Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
The Shabbat-O-Gram (and I) will be taking a hiatus over the coming weeks, but before I wish everyone a pleasant, safe and relaxing summer, I hope you will be able to join us this Shabbat. On Friday night - outdoors, once again :) - the last during Pride Month, our guest musician will be Leo Mahler, a local musician and friend of the congregation, who will lead the prayers and also talk about their spiritual journey. They love Jewish music and ritual, and are a passionate advocate for queer and trans inclusivity and leadership in synagogue communities. During the service, you'll have the chance to ask them about speaking ancient languages, about how to make our spaces more welcoming to non-binary people like them - and yes, that includes pronouns - or about crocheting!
Join me in welcoming Leo - in person or on live-stream - this Friday.
Also, Sunday is the Seventeenth of Tammuz, a minor fast leading into the Three Weeks, culminating in Tisha B'Av. (We'll be joining with our sister Conservative congregations in Norwalk and Westport for services on Tisha B'Av.)
Mah Tovu is all about the presentation of physical space as sacred space, a perfect topic for a time when we are transitioning back to our physical sanctuaries. Come pray with us, and then turn your prayers into action.
"Not One Person"
This week, our reopening committee set protocols for in-person events during the upcoming months, including the High Holidays. Our goal is to be able to assemble safely, and with hundreds of people expected, we've determined that we can do that only by requiring vaccination for those who will be indoors, while providing outdoor options for children and adults who are not vaccinated or who simply want a less formal, family-style service. We will also continue to provide a live-streaming or Zoom option for all services. We want everyone to feel both welcome and safe. Protecting lives is our sacred obligation. As the Talmud states, "Save one life and save the world."
In that regard, for the past year, I've been inspired by a nearby church that to this day is still doing services remotely, despite all the pressures to reopen. They adopted a "not one person" policy, meaning that to the degree that they can control matters, "not one" parishioner should suffer from Covid because of their actions. That's a high standard to keep, and now that the end is (we hope) in sight, we can look back at the wisdom of choices we've made, including the decision last year to do the High Holidays remotely. People forget, but at the time that choice was not a slam-dunk, and there was considerable pressure to accommodate those clamoring for an in-person High Holidays. We resisted, and for the High Holidays at least, that most sacred obligation of "not one person" was upheld.
We also resisted the temptation to open up life cycle events to greater attendance and relaxed boundaries. Only this week did we have our first in-person funeral in our sanctuary (our first in-person shiva service is tonight), and b'nai mitzvah attendance has been severely restricted all year. Meanwhile, we've discovered that Zoom and hybrid services present lots of opportunities for creativity. We had relatives joining in from as far as Australia, Israel and Amsterdam; we had game shows, shared screens and in one case, a dog from the Israel Guide Dog Center sending personal best barking wishes to the bar mitzvah boy. We could do all that and save lives too. "One mitzvah leads to another," to quote another famous rabbinic saying.
It's been a hard year, one that has reminded us of the primacy of preserving life and health in our tradition, as well as the helping us to appreciate anew the power of our physical spaces.
Sharing Sacred Spaces
For the past couple of years, we have been involved in a cohort of Sharing Sacred Spaces, an international interfaith alliance represented locally by TBE, along with these congregations:
Guru Tegh Bahadur Foundation
Rose of Sharon Fellowship
The First Congregational Church of Greenwich
Islamic Cultural Center of NY - Stamford
Sathya Sai Baba Center of Stamford, CT
Union Baptist Church
You can read learn more about our Sacred Spaces partners here. Here is the video presentation that showcased our congregation and our sacred architecture for the group.
And below you can see the flyer for our closing ceremony, the signing of a solidarity pledge, this Sunday at 3 PM. The ceremony will take place on Zoom and registration is required. Go tohttps://www.sharingsacredspaces.org/
This essay is from the Baseball Hall of Fame's website. It's ironic because this week, the H of F decided to schedule its annual induction ceremony for the second day of Rosh Hashanah! Not only that, but one of the inductees is Jewish (no, not Derek Jeter. It's Marvin Miller, whose family might not attend.
So WWSD? (What would Sandy do?) Here's what that essay says about Koufax:
"According to United Press International’s Milton Richman, Koufax made up his mind on choosing religion over the World Series in 1959 when the championship coincided with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. He did not attend workouts at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and he did not pitch in Game 4.
Koufax summed up his thoughts with Richman, saying that a “man is entitled to his belief and I believe I should not work on Yom Kippur. It’s as simple as all that and I have never had any trouble on that account since I’ve been in baseball.”
The 1959 World Series was not the first time that Koufax missed a game in favor of a Jewish holiday. In April 1959, Koufax requested to skip his start on April 22 due to it being the first night of Passover. Similarly, in 1961 and 1963, Koufax skipped his turns in the rotation which conflicted with Rosh Hashanah. Teammate Larry Sherry, also Jewish, is believed to have sat out for the holiday in 1961. In 1963, Koufax more than made up for the trouble in rearranging the pitching staff’s schedule by striking out a record 15 Yankees in Game 1 of the World Series."
Koufax did not even attend a workout on Rosh Hashanah. As they say in the broadcast booth, this is an unforced error by Major League Baseball. it's a bad look which hopefully can be addressed before those Derek Jeter fans who happen to be Jewish - and I believe there are a few Jewish Yankee fans - sit up and take notice.
Or maybe they won't care - which is another sermon entirely!
Moment magazine devoted its current issue to Jewish humor. Click here to see some all time classics, many of which have found their way into my sermons over the years (What did you think? That I wrote all my material myself? No, I outsource!)
Here’s the problem - actually, there are two problems:
- most of them are not funny anymore.
- most are also offensive.
OK, see for yourself. Read them, and ask yourself how many you think would work, say, in the middle of a Yom Kippur sermon.
The one below is literally the only one I found that wouldn’t offend anyone (who didn’t come from Chelm) - and it's hardly laugh out loud funny.
Apparently, we've got a Jewish joke problem. Most Jewish humor comes at the expense of someone, often the high and mighty, which is OK, but sometimes the incompetent schlemiel or the down-on-his luck schlemazel. We make fun of stupid, awkward and unlucky people. What's that all about? And all too often, Jewish humor targets humans of the female variety: mothers, wives, mothers and, oh yes, mothers. We also make fun of ourselves, but not in a good way. Cheapness, superficiality, and how we "control" Hollywood, the banks and the media. It’s no laughing matter anymore - because we know we’re kidding, but these days, some other people don’t seem to get the joke.
"Hollywood seems to find an almost obsessive, near-pathological need to dilute female Jewish characters. Or erase.
The examples are vast, and they are also maddening. In “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Jewish heroine Midge is played by non-Jew Rachel Brosnahan. In “On the Basis of Sex,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the modern-day thinking Jewish woman’s pin-up for her groundbreaking contributions to constitutional law, is played by non-Jewish British actor Felicity Jones. And in Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” Jewish second-wave feminists Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem are played by Tracy Ullman, Margo Martindale and Rose Byrne — none of whom are Jewish. Julianne Moore (not Jewish), also played Steinem in Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias.” And in ABC’s long-running sitcom “The Goldbergs,” shopaholic balabusta Beverly Goldberg is played by non-Jewish comedian Wendi McLendon-Covey. Even Elsa, the adolescent “Jew in the Wall” in Taika Waititi’s Oscar-winning “Jojo Rabbit,” is played by non-Jewish actor Thomasin McKenzie.
My current favorite: in Guy Nattiv’s upcoming Golda Meir biopic, Helen Mirren (and, yes, the Oscar-winner is an inarguably gifted actor), will play Israel’s lone female prime minister, an iron-fisted global leader who commandeered Israel to victory during the Yom Kippur War. Because nothing says Kiev-born, Milwaukee-raised kibbutznik-turned-“gray-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people” — a political figure who embraced her “ugliness” as a political asset and whom David Ben Gurion was fond of calling “the best man in the government”—than a regal British Dame with ancestral ties to Russian nobility.
As Sarah Silverman, who speaks freely of oft being considered “too Jewish” to play certain roles, noted on her podcast and on “The Howard Stern Show” last November: “Lately it’s been happening — if that role is a Jewish woman, but [if] she is courageous, or she deserves love, or has bravery, or is altruistic in any way, she’s played by a non-Jew.”"
Green addresses the age-old question of how a modern, empirically-minded Jew can swear allegiance to the Creation and Exodus stories, as we do when we say the Friday night Kiddush, and still accept science. We all need to ask that question - and he provides a very satisfying response.
"That moment (making Friday night Kiddush) is the highlight of my week. It is the most personally significant ritual act that I regularly perform as a Jew. But what is my relationship to that text I so fervently call out? It is one of love and commitment, a feeling that the text is as filled to the brim with meaning as my cup is with wine. It is a statement of my faith in divine Creation, of my gratitude for the gift of perceiving a sacred presence that underlies all that is. But surely it could not be called “belief” in the Torah’s creation story in any literal sense.
I understand that this planet is approximately thirteen billion years old, and that it came to be as a result of a great stellar explosion that took place several billion years earlier. I also understand that the seas and dry land, the trees, grasses, and plants, the birds, fish, animals, and creeping things all described as created on one or another of the six days preceding that first Sabbath of Genesis, in fact evolved over the course of a long and complex bio-evolutionary process, running across thousands of centuries, rather than being “declared” into existence all within a week, however that “week” is conceived. Yet the story of Creation, and the weekly repetition of it, is vital to my religious life.
My non-literalist faith that we live in a created world is part-and-parcel of my personal quest for meaning and my sense of responsibility to act in protection of this beautiful and fragile planet. Such a non-literalist theology of Creation builds not on the world of science, but the world of myth, especially that which grows of ancient Jewish stories about how this world came to be.
What I search for in these tales is not a factual description of the world’s history but the profound kernel of truth that helps us connect to the deeper meaning of the world we live in and our connection to it. And yet, to make the most of these truths as modern people, living in the scientific age, we must find a way to tell them together with the “reality” being daily articulated and refined by astrophysicists, geologists, evolutionary biologists, and lots of others. Such an approach can lend to the new story some of the mystery and depth of the old, while not forcing us to take a stance against scientific thinking and modern notions of truth and knowledge."
You can take these questions to the beach with you over the coming weeks, and prepare for an early High Holidays to recharge your spiritual batteries!
Screen shot from last week's Pride Shabbat. This Friday at the new start time of 7 PM (and it looks like we'll be outdoors), join me in welcoming back Cantor Deborah Jacobson for a guest appearance while Cantor Katie Kaplan is on vacation.
Introducing Israel's new government, a government as diverse as the nation itself. The Prime. Minister even went to school in New Jersey (see the photo on the left).
Perhaps the most important speech written over the course of this transition wasn’t even delivered. It was set to be given by Yair Lapid, now the Foreign Minister and alternate Prime Minister of Israel. Lapid was doggedly persistent in somehow finding a way to scotch tape eight disparate parties into a government, against all odds; a move that changed the course of Israel’s history – and Jewish history as well.
He didn’t deliver his speech at the Knesset on the day of the government’s confidence vote, because he had just seen his comrade Naftali Bennett shouted down repeatedly by hecklers determined to grind the wheels of democracy to a halt.
Here’s some of what he planned to say to those hecklers in the hall:
“We are not enemies. Even the most strident opinions, even the most heated arguments, will not turn us into enemies. We will not let extremists destroy our ability to speak to one another and to work together for the good of the country.”
In subsequent speeches that he did deliver, Lapid pledged to repair ties with Jews in the Diaspora, many of whom have felt alienated from Israel over recent years. “The support of Christian evangelicals and other groups is important and heartwarming,” he said. “But the Jewish people are more than allies; they are family. Jews from all streams – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox – are our family. And family is always the most important relationship and the one that needs to be worked on more than any other.”
It has been so long since we have heard such sentiments. And so, for those who have felt alienation, from Israel, from the established Jewish community, from Judaism itself, it’s now OK to jump back into the water.
Oh, there will be things that Jews will still disagree about. That’s what makes us Jews. And the wounds opened by the recent fighting in Gaza, which exposed dangerous fault lines and caused a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic attacks – there’s a lot of damage that will need to be undone. But as this new Israeli government takes root, we’ll begin to notice some good things. We’ll begin to see a moral compass re-emerge.
That’s exactly what happened when, just two days after the new government was sworn in, several thousand far-right Jews paraded through Jerusalem with Israeli flags shouting “Death to the Arabs.” To that provocation, Lapid responded, “It is incomprehensible how one can hold an Israeli flag in one's hand and shout 'death to Arabs' at the same time….This is not Judaism and this is not Israel.”
In a recent Times of Israel column, David Horovitz described the significant historical moment we’ve reached:
"Never in the history of this country have rightists, leftists, centrists and Arabs agreed to stake out common ground, together in government, in the cause of the greater Israeli good. While the ultra-Orthodox political apparatchiks have declared religious war on it, many key members of the “change government” have set it up with an almost messianic vision of internal Israeli right-left, Orthodox-secular, Jewish-Arab harmony. However hard this will prove to maintain, the very goal marks a laudable departure from Netanyahu’s divisive approach to retaining power."
During the summer – this year on July 19 – our calendar always returns us to the Fast of Tisha B’Av, with its focus on the destructions of the ancient temples. Chief among the causes for these debacles, according to the rabbis, was “Sinat Hinam,” “causeless hatred.” If causeless hatred has a cause, it is extremism.
Lapid wrote in his undelivered Knesset speech:
"After all the insults and the warnings, the real divide in Israeli society isn’t between left and right. The real divide is between moderates and extremists. Those who want to build and those who want to destroy. We will not let the extremists destroy the State of Israel. We will not let hate control us. Violent racists don’t become patriots just because they wrap themselves in a flag. They will not define for us what it means to love Israel."
Lapid and his counterparts in America and everywhere are responding to the populist-driven enmity of the past several years, fighting the hate wherever it is found - and slowly, slowly, the forces of love and moderation are winning.
Have a great summer – and don’t forget to pack your moral compass!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
A World Turned Upside Down
This headline appeared on the front page of Yediot Achronot on the day after the government was formed.
A world turned upside down.
The Talmud tells a story (Pesachim 50) of Rav Yosef the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who became ill and was on the verge of death. He recovered and his father asked him what he saw as he hovered between life and death. “Olam Hafuch Rai’ti,” he said – “an upside down world.” Those who are important and recognized in this world, were low in that world and those who are unimportant in this world are highly regarded there.
Rabbi Yehoshua then says, “Olam Barur Ra’ita.” “A world of clarity you have seen.”
That is what happens when those who used to be seen as the lowest of the low suddenly change places with the those in charge. Someone like Naftali Bennett, whose party gained just six seats in the most recent election, and who didn't even cross the electoral threshold a couple of years ago. And now he is Prime Minister, and even more shockingly, Benjamin Netanyahu is not.
A political reversal can be subtle or dramatic, a slight turn of events or something far greater. In Israeli headlines, Mahapach is used whenever such a shift occurs.
The slightest change in direction is reflected in the Torah trope note known as Mahpach – related to that word Hafuch. It goes up and then reverses itself, and its symbol is a sideways “V.” If we are looking for a V-shaped recovery, Mahpach is your note, especially since it is almost always followed by Pashta – a note that take us to new heights. Ever upward. More Torah reading verses begin with Mahpach than any other note. Before we can move forward on to a new path, we have to turn.
The rabbis said of the Torah – Hafoch ba – turn it and turn it – keep looking at it from different angles. Turn it over and over again.
And the ultimate turn is a Mahapecha. A revolution. The American Revolution in Hebrew is called Hamahpecha Amerikayit – literally, “a world turned upside down.”
This past year, the world turned upside down: the high and mighty were brought to their knees and the little kid from New Jersey became Prime Minister of Israel.
"In Judaism, we consider pikuach nefesh, the saving and preserving of life, to be one of our most critical principles. We affirm that protecting the existing life of the pregnant person is paramount at all stages of pregnancy. In fact, a fetus is not considered a person under Jewish law and, therefore, does not have the same independent rights as one who is already living and functioning in the world. The Talmud (Yevamot 69b) asserts that the fetus is “mere fluid” for the first 40 days (what would be considered 7 or 8 weeks’ gestation by today’s counting) and, following this period, the fetus is considered a physical part of the pregnant individual’s body (Gittin 23b).
This is why we understand the goal of the Women’s Health Protection Act — ensuring equal access to abortion nationwide — not only as a reproductive justice issue, but as a matter of religious freedom as well. Jewish historical experience, including our experiences in the US, call on us to celebrate religious liberty, which honors individuals’ rights to both freedom of and freedom from religion. We depend on religious liberty to be a protective shield, not a weapon used to harm others or to block access to essential health care. Our faith tradition and the US Constitution demand that no one religion should be enshrined in law or dictate public policy on any issue, including abortion.
For example, Judaism traditionally teaches that the fetus only has the status of personhood at the onset of labor and childbirth (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6). As such, policies granting “fetal personhood” rights or establishing that “life” begins at conception are contrary to these teachings and violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by enshrining one religious view into law. What’s more, because Jewish law not only permits abortion in many cases but also requires it when the life or health (including psychological and physical health) of the pregnant individual is at risk, laws limiting or restricting access to abortion directly impede Jews’ ability to practice Judaism, further violating the Free Exercise Clause while simultaneously infringing upon the constitutional right to privacy found in the Fourteenth Amendment."
(Note: I do lots of reading so you don't have to. But actually, you do. And some of these articles link you to a paywall. While I support the need to sustain good journalism, and therefore subscribe to a number of periodicals - on your belhalf - if you are unable to access a particular article that you really want to read, drop me a line and I'll send it).
Here are things both communities should learn about each other to build a stronger relationship between Israel and the Diaspora and ensure the long-term future of the Jewish people.
1) Israeli Jews should know that American Jewry includes a spectrum of rich traditions. It does not revolve around fighting with people who hate us. According to the survey, only 39% of Israeli Jews knