In lieu of perfection


Two Jews once came before the Talmudic sage Rav Yannai.

“The branches of his tree extend into the public domain,” one claimed. “They’re a public hazard,
interfering with the camel traffic. Master, you must surely rule that he is obligated to remove the tree.”

The tree owner fidgeted silently, hoping against legal hope that somehow the tree could be spared.

Rav Yannai sat silently in thought, and finally, cryptically ruled, “Go home today, and come back tomorrow.”

Puzzled but always respectful, the parties agreed to do so.

When they returned on the next afternoon, Rav Yannai issued a clear and definitive ruling.

“It is obvious that you are obliged to cut the tree,” he said to the tree owner with little doubt as to the accuracy of his ruling.

But the tree owner had one last appeal up his sleeve.

“But my master also owns a tree whose branches extend into the public domain,” he said.

Rav Yannai replied, “Go and see. If my tree is still there, you may keep yours. But if mine is cut down, then you must cut yours, too.”

Apparently, Rav Yannai had been busy with his saw overnight, anticipating the ruling he’d be issuing the next day. (For the record, the Talmud records that up to that point Rav Yannai hadn’t thought about the negative impact of his tree on public traffic, thinking instead that the pubic enjoyed the shade it provided.)

Right there, in the shadow of the ever-popular “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” another mitzvah quietly sits: “Thou shall surely rebuke thy friend.” And while this may seem rude or intrusive, the Torah regards the obligation of mutual rebuke as the engine of communal righteousness.

To be sure, the Torah immediately adds safeguards, prohibiting us from publicly humiliating our wrongdoing friend, and enjoining us from engaging in rebuke that we know will be futile. But carried out appropriately and with good common sense, rebuke is a vitally important activity. Both our sages and our own experiences have taught “a person cannot perceive his own flaws.” There is no way that any of us can achieve continuing moral and religious growth, unless we are willing to point out flaws to one another. (And unless we are willing to accept constructive criticism from others.)

But the story of Rav Yannai points to a nasty Catch-22 in the rebuke mitzvah system. The Talmud wonders why Rav Yannai was so particular about cutting his own tree before he issued his ruling. Couldn’t he have just as well done so immediately afterward? The Talmud then concludes that we learn from Rav Yannai that you must first “adorn yourself. And only then, tell others that they should do the same.”

It is not permissible, and it probably isn’t effective, to rebuke a friend for a flaw that we ourselves also possess. We need the system of mutual rebuke because we cannot perceive our own flaws. But if we cannot perceive our own flaws, then we run the constant risk of urging others to “adorn themselves” when we utterly lack the necessary credentials to so do.

The whole system therefore grinds to a halt. Rabbi Tarfon bemoaned this paralysis, commenting, “I would be surprised if there is anyone in our generation who can deliver rebuke. If one says, ‘Remove the splinter from between your eyes,’ the other will respond, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.'”

How then are we to go about fulfilling this vital mitzvah? How then are we to enable the ones we love to grow and achieve greater moral and spiritual refinement?

Fortunately, there is another way to go about it. The tradition recognizes a way in which one can deliver rebuke without necessarily having to meet the criterion of being completely personally “adorned.” Love can take the place of perfection.

As we read in the parsha a few weeks ago, God specifically chose Aaron to be the one who diagnosed the skin condition tzara’at, which was an external manifestation of the person’s ethical flaws (in particular that of habitually speaking ill of others). God knew that Aaron, although not without blemish himself, overflowed with love for each and every one of the people. Aaron was the one who reconciled friends and spouses, pursued peace and loved all. If Aaron were to say to you, “Dear friend, there is flaw in your character that you need to repair,” you would not question that he was right.

Rebuke that is a function of and which flows from love avoids the Catch-22 altogether. Rebuke is the catalyst for moral and religious growth, and true love is the necessary prerequisite for rebuke.

“Be among the disciples of Aaron,” the legendary sage Hillel taught. There is realistically no other way to fulfill the mitzvah upon which all of our individual growth and development hinges, and, in the end, the mitzvah upon which human progress hinges.

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

Better safe than sorry


It is late in the game for Pharaoh. Mitzrayim has just endured the penultimate plague: Dark. Pharaoh now knows he has little time left: It is, for him, the bottom of the ninth.

He summons Moshe, as he has done so many times before, and for the first time conducts an earnest negotiation. The king of Egypt now concedes the demand Moshe had made earlier — everyone may go, even the women and children. Only, says the Pharaoh, you must leave your cattle behind. Moshe declines the offer, and ups the ante. Not only are we going to take our cattle with us, he insists, but you must supplement the herd with some of your own.

Now, the Torah does not record this, but I imagine that there was, at this point, another negotiation. Pharaoh probably said: “Why do you need so many animals, and so many different kinds? I understand you are going to worship your god, and he will demand sacrifice. But come on, now! If your god likes goats, take goats; if he prefers cows, take cows; if it’s sheep he demands, take all the sheep you want. But why do you need to take them all? This makes no sense at all, and, moreover, it’s wasteful! Take only what you need.”

Now we understand Moshe’s reply. We must take it all with us, he says, because “we will not know how to serve the Lord until we arrive there.”

At last we have arrived at the real dispute between Moshe and Pharaoh, between God and Mitzrayim. Pharaoh, an Egyptian, knew what every god wanted — the exact method of honoring each idol and deity in the pantheon. Egypt was all about certainty and permanence. There was one eternal way, and nothing left to chance.

Moshe knew that when we serve God, we always live with uncertainty. How do we know for sure what God will ask of us? We know what He asked of our ancestors, but He might have a different plan for us. The answers of the past are a useful place to begin — an absolute requirement, actually — but that will not ensure success. In the worship of God, as in mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Ibn Ezra offers this: We don’t know if we will need to serve God with this or with that, or with much or with little. Sometimes a small quantity of one service will be more pleasing to God than an overabundance of another service. We must be spiritually alert, flexible and well supplied.

In Mitzrayim, in the place of no options, there was no room for doubt. The world order, including the spiritual order, was not subject to speculation. The answers had all been given, and our assignments were not subject to change. Slaves were slaves; masters were masters. Some enjoyed a life of luxury, others toiled in the pit. And each god was well known and predictable.

For Israel, doubt is not an enemy of service. When we stand before God, we do not come with perfect clarity. We bring to God’s service all our confusions and disappointments as well as our faith and commitment. We don’t have all the answers — in fact, we don’t know all the right questions — but this does not prevent us from serving God with joy.

It is because of our uncertainty that we must bring to the task of serving God all our resources: our intellect, our experience, our imagination, and our learning. We cannot do it alone; we need to take with us all the wisdom we can find. Some resources will come from unexpected sources, like Pharaoh. Some will come from study of Torah and commentaries, of Talmud and codes, of Jewish history and literature. Some will come from our family, friends, teachers and community. Some will be a gift from heaven.

In our journeys out of Egypt toward Mount Sinai — the place of encounter between God and Israel, the place of Torah and covenant — we are always in between. We have left the verities of Egypt, and have not yet arrived at the world of truth, the place where ambiguities will be resolved. Until then, until we arrived there, we must be clever. If we bring all we have and all we can obtain to the tasks of serving God in this world, we might, when called, be ready.

Rabbi Dan Shevitz serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice and teaches rabbinical students at the American Jewish University.

Brotherly Love


With Chanukah recent history, I came across a fascinating review of a new book, “The Business of Holidays.” The book’s editor, Maud Lavin, notes that 81 percent of U.S. households celebrate Christmas with a tree in their homes, and not everybody is Christian. The line between Christmas and Chanukah has become very blurry in recent years, according to Lavin.

“I’m Jewish myself, and I didn’t even know that Purim was more the gift-giving holiday on the Jewish calendar,” Lavin writes. “But, Purim is in the spring, and so ‘no good,’ because it doesn’t participate in the Christmas season, and Jewish Americans especially turned Hanukah from a tiny holiday into a big consumerist holiday.”

I don’t think that these comments are any longer shocking, or for that matter, revealing. Even without Lavin’s book we knew this to be true. What interested me most, however, was the “Seinfeld” holiday Festivus:

“Festivus, an invention of Frank, George’s father on Seinfeld, had various rituals including the family sitting around the dining room table together criticizing each other. Then Ben & Jerry’s piggybacked on that and had, for a while, a Festivus ice cream. And, there really are people who continue to celebrate Festivus, especially on college campuses.”

I found all of this utterly fascinating because I compared it to this week’s Torah reading, which describes the amazing family reunion of Joseph with his brothers. Twenty-two years have passed since they sold him, and now Joseph finally reveals his true identity. He tells his brothers not to be sad and not to reproach themselves because God Himself had arranged the cycle of events that led to his eventually becoming viceroy of Egypt.

But this story has another side. A close examination of the biblical text reveals that the brothers’ feelings were neither forgotten nor forgiven, according to British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Consider what happens while Joseph is telling the brothers not to fret over the past. They remain totally silent. Only after Joseph has spoken for 13 verses and well more than 150 words are we told: “He then kissed all his brothers and wept upon them and afterward his brothers conversed with him” (Genesis 45:15). What the brothers said is conspicuously absent. Could this be the silence of indifference?

Estrangement also appears elsewhere. For example, what relationship did Joseph establish with his father? Was there any contact during the 17 years that Jacob and Joseph lived together in Egypt? Could it be they saw each other so infrequently that not once, but twice Joseph had to be called and told that his father was on his deathbed?

“Behold — your father is ill” (Genesis 48:1). Why did Jacob not trust Joseph when he promised that he would not bury him in Egypt? Was it really necessary to make Joseph take an oath?

What does all of this mean? Some suggest it is a realistic depiction of life. Life is such that despite the best efforts when there is a schism between family members, or for that matter between friends, the past cannot just be undone. Joseph, who left home at age 17 and rose to the top of the most powerful nation of the world, no longer speaks the same language. The innocence of youth, the closeness of father and son, the familial bond was lost forever. They had truly gone their separate ways.

Yet the Torah implies a different view of this story. True, it is hard to forget the hurt and hatred that once existed between Joseph and his brothers. But consider the length Joseph travels to reunite with them. Certainly he is hurt, yet he tries intensely to recreate the family bond. He is the one who single-handedly supports them. He doesn’t mend fences by holding a Festivus celebration, where each one criticizes the other. Just imagine, if he did, what that family gathering would have sounded like!

The lesson we can learn from this story is that in families, as in friendships, no room exists for Festivus gatherings. Unfortunately, American society today thinks that such gatherings not only are productive but even necessary. We are the generation of “tell it all.” But that presents a prescription for disaster. Instead of feeding criticism in our relationships, we must offer positive reinforcement with lots of love and understanding, or the relationships will fail. We can find enough criticism to go around, but can we find enough love?

