me at the moment, I somehow felt challenged to measure up to the kind of leader he said I was. I do not know whether I have accomplished that particular feat, but it is not a bad thing to give teenagers — and adults, for that matter — goals to reach for.

As Rabbi Jack Bloom, a psychologist, taught me as a part of a group of rabbis many years later, the very act of presenting a person with a view of himself or herself that is positive — perhaps even somewhat more positive than the person actually is — sometimes gets the person to think of him/herself that way and to strive to manifest that positive characteristic.

“You are a leader,” “You are a compassionate person,” “You like to learn about your heritage,” “You make sure that others feel good about themselves,” etc. are all important things to say to people, not only when they are deserved, but when you want to reinforce their own desire to aspire to a good goal. That is an important lesson for parents to learn in raising their children, for supervisors to use in encouraging their workers and for any person to know in interpersonal relations generally.

Another lesson that I learned from Rabbi Swichkow’s talk as I thought about it over the years is that human actions often are motivated by a variety of desires. In fact, we rarely do things for one reason alone — we may have one primary motive in our consciousness, but when we think about it, there are also other reasons why we do what we do.

A potential convert to Judaism, for example, may begin a process for conversion primarily in order to marry a Jew, but that person should only ultimately convert if over the course of the conversion process he or she also becomes motivated to become Jewish for the sake of Judaism itself.

When I was a bar mitzvah, I was not continuing my Jewish studies because I had made a conscious decision that I wanted to learn more about Judaism, and I certainly did not do that to be a model and a leader among my peers. But there was, in truth, a part of me, that part motivated by a previous summer at Ramah, that wanted to return there to be further exposed to living a Jewish life as it had been presented there. That desire to probe my tradition further became a greater part of my conscious motivations as life went on, but it was there in nascent form already on my bar mitzvah day.

And so I return to the spies. Caleb and Joshua saw the same land that the other 10 spies had seen, but they announced that the Israelites could conquer it despite its challenges. Sometimes that kind of positive self-perception and that kind of faith in oneself and in God is all that is needed to accomplish more than we ever thought we could.

So even if my rabbi’s bar mitzvah talk engendered embarrassment and guilt in me, I now want to thank him for challenging me in the way he did that day.

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University, is the author of “Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics” (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).

Please God, heal her now

In shuls across the world this Shabbat we will hear five short, simple Hebrew words: El na, refah na lah (Please God, heal her now).

Our prayers are never more heartfelt than when we ask for intervention in the process of sickness and death. God, we are saying, we acknowledge that the control and the timing are ultimately yours. We will provide the doctors and the medicine, the care and the concern, but the ultimate timing is Yours.

Please be gracious. Please.

Once a month we include a special healing service as part of our Saturday morning Torah service at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue. We form a healing circle, first stating the names of all our loved ones who are ill.

“El na, refah na lah,” we chant, “Please God, heal her now.”

Our focus then turns to the personal. We take out the Torah scroll, and pass it around the room, all the while continuing to chant the five words of this week’s portion. Some enter the circle while holding the Torah, receiving the energy of the group, while others quietly complete a silent prayer for their healing while holding on to the Tree of Life. There is no magic, no miracle cure involved. It is merely a formalized way for us to acknowledge the support of the community, and our own vulnerability. It is prayer.

Often, the question is asked, “Does prayer work?” If the proof of the efficacy of prayer is that no one remains ill or, God forbid, dies, then prayer is clearly a bust. Despite the studies of numerous healing groups on the power of prayer, no one can report that prayer defeats death. With proper medication, good support and much “luck,” some will heal from an illness, others will not.

The Hebrew word “na” in our formula for healing means “please.” It takes up two of our five words. Please. It’s all we can ask.

So why do we pray? On one hand, we seek and provide community support for the one who is ill. The misheberach list each week, which asks for the blessing of healing to be bestowed on ill members of the community and all of those who suffer, alerts us to the needs of those around us. In the recitation of healing prayers, there is no need to detail the challenges facing each person mentioned, only their names. It is up to the rest of us to complete the mitzvah of “bikkur cholim,” visiting the sick, in our own timing and our own ways.

For the ill person who prays, prayer provides a direct engagement with the Source of All Being. We can only struggle through the essential questions of why me? Why now? Yet, in the process of prayer, we begin to appreciate and understand the larger perspectives of life and death, and the gratitude for every moment that we enjoy in this life that has been granted to us.

