December 13, 2018

The Globalist Strikes Again – A Poem for Haftarah Chukat by Rick Lupert

In the midst of the troubled centuries
After we arrived in the promised land
Before a king arose to organize us all

We were still figuring out our borders
Using our theological claims to orchestrate
the ongoing holy land-grab.

Our God, the One God is better than
your god, the no-god. I can’t imagine
telling my Van Nuys neighbor

I’ll be taking your house now.
Leave the door unlocked, and try not
to mess up the lawn on your way out.

Wasn’t it enough we were taken out of
slavery? Isn’t freedom enough of a gift?
Why do we need what’s theirs?

And now, thousands of years later
I’m thinking of of Jephthah – The man
with too many h’s in his name.

The man who you don’t want to set loose
in a Palestinian neighborhood, lest he
return with the keys to their homes

and an airspace filled with flying rocks.
Nothing is simple about the details.
Except the one in which we are all

flesh and blood, no matter which side
of the human-drawn lines we are on.
I think of this as I fly over the

vast empty spaces of the world and
watch the news about how people
still can’t get along.

I’m sorry your family didn’t want you
Jephthah. Every little boy deserves
to be nurtured.

The globalist in me prays for
an atlas without country names.
A world without passports.

The primary human interaction
holding hands…everyone given
all they need.


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 22 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Julie Mayerson Brown’s first trip to Israel

For decades I dreamed of what my first trip to Israel would be like. I expected to go with my family. Maybe our best friends would travel with us. Perhaps my cousins . . . But as it turned out, the first time my feet touched ground in the Promised Land I was with a group of women, most of whom I’d never met.

When my dear friend proposed I join the mission she was chairing, my first thought was, “How could I go to Israel without my family?” And yet, I was intrigued. It was an opportunity for me to do something meaningful and adventurous – to take the trip of a lifetime and a tour planned by experts. The only decisions I would have to make would be which shoes to wear and what to eat from the breakfast buffet. My kind of trip! And that was how I came to be part of the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance Women’s Mission to Israel.

One of the primary purposes of our mission was to give women who make an individual gift to the Federation an opportunity to see exactly where their dollars are making a difference in Israel. But it was so much more than that. The experience turned out to be a rich, inspiring, enlightening journey that impacted not only those of us who were visiting Israel but also, I’m quite certain, the Israelis with whom we met.

It would sound cliché to say the trip changed my life. But the ten days I spent in Israel with this group of smart, generous, and extraordinarily fun women did change me. 

As a writer, I find ideas and uncover stories at every turn. A brief encounter or incident or conversation can inspire an entirely new project or give a shot of adrenaline to one that sits dormant in a long forgotten file. My trip to Israel presented me with more inspiration than I could keep track of – the young Hasidic women who work at a cutting-edge technology company; the New York lawyer who made Aliyah and now is the director of Kfar Tikvah – a community village for adults with special needs; the man at the “shuk” in Tel Aviv who sold me spices I’d never heard of; the dusty archeologist who escorted us deep into the caves of Beit-Guvrin where we dug in dirt undisturbed for more than 2000 years; lunch and bread baking in the home of a woman from Morocco who overcame years of hardship and personal tragedy and now owns an ethnic catering company. I made pages of notes to bring home and add to my already lengthy list of stories waiting to be written.

A mission with the Jewish Federation offers travelers the opportunity to see Israel through the eyes of Israelis, each with their own story of how they ended up living where they live and doing what they do. One of my more memorable days occurred at the halfway point of our tour. It was a warm, sunny morning when we departed Tel Aviv and headed south. Stopping in the center of the Negev, we visited Ayalim at Yerucham, one of fourteen student villages designed to strengthen communities and encourage young adults to build lives in Israel. Walking up a path of stone steps, I met a woman, Ilana, when her dog took a liking to me (or more likely to the scent of my dogs on my sneakers). She was so friendly and appreciative that we had come to see the work and progress taking place in her village. As one of our hosts, Ilana welcomed a group of us into her home – a cozy apartment built with the help of Federation dollars. As we sipped sweet tea and nibbled cookies and giant dates, Ilana described how she came to live in the Ayalim village, her life in the community, and her work developing projects and programs aimed at benefiting children who live in the surrounding neighborhood. Something about this beautiful woman touched me – her sincerity, graciousness, and optimism. She expressed so much enthusiasm and hope for the future – not only for herself but also for the children she works with. I could have stayed and chatted with her for hours, but our bus driver and tour guide were waiting. Ilana and I exchanged emails and have kept in touch ever since.

After I returned home, many people have asked, “What was your favorite part? What did you love the best? What place was the most spectacular?” Such questions are impossible to answer. Stepping into the warm Mediterranean Sea, viewing the memorials at Yad Vashem, touching the dovecotes at Masada, traveling underneath the old city into the Western Wall Tunnels, seeing my cousin who lives in Jerusalem for the first time in nearly ten years, walking with friends to the Kotel at sunset on Shabbat, meeting so many fascinating, incredible people . . . there can be no one favorite – everything is a favorite!

I can’t wait to return to Israel. And I hope to go back many times. Perhaps it was basheret that my first trip to the Holy Land was with a group of dedicated women who took me under their collective wing and shared their love for the country and the people who live there. I learned from my traveling companions and from the wonderful men and women we met throughout the trip the importance of our work and our commitment. I saw first hand how we are making a difference. We are women helping women and Jews supporting Jews – at home, in Israel, and all over the world.


Julie Mayerson Brown is a writer and author from Palos Verdes. Her novel, “The Long Dance Home,” was published by World Nouveau and is available in bookstores and on Amazon.com.

How to comfort and be comforted

Consoling people after they’ve suffered a loss, especially when it’s the death of a loved one, is never easy. No matter what we say, we can never bring back the beloved to this world. How often do we sit by the mourner’s side in awkward silence, feeling completely impotent in our inability to remove the pain.

Tisha B’Av is the day that commemorates not only the destruction of the two ancient Temples in Jerusalem, but also all our people’s national tragedies throughout Jewish history. The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, because we recite the words of the prophet Isaiah (40:1): “Nachamu, nachamu, ami….” (“Be consoled, be consoled, my people….”) There will come a time, the prophet says, that your exile will end, and your future will once again be bright.

The seeming paradox is that on the very same Shabbat we read about the prophet’s consolation in the haftarah, we also read in the Torah portion about Moses’ personal tragedy, which seems to have no consolation. God tells Moses that although he’s faithfully led His people through the desert these past 40 years, and although the Jews are now standing at the very border of the Holy Land, Moses himself will never be allowed entry, and will die and be buried outside of Israel.

How is God’s refusal to Moses consistent with the theme of consolation on this Shabbat of consolation?

Moses was teaching the people a new form of consolation: Know, my brethren, that sometimes the answer will be “no.” Sometimes, God, in his infinite wisdom, must say no to our petitions. We may not understand how this can possibly be good, but I, Moses, assure you that it is ultimately for our benefit.

(Indeed, our sages on this passage go to great lengths to explain why it was in the Jews’ best interests for Moses not to gain entry into the land, which is a discussion that requires a separate essay.)

An additional lesson is contained in Moses’ words: When I asked God to enter the land with you, my brethren, it was because I had just succeeded in my latest mission of defeating those nations just east of the Jordan River. Perhaps, I reasoned, since we are so close to our goal, God will allow me to see it to its final stage and let me enter the land. But alas, even though I was so close, it was not meant to be. Sometimes, it may appear that we are so close to our goals, and then, at the last moment, our hopes are dashed and tragedy strikes.

Devastated though I may be, Moses continued, God did console me with one last wish: He is allowing me to go up to a mountain top where I will at least be able to see all of the Holy Land that you, my disciples, children and brethren, will inherit and enjoy. This, too, is consolation indeed.

In this light, Moses’ tale of tragedy is consistent with the consolation of the prophet. Sometimes, God’s answer must be “no.” But even when it is, God will find a way to give us a glimmer of hope for the future, that life will go on, our people will live on, and there will be a brighter tomorrow.

We have experienced, in our long national history, many misfires of messianic redemption and have heard “no” many times bellowing from heaven. We have witnessed, in our own generation, great hopes for peace in Israel, only to see those hopes dashed to pieces a short time later. But we mustn’t lose sight of the consolation contained therein: God is watching from heaven, and even when the answer is “no,” we are still provided with a vision, with a glimpse of what can yet still be. Imagine when the answer finally will be “yes,” how beautiful that “yes” will be.

There is no such thing as hollow consolation. The answer to one’s prayers might have been “no.” But when the mourner is embraced by his friends and family, when he or she is reassured that no one is ever alone and that life will go on with joy amid the pain, this is truly consolation.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of synagogue and community services for the Orthodox Union’s West Coast region.

Correct priorities

While I was in my synagogue’s office one morning, the phone rang, and I answered. The lady on the other end said, “Hello, may I please speak to the owner?”

I answered, “Certainly, it will be our pleasure to let you talk to him. You have reached The House of God, and the Owner is available at either 6:15 or 7:45 every morning, or during this coming week He can also be reached at 7:45 in the evening.”

“Well in that case I will call back at one of those times,” the lady said.

I responded, “Oh no, you can’t do that because the Owner doesn’t take any telephone calls. You must come in person to see Him if you wish to talk to Him.”

By now the lady was getting a bit frustrated and said, “Excuse me, but why can’t Mr. Gad come to the phone?”

I told her, “Because He only likes a face-to-face conversation.”

It was then she must have realized she hadn’t reached a typical business. “Sir, may I ask what kind of business have I reached?”

“Madam, you have reached a synagogue.”

Her response was most telling. “Oh, in that case I can’t sell you anything. Nothing that I am selling will impress your boss,” she said before hanging up.

This lady’s observation is the theme of a story recounted in this week’s Torah portion.

In Chapter 32, the Torah recounts how the tribes of Reuven and Gad negotiated with Moses to let them settle the Trans-Jordan. Reuven and Gad argued coherently and logically for the land. They noted that this land was originally owned by the defeated Kings of Bashan and the Emorites and was therefore not inhabited by anyone. What were they to do with it? Just let it go unused? It was fertile and well watered, more so than the territory on the other side of the Jordan.

With these facts, they came to Moses and offered what they thought was a reasonable proposition. They had a multitude of cattle, and the Trans-Jordan land was perfect for raising cattle. If they would take possession of it, everyone would benefit. It would enlarge the boundaries of the Jewish state, and it would give more room for the other 10 tribes to divide the land west of the Jordan, creating more prosperity for all involved.

Moses bitterly opposed this idea. He was so incensed with their proposal that he compared their idea to the sin of the scouts who caused the people to be punished with 40 years of wandering in the desert. He was concerned that their proposal would sabotage the entire enterprise of settling the Land of Israel, making the other tribes lose interest in fighting for the land. The argument between Moses and the two tribes only ended when they entered into an agreement that the two tribes would act as the vanguard in capturing the Land of Israel.

But the question remains, what justification did Moses have that allowed him to denounce them so fiercely? How could he compare them to the scouts? Our sages noted that the answer lay in the wording of their proposal. They told Moses, “We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones” (Numbers 32:16). Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, considered this wording and came to the conclusion: “They were concerned for their property more than they were for their sons and daughters, for they put the mention of their livestock ahead of their children.”

What came first in their request? It was the sheepfolds and not the children. It was making money and not building schools and synagogues that took priority. For that reason Moses was upset. He responded by changing the order when he told the two tribes, “Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your flock; and do that which has gone out of your mouth” (Numbers 32:24).

Rashi explains, “Moses said to them: This is not right. Make that which is essential essential and that which is secondary secondary. First build cities for your children and afterward enclosures for your penning.”

Moses challenged them to realize that their values needed adjusting.

It would be wrong for us to just interpret this story as a moment in biblical history without realizing it resonates with modern man just as it did some 3,500 years ago.

How many of us place our work before our families and all other concerns? One modern ethicist captured the entire issue when he said, “No tombstone ever read, ‘He spent extra hours in the office.'”

At the end of the day the Almighty is impressed with us only when we know how to organize our priorities correctly.


Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Enemy in Our Midst

“But if you do not completely drive out the inhabitants, those who remain will be pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will harass you in your own land” (Numbers 33:55).

God awarded the land of Israel to His chosen people, but He didn’t just give it to us on a silver platter. He expected us to work for it by draining the swamps, working the soil, planting our crops and, yes, driving out the indigenous nations whose crimes against God and humanity no longer allowed them to remain in the Holy Land.

God was very careful to warn the Jews to be extremely thorough in the process of removing the enemy from the land. Anything short of complete segregation was unacceptable. By allowing a remnant of the evil culture to remain in our midst, we would not be fully removing the cancer; it would grow back and infect us with a vengeance. These nations would become “pins in your eyes and thorns in your sides.”

God then warns the Israelites what will happen if we don’t complete the task (Numbers 33:56): “The very thing that I intended to do to them I shall instead do to you.”

A debate once ensued between two schools of rabbis. Would the Israelites be worthy of punishment if, despite their best efforts, they were simply unable to drive out the indigenous idolatrous peoples from the land of Israel? Or, put another way: Are the tragic consequences of allowing the enemy to remain in our midst Divine retribution from God or simply the cause and effect of allowing bad people to live together with us?

If this was a Divine punishment, then we would expect God to understand if, despite our best efforts to heed Him, we simply weren’t strong enough to finish the job. On the other hand, if the Torah is describing a natural cause and effect, it shouldn’t make a difference whether we’ve tried our best or not. The foreign nations and their gods would harm us irrespectively.

One rabbi therefore understood God’s admonition that He would do to us what He intended to do to our enemies as a punishment for our sloth and noncompliance, and that this was a continuation of the previous verse of the nations being thorns in our sides. The other rabbi argued that, no, the first verse is a natural cause and effect and has nothing to do with how hard we work. Only the second verse addresses what will happen if we slack off on our task.

It certainly behooves our military and political leaders in Israel to study our parsha and its simple and obvious message. In a utopian, messianic world, Rodney King’s plea of everyone getting along is wonderfully appropriate. Unfortunately, our enemies have yet to beat their swords into plowshares, and as much as we would like to dismantle our own military, we have to deal with the cards that we’re dealt.

Similarly, even though Robert Frost was speaking critically of the man who said, “Good fences make good neighbors,” the criticism was due to the neighbor’s lack of desire for openness and friendship.

Sadly, when the neighbor is hostile and bent on my destruction, good fences, barricades and walls do make for as good of a neighbor as possible under the circumstances. (Of course, this fence-building does not preclude efforts at converting our bad neighbors into good neighbors and trying to get them to like us. But until they do love us, the fence must remain.)

Whether or not one gets catharsis from pointing a finger at the current Israeli leadership, the result is the same. The Torah teaches that it really doesn’t make a difference whether it’s our fault or not – for our own survival, we must segregate ourselves from those who wish us harm. Without strong borders for the people of Israel, we will continue to suffer from the “pins” and “thorns” our enemies continue to lob at us, be it in Sderot, Kiryat Shemoneh or in any other city in Israel.

As we go through this three-week period called the Bein HaMetzarim, a period of introspection over our own contribution to the breakup of the nation of Israel and our exile from the land, it’s worthwhile to contemplate two things: One, what can I do on a religious/spiritual level to help my people, especially my brethren living in Israel today? Two, what can I do on a natural/physical level to make our people more secure from terrorist attacks and future wars?

Judaism has always called upon us to live in both the spiritual and the physical worlds. Let us take charge and make ourselves a better, stronger nation.


Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.

A Nod to Heroes of Past and Present

The holiday of Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, but the Haggadah doesn’t mention

Nachshon ben Aminadav.

Who was this man?

According to the biblical account of the Exodus, the people have no sooner left Egypt than they encounter a seemingly insurmountable obstacle — the Red Sea. As Pharaoh’s army pursues them from behind, God performs a miracle and divides the sea in order that the Israelites may walk through on dry land.

In the rabbinic retelling of this story, the crossing of the Red Sea becomes a test of the Jewish people’s faith. According to one midrash, as the people stood on the edge of the sea, each tribe said, “I’m not going in first.”

As each tribe waited for another group to take the plunge and as Moses stood praying to God, one man — Nachshon ben Aminadav — jumped into the water. This action prompted God to split the sea in order that the rest of the people could walk through safely.

Nachshon is a biblical profile in courage. Without his faith and determination, the Exodus story might have ended before it even had begun.

Even today, we are often still inspired by a contemporary Nachshon to take the first step, to lead us through uncharted waters. Within the last year, we lost two women who fulfilled that role profoundly: Rosa Parks and Betty Friedan.

Their stories are well known. Parks, who lived in Montgomery, Ala., was a civil rights activist with the NAACP in the 1940s and 1950s. Parks was an educated woman — she was among only 7 percent of blacks with a high school diploma at the time — who had been involved in desegregating the South.

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks boarded a public bus and took an empty seat next to a black man. When told to vacate their row of seats for a white man, the man next to Parks complied. Parks did not and was arrested.

The next day, she agreed to be the plaintiff in a lawsuit by the NAACP challenging segregation on public buses. At the same time, leaders of the local Women’s Political Council took action, making 35,000 handbills calling for a bus boycott in Montgomery. It would last for more than a year and help the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. become the nation’s preeminent civil rights leader.

Friedan was a housewife earning money on the side by writing for women’s magazines, when, in 1963, she produced one of the most important books of the 20th century. “The Feminine Mystique” took aim at a central myth of postwar America: Women were happy to give up their career ambitions to be housewives. The book was based on and inspired by interviews Friedan conducted with — and surveys she distributed to — alumnae of prestigious women’s colleges.

Her surveys and interviews with women across the country made it clear that discontent with household drudgery — “the problem that has no name” — was pervasive. Yet 18 years after World War II, no one had been able to articulate this problem in a way that could galvanize an entire women’s rights movement.

In the years after “The Feminine Mystique” was published, Friedan helped to found several of the most important women’s organizations in the United States, including the National Organization for Women and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws.

Parks was not the first black to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Friedan was not the first woman to recognize and stand up to the daily oppression suffered by women in their role as housewives. Like Parks and Friedan, it is unlikely that Nachshon was the only one willing to step into the unknown, to step into the Red Sea. But each of them was the first to inspire multitudes to follow them on what appeared to be a fool’s errand.

Nachshon looked at the sea, heard God’s command to cross and saw potential where others saw debilitating peril. He was driven by his determination to reach the Promised Land and his certainty that the Israelites were but one step behind him.

Contemporary Nachshons like Parks and Friedan inspire us because they saw potential where we remain transfixed by peril.

Our hopelessness often leads us to dismiss challenges like the ones confronted by Parks and Friedan as lost causes. Their faith, courage and hope compel us to improve conditions that are too often ignored.

In the biblical story, it would not have been enough for Nachshon alone to step into the Red Sea. The community needed someone to go first, but Nachshon needed a community behind him to walk with him toward the Promised Land. Similarly, it is not enough to celebrate the courage of leaders like Parks and Friedan. Their example should be a challenge for us to follow closely behind and to walk together into the Promised Land.

This Passover, I hope we accept their challenge to confront hopelessness with righteous action.

Simon Greer is President and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice, a national public foundation dedicated to mobilizing the resources of American Jews to combat the root causes of domestic social and economic injustice.

 

Quality, Not Quantity

This week’s Torah portion begins a new biblical book, after which the parsha is named in English, "Numbers,"and in Hebrew, "Bamidbar," best translated as "In the Wilderness."

Juxtaposing the two very different names turns out to have resonance, both then and now. Between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land, our biblical ancestors spend 40 years in the wilderness — a time of closeness to God but also a time of dissension and danger, conflict with other peoples and within their community. Amidst conflict and confusion, God instructs Moses to conduct a census, counting the males older than 20 in each family and tribe. Based on their numbers, the tribes both set up camp surrounding the tabernacle and fight as an army.

This combination of disorder and order, threat and containment, seems all too familiar: A time of journeying toward a goal that keeps receding and blurring; toward a land which we keep claiming, leaving and returning to. A time when the laws given at Sinai, however ennobling and enduring, don’t always fit circumstances that arise. A time when our people’s mustering of troops seems both a natural response to danger and woefully inadequate to the threat.

Back then, things were difficult, but also simpler. God’s presence was palpable — in the tabernacle, ark, cloud, pillar of fire and instructions to Moses. When enemies arose, God assured Israel’s victory over them.

Now, in this spring of 2002, we number our days, our dead and our allies while facing a deepening wilderness. Without Moses and the Pillar of Fire to guide us, what should we count on? Amidst the fear and confusion, there is a natural tendency to close ranks and insist that the community speak with one voice. "Now is the time to stand up and be counted," we keep hearing — and yes, surely this is a time when Jews need to deepen involvement with Israel and one another. But need we really speak with one voice and support one monolithic vision?

No, no. Instead of being counted through army-like discipline, we can request God’s teaching us to "number our days, to grant us a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90). We can count on the Talmudic tradition of Elu v’elu, devrai Elohim Chayim: "These and those are the word of the Living God." The Jewish ethos of allowing, even encouraging, dissent has helped us navigate many difficulties in many generations. It has enabled us to value and encourage various readings of our sacred texts, applying them to changing conditions.

The rabbis gave Parshat Bamidbar one of the great Haftorot as its teaching partner: Hosea 2:1-22. It begins with the promise that "the number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted," and ends with the beautiful triple rhythm that accompanies the laying of tefillin and often, the circling of bride and groom: "And I will espouse you forever. I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, with goodness and mercy. And I will espouse you with faithfulness, and you shall know God."

Perhaps measuring and counting discernible units is not the Jewish way. Instead of surveying Jewish demographics and acreage, perhaps we’ll conclude that true promise resides not with quantity, but with righteousness, justice, goodness, mercy and faithfulness. Instead of calling for larger and larger rallies, where everyone applauds the same message, can’t we assemble in smaller, quieter forums, where more nuanced possibilities can be proposed and debated?

In all this, we need faith in the God of Israel — who is, after all, God of all the world. May the holy day of Shavout, one week away, unify our hearts and spirits, while leaving our minds free to seek truth.

A Portion of Parshat Ki Tavo

Very soon, the people of Israel will step across the border of the Promised Land. It is a land of abundance, full of fruits and crops. It is a land in which the rain falls at the right time and in the right amount. It is a land with mountains and deserts, rivers and oceans.

What is the first thing the people of Israel must do when they enter the land? Give it away. In this portion, they are told that they must put all their first fruits in a teneh (basket) and bring it to the Temple. This must happen every year, during the festival of Shavuot, and it is a symbol of the people of Israel’s gratitude for the abundance they have been given. In this portion they are also told they must set aside 10 percent of all their crops for the stranger, the orphan and the widow.

Have you ever opened your lunch box and found a whole bag of Oreos? Probably not. But imagine you did. You would probably give away half the bag to your friends. When you feel blessed with great abundance, it is easy to give part of it away. Here is a good morning practice: When you wake up, think of all the wonderful things in your life — your parents, your comfy bed, your bike, your freezer full of Go-Gurts. Then put a dime in your tzedakah box, or give money to your local charity at school.