So how did the Torah’s tale of sibling rivalry ultimately end? This week’s Haftorah from the Book of Ezekiel (37:19) captures a beautiful answer — “the tree of Joseph … and the tree of Judah will become one tree.” That only happens when kindness rather than criticism reigns supreme.

Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Schmoozing with the Shammes of Shanghai


The shammes of Shanghai is an 87-year-old man named Wang Fa Liang.
I often write for this paper when I return from overseas travel, but
halfway through my recent trip to China with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, I was at a loss for a topic. And then I played hooky one morning in Shanghai.

I knew the general outline of the story of the Jews of Shanghai. Fleeing Nazi persecution, thousands of Jews journeyed halfway around the world to the sanctuary offered by Shanghai’s unique status as a free trade city. A small yet vibrant Jewish community had formed on the edge of the Middle Kingdom. While not discussed in my guidebooks, I hoped its remnants might still be found today.

Armed with an address from a Google search, three of us (former California Treasurer Kathleen Brown, Los Angeles Times reporter Duke Helfand and I) hired a car and asked the driver to find 62 Chang Yang Road. After a few wrong turns, the driver pulled up in front of Ohel Moishe (the “Tent of Moses”), a shul that had stood at the center of Shanghai’s ghetto.

We stepped from a Chinese street of working-class clothing, beauty and fish merchants into the world of our fathers. Ohel Moishe is a well-maintained, small but sturdy three-story brick building recessed from Chang Yang Road via a courtyard. Under a Star of David, we kissed the mezuzah and entered a plain sanctuary. The Torah scrolls had long been removed from the ark, but one could imagine the half-dozen rows jammed on Shabbat in Shanghai long ago.
The shul was nearly empty save for a couple from Brazil and four other Americans. Wang, the octogenarian caretaker and Shanghai native, assembled us around an old table upstairs to watch a video on the area’s history.

Wang then addressed us, drawing a portrait of centuries of Jewish privation with the erudition and compassion of a skilled rabbi. Hundreds of years of history, ours and his, spilled forth.
Wang told us of the Sephardim, principally from Iraq, who had traveled the Silk Road to Shanghai. Their descendants had gone on to greatness in Shanghai — one of the city’s defining landmarks, the Peace Hotel, was erected by Sir Victor Sassoon.

Then there were the Ashkenazim (Wang could discuss the distinctions between Jews with greater dexterity than we could discuss the subtleties of the Chinese) from Russia who — following pogroms, the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution — moved to Shanghai at the start of the 20th century.

Finally, Wang told us of the Jews who had fled the Nazis. He spoke movingly of yeshiva students from Poland and musicians from Vienna who had sailed from Genoa or traversed Siberia to settle in his neighborhood. He spoke of the heroism of Japanese Consul General Chiune Sugihara in Kaunas, who had processed paperwork permitting thousands of Jews to flee from Lithuania to Shanghai. He told us the astonishing story of a failed mid-war German-Japanese plot to kill Shanghai’s European Jews (the plotters had evidently neglected the Sephardim, he noted).

Wang’s lecture was a tour de force. He beamed as he pointed to the pictures of the Israeli leaders — Herzog, Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu, among others — who had visited Ohel Moishe. He showed off reunion photos taken with former Jewish refugees who return from time to time.

When he concluded, Duke asked him a sim

ple question — “Why do you work here?”
He responded, “I remember my colleagues Mr. Stein and Mr. Friedman from the cafe where we worked in the ’40s. There were so many Jews in this area it was called ‘Little Vienna.’ Mr. Stein and Mr. Friedman moved away, and they helped my family move into a Jewish house.”
As we left the shul, Wang followed us down the street, pointing out additional landmarks.

“Make sure you see the park — Jewish families played there,” he called after us.

We were on a tight schedule to rejoin the mayor of Los Angeles, but the mayor of Little Vienna wouldn’t let us go.

I turned to Duke and Kathleen and told them how uplifted I felt, and I mentioned the story of Sugihara.

“He’s famous — I think he’s been recognized as a Righteous Gentile,” Duke said.

The memory and sanctuary of thousands of Jews are being kept alive by an old Chinese man in Shanghai, a man who did more than move into a Jewish house — a man who moved into Jewish lives, and became the guardian of their memories. Surely Wang Fa Liang is righteous as well.

Ohel Moishe, located at 62 Chang Yang Road in northeast Shanghai, is open daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Telephone – 86-21-65415008.

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Councilman Jack Weiss, Kathleen Brown, and Duke Helfand.

New Year brings new hope to inmates


Daniel, a 24-year-old UCLA student, has gotten under my skin. I met him a month ago when I followed Rabbi Yossi Carron on his rounds through Men’s Central Jail
and Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. Daniel had a few more days to serve on the six-month sentence he received after his was convicted of dealing methamphetamine to some of his fellow Bruins — most likely, his release date would fall just before or just after Rosh Hashanah.

When I learned Daniel would be celebrating his last day in jail during the New Year’s service Carron organized for his prison shul, I asked to tag along.
In a hallway at Men’s Central on a Tuesday afternoon, Carron and three rabbinical students are maneuvering a pair of rickety carts loaded with prayer books and a Rosh Hashanah feast past a prisoner-painted mural that depicts a SWAT team, guns raised, staring down passersby.

At one point, several packages of pita bread slide off the top of one of the loads. At the rear of the convoy, where a Torah scroll on loan from a Sephardic temple nestles under a tallit, someone makes a joke about Uzzah — the poor guy in 2 Samuel, chapter 6, who meets with God’s wrath when he touches the Ark to keep it from bouncing off an ox cart.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, is onhand, along with half a dozen volunteers. As the afternoon sun slants through broken windowpanes 20 feet above the concrete floor, this small group of Jews lays tablecloths and arranges flowers to transform a disused prison dining hall into sacred space.

Simon — his name, like those of other inmates, has been changed to protect his identity — is one of the first inmates to arrive. Now 30, he has lived on the streets or in jail since he was 15. His arms are inked with menacing skulls and demons, but the most affecting tattoo is a single teardrop on his left cheek — a memento he got when his time behind bars passed the five-year mark.

“I get out again in 33 days,” he says, adding that his first stop will be a drug treatment center in Torrance. “This time I’m staying out.”

Eventually the room holds about 20 inmates from Men’s Central and from Twin Towers Correctional Facility across the street.

“You have more rabbis and rabbis-to-be in this room than you’ll ever see again in your life,” Carron tells the men in his prison shul. “Mingle and make use of them.”

The soft buzz of friendly conversation fills the hall.

I manage to get in a few words with Daniel, who looks quietly jubilant.
“Man, this feels so good,” he tells me. “This is like the perfect way to end this experience. I’ve learned so much. It sounds strange, but I’m actually kind of grateful.”

At another table, Gary, an inmate whose hard years are etched onto a face that resembles a walnut, has recognized Pauline Lederer, a wheelchair-bound but sharp-witted nonagenarian who has been volunteering in Los Angeles County jails since the 1930s.

“I first met Pauline in 1983!” Gary exclaims.

After her conversation with Gary, Pauline says, “Things aren’t going well for him. Spending so much time in here is bad for the soul. It’s very sad, but I hope this helps.”

Soon Carron asks everyone to take a seat so that service can begin. Over the next hour, he weaves prayers recalling the Israelites’ liberation from bondage in Egypt with the traditional Rosh Hashana liturgy. Noam Raucher delivers a homily about how his experience shadowing Carron has shaped his understanding of teshuvah, and Alison Abrams opens the rosewood ark to read a passage from the Torah.

At the end of the service, Michael Chusid, a veteran of last year’s Rosh Hashanah celebration at Men’s Central, blows the shofar.

“Every generation has to overcome terrible suffering,” Carron says later, after the last of the roasted chicken and apple tart has disappeared. “What we’re doing on Rosh Hashanah is redeeming that holy spark within us, which is what happened when we crossed the Red Sea. It also points toward the freedom that I hope each of these guys will experience in some way in the New Year.”

Carron’s hope reminds me of Daniel, who’s marking the New Year and his newfound freedom by returning to a life that will be completely the same and totally different from the life he knew six months ago. Really, each day is like that — each day is the beginning of a new year. That’s easy to say, but hard to accept. In my own life, I’m starting to realize that, for now, it’s enough to move through each day as if I accepted it.

So whenever you happen to be reading this, Shana Tova.

For more on Rabbi Carron’s work, see

The Key Is Rejoicing


A story is told about a Chasidic rabbi visited by an enthusiastic follower. The man eagerly wanted to update the rabbi on his latest religious undertaking.

“I have decided to inflict my body and deprive myself from mundane pleasures,” the man said. “Every day I roll in the snow after receiving 39 lashes; I sleep standing, put nails in my shoes, drink only water and eat only raw vegetables. I feel that I am taking off my bodily garb and dress up in a spiritual, heavenly cloth.”

Instead of responding, the rabbi started walking with his follower around the village until they arrived at a stable. There the rabbi paused and, gazing admiringly at one of the horses, asked the man: “Isn’t this a magnificent animal?”

The man could not control his frustration.

“Rabbi, this is truly beyond me,” he complained. “I am talking spirituality here and you are thinking about horses?”

The rabbi remained unmoved by the man’s outburst and answered calmly, “This horse drinks only water and eats straw, sleeps standing and has nails in its shoes; its master uses the whip ruthlessly and rolling in the snow is its daily ritual, but after all it is still a horse.”

The rabbi might have been inspired by this week’s portion. At first glance, admittedly, it seems like an eclectic collection of laws and instructions, dealing with such disparate issues as dietary laws, agrarian laws anti-paganism campaign and more. A close look at the Re’eh, though, will reveal a key word that illuminates the working thesis of this collection of laws.

The root “shin, mem, chet” — be happy, rejoice — appears in the parsha seven times, and it is always in the context of the family and the community. You should rejoice in the place your God has chosen, with your sons and daughters, and servants, with the sojourners and with the Levites who have no permanent residence in the land of Israel.

This key phrase is an insight into what Judaism considers to be the true way of serving God. It is a way of life that is imbued with happiness and gratitude. It is sharing your blessings with family, friends and the less fortunate. It is one of the main reasons for the agrarian laws, which guarantee social justice and equality, as well as a partial reason for the rejection of paganism.

A bitter, angry man can only wreak havoc, even more so if he thinks he represents God. Jacques Barzun, the famous historian tacitly described the motive for religious wars: “Be my brother or I will kill you.”

This is exactly the pagan attitude shunned in Re’eh. The Torah warns against the pagan practice of wounding one’s flesh as a sign of mourning or spiritual fervor (Deuteronomy 14:1) and against the horrifying practice of offering one’s offspring as a burnt sacrifice to the gods (Deuteronomy 12:31).

These two practices not only are linked but they are the breeders of religious fanaticism.

If you are willing to inflict physical pain upon yourself as a service to your god, why not treat others to the same spiritual experience? Paradoxically, they will be killed or harmed because of your love for them.

What other atrocities can be committed by those who murder their own children in the name of God? We would like to think that such practices are extinct, but unfortunately this is not the case. There are still religious sects around the world who herald asceticism and acts that border with masochism. In some cases it leads to religious or ethnic terrorism, and in others to a complete apathy and indifference to the fate of the less fortunate (India, abundant with Yogi, Brahmins and fakirs, is a good example as home to spirituality seekers from around the world but also to millions of untouchable who live in subhuman conditions just because they were born into a certain caste).

The practice of human sacrifices did not disappear with the demise of the Phoenicians or the annihilation of South American cultures by the conquistadores as we would like to think. Since the dawn of humanity fathers and mothers have been marching their children off to unnecessary wars in the name of bloodthirsty gods.

The message of this week’s parsha reverberates with that of Isaiah: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the chords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home … then shall your light burst through like the dawn” (Deuteronomy 58:5-8).

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

The Ultimate Enigma


Zot chukat haTorah begins this week’s parsha, telling us that the subject of the Red Heifer is the chok of the Torah. A chok is a law that is simply incomprehensible. It makes no sense to us whatsoever.

When I tell you that a person who had become ritually defiled by close contact with a human corpse could purify himself by counting seven days, and on days three and seven have the ashes of a red heifer sprinkled on him, you’ll understand what I mean.

There is logic to honoring one’s parents. There is a rationale for not stealing or murdering. But for purification in a ruddy, bovine shower, why would God ask such a thing of us?

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know. But neither did King Solomon, the wisest of men. It seems that this is part of the definition of a chok, that its raison d’etre remains a mystery.

There are many chukim that defy a logical explanation — keeping kosher, not wearing a garment made of wool and linen and yes, ritual impurity. We can’t ask the question, “Why do we observe them?” The only correct answer is that we observe these mitzvot because God told us to — period.

But because Judaism does not subscribe to blind faith, we must follow up with a second question. Not why, but what. What benefit is there to us by observing this law? How does keeping this commandment make our life richer, infuse our existence with a greater sense of purpose, expand our understanding of the truths of this world?

When we ask “what” regarding the laws governing the Red Heifer, we will understand why this mitzvah is singled out as the paradigmatic chok, the mother of all chukim, if you will. We will also see how intensely relevant an incomprehensible set of laws that haven’t been practiced in thousands of years can be.

Spiritual impurity, tumah, is brought about by different circumstances. For example, one becomes impure, tamay, from close contact with a dead animal. One also becomes tamay if he/she contracts tzaraas, the spiritual equivalent of leprosy. These forms of tumah can be removed simply by immersing in a mikvah, a ritual bath. However, if a person comes in close contact with a human being who has passed away, the level of impurity is much more severe, and the purification process becomes much more involved, requiring mikvah immersion and the Red Heifer concoction.

The difference in the severity of the tumah can be found in the source, or the impetus, of the impurity. Emotionally and psychologically, what does a person experience when they see a dead animal or a body racked by disease? They experience a sense of revulsion and disgust at the decaying organism. They may be sickened and repelled by the diseased tissue overtaking what was once a strong and healthy body. When we chance upon a squirrel that has been run over in the street, we don’t mourn the squirrel. We are grossed out from the blood and the guts, and we just want to get away from it.

Contrast that to the experience of the death of a human being. True, a corpse is not pleasant to behold, but that is not the focus of our emotional/psychological experience. It is so much more. It is the realization that in all of the universe, the deceased was unique. The person had individual talents, a singular purpose no longer to be fulfilled.

Inside every human being lies unlimited potential, and death means that it is lost forever. This most severe form of impurity stems from the recognition that every life has infinite value; that every person truly is an entire world.

The story is told that the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, paid a visit to Anwar Sadat shortly before the Yom Kippur War and advised him not to go to war with Israel. Sadat responded by handing him a copy of the publication, Maariv. The cover had a picture of a young man in uniform who was killed and was being mourned by an entire nation. Sadat said that such a people won’t endure a long war if to them, each dead person is important and precious.

As I write this, myself and fellow Jews all over the world, are praying and beseeching God for the safe return of another young man in uniform, Gilad Shalit. To us, he is not just another soldier. He is a unique and precious individual whose loss, God forbid, would be the paradigm of that which doesn’t make sense. Zot chukat haTorah. That a precious life can just be snuffed out is the most illogical and unintelligible chok of the Torah.

Through the parsha of the Red Heifer, we learn to value not just life, but every life. That is why we don’t lump all victims of terror together, but each one has a picture and a name, because each one represents an unimaginable loss. That is why every Shabbat, we pray for the return of the Israeli MIAs. Not to care about the fate of each and every one of them is incomprehensible to us. Yes Sadat, you were right. Every individual is precious and important to us, and every loss a sickening tragedy.

But you were wrong, too. Appreciating the worth of each individual has not weakened us. It is what has given us the strength to keep going. Death may never make sense to us, but the greatness and grandeur of life does. And as incomprehensible as it may seem to you, we choose life.

We hope and pray that very soon, the rest of the world will, too.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

 

Life More Ordinary


I recently visited a congregant in the hospital and was surprised to find a doctor crying in the hallway. I told her I was a rabbi and asked if I could help. The doctor immediately apologized for her tears.

“It’s been a hard week,” she said, “I’ll be OK.”

She told me she had just presented a terminal cancer diagnosis to a woman in her early 40s. I felt for this doctor, and for her patient, but I also felt pleased at what I saw — a doctor who cries.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of the books “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal” (Riverhead, 1996) and “My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging” (Riverhead, 2000) tells the story of how, as a young intern, she had been reprimanded by her chief resident for crying with a young couple whose baby had just died. Her supervisor told her she had let them down.

“They needed you to be strong,” he told her.

Now a teacher of physicians herself, Remen remains true to her initial impulse and teaches that crying with patients can be an appropriate response, saying, “You can burn out doing ‘meaningful’ work, if you lose the meaning.”

In this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah (Leviticus 13, in particular), God instructs Moses and Aaron on the role of priests when people take ill. The priests play diagnostician. They do not try to cure the sick, but they do examine people stricken with strange skin eruptions. The text — with more than enough description of skin ailments — is a little too graphic for some people. It also often seems irrelevant, as it describes practices no longer done by a priesthood that has long since faded from Jewish life.

But this portion also focuses attention on people who are not well. In order for the priest to evaluate what ails the people who are ill, he must get near to them, probably even touch them. And the priests see those who are ill more than once; they return days later to determine whether the person has recovered.

The daily tasks of the priests described elsewhere in the Torah consist primarily of animal sacrifice and temple caretaking, suggesting that priests are usually apart from the rest of the Israelites. So it is remarkable, and instructive, to imagine the priests — a part of the community — attending to the ill, taking note of those in need. Imagine Aaron, the high priest, coming to see the weak in the midst of the Israelites. Imagine a priest taking the time to speak with the afflicted among the people. Imagine the priest being the one to escort an afflicted person back into the community, declaring them free from contagion and assisting them in offering a sacrifice to God upon their recovery. Simple gestures perhaps, but imagine how welcome they would be to someone who had suffered physical pain and the worry that they might bring illness to others. Imagine how they might have restored someone’s sense of self-worth or desire to remain alive.

This past week saw another Yom HaShoah V’HaGevurah, the day of commemoration for the Holocaust and for Acts of Courage. When the Israeli Knesset years ago chose the 27th of Nissan for this annual day of commemoration, they did so amid controversy. Some would have preferred the anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but that landed (by Nazi plan) on the first day of Passover. Still, the Warsaw Ghetto and its heroes surely figured in the minds of those who selected the week following Passover for this memorial day – the uprising itself lasted almost a month.

Irena Klepfisz, whose parents managed to get her out of the ghetto and whose father died a hero in the Warsaw Ghetto, said in 1988, on the 45th anniversary of the uprising: “What we grieve for is not the loss of a grand vision, but rather the loss of common things, events and gestures…. Ordinariness is the most precious thing we struggle for, what the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for. Not noble causes or abstract theories. But the right to go on living with a sense of purpose and a sense of self-worth — an ordinary life.”

How poignant to read her words this week as we read of the priests tending to the ill — not focused on the grander work of the Temple or the sacrifices that took place at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

As we read in Leviticus of the extraordinary lives of the priests, tenders of the sacred flame, preservers of the religion as it was then, I like to think also about the sense of purpose God gave them in commanding them to offer simple gestures of concern and care; I like to think about the meaningfulness they might have found in their ordinariness and in their tears.

Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and is also currently teaching Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

 

Food for Thought


Vica is tall, blonde and Jewish. She is my interpreter.

It’s February 2005 and I am in Vilna, Lithuania, at the Baltics Limmud Conference. I am here as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ strategic partnership with the Baltics communities to teach subjects as varied as “Judiasm & Sexuality,” “Conservative Judaism” and “The Meaning of Mitzvah” to a Jewish community whose knowledge of the Jewish tradition was decimated by 50 years of Soviet oppression.

Vica translates what I teach into Russian, the lingua franca of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a remnant from the Soviet era. She is active in the burgeoning Jewish community in Vilna, and comes to Limmud to work as a translator and to participate in learning. Yet she dates a non-Jewish Lithuanian because there are so few Jewish men her age.

When I ask about her Jewish upbringing, she says she didn’t really have any.

“My mother is Jewish and my father is not,” she says. “My mother had forgotten most everything from her childhood and she was not allowed to practice or learn anything, so by the time I arrived she really didn’t know what to teach me. But once we went to shul on Passover, and I do remember the matzahs from the shul. I don’t remember what they were for, but I remember eating matzah once in shul.”

Vica remembers eating matzah. Don’t underestimate the importance of the taste buds. Jews are a smart people. We value good grades and we love a good debate. But at the beginning of all good Jewish learning, there is food.

In traditional communities, the Alef Bet is still taught by feeding Jewish children Hebrew letters covered in honey so they associate sweetness with Torah. After Moses and the leaders of the Jewish people affirm their covenant with God at Mount Sinai and have a dramatic vision of God, they sit down to eat and drink (Exodus 24:12).

On Passover, when the central mitzvah of the seder is to teach our children the story of the Jewish people, we eat. We eat spring and call it parsley. We eat bitterness and call it maror. We eat bricks and call it charoset. We eat poverty and call it matzah.

We teach our children the words, but when our children are denied the story for 50 years, when a mother “has forgotten most everything from her childhood” and “doesn’t know what to teach,” when nothing else remains, matzah, like a stubborn daffodil blooming after a hard winter’s frost, is what Vica remembers.

Why does food work so well?

Scientists will tell you that the senses of smell and taste are most strongly associated with memory. I think eating resembles what learning the Passover story should be — we allow something from outside of ourselves to enter us; we “digest it” and change it (it is we who must tell the story so that our children can hear it) and it changes us and nourishes us and stays with us forever.

The Passover seder is among the most observed holidays in the Jewish world. When other ties with Jewish life have frayed, Passover remains. The food of Passover has much to do with this fact. Too often, Jews feel disempowered to teach their children, or themselves, the Jewish tradition because they feel they do not know enough. But on Passover, the haggadah teaches — “all who are hungry, come and eat.” Everyone can eat. Passover remains.

But Passover cannot be enough. Matzah cannot be enough. During the rest of the year, what do our homes taste like? Will our children remember the taste of Shabbat dinner on Friday night? Will they remember blintzes on Shavuot? Latkes on Chanukah? Honey and Hebrew letters? Will they remember the smell of cooking food to be delivered to a family who is mourning? What will remain beyond matzah?

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.

 

Moses and King


This past week, we observed the birthday of a great leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was able to move his people from seeing and believing his great vision to acting, responding and persevering in the face of violent opposition. In this way, King was like Moses in this week’s parshah. It is also no coincidence that King couched his historical vision in the story of the Exodus, comparing his people’s plight to that of the Israelites in Egypt.

This week we meet Moses, our new leader and adviser. Moses is commanded to go to Egypt, gather the people and demand their freedom from Pharaoh. “And Moses and Aaron went and gathered the elders of the children of Israel. And Aaron told them all of the things that God had said to Moses; and he performed the signs in the eyes of the people. And the nation believed; for they heard that God was remembering them because God saw their plight, and they were humbled and they bowed low” (Exodus 4:29-31).

Nehama Leibowitz, the great modern Torah scholar, calls this “the spiritual height” of the people; they were imbued with “historic awareness.”

The language of the verse is so poignant: va’y’amen ha’am (the nation believed). Two unique words appear side by side: va’y’amen, from the root amen, to affirm, witness, believe in; and ha’am, the nation — no longer a band of brothers, but a group of children, a single family unit. On this day, the nation of Israel is born, as they realize, according to Ibn Ezra, that the “end of the [slavery] spoken to Abraham” is occurring.

Yet, just as quickly as their energy builds, it is crushed by Pharaoh’s denial. Pharaoh is a wise dictator, as he understands the manipulation tactic of internal disputes as a way of breaking the spirit of the unity that was felt just a few verses earlier.

King understood this tactic when he spoke to the sanitation workers the night before his assassination. In his famous “I See the Promised Land” speech, he says, “You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt…. He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. … When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”

Faith and certainty fall into fear and rebellion. It is precisely this pattern that I see as the ultimate problem facing the Israelites in the attempt to free themselves. The words of inspiration, the signs and wonders performed, the quick fix — these rally the people and bring them together. However, the moment that anything goes wrong, or they face a difficult challenge, the people give up and begin to whine. It is very easy to be persuaded by fanciful language, a powerful message and an easy answer. However, the challenge of true leadership is the ability to guide people through the difficult, dangerous, painful, and sometimes-fatal situations that stand in the way of achieving a moral or spiritual victory. Moses was able to achieve this eventually, but it was not easy.

Today, we again live in challenging, and some would say, dangerous times. How would Moses and King respond to today’s reality?

King never cowered in the face of injustice, never bowed to pressure or intimidation. He spoke his mind from his particular religious, ethical and moral perspective.

What might he say about spending billions of dollars on a war of choice, which has turned out to be fought under false pretenses and cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and the security of our world? What might he say about the large number of children living in poverty, without access to healthcare and education, basic food and water? What might he say about the genocide in Darfur, happening with the world watching silently? And the global warming that is destroying our planet? AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa?

What would they say? But more importantly: What would they do?

I believe that King would be in the streets, standing with the poor and hungry, with the striking workers fighting for a decent wage, and speaking out for justice, righteousness and peace.

And so must we.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose yartzheit we observed this past week, taught us this when he said, “We must first peer into the darkness, feel strangled and entombed in the hopelessness of living without God, before we are ready to feel the presence of God’s living light.”

The lesson from the Torah this week is one that applies to all people fighting for freedom, struggling to make change in the world, or simply wanting to live with an active moral compass. Believing in change is easy. Making change happen is not. We all must have the willingness to be inspired, and the courage to turn that inspiration into reality. This is the message of King; this is the message of Moses; and this is the message of God.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He serves on the executive committee of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and is chair of its social action committee.

 

Finding Love in the In-Between


 

“Joy Comes in the Morning” by Jonathan Rosen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25).

“Joy Comes in the Morning” by Jonathan Rosen is, among other things, a modern love story. A Reform rabbi who’s beginning to question her certainties meets a science writer putting aside his skepticism. They meet at Roosevelt Hospital, where she is visiting his father after a botched suicide attempt. Their first date is at a funeral of one of her congregants, where she’s officiating.

It’s a novel with humor and a good share of darkness as well as light, the contrast alluded to in the Psalm from which the title is drawn, “Weeping may endure for a night. But joy comes in the morning.” There’s a wedding that’s called off and another that begins, faith that’s lost and then recovered, pain and healing; there’s death — as the first line suggests, “Someone was dying” — and in the last line there’s song.

“Joy Comes in the Morning” is also the name of an unfinished memoir that Henry Friedman, an émigré who lost most of his family to the Nazis, has set aside, and the full line is one that Rabbi Deborah Green might share with the hospital patients she visits. In a recent interview in New York, before he set out on a national book tour, Rosen says that the book is dedicated in memory of his late father and in honor of his two young daughters.

“The poles of the dedication,” he said, “are the poles of weeping and joy. It’s almost as if certain themes are in the genetic material of the novel, the way that every cell contains the whole genome.”

Although Amy Sohn’s new novel, “My Old Man,” stars a female rabbinical student (who ultimately drops out), Deborah Green might be the first women rabbi to play a major role in a novel. An assistant rabbi at a large Manhattan Reform congregation, she’s spiritual and sensual, beautiful and complicated; the senior rabbi suggests that her skirts may be too short for the rabbinate. She sings in a voice that’s often complimented for its angelic qualities, and she tries to spread goodness in the world. Early on, she finds in her hospital visits “an air of truthfulness and, strange to say, vitality, that she could not account for. She sometimes felt the way she imagined a solder might feel who discovers to his astonishment that he likes war.”

Deborah is a Reform Jew who chooses to observe a great deal.

“Something in the tradition transcended the individual and became a living embodiment of God for her, even if the pieces were all man made. But it was not her only conduit to religious life. Always, outside the system, she felt God lurking, gleaming around the patches of law and tradition and improvisation she had half inherited and half stitched together.”

In the novel’s first scene, she dons her grandfather’s tallit over a pair of shorts and begins her daily prayers. She loves the praise parts of prayer.

“To praise God made her feel whole.” Lines of text make their way into her thoughts and speech.

For journalist Lev Friedman, Deborah’s faith was consoling; “being around her gave him a strange sense of getting closer to Judaism without being annihilated by it.”

He sees her faith in contrast to the dry rigidity of his yeshiva days. Rosen’s characters take their Judaism seriously. They are very much alive in religion and its questions.

Scenes unfold at weddings she performs as well as funerals, hospitals and nursing homes, in the Friedman apartment and at Deborah’s, at her synagogue and in Central Park, where Lev likes to go birdwatching. When Deborah feels that her faith is eroding, she runs away for a bit, and Lev ends up leading a funeral service, impersonating a rabbi.

“Joy Comes in the Morning” is told from the point of view of an all-knowing narrator, who sees into souls of all, revealing their inner lives. It has much in common with the 19th-century novels Rosen favors, books about families with strong characters where things happen, and where people ask big questions. As an influence, he cites George Eliot’s novel “Adam Bede,” featuring a female preacher who has a powerful presence. He says that writing a book with religious themes is “almost like writing about sex at the dawn of the modern period, what had only been written about by indirection.”

Before his stroke, Henry Friedman is careful and refined, the kind of man who wouldn’t venture outside without a tie. After, he suffers many indignities. Other characters include Lev’s childhood friend Neal, whose mental illness overtakes him and Reuben, Deborah’s former Orthodox boyfriend. When she runs into him again and admits that she can’t pray and is feeling estranged from God, he responds, “Jews aren’t expected to feel God’s presence. That’s why there’s the Torah.”

Rosen’s characters are compelling and knowable. He says that he creates characters and then tries to simply remain in their presence – they are beings that cease to be like him or like anyone else, yet are mysteriously fueled by his own experience and knowledge.

“I wanted my characters to have a soul in that real sense,” he said.

The author of the novel “Eve’s Apple” and the nonfiction “The Talmud and the Internet,” Rosen speaks thoughtfully and eloquently, with care, favoring long answers that give him a chance to wrestle with ideas before deciding what to reveal; he is, as he admits, a wandering Jew in conversation.

The author is, in fact, married to a conservative rabbi, although he insists that his wife is not the rabbi in his novel.

“But I’d be lying if I told you that being married to a rabbi hasn’t had a huge effect on my life,” he said.

He’s also a birdwatcher and the son of a father who escaped from Europe. And his own father penned a short story that he titled, “Joy Comes in the Morning.”

One of the challenges in writing this novel, the Manhattan resident explained, was to put aside his ideas of what a modern American Jewish novel ought to be and just write: “You just have to imagine a world and then inhabit it.”

He added, “Caring about what happens to imaginary people reminds you at some level how much you should care about the actual people around you.”

Although he has written a novel about faith and holiness, Rosen, who is editorial director of Nextbook, admits that those are difficult subjects to speak briefly about.

“The answers to those questions are a conversation,” he said.

About tradition in his own life, he noted, “I’m constantly negotiating — it’s a dance with the tradition. To me it’s the dialogue that matters. The argument itself is a kind of prayer. To be in dialogue with these questions is a form of worship.”

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.

‘Natasha’ Takes Reform Judaism Title


David Bezmozgis has been named winner of the 2004 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction for his debut collection of stories that center on the life of a Latvian Jewish immigrant in Toronto, “Natasha: And Other Stories” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Bezmozgis will receive $5,000. The judges also named two finalists for the 2004 prize: Michael Andre Bernstein, for his novel “Conspirators” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); and Naama Goldstein for “The Place Will Comfort You” (Scribner).

The Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction was created in 2003 by Dr. Alexander Mauskop, a neurologist in Larchmont, N.Y., to encourage promising Jewish fiction writers. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel serves as honorary chair of the prize committee, and this year’s judges were Sanford Pinsker of Franklin and Marshall College; Janet Burstein of Drew University; and author Dara Horn, who won the 2003 Reform Judaism for her novel “In the Image.”

Silence Is Golden


A saleswoman, driving home in northern Arizona, sees a Navajo woman hitchhiking, stops the car and invites the Navajo woman to join her.

As they drive, the Navajo woman glances repeatedly at a brown bag on the front seat between them.

“If you are wondering what’s in the bag,” the saleswoman offers, “it’s a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband.”

The Navajo woman is silent for a while, then nods several times and says, “good trade.”

Chauvinism, of one kind or another, probably has always been with us. This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayera, for example, appears to lend itself to the charge of male chauvinism. The Torah tells us that the three angels who came to visit Abraham brought news that Sarah would give birth to Abraham’s son. Sarah laughed when she heard this, whereupon God chastised her, saying to Abraham, “Why is it that Sarah laughed … is anything too hard for the Eternal?” (Genesis 18:13-14).

Our sages point out that this sharp response seems strange considering that in last week’s Torah reading, when God told Abraham that he would have a son from Sarah, he, too, laughed, yet in that instance God was not critical at all.

Why the different treatment? Could sexual discrimination be at the heart of the disparity or something else? Perhaps we can find our answer in a suggestion made by the late Hannah Levine, wife of the late saintly Rabbi Aryeh Levine, known as the Tzadik of Jerusalem.

Hannah Levine suggested that the story of the Shunamit woman and the prophet Elisha mentioned in the haftorah for this week’s Torah portion can help solve our question. The story relates that the woman’s young son came running in from the field in great pain screaming, “My head! My head!” and then died. The woman took the boy, placed him upon Elisha’s bed in the room that she had prepared for the prophet in her home, and set out to find the prophet.

The woman then asked her husband to provide a chariot and driver for her so that she could find Elisha. Puzzled, he wanted to know why, to which she replied with one word, shalom. When she finally reached the prophet, he saw her from afar and sent his assistant to find out if everything was well with her, to which she answered only one word: shalom. The story continues that Elisha knew something was wrong, went back with her and revived the child.

We, however, must wonder why the Shunamit woman responded to each query with the one word, shalom, when everything was the antithesis of peace. Hannah Levine suggests that this teaches us a lesson. For a miracle to work, one cannot drown it in everyday verbiage. Once it is subsumed by ordinary reality, the miracle will not occur.

Rashi, the classical medieval biblical commentator, offers a similar observation in regard to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah’s laugh reflected ordinary incredulity. She scoffed. She verbalized. As her words indicate, she did not believe such a promise could be fulfilled.

Abraham’s laugh, the Torah tells us, “was in his heart” (Genesis 17:17), but it expressed delight. Not a torrent of words but a simple, heartfelt laugh, reflected firm belief that the promise would be fulfilled.

What a powerful lesson for us who live in this information age, besieged by torrents of words. If we would realize that it is not so much what we say but what we do and what we feel in our hearts that can cause miracles to happen, then, like Abraham, we could influence a whole world for good.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Nov. 14, 2003.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

In Search of Scrolls at Auschwitz


"On that day I told Zelinger to prepare two large cases and to coat them in cement and tar. I ordered him to collect all the Torah scrolls and silver religious objects — with the exception of two scrolls for praying — and bury them in a certain place in the ground." — Eliezer Shenker, "The Book of Oshpitzin" (Auschwitz, in Yiddish)

Shenker didn’t want to bury the Great Synagogue’s religious objects, he writes in his 1977 account of his Polish town before the Holocaust, but what choice did he have? "From that moment, the Jews of the town saw me as head of the community," he writes.

It was 1939, and the Nazis had already began their rampages, cutting off men’s beards and sidelocks, and a town delegation — including the aforementioned Zelinger — promised Shenker their help, so he couldn’t refuse.

What was buried in those two containers? Could it have survived 65 years, the decimation of the town, the deportation of 12,000 Jews , the burning of the dozens of synagogues?

This week, two Israeli men may find out.

On May 31, filmmaker Yahaly Gat will document Yariv Nornberg’s one-month excavation for the buried artifacts at Auschwitz, where Nornberg believes the crates were buried. They both sat with The Journal last month in Tel Aviv, as they made final preparations for the excavation this month.

For Nornberg, an energetic and enthusiastic Swiss-born Israeli, the excavation has been six years in the making, he told The Journal from Tel Aviv a few weeks before he prepared to leave for the dig.

Nornberg was just a 23-year-old IDF officer in 1988 when he hurried into his hometown supermarket to buy an Israeli flag. He was going to Poland on the "March of the Living" with his grandparents and he wanted a symbol of his country. But the elderly shopkeeper, whom Nornberg had known for years, was all out, Nornberg recounts:

The shopkeeper, Yeshayahu Yarod, said, "No, come back a few days later."

Nornberg said he couldn’t. "I’m going to Poland."

Yarod got very emotional and asked if he was going to Auschwitz.

"I was born in Auschwitz," the shopkeeper told the soldier. "I was born in Auschwitz," he kept saying.

Nornberg was very confused, because he’d always assumed the old man was an old-time pioneer, a soldier in all of Israel’s wars; but he realized that the man standing before him must have been born before the war.

"Then [Yarod] told me that in a small town where he lived, on the eve of war, he was the witness to the gabai [services director] burying the Torahs. He went to draw a map."&’9;

The old man — who was about the soldier’s age when he’d witnessed the burial — had kept it a secret throughout the war, when his family was deported, he himself surviving several death camps, and immigration to Israel in 1950. The grocer never told, because he promised the gabai he wouldn’t.

But the secret was too great, and the sight of a soldier in uniform about to go to Auschwitz seemed to trigger the outpouring of the whole tale . The young man made a promise to the elder one that he would try to unearth the artifacts.

"I feel that I have a moral obligation for Mr. Yarod, and a moral obligation for the Jewish heritage," Nornberg told The Journal.

"It’s not just Torah scrolls; for 700 years it was a typical Jewish town in Eastern Europe, and now it’s the place that all the world knows as hell. It’s the synonym of hell," he said.

What will they find there this month? When Nornberg made a promise to the survivor, he did not know it would take six years to get the requisite permission, support and funding, some of which came from L.A. commercial producer Rick Fishbein. But along the way he found other witnesses and confirmation to the story, including the "Book of Oshpitzim." He also found survivors of the town, making this more than a story of the buried treasure than the story of the town itself.

That’s what attracted Gat to the project.

"Telling the story is the important thing. Uncovering what happened to this community — we are documenting all the life that has gone by, next to the biggest graveyard of the Jewish people," Gat said.

If they don’t find anything, Gat said, "I think it will be sad for everyone," but "I think for the film it doesn’t matter. Life went on there and still goes on there."

But it’s a different story for Nornberg, who’s had some of his idealism and enthusiasm knocked out of him these last years as he tried to fulfill a promise.

"I would be very disappointed," Nornberg said, shaking his head, not willing to believe that with the old man’s maps, the witnesses, the money and the time he’s put in, his treasure wouldn’t be there.

Nornberg likes to talk about "closing the circle," as in finding resolution, which is why he wanted to go to Auschwitz in 1988, and why he so desperately wants to find the artifcats now.

It’s also why he envisioned the documentary would end with him delivering the buried Torahs to Yarod back in Ramat HaSharon. But the old man who set the story in motion died two months ago.

Nornberg hopes the old man will be there in spirit: "So we can bring it all full circle."

Love the Stranger


The freeways were quiet and the city seemed peaceful at 4:30 a.m. as I drove to the hospital. I was going to see Thelma before she was taken in for surgery. I thought about the time just over a year ago when Thelma arrived at our house at 3 a.m., tiptoeing in so as not to wake Rachmiel as my husband Jonathan and I slipped out to go to the hospital. My water had broken and our daughter, Kinneret, was on her way.

Thelma has been our children’s nanny for four years, and I always thought of her as a member of our family. Then I considered the words of Leviticus 19:34: The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.

It is interesting that the golden rule, "love your neighbor as yourself," is reiterated here with the stranger who resides with you. The verse would make sense without it, however by nestling the positive commandment to love in the center, we realize that it is not enough to act justly toward the stranger who resides with you. It is not enough to pay her on time, treat her with respect. It is not enough to say, "It is as if she is family," or "as one of your citizens." Rather, strive to love.

We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and it turns out, she was, too, for just as God redeemed us with an outstretched hand, God also redeemed her from her own land.

But how can I love her if I don’t know her story?

Although Thelma’s English is good, I hired a translator and invited her to my office so that I may learn her whole story, the stranger who resides with me.

Thelma spoke of the illness of her 10-month-old son, Carlos, the way he looked at her when he was placed in isolation at the hospital, his angelic face, longing for her to comfort him. He died before she ever held him again. I thought about the day when my son was 10 months old and closed a drawer on his finger. He cried so hard he passed out and his lips turned blue. I now understood better the layered terror that Thelma experienced in reviving him.

When she spoke of the reasons she ran from Guatemala and the journey to full citizenship in America, I felt as if I was hearing the Exodus firsthand.

She told me of the Jewish families she worked with: the family for whom she worked 12 hours a day, who, when her own shoes wore out, bought her a new pair and deducted it from her pay. The family with whom she lived that would lock the house so she could not come "home" and withheld her pay while they enjoyed vacations. And she was never invited to eat with the family.

I filled pages and pages of notes listening to her story.

You shall love the stranger as yourself.

Thelma was in her hospital bed when I arrived. She was in pain and had been diagnosed with ampullary cancer — cancer of the bile duct. I sat on the edge of her bed.

She took my hands and said she felt in her heart she was Jewish. She had questions about Judaism and months ago I had bought her a basic Judaism book in Spanish, as well as a stack to leave in our synagogue lobby where many nannies wait while their charges are in class.

Just then her cell phone rang, and I was shocked to hear "Hava Nagila" as her ring tone.

She said she did not want to go into surgery without a blessing from me. I lay my hands on her head and recited "Misheberach." She opened her eyes and there were tears in them.

"I had a vision of Jerusalem," she said. "Everyone was wearing white, praying in a great courtyard."

I felt as if I had been blessed by her.

Thelma started chemotherapy last week. Someone said to me, "You should keep her away from your children to protect them from being sad while she is sick."

I couldn’t even understand the terrible advice. "The stranger who resides with you … you shall love [her] as yourself."

Think of the people who "reside with you," who work with you, for you, beside you. Ask them for their stories, and consider not only treating the stranger "as citizens," but how our love can indeed make them strangers no longer.

Just Do It


Back in 1981, when I was attending rabbinical college in Boston, there was a young rabbi — fresh out of seminary — who founded a small congregation in the Boston suburb South Brookline. He would often hang out with us as "one of the guys." From the day he started up his shul, he was quite successful. He developed a strong following and quickly put his name on the map. I often wondered to myself wherein lay the key to his success and popularity. Upon meeting him, one really could not notice anything particularly remarkable about him.

One day, I picked up a newspaper only to find a picture of this young rabbi sitting and chatting with President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, accompanied by a write-up about how he was sharing the message of Chanukah with the president. The story was carried nationally. That was enough for me. I had to find out how this young "shnook" was doing it. I asked him how he managed to accomplish all of these wonderful things. He put it very simply: "It’s because I want to. It’s not about brilliance, eloquence and experience [though those things are certainly useful and important] as much as it is about confidence, persistence and performance."

He went on to say: "Look, I decided I had something to say to the president and that I wanted to meet with him, so I went out there and made it happen."

In the first of this week’s double Torah portion of Vayakel-Pekuday, we learn about the various items contributed by the different groups among the Israelites toward the building of the Mishkan (the Holy Tabernacle) during the journey in the desert. The Torah tells us that the Nesiyim — the leaders of the tribes — donated the precious gems for the breastplate of the High Priest.

The commentator Rashi takes note of the fact that when using the word "Nesi’im" to describe the leaders’ participation, the Torah deliberately misspells it as "Nesm" as an indication of a flaw and deficiency in the leaders’ manner of participation.

What was the flaw? You see, when the time came for each group to come forward and state what they would give, the Nesi’im volunteered that they would cover whatever was missing after all other donations came in. As it turned out, the outstanding items were the stones and, as such, this was their contribution.

Now why is this manner of service — agreeing to underwrite whatever was not already covered — somehow deemed deficient? After all, it demonstrated a willingness to be there in whatever capacity they’d be called upon. And, in fact, they did end up donating some rather pricey materials. Where was the flaw in their approach?

The keys to the success of any significant project are capability and motivation. Potential + perseverance = success. Now between the two, which is primary? Our sages teach us, "There is nothing that can stand in the way of one’s ratzon [genuine will and desire]." Simply put, skill without will leaves one an underachiever, whereas drive and perseverance enables one to rise above one’s shortcomings and achieve greatness.

For example, this Torah portion describes the workers who volunteered to build the Mishkan as "every man whose heart inspired him." These Israelites had absolutely no experience in this type of unique construction. What then made them qualified to carry it forth? The answer: Their "hearts inspired them." In other words, they had a desire. They were eager to do it. And by virtue of this desire and eagerness, they became qualified and rose to the occasion.

This is what God wants to see from us. "Don’t tell Me how talented or untalented you are," the Almighty says. "Just tell me what you’re ready and willing to do, and let Me worry about the ‘able’ part."

So they ask these Heads of the Tribes: "What will you folks be donating to the Mishkan?" Essentially, they answer, "Well … whatever. Just give us a call when all is said and done and let us know where you need us to come in. Metals, boards, stones — we’ve got it all."

That’s very nice — extremely generous. It’s nice to know what you’re capable of. As leaders of the Jewish people, however, these Nesi’im should have demonstrated that when there is a call for action, it is not a time to talk about what you can do, but what you will do. With the excitement of the construction campaign in the air, the Nesi’im should have been the first in line — not the last — to act with initiative, diligence and specificity. Their failure to do so, however well-intended, is seen as a deficiency.

We’re taught that the most essential ingredient is not contemplation or analysis, but action. When we’re presented with an opportunity to do a mitzvah, to become more religiously observant or to get involved in a worthwhile endeavor, let us lighten up a bit on the philosophical introspection and self-examination and "Just do it!" It is not when we become spiritual that we can first decide to act spiritual. Indeed, it is only if we act spiritual that we can become spiritual.

I’ve seen it time and time again; it really is not about brilliance, eloquence and experience as much as it is about confidence, persistence and performance. In fact, I think I would like to have a conversation about this very issue with President George W. Bush.

Hmmmm….


Rabbi Moshe Bryski is executive director of Chabad of Agoura Hills and dean of the Conejo Jewish Day School.

Divine Wedding


Years ago, my husband and I climbed the alleged Mount Sinai, the Perseus shower streaked the Egyptian night sky with shooting stars.

At the summit, as God pulled the sun up from the fragrant desert floor, Jonathan held up a ring and proposed.

It is written in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), "Every day a voice goes forth from Sinai." That dawn, I heard the reverberation of a sacred voice in the words, "Would you be willing to spend you life with me…."

The revelation at Mount Sinai was a wedding. It was an eternal, loving joining between God and Israel. The story that we read is but a veil covering a radiance we must allow ourselves to know.

This Torah portion, Ki Tisa, begins with Moses taking a census. God chooses Betzalel to be the artisan of the Tabernacle. Moses climbs Mount Sinai, shrouded in mist and mystery, while the Israelites below build their golden idol. When Moses sees this he breaks the stone tablets and grinds up the golden calf, making the Israelites drink it. Moses ascends the mountain a second time. When he descends his face is so radiant he must wear a veil.

But when a light wind blows from the west, the mist is disturbed and we see the radiant face just beneath the veil of text.

Moses was the master alchemist. He climbed the mountain and hid in the cleft of the tzur (rock). He spoke with the philosopher’s stone face to face. He held the two tablets of prime matter in his hands. When he ground up the calf into a fine powder, stirred it into water and held it up into the air — a brilliant liquid shimmering with flakes of gold — he created a dizzyingly potent potion, a love potion, an elixir of life. A toast!

We drink of it. Our eyes are opened to see beneath the veil.

Ki Tisa is not about frenzied idol worship, but the detailed description of a spectacular wedding feast between God and the people Israel.

God the lover and Moses the beloved take a census of who shall be invited, and they make a long guest list. Betzalel is singled out to decorate the tent, arrange the flowers and adorn the feast.

Time passes and we find ourselves in the whirl of the banquet festivity. There is dancing and singing, and in the very center, what seems to be a golden calf, but it is the glittering pile of precious wedding gifts. High on the bima, under a chupah of cloud, God presents Moses with the marriage contract, our ketuba. One commentator points out that verse 31:18 which is translated, "When He finished (ke’challoto) speaking with him, He gave Moses the two tablets…" could also be read "As his bride (also ke’challoto) speaking with him." Some commentators understand Israel to be the groom and Torah the bride. Moses turns around in the chupah, and faces the guests. He lifts the contract for all to see and then smashes the glass beneath his foot, or breaks a plate as in the traditional tennaim (engagement) ceremony.

Now it is time for yichud, when husband and wife are alone together for the first time. In Exodus 33:12-23, we read excerpts from a conversation between God and Moses, sounding particularly romantic: "Pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. You have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name. Oh let me behold Your presence! I will make all My goodness pass before you."

And God’s hand reaches out for Moses.

Moses comes down from the mountain blushing, a crimson glow in his cheeks. When he went in to the tent to meet our love, he removed his veil, so only God should see his glowing face, but when he left the tent, he lowered the veil.

When the potion wore off the children of Israel looked around them. Once again they were in the desert, long dragged-out footsteps stretching behind them. And they said to one another, "Love is in this place and we did not know it. What have we been doing all of this time? Where have we been? Is this the desert, or is it Gan Eden? Are we lost and alone, or are we this moment caught up in a fierce union with God? Are we wandering with sandals filled with dust, or are we soaring on eagle’s wings? Is it Purim or Yom Kippur?"

We look from one to the other and wonder what is the face beneath the face we wear every day? Sometimes the beauty of the other is as allusive as a sunray on the water. On Purim we celebrate the masquerade of living. Now, we discard the masks and unlid our eyes. We seek the radiant face beneath the veil.

Messy world. Angry, idolatrous world. Tired, hungry, sick and sorry world. But if we could lift the sooty, splattered veil….

This thing between God and Israel, it is not that we are in covenant. It is that we are in love. Every day a voice comes forth from Sinai and begs your answer, "Would you be willing to spend your life with Me?"

Yes.


Zoë Klein is associate rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

Permission to Grieve


Years ago, one of my colleagues had the awesome task of officiating at the funeral of a 9-year-old girl killed by a car while riding her bicycle. My friend gathered the children from that small Jewish community and gently invited them to speak their true feelings.

"I’m mad at my mom because she won’t let me ride my bike." "I’m mad at my friend for dying." "I’m scared that I’m going to get hit by a car." She turned to the youngest one: "I’m still sad," he said.

That 4-year-old’s earnest and innocent remark has stayed with me ever since. We live in a society not so tolerant of grief, and I sometimes worry that even those of us who allow ourselves to feel our sadness at the funerals, try too hard to dry the tears as soon as we leave the cemetery.

Jewish tradition certainly acknowledges the reality of grief, offering wise step-by-step instructions to help the mourners heal and the comforters give solace. Yet, even our tradition — sensitive though it is to the human need to grieve loss — expects us to stick to a grief schedule. Although our yearly Yizkor cycle encourages us to remember our lost loved ones, the grieving is supposed to stop and we are expected to get on with our lives.

This week’s Torah portion — Chaye Sarah ("the life of Sarah") ironically begins with Sarah’s death and ends with the deaths of Abraham and his son, Ishmael. From this portion come many of our burial and mourning traditions: that we mourn for a set time and then stop, as Abraham did for Sarah; that we have a community cemetery, something Abraham arranged for after Sarah died; that we offer a hesped (eulogy) over our dead, a tradition that grew out of one interpretation of Abraham’s response to Sarah’s death; that the immediate survivors bury their dead, as Abraham buries Sarah, and Isaac and Ishmael bury their father, Abraham.

But this story of the death of our first matriarch reveals yet more about grief and mourning.

After Sarah dies the Hebrew text gives two words to describe what Abraham does — "lispod … v’livkotah." Many English translations make the text sound quite matter-of-fact: "Sarah died … and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites." At this point Abraham begins to negotiate the purchase of a burial site for Sarah (Genesis 23:2-4). But a more literal translation of the third verse might be: "Abraham got up from above the face of his dead one." Picture Abraham, kneeling or sitting up against Sarah’s body, wailing and crying, his face right over her face, his tears falling on her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth. Abraham wails for Sarah and he weeps for her (lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah).

How often do we give ourselves permission to let out such true feelings? We tend to turn to the business matters quickly. We appreciate (or are relieved by) stoicism in ourselves and in others. We tend to forget, or fail to acknowledge, that we are "still sad." Abraham did not immediately begin his negotiations to buy a burial site for her body. When Sarah died, Abraham hung his face over her face and he wailed.

Nor is Abraham the only one to experience grief over Sarah’s death. Sarah’s son, Isaac, is 37 when his mother dies. We hear nothing of his immediate response to her death, but three years later, in the beautiful scene of Isaac and Rebekah’s first meeting, we glimpse Isaac’s grief over his mother: "Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother" (Genesis 24:63-67).

It’s the first time love between a man and a woman is mentioned in the Torah. It took three years after Sarah’s death for Isaac to find comfort, to find love, to feel love.

Life will go on, grief will lessen; joy, even love, will return to most of us at some point after we lose dear ones. Yet that abstract knowledge about some time in the future can be cold comfort to those of us in grief now. While we wait for joy to return, for pain to ease, we would do well to remember and to take some lessons from the ways Abraham mourned, and from the length of Isaac’s grief. And, when needed, we would do well to recite — and to be there for others when they recite — the words of our little friend:

"I’m still sad."


Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.

Jewels of Our Lives


There are stories that one needs to hear many times in order to remember them, in order to file them in a manner that they can be retrieved when needed. But then I’m sure you have listened to stories that you heard not only with your ears and memory, but with your soul as well; stories that you knew the moment you heard them you would never forget them. Thirteen years ago, I was standing in a store of sefarim (holy books) in Yerushalayim with my rebbe, Shlomo Carlebach. He took a book off the shelf, kissed it and handed it to me while saying, "Do you have this book? You must have it."

It looked like so many other books in the store, so many other books in my library. "It’s the Bat Ayin — the teachings of the holy Avritcher Rebbe — you must have it."

"But who is he?" I asked.

Reb Shlomo looked at me and said, "Remember the story with the precious stones? It is him!"

I smiled as my eyes teared. "Yes," I said, "I remember."

The Bat Ayin, Rav Avraham Dov of Avritch, was one of the Chasidic leadership who made aliyah in 1777. One day, a stranger entered his chazter (courtyard) in the city of Tzfat and Rav Avraham ran to greet him. The Chasidim couldn’t hear what they spoke of, but as soon as the stranger left, the rebbe returned to his study and did not emerge for three weeks. The Chasidim were puzzled: Who was that person? What did he and the rebbe discuss? Why did the rebbe lock himself in his study for three weeks? Their puzzlement grew when the rebbe finally emerged and commanded his Chasidim to prepare the most amazing tish (a rebbe’s table).

The Chasidim did as they were told. They ate and drank and sang and danced. But the whole time, all they really wanted to know was: Who was the stranger? What did he and the rebbe discuss? Why did the rebbe lock himself in his room for three weeks?

At last one of the Chasidim mustered up the courage to ask the rebbe, "Why?"

The rebbe silenced them and began: "Many years ago, while still in Avritch, I would always sit for hours with anyone that came from Eretz Yisrael. I would question them about the Holy Land and what it was like to live there. One day a shliach d’rabanan [charity collector] showed up and we talked endlessly. When he stood to leave I begged him, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said to me, ‘I’ve told you everything.’

"But I insisted, ‘Tell me more!’

"He said to me, ‘What more can I tell you? When you stand at Ma’arat Hamachpela along with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs you will know.’ And he turned to leave.

"I begged of him, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said, ‘What more can I tell you? When you stand at Kever Rachel [Rachel’s tomb] and cry with her, you will know.’ And again he turned to leave.

"I continued to beg, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said, ‘I’ve told you all I can. When you get there you will see for yourself, even the stones are precious stones. Even the stones are made of emeralds and rubies and diamonds!’ And with this he left.

"So you see," the rebbe turned to his Chasidim, "when I arrived, everything was exactly as he said it would be. Everything but the stones — they were regular stones, they weren’t precious stones at all. I could never understand why he lied to me. Why the last thing he told me was not true.’

"Three weeks ago, he walked into the chatzer, and despite the passage of 20 years I recognized him immediately. I ran to him and said, ‘Everything you told me was true, but the stones! Why did you lie to me? Why did you tell me they were precious stones when they are not?!’ He looked at me and said with dismay and surprise: ‘What? They’re not?’

"So I locked myself in my study and I began to cry. Every day I would cry and look out at the stones. Today, finally, while looking out of the window I realized that every stone was precious. Every stone was an emerald or a ruby or a diamond!"

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) tells us that on Rosh Hashanah the Books of Life and Death are opened and that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are all registered in one of the two books. But who does the actual signing? Who else but God could do this? The Avritcher Rebbe tells us that it is our own signature that appears in these books. If we choose to look at ourselves, at other people, at our world, at the events of our lives as jewels, then indeed we have signed ourselves in the Book of Life.

The Avritcher Rebbe had to cry in order to transform his sight. And you? Will the transformation happen through joy? Through prayer? Through dance? Through learning? What will it take for you to sign yourself in the Book of Life?


Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Making Dyslexia Funny


T he Fonz was the ultimate of cool on "Happy Days," but in real life Henry Winkler struggled through school. Winkler and his parents — who called him stupid and lazy — didn’t know that he was dyslexic until he was diagnosed at age 30.

Winkler, 57, is now taking those frustrating childhood experiences and giving them a humorous twist in his new Hank Zipzer book series, which he hopes will raise the self-esteem of kids diagnosed with the misunderstood disorder.

Aimed at third- to sixth-grade readers, Hank Zipzer’s misadventures are part of a growing movement to reshape how people view dyslexia. Nonfiction works like Sally Shaywitz’s "Overcoming Dyslexia" and Time’s July 28 cover story tout groundbreaking research that shows the reading disability can be overcome.

"[My parents] were sure that if I stayed and concentrated long enough, I was going to win," Winkler said.

In the first two books, "Niagra Falls, or Does It?" and "I Got a ‘D’ in Salami," Zipzer knows something’s wrong, but doesn’t know he’s dyslexic. In the third book, "The Day of the Iguana" (due out Sept. 15), the world’s best underachiever is finally diagnosed.

Is Zipzer Jewish?

Winkler said that the character’s mother runs a New York deli that her father started, but he hasn’t given his main character a religion yet.

Winkler’s own Conservative parents expected him to become a bar mitzvah. However, his learning disability made it difficult for him to read English, let alone Hebrew.

"I had to learn my Torah portion phonetically," said Winkler, who also took to memorizing the prayers.

While the disorder makes it challenging for Winkler to read, he said he wouldn’t change his dyslexic past.

"It makes you a fighter," he said. "I don’t know that I would have gotten to where I am today [without it]."

Henry Winkler will read and sign his "Hank Zipzer" books at Barnes & Noble at The Grove on Aug. 9, 2 p.m.

Rebels and Leaders


One of my favorite Torah portions is the one that we will read this Shabbat. It reveals to us myriad recognizable human traits while transmitting to us some vital lessons.

From this story, we see that some characteristics are bad while others are good; and, along the way, we observe the consequences of indifference.

Taking center stage — but for a brief while — is Korah, who along with his wrongheaded cohorts Dathan, Abiram and On, challenges God’s authority and attempts to remove Moses from his preeminent leadership role by means of a massive rebellion. In the process, they almost cause the Israelites to be totally destroyed.

Korah forces us to examine the motives of those who are either appointed or elected officials. Furthermore, we’re encouraged to probe the reasons why some people attempt to become self-appointed leaders.

With very clear-cut precision, the Torah posits Moses as the epitome of responsible leadership. He is — above all else — a visionary who is selfless, unconditionally dedicated to his task, and by now unquestionably accepting of the mandate thrust upon him by God.

Moses is even willing to tolerate the enduring foibles of those whom he is leading away from servitude and toward freedom, away from ignorance and toward knowledge and away from empty secularism and toward a fulfilling life rooted in sacredness.

In contrast, along comes Korah, who is full of self-importance and guile and who depends upon an alluring charisma to persuade his henchmen and every Israelite to follow his lead. Taking and then spinning the very words of God and Moses, who declare that the Israelites are a holy and priestly people, Korah proclaims that there is no reason why the Israelites ought to depend on Moses, who has established a theocratic rule over them.

Rather, he preaches that everyone should function within the context of a democracy in which he will voluntarily assume the mantle of leadership and take them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.

While Korah is quick to condemn Moses as someone who has lifted himself above the community — he makes no reference to God’s part in this epoch adventure — it is actually Korah who does the lifting so as to capture the people’s favor in order to satisfy his own ego-driven need for absolute power over them.

And he almost gets away with it, because the Israelites are too gullible and so quick to rebel against Moses, who has been — by necessity — very demanding in his messages and relentless in his actions.

Meanwhile, what does Moses do in the midst of this life-and-death struggle? Instead of drawing a line in the sand and fighting off Korah’s challenge, Moses removes himself from the scene and opts for an overnight respite. Sleeplessly meditating on what has occurred, and praying to God for strength and guidance, Moses emotionally girds himself so he may effectively deal with Korah and those who support his rebellious cause at the dawn of a new day.

Soon thereafter, Moses and the Israelites witness the obliteration of this misguided, defiant competitor of God’s will.

So, what are some of the lessons that emerge out of this text?

  • Reading about Korah’s attempt to shove Moses aside, we see how a demagogue attempts to grasp the truth and then to twist it in an effort to promote his own cause. Therefore, it’s essential that we always examine the motives of anyone who tells us that he possesses all of the answers to life’s riddles, who urges us to stop wrestling with life’s challenges and to put all of our trust in him and who suggests that it’s not necessary that we safeguard our own integrity, since absolute reliance on him will get us to where we want (or need) to be.

  • Every demagogue’s lust for power is so all-consuming that only bad things will occur if they have their own way. In contrast, Moses reveals to us the benefits that we may all derive when we place our confidence in authentic leaders who are dreamers and visionaries, and who are genuine public servants whose motives are ceaselessly selfless. It is these men and women who are constantly aware of God’s lofty but accessible ethical standards, who are imbued with values that have been etched upon their hearts and minds beginning early in childhood and are taught by loved ones and mentors the dimensions and demands of responsible leadership, to whom we ought to turn for direction — even when their demands on us seem to be so very burdensome.

  • This episode in the Torah is a dramatic reminder that we can ill afford to be indifferent. The Israelites stood idly by while Moses was forced to defend a harsh reality and Korah proffered a far more pleasing fantasy. The Israelites were willing to go along with Korah’s plot just because he seemed to know an easy way out of their ordeal no matter what disasters might occur in the long run.

  • Following Moses’ example, it’s important that — when facing hard choices — we gain some perspective by stepping back from a perplexing problem, acquire some objectivity and seek spiritual and intellectual guidance from someone whom we can trust. Also, like Moses, we ought to meditate and pray as we concentrate on finding solutions and use time itself to be a balancing element.


Allen I. Freehling, rabbi emeritus of University Synagogue, is the executive director of the Human Relations Commission of the city of Los Angeles.

Kids Page


Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the days between Pesach and Shavuot, will be celebrated on May 20. The letters lamed and gimmel, which spell the word “lag,” have a value of 33.
It’s a time to light a campfire with your parents and friends, and to make toy bows and arrows (my kids love to make foam-tipped arrows).

Here is a story told about Lag B’Omer: For many weeks, Rabbi Akiva’s students were struck by plague. It is said that it happened because they were disrespectful to each other; 24,000 students died. But, on Lag B’Omer, the plague stopped. Rabbi Akiva began to teach his five remaining students. From that day on, the light of Torah began to spread again. This is one reason given for lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer.

Jump!


It is the Torah’s most exciting, most cinematic story. The
Israelites, newly freed from slavery, were camped at the shores of the sea when suddenly the sounds Pharaoh’s approaching
chariots filled the air. Realizing they were trapped, the ex-slaves cried
bitterly to Moses, “Were there too few graves in Egypt, that you brought us to
die here?” (Exodus 14:11) Moses prayed for deliverance, and was commanded:
“Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up the rod and hold out your
arm over the sea and split it.” (Exodus 14:15-16)

Moses raised the rod, the sea split and the Israelites
crossed in safety. Then, they beheld the final act of Exodus drama: The sea
crashed down upon Pharaoh and his armies. As they once drowned Israelite
children in the Nile, now the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. The Israelites
raised their voices in song. They had been slaves. Their parents, grandparents
and great-grandparents had been slaves and, for all they knew, their children
and grandchildren would be slaves. But suddenly, overnight, they received the
gifts of freedom and the promised return to the land of their forefathers.

That’s how the Torah tells the story. But when the rabbis of
the Talmud told it, an element was added. Typical of Midrash, a vignette finds
its place between the lines: The people cry out, Moses prays and God commands.
But when Moses lifts his rod to split the sea, nothing happens. He tries again,
carefully rehearsing God’s words to himself. And again, nothing. Panic builds
within him, he tries and tries again. But the sea does not move. Beads of
perspiration rise on his forehead, the people renew their screams of terror, but
Moses is powerless. Suddenly, out of the crowd, comes one man, identified by
the Midrash as Nachshon ben Aminadav, a prince of the tribe of Judah. To the
astonishment of the people gathered on the shores of the sea, Nachshon jumps
into the water.

“Are you crazy? What are you doing?” shout his family. He
knows exactly what he’s doing. He understands, as no one else, not even Moses,
why the sea would not split. He understands that all of redemption to this
point has been an act of God. God sent Moses, and God sent the plagues; God
shattered Pharaoh’s arrogance, and God brought the Israelites to the shores of
the Sea. But now, God was waiting to see if but one Israelite would take the
task of redemption into his own hands. Would one be willing to risk himself to
finish the process of liberation?

So, Nachshon jumps in and wades out until the water reaches
his waist. His family’s screams fade as the people stand in silence, watching
in wonder. He wades out and the water reaches higher. Finally, the water covers
his nostrils. And at that point, with Nachshon’s life in peril, the sea opens
and Israel crosses in safety.

This story isn’t found in the Torah. It was inserted by the
rabbis. For as much as they loved and revered the Torah’s exodus story, they
knew that something was missing. Missing was the human role in the process of
redemption. God creates the conditions for redemption. But if redemption is to
come, someone must jump into the water. Someone of vision and courage must be
willing to put his or her life on the line and jump into the waters of history
to bring us out of slavery. And that kind of courage is the greatest of God’s
miracles, the most powerful sign of God’s stake in human history.

Standing on the shore, patiently or anxiously, faithfully or
cynically, brings nothing — no salvation, no rescue, no transformation of
society or history.

Understand that the waters are cold and dangerous, the
currents strong and unpredictable. Sometimes the water splits and sometimes it
doesn’t. But only when someone is willing to jump in, will redemption be ours.
And these are the holy ones whose faith redeems us from slavery and whose
courage redeems us from hopelessness. Nachshon, the Bible teaches, was the
ancestor of Boaz, who was the ancestor of King David, who is the ancestor of
the Messiah.  


Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

The Price We Pay


Jacob spent 20 long years in the home of his father-in-law, Laban, before he could return to the land of Canaan, his home and homeland.

He had been threatened, cheated, tricked, attacked, injured and orphaned over the course of those years. Certainly, he was hoping to settle down and enjoy the rest of his years in peace. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. Jacob’s daughter, Dina, was spotted by Shechem, the prince of the land. He desired her, abducted her, raped her and then, in an odd twist, his aggression turned soft and he sought to make her his wife.

Shechem and Chamor, his father, approached Jacob and preposterously asked for his permission to marry Dina. It could be the start of a new relationship between the locals and Jacob’s family, they reasoned. Sons and daughters would intermarry, they could do business together; it was a win-win partnership for everyone. Jacob and his sons listened incredulously as these men painted such a rosy picture, as if they would happily agree to an alliance with those who perpetrated such an ugly and violent act against their daughter and sister.

Unfortunately, Jacob’s family had the weaker stance in these negotiations. Dina was still Shechem’s prisoner, and their one objective was to bring her home safely. Instead of agreeing to or rejecting the proposition, the brothers devised a plan, and attached an unrealistic condition to the marriage; all of the men in the city of Shechem must be circumcised before they would allow Dina, or any of their daughters, to intermarry. If the men refused, the brothers could take Dina back and be released from any obligation to have dealings with these repulsive people. It was a clever plan, but it backfired. The brothers underestimated the power and persuasion that Shechem had over his people, and all of the males underwent circumcision.

What to do? It seemed that the brothers had backed themselves into a corner. Shimon and Levi, two of Dina’s brothers, decided, independently, to take matters into their own hands. On the third day following the circumcision, when the men were weak and defenseless, they entered the town wielding swords. They killed all of the males, including Shechem and Chamor, took spoils and captives, and fulfilled their main objective, rescuing their sister and bringing her home.

They were successful in their quest, but were they justified? Were they allowed to kill so many people, to risk their own lives, to act with deceit? Their father seemed to think not. Jacob rebukes them sharply, both at the time that they act, and years later at the end of his life. He fears the repercussions of the inhabitants of the land, curses the anger of his sons and disassociates himself from their partnership.

But they have a defense. They have a response to their father’s objection: "Hach’zonah ya’aseh et achoteinu. (Should he treat our sister like a harlot?") Shimon and Levi felt that Shechem acted so brutally against Dina because she was the daughter of Jacob, a Jewish girl. Jews are easy targets because no one stands up to protest when a Jew is attacked. Shechem feared no punishment, no backlash, no consequence to his actions, and, therefore, he was free to do to Dina whatever he pleased. But Shimon and Levi stood up to say an emphatic no. Jewish blood is not hefker (ownerless). It is not free for the taking. We can and will use the full force of our strength to defend the lives and honor of our own, even if everyone else turns a blind eye to the injustices carried out against us.

Is this not the story of our past and our present? Who stood up to defend those who lost their lives in the Crusades? In the Inquisition? In the pogroms? In the Holocaust? Atrocity after atrocity befalls our people, and why? Because the world does not cry over spilled Jewish blood. Thank God for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who have, time and again, been blessed with the strength of Shimon and Levi, and showed the world that Jewish blood is accountable. As a nation, we can and will defend the lives of our citizens, and even if the world stands idly by while aggression is unleashed against us, it won’t go unpunished.

For the past two years, daily and deadly attacks have been unleashed against the citizens of Israel, yet Israel gets condemned for exercising her right of self-defense. Women and children are targeted and killed in their cars, their restaurants, their own homes — and the world seems to side with the perpetrators, not the victims. Were Shimon and Levi justified in wiping out the city of Shechem? Is the IDF justified in rooting out terrorists? Not everyone thinks so. The United Nations, the European Union and some in our own American government don’t support the drastic measures Israel must sometimes take to defend her citizens, even her very existence. But despite the protest and the bad press, it is hard to condemn success and security. There is a price to pay for relying on others for help, and there is a price to pay for taking care of ourselves. Shimon and Levi force us to think about which is a greater price to pay.

Steven Weil is senior rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

The Sacred Narrative


This summer, I had a reunion with female cousins who are all my age. We live all around the country, so we hardly ever see each other. Remembering the little girls we once were, and discovering the women we’ve become, was really amazing.

Here we were together again, no longer children sharing our hopes and dreams, but professional women sharing the stories of the successes and the challenges of our lives as we traded pictures of our children and our partners. As the stories of our lives continued into the night, they became one story — the story of our family, of the courage of our immigrant great-grandparents, Meyer and Sarah, and their 13 children — our grandparents and great aunts and uncles after whom each of us were named. It was both a Jewish story and an American story, a story about the centrality of family and generosity, of taking care of other people, of the importance of education and of the great gift of living in a democracy. In retelling that family story, each of us realized how it had helped shape our own individual stories and how it both blessed and challenged us.

Our own stories are shaped by bigger narratives. Those bigger narratives are sacred stories that make a claim on our lives, that challenge us to live out the values and the ethos embedded within them. The late Robert Cover in his classic article, "Nomos and Narrative," called this "narrative theology."

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion provides an intriguing example. It directs a typical Israelite farmer — at the moment when his harvest is finally successful — to make a ritual recitation of thanksgiving as he brings an offering of some of every first fruit. This is one of only two texts in the Torah that articulate the exact words a layperson must use in addressing God.

As he hands his offering to the priest, the farmer says: "I tell the story this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us." Then as the priest lays the offering at the altar, the farmer would continue: "My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me."

It is not surprising that the Torah instructs the farmer to give thanks. Anyone who has ever had the privilege of experiencing a harvest, whether of crops, of the growth of a child, or of the realization of a dream knows the instinct of gratitude. What is surprising is the way the Torah instructs the farmer to express his gratitude.

The Torah doesn’t just tell the farmer to say, "Thank you for the gifts you have given me." The Torah instead instructs him to tell a story. It is his story ("I tell the story this day that I have entered the land"), but he is to tell it within the context of the sacred narrative of our people. That narrative is familiar to us all. It forms the core of the Passover hagaddah, the five-verse history of our people, from our ancestor Jacob (or Abraham and Isaac), the wandering Aramean, through the story of our oppression and liberation from Egyptian bondage to our entrance into this land flowing with milk and honey.

Telling his story within the sacred narrative of our people makes a claim on the farmer. Because he is part of this people who once were slaves, he knows what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. Now that the farmer is successful in his own land, he has obligations that flow from his sacred narrative. The very next verses (26:11) enjoin him to share his harvest with the Levite and the stranger, to set aside one-tenth of his produce for the poor.

There might have been other ways to tell this sacred story. There is a lot that is left out — all the complaining and rebellion that characterized the 40 years in the desert. The version of this telling is the ideal story, of our calling out to God and God’s response, of partnership and covenant. It is a story that makes a claim on us, to live up to our part of the partnership to create a society worthy of the good land that God has given us.

This sacred story is our story, as much a part of us as each of our family stories are — and like those family stories, it blesses and challenges us.