Like Moses, we pray to hold on to life, to be able to fulfill our goals to the end. Please God, please, is all that we can say. Should death occur, the first response of the living must be, baruch dayan ha emet, or blessed is the true Judge. But up until that final moment, we are to beg, wheedle, plead for God’s mercy — and often our very engagement with life will prolong and improve the time we spend on this earth.

Can there be healing even if a person dies? There are those who speak of “healing unto death,” and the process of prayer that opens the lines of communication between the ill person, their inner circle, and the Holy One. To die healed, or consciously, is to heal the wounded relationships of one’s life before passing. It takes tremendous effort but can be done.

Last spring, I was honored by a connection to a young woman who consciously met with, and healed, the relationships with all of the key players in her life before her eventual death. The wounds of mother-daughter, sister-to-sister, even old loves were pursued with conscious love and forgiveness. She healed and entered death in peace. I pray to have the courage to do the same.

It is patently not fair when a young person dies of cancer, no matter what their state of healing. Our Torah portion, in Numbers 12, tells a story that is riddled with inequities. Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses “because of the Cushite woman he married.”

They are also jealous of Moses’ power and position.

“Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they say.

God overhears, and calls them into the front office, along with Moses: “Come out you three to the tent of meeting.”

God chastises Aaron and Miriam, and when the cloud of God’s glory withdraws from the tent, Miriam is stricken with snow-white scales. Not fair! What about Aaron? He was gossiping, too — gossip seen by later sages as the source of her illness. Why only Miriam?

We ask this question every time one person gets cancer and another does not.

There is no fairness, no quid quo pro. All we can do is step up, pray and ask the Source of healing for mercy. Aaron does exactly that saying, “Let her be not as one dead,” and Moses cries out to the Lord, saying “Please God, heal her.”

Miriam is shut out of the camp for one week to heal. But she is not abandoned.

She is but prayed for by her family and community, and perhaps she, too, prays to the God of Mercy. Likewise, we do not turn our backs on those who are ill among us, nor do we despair in illness, no matter how unfair the situation may seem.

Together, we unite, and we pray for those who are ailing with those five words that resound through time, a gift of this Torah portion. El na, refah na la.

Please God, heal her now. May it be so.

Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.

My Blessing, Your Blessing

As the years pass, certain aspects of memory tend to become a bit fuzzy. For
some reason, I can still remember many phone numbers, addresses and even credit
card numbers from decades ago, but other vital and significant facts and experiences have faded.

Yet, no matter how many years I live, I will always remember my bar mitzvah and the Torah portion that became my personal property on that auspicious day. You’ll have to pardon my possessiveness for Parshat Naso, which I have felt since that Shabbat morning at Encino’s Maarev Temple some 47 years ago.

I have noted hundreds of b’nai and b’not mitzvah who have stood proudly beside me on the bimah and declared “welcome to my bar/bat mitzvah, at my synagogue, as we study my Torah portion and my haftarah on my Shabbat.” In a real sense that is exactly what we rabbis, educators, and proud parents want our kids to feel: That the Torah, Shabbat, the whole package, is their intimately personal possession and legacy.

So each year, as I pass this way, by way of Bamidbar and Shavuot, and confront anew the unique concepts of the Book of Numbers, chapters 4:21-7:89, it is much like visiting an old friend. I still remember my entire haftarah, by heart, mostly due to the fact that I hold on to that stuff, not to mention the 78 rpm vinyl disk that was my loyal and dedicated bar mitzvah tutor. And, of course, each annual reunion with Naso reminds me that yet another year has passed, and that there are hopefully more uphill inclines and downhill grades ahead.

What did I think was important about Naso in 1960? I remember not truly understanding the concept of the nazir, the person who made a solemn oath to abstain from worldly indulgences as a means to affirm one’s faith in God. That’s a tough challenge for an early adolescent, even one who claims to be a fountain pen. I did like, however, the fact that the haftarah from Shoftim (Judges) spoke of the birth of the well-known nazir Shimshon, Samson of Delilah fame.

But then, there was the gift. Arguably, one of the most beautiful, most powerful, most utilized and appreciated passages in the entire Bible. And it was in my parasha. The threefold priestly benediction, or Birkat Kohanim, was a natural, the best theme for a bar mitzvah speech I could have ever hoped or prayed for. And though I do not specifically remember, I surely hope that I mentioned these exquisite blessings in my speech.

But like so many other things, it was only in later years, as I passed other milestones and life-cycle events, and embarked on my rabbinical career, that I began to truly appreciate the beauty and depth of this soulful blessing that has adorned myriad significant, sad, but mostly happy moments. A birth, a birthday, a wedding or anniversary, a graduation and countless other sacred moments have been enhanced and sanctified by these words which have sealed the most memorable experiences of our lives.

“Y’vare-ch’cha HaShem v’yish-m’re-cha” (May God bless you and keep you).

The ancient commentators, of course, always intent on extracting every morsel of meaning from the divine text, work hard to uncover the special meanings of every word of this prayer. The ancient midrashic collection, Sifrei, suggests that the two verbs in this first line of the blessing refer to different kinds of divine gifts.

“Yevarechecha” (“May God bless you,” in this interpretation) refers to money, or material gifts. Later commentators elaborate, however, that material wealth without inner peace is no blessing at all. So this blessing is a prayer for material comfort, along with the inner peace to recognize blessing, to know that you have all you need.

“V’yish-m’recha” (May God keep you) refers to divine protection from physical danger. As such, this first part of the blessing asks for basic safety and security, and perhaps, the awareness to recognize the source of all blessing. It might best be rendered, “May God bless you with all you need, and shield you from harm.”

“Ya’er HaShem panav ay-lecha vee-chu-neh-ka” (May God show you favor and be gracious to you).

The first phrase asks God to shed divine light on your face, to make your face radiant with blessing and holiness. The latter verb “vee’chu-neh-ka, comes from the word “chayn,” a word that is probably best translated as “grace.” It is that quality of lived experience when something beautiful shows up for absolutely no apparent reason.

It is when wonderful things happen unexpectedly, astoundingly, that they point to the hand of a higher power. My friend and teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff expresses the sentiment of this blessing as “God giving us even more than we deserve.”

Finally, God is asked to bless you with peace. Not surprisingly, peace is the climax of the prayer. Without peace, one cannot enjoy any of the other blessings. Without peace, one can not focus upon or recognize the Source of all blessing.

“Yisa HaShem panav ay-lecha, veyasem lecha shalom” (May God face you with love, and give you peace).

For all those sacred moments, memories and hopes, may we continue to remember God’s precious blessings, first conveyed by the priests, then by rabbis, loving parents and many others who all feel privileged to bestow these hopes and promises upon a world that needs them now more than ever.

Mark Hyman is rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Jacob in Manhattan Beach.

Size Matters

Three thousand Jews from around the world will gather in Los Angeles this week for the 75th General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.

So, in typical Jewish fashion, let me ask a question:

Why not 5,000?

Why not 10,000?

Why not 25,000?

Think about it. The GA is considered the preeminent event on the Jewish communal philanthropic calendar. The lay and staff leaders of federations across North America come together, along with representatives of major Jewish organizations and hundreds of community activists, and discuss the priorities of communal need, how best to raise and disburse the monies needed to meet them.

So why not an even bigger turnout?

After all, this time around, for the first time since 1982, the GA is in L.A.

Los Angeles has the second largest Jewish population in the United States, about as many Jews as in the whole of France. A few weeks ago, a fundraising techno-dance party for a hospital in northern Israel drew 2,000 Israelis to a club in Hollywood. Sinai Temple can get that many for a Friday Night Live service. About 30,000 Jews head out to Woodley Park on Israel Independence Day — atrocious parking, cold falafel and all.

So here you have a major event, with an unprecedented participation of the prime minister and foreign minister of Israel and several Cabinet members, and the expected turnout is, as they say here, in the low four figures.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

With a little rethinking, the next GA could attract the thousands, if not the tens of thousands, that this one hasn’t.Two weeks ago, we reported a story about the buzz leading up to the GA. Our reporter, Julie Gruenbaum Fax, found that most people in Los Angeles hadn’t heard anything about it and that those who had assumed it had little to do with their lives.That, of course, is a problem the federation system has been grappling with for some time — how to change and still remain relevant in a fast-changing world.

But the problem cuts both ways. Jews who neglect the system of organized Jewish philanthropy are turning their backs on a network of charitable institutions that raises and distributes hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The UJC raised $334 million in 2005 and ranked 34th in the Philanthropy 400. Even in Hollywood, that’s almost real money: You could make two “Santa Clause 3s” for that and still have money leftover for something good.

The problem is that much of that money is coming from a smaller and smaller group of big donors. And programming follows the passions of those donors. The result is a GA that may ignite the passions of a relative handful of Jews on the inside but fails to spark the imaginations of thousands more on the outside.

Reaching those imaginations is key to bringing bodies through the door. Offhand, I can think of one way to do it: Launch very public programs that speak to the deepest concerns of even the least-affiliated Jews.

One of those concerns is our dependence on foreign oil. I’m not going to run through the facts here. Even our president has chastised us for our petroleum addiction. Anyone with a clear head can see that even as we drive our SUVs to our rallies for Israel, the gas we burn fills the coffers of Israel’s enemies. That’s not to mention the harm our oil addiction causes the environment and the absurdity of fighting a war on terror by buying oil from those who fund terrorists.

So suppose the North Americans and Israelis at this GA launch a very public effort — call it The Tel Aviv Project — to quickly develop alternative energy technologies to replace petroleum. The energy expert Amory Lovins once told me that few countries have the high-tech workforce and experience in lightweight metal and fiber technology that Israel has, thanks to its educational system and military industry. Imagine using that to develop a featherweight vehicle that can get 100 miles per gallon. Talk about exciting Jewish and non-Jewish minds.

The other concern is Darfur.

What if another very public resolution of the GA delegates and their Israeli counterparts was a joint call to action to end the genocide in Darfur, which has so far claimed 400,000 lives and created almost 1 million refugees? What a powerful message that would be to the world and to a younger generation of Jewish activists.

That resolution should include an action plan that calls for Israel to use all the leverage it can with China, Sudan’s largest patron.

A strong resolution on Darfur and an action plan on oil independence going out from the GA would send the message that the mission of Jews is not just to make more Jews, not just to beat back anti-Semitism, not even to save Israel from its enemies or from itself. Those are all projects we undertake in order to fulfill our real mission, our purpose as Jews.

That purpose is to improve the world.

If this GA wants to have a real impact beyond its meeting rooms, if it wants to shake loose monies and energies that have until now been unattainable, if it wants to resonate not just in Jerusalem and downtown Los Angeles but around the world, it will conclude with the strongest possible call for an end to oil dependency and an end to the genocide in Darfur, and it will also create action plans to make those statements a reality.

Do that, and you will not only make news, you’ll make Jews.


Vatch Out! It’s Zee Count !

Passover eez my favorite time of zee year, because I get to start counting. Do you know vat it eez that I vant to count? Here is a teeny veeny hint: 5, 12, 30, 51 – These numbers correspond to letters in this paragraph. Start counting!

Riddle Me This

Solve this riddle I wrote for you – and send me the answer, too:

You can save it and waste it,
Buy it and take it,
You can do it and give it,
You can spend it,
The Jewish genius says you can bend it,
But you can’t lend it!

(Hint: it’s kind of connected to counting.)

Send your answer to for an ice cream certificate – the count just loves biting into those cones! One scoop, two scoop, three scoops, ha ha ha!


A Numbers Game


A few months ago, I scribbled out a Web site, bought a camera, hired a director, raised $42,000 and embarked on a journey across

the United States.

“I’m looking for true love,” I told my father, “even if she’s husking corn in Iowa.”

In three weeks on the road, I dated a radio station DJ in New Hampshire, a beauty queen in Maine, seven feminists in Rhode Island, a yeshiva attendee in New York, a 42-year-old mother in Washington, D.C., and some eccentric others. I was often asked by the critics and by the media (who were never that critical) to justify the camera’s intrusion on dates.

“Won’t it get in the way of true love?” they’d ask.

“Well maybe,” I’d reply. “But” — like all great artists who excuse their art by calling it a social critique — “this is a social critique.”

“But how?” they’d ask.

“Well, everyone knows reality shows are a misnomer. They don’t accurately portray reality. In the real world, I think, most women aren’t as superficial or slutty as the ones on television. They actually care about stuff like honesty, sense of humor, and sensitivity in a man. To show this, I’m asking any and all of them to give me a try.”

The idea was that I am not a typical bachelor type or anything close. I am short, silly, sensitive, love-struck, yada yada yada. And, if a nice, sensitive, albeit not-so-all-American guy like me can find true love and be a figurehead for not-so-perfect men around the world, then I’d be doing a service to myself and millions of others.

Of course, things didn’t exactly go as planned. I was producing a mainstream film without film experience, without enough money, without trustworthy contacts and without much of a brain. As a result, I returned home penniless and humbled after just 12 dates.

“You’ve got to deal with the facts,” my father said. “You’re $35,000 in debt, you don’t have a job, you have a huge inventory of ‘Sensitive Guy’ T-shirts that nobody wants and you can’t seem to get serious about anything.”

I swallowed hard.

“But I was on the front cover of the Style Section in The Washington Post,” I said. “They called me a Beau on the Go.”

“You were wearing a propeller hat,” he said. “That’s nothing to be proud of.”

“Well,” I said. “There are still 5,274 women who asked me out on dates.”

His jaw dropped: “5,274?”

“There’s more every day,” I said. “They’ve seen me in the newspapers or on television, or they’ve heard about me from their grandmothers, and they just ask for dates.”

He repeated the number as if it held some sort of significance: “5,274. That’s a lot.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It gets better — 263 mothers asked me out for their daughters. All but three of the mothers were Jewish.”

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “I mean, I’m not surprised the mothers were Jewish.” He scratched his head. “Have you dated any of them, you know, since you failed with this whole endeavor?”

“I haven’t been able to,” I said. “There are too many. I wouldn’t know where to start. Sixty-two called me a ‘soul mate’ and 14 called me their ‘partner in crime.’ That’s a lot of pressure. They don’t even know me!”

“That might be a good thing,” my father said. “No offense, but you weren’t doing too hot with girls that actually did know you.”

“You’re missing it,” I said. “If I date any of these women, it’ll be under false pretenses. They asked a different guy out, an imaginary one. They saw me on a 90-second telecast, or read about me in an 850-word article, or browsed a few silly childhood stories on my Web site, and they think they know me well enough to assert that I was the missing piece of their puzzle.”

“So?” my father said.

“It’s scary,” I said.

“I think you should start with a Jewish one,” he said.

“Which?” I asked, showing him the thousands of e-mails. “That’s my biggest demographic. I’ve got 2,768 Jewish women to choose from.”

“Get a short one,” he said. “And make her smart and funny, too.”

“But I’d have nowhere to take her,” I said. “I don’t have money or a future.”

“That’s true,” he said. “But this is the new millennium. Ask her to pay. She’ll probably like you better for it. And that reminds me; make sure she’s rich, too.”

“That’s a lot to ask,” I said.

“Well, 5,274 is a big number,” he said. “Use it!”


Math Problem

It’s spring in Sacramento, and that means the Capitol steps are jammed again with protesters against government cuts — the first protesters to show up in mid-March were thousands of community college students demanding that California taxpayers continue paying the nation’s steepest college subsidies per student.

In light of his March 2 election victories, some say the governor can withstand the emotions that will crescendo this summer, as they have in recent years, with large numbers of wheelchair-bound recipients of state monies zipping through halls to stare down uncomfortable legislators in tense hearings.

He may be able to withstand the emotional pressure, but a bigger question may be whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can withstand the math.

Last year, facing a historic deficit that dwarfed the budgets of some smallish countries, the Legislature cut very little — roughly $4 billion from an operating budget of nearly $80 billion. Now, the governor has proposed $7 billion to $9 billion in cuts for fiscal year 2004-05.

But the Legislature won’t give him all the cuts he wants, and he needs to close a gap of $14 billion. So his 150-person performance review team is scouring the state to identify waste, abuse, fraud and duplication for further cuts.

Mindful of the governor’s popularity, Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles, a savvy negotiator, is smoothing the waters between the anti-cut Democrats and the anti-tax Republicans. He’s joined Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), the unapologetic big government liberal, in saying the Democrats won’t repeat 2003 by digging in their heels for taxes and failing to seek cuts — the stubborn legislative stance that sacrificed their governor.

In a highly unusual shift, the Democrats are holding hearings into how efficiently state programs operate. Nunez said the hearings are designed to cut waste and abuse.

Maybe that’s what the Dems are doing — or maybe not. A major hearing March 15 was on child care, an area with little potential waste.

The hearing seemed designed to make the governor squirm, as people testified about how badly low-income families need child care. Were legislators really trying to show the governor planned to save billions by making sure nobody gets extra milk and cookies?

But there’s still room for optimism. Daniel Pellisier, chief of staff for Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Granada Hills), said, “It’s heartening to see that the Dems will look toward eliminating waste and inefficiency in the budget before asking taxpayers to pay more money.”

The fresh-thinking Richman, a socially moderate Jewish pol, is one of very few leaders in Sacramento with moderate ideas, so the governor seeks him out regularly.

“Hopefully,” Pellisier said, “in the weeks ahead, the Democrats will look at things that will generate significant savings in areas such as health care administrative costs, the Department of Corrections and the education bureaucracy.”

Still, it’s instructive to look back at December, before Democratic leaders witnessed Schwarzenegger’s last success, when twin Propositions 57 and 58 to refinance the state’s huge debts and put a spending cap on the Legislature won by landslides.

Back in December, Democratic leaders rejected Schwarzenegger’s request to place a true spending cap on the March ballot. The spending cap voters approved, which makes it difficult but not impossible for the Legislature to overspend, was fashioned by the Democrats.

In arguing for a softer spending cap, Burton said, “It is our job to implement our own vision, and that of voters…. We owe voters not just what they think is right at the moment but also our independent assessment of what is best.”

Deploying that philosophy, Burton was the fiercest fighter in Sacramento against budget cuts in 2003. He emerged victorious — if you could call it that.

Californians should expect that by about May or so, after the Democrats’ hearings have failed to find a whole lot of cuts that don’t create fury among the well-padded public employee unions, the two parties’ divergent philosophies will reassert themselves.

As one Republican insider noted, “The Democrats started their waste-cutting hearings with child care? C’mon. What about waste at Caltrans, which we’re told doesn’t have enough money now to pursue many transportation projects? Why do we still pay 7,000 state engineers? Are they sitting, like, with their little pencils poised in the air?”

Sacramento is so resistant to trimming down, that state department heads are notorious for refusing to say where savings exist in their own departments. Richman sued former Gov. Gray Davis’ Department of Finance to get access to reports Davis ordered from department heads showing where they would make 20 percent budget cuts if they had to.

Davis vowed to cut the size of government but later lost his nerve. He refused to show the 20 percent-cut documents to the Legislature for fear of angering public unions.

Recently, Richman lost his suit. The Legislature never did learn what California’s department heads said about where they’d cut.

Schwarzenegger has access to those reports. Among his other difficult tasks, he may become the first governor in years to seek big layoffs or wage cuts from a work force of about 230,000.

The governor has one modest escape hatch. Borrowing can close part of the gap. The $15 billion bond issue approved by voters March 2 to refinance the Davis debt included $5 billion or so in unassigned borrowing. The governor wants to use it over the next three years to close modest budget gaps that persist as he hacks away at deeply embedded overspending.

He might, for instance, direct the money toward the huge Medi-Cal program, now that the courts have said California can’t further reduce the fees it pays doctors without conducting lengthy studies.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger and his finance czar, Donna Arduin, are actually seeking out waste and abuse in government. If the Dems launched their efficiency hearings with less than honorable intentions, they will look like phonies and obstructionists by summer, just as several Democrats face down tough legislative races.

If that happens, the students may be the ones on the Capitol steps now, but it is the Democrats who could get an education.

Style and Substance

What can the 2003 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) tell us that TheNew York Times wedding announcements can’t?

I read both this weekend, pretty much one after the other, and I can tellyou that the nuptial notices make up in pretty portraits what they lack inhard data.

As for the NJPS, it makes up in hard data what it lacks in sober analysis.

I’m not the first to point out that the usual dire headlines thataccompanied the survey’s release are overripe. “Where have all the Jewishpeople gone?” read one news release. “Jewish Population Declining” screameda newspaper headline. Even comedian Bill Maher chimed in on his HBO show:With fewer Jews, he asked, “Who will write all those sitcoms about Latinoand African American families?”

The survey, funded for $6 million by the federation umbrella group UnitedJewish Communities, reported that the nation’s population of 5.2 millionJews represented a decline of 2 percent from the 1990 survey, which reported5.5 million Jews.

But critics have pointed out that the survey’s numbers are well within themargin of error. Beyond that, barring direct evidence of a decline, the NJPSactually states in its methodological appendix that, “many researchersbelieve that the methodologies of survey research may yield undercounts ofthe Jewish population.” That decline you’ve been reading about all week? Itmay in fact be a slight rise.

As for intermarriage, the survey reported a national intermarriage rateamong all married couples involving a Jew at 43 percent. Hardly shocking, asany weekend reading of Times wedding announcements would seem to indicate.This week, for instance, I saw that Dana Sacher, daughter of Susan and JoelSacher of Springfield, N.J., married John Thomas Rollins, a son of Claireand Paul Rollins of Venice, Fla. A Methodist minister officiated, the paperreported, while Michele Lazerow of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center inTisbury, Mass., “took part in the service.”

There were similar nuptials listed, and, taking a hazardous guess, I’d sayThe Times intermarriage rate for Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003, may be close to the43 percent the NJPS reported.

That number, by the way, is down from the 52 percent rate reported in the1990 survey. You remember how the OVER-HALF-OF-ALL-JEWS-INTERMARRY!statistic became an article of faith among rabbis and Jewish professionalspredicting the imminent end of the Jewish people. It was the number thatlaunched a thousand outreach programs, many of them worthwhile, and, asother numbers in the survey demonstrate, remarkably effective at deepeninglevels of Jewish education.

But it turns out the number itself was wrong. The new survey acknowledgesthat in their zeal to be as inclusive as possible, researchers counted asintermarried people who no longer considered themselves Jews. This time theydefined intermarriage as “the marriage of someone who is Jewish to someonewho is non-Jewish at the time of the survey.”

The result of this stroke of brilliant reasoning is a reduction in the rateof intermarriage in as many as 39 communities to 26 percent or lower.

Taking this into consideration, those dire headlines should instead bedownright inspiring. At a time when Jews can move unhindered up and down andacross the social ladder and marry anyone they want, many still place apremium on retaining their attachment to Judaism.

Among those who do intermarry, the survey found that one-third of theirchildren are being raised Jewish; that their children were three times morelikely to marry non-Jews themselves; that by the common measures of Jewishlife (synagogue affiliation, JCC membership, charitable contribution, homerituals) intermarried couples were much less Jewish.

But once again, don’t think for a second these numbers tell the whole story,or even the most important part of it. Jewish life is not a snapshot, it’s amovie. People’s feelings about their religion change depending, among otherthings, on how others within the faith treat them. Not surprisingly, thesurvey shows the number of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews increasing,while the number of Conservative Jews declining. Guess which denomination ismore welcoming to intermarried couples?

If this survey – and those handsome faces in the wedding announcements – donothing else, they should encourage us to redefine intermarriage not as anonus, but as an opportunity.

Age-Old Dilemma

My friend Lindsay’s friend, Michelle, hosted a 30th birthday bash for her friend, Beth, last Saturday night. So of course I was there.

And so was birthday girl Beth’s friend Michael’s friend, Rob. And Rob was hot.

Six-foot-two before breakfast, with broad shoulders and blue eyes, Rob had the kind of sarcastic bite that kept me entertained. He worked for a music label, traveled often and liked my smile. And for the first hour and a half of the party, he liked me — until I mentioned that I was a junior at UCLA when the Bruins won the national championship.

"So wait, you graduated college in ’96? I didn’t even graduate high school until ’97."

Insert awkward pause here.

Still awkward….

And after what seemed like an excruciatingly long time for Rob to do the math, he said, "I can’t believe you’re 28. You don’t look old."

And the round goes to Rob with the K.O. punch. I don’t think of myself as old. I get carded often, I still wear pigtails and I have the same energy I had when I was a high school cheerleader (not to mention the uniform — which comes out on occasion).

But none of that mattered to Rob once he discovered our age difference. I’ve heard younger men are supposed to find older women alluring, because we’re experienced vixens who can teach them a thing or two. But Rob wasn’t interested in a private lesson with me. He mumbled something about me being old enough to have seen "Star Wars" in the theater and him being born in the ’80s. Then he grabbed his full beer cup, said he needed a refill and sprinted toward the nearest minor in a miniskirt. I was going to run after him, but who can run with my arthritis? Oy. An alter-kacker like myself doesn’t need to go shlepping after some shmendrick she just met at a party.

Now, Rob’s reaction to my Mrs. Robinson status would have hurt less had it been unique. But the truth is that not only do younger men prefer younger women — older men prefer younger women. The guys who should be in my dating pool are splashing around in the kiddie pool. They, too, are looking to meet a barely legal girl. How low do they go?

Most men follow the Seven principle. To find their lowest dating denominator, guys divide their age by two then add seven. Any girl of that age is considered fair game. According to the formula, guys at 28 dip as young as 21. 40-year-old men are snogging with 27-year-old chicks. Even Abraham went 10 years younger with Sarah. And since that worked out pretty well, Jewish men feel free to follow in their patriarch’s footsteps and date the younger babes.

So where does this leave me? Do I follow some predetermined dating age rule, too? Of course. All women do. The female formula for age and dating goes something like this:

Never discuss your age. Flirt at will.

Single gals are well aware that exposing our age to a suitor too soon has costly consequences. If our number’s too high, men’ll toss us in the ineligible pile faster than you can say early-bird special. Which is why we women reveal our cleavage, but not our age.

But why does age even matter? Why are men so determined to date younger women? It’s a physical thing. Men are attracted to women who can still pull off knee socks and a little plaid skirt. And they prefer if you pull them off slowly. It’s a Peter Pan thing. Men don’t want to grow up, and they think dating a girl who is younger will keep them younger. And it’s a commitment thing. Men are convinced that women past their mid-20s have just one thing on their minds. And it’s five letters longer than what men have on their minds.

Well men, stop being so ageist. A 22-year-old with a Britney bod can be looking for kids, a picket fence, and a man on a short leash while a 35-year-old woman with a doctorate might be looking to play the field.

Young Rob was too quick to judge. He said himself that I didn’t look old. And trust me, he was looking. And while I may be 28, I’m not some psycho husband hunter who’s looking to lasso in any unmarried cowboy who happens to ride my way.

The point is, men should consider a woman’s social age, not her actual age, when making a dating decision. But I’ll be the Blanche Deveraux of Leisure World before men start thinking that logically.

Sure, fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart. But in the L.A. singles scene, it’ll happen a lot faster if you’re young and hot.

Carin Davis, a freelance writer, can be reached at

Follow the Leader

A yeshiva outgrew its downtown quarters and moved to the former site of an upstate boys’ academy. Finding a boathouse on the property, the Rosh Yeshiva called in one of the rabbis and ordered him to organize a rowing team.

“Rebbe, what do we know from rowing?” the rabbi asked.

“We can master Talmud, we can figure out rowing!” the rebbe said.

So the rabbi put together a team, and his young rowers began to practice on the river. Soon, they were good enough to challenge and beat a local prep school. They challenged another and won again. When they had beaten every school in the vicinity, the Rosh Yeshiva called the rabbi in again:

“Now, we’ll challenge Princeton!” he said.

“Princeton, Rebbe? We’ve been rowing six weeks; they’ve been at this 300 years!”

The rebbe insisted, and the race was set. Princeton won by 20 lengths.

The despondent rabbi was once again called in to the Rosh Yeshiva.

“How did they beat us so badly?” the rebbe asked.

“Rebbe, Princeton has a secret: They have eight men rowing and one man shouting.”

Some say there is a crisis of leadership in the Jewish community. But our real problem is not leadership. Our problem is followership. We have strong and wise leaders. We always have. But we have never been good followers. Why is it so difficult and frustrating to forge compromise and build consensus in the Jewish community? Why is peace, or even respect, so rare in Jewish communal discourse, even in the best of times? Is it the Jewish passion for principle over pragmatics, or our inborn individualism, or a deep suspicion of authority? “Jews are the only people in the world,” said Abba Eban, “who refuse to take ‘Yes’ for an answer.” Anyone who has served on the boards and committees that govern the Jewish community and its organizations knows how painfully true that is.

And it has been true from the very beginning. We see ourselves, in the words of the divine promise, mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). But if everyone is a priest and holy, who has authority to lead? This paradox lies at the heart of Jewish community life. And this is precisely the claim used against Moses and Aaron by the rebel Korach in this week’s Torah portion: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

A healthy community must preserve a delicate balance between authority and dissent, containing a diversity of opinion within a unity of action. The curse of Korach destroys the balance by rejecting the very possibility of communal leadership and shared direction.

This curse of Korach is perhaps best perceived in the way our differences of opinion on matters of principle and policy so quickly and seamlessly turn into vicious personal attacks. Martin Buber was mistaken. Beyond the relationships of I-It and I-Thou, posited by Buber, there is a third: I-You-@’$%&*)@’!!, which is heard all too frequently in our communal discourse. “I don’t merely object to the position you represent, or the job you’ve done…I object to you. You are inadequate, corrupt, lazy and unfaithful to the Jewish future!”

Here is the source of our leadership crisis. Is it any wonder that the “mortality” rate among Jewish leaders, professional and lay, is so critical? Moses could command the ground to open and swallow his adversaries, and even he became discouraged at the carping, the whining, and the cruel personal invective aimed at him on a daily basis. What protection and support can we offer our leaders?

Every Monday morning, we read a psalm mizmor livney Korach, a song of the children of Korach. Somehow, in the unrecorded history of the Levites, a reconciliation was achieved, the community was reunited, and the children of Korach turned their discord into harmony. May we learn their melody as well.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.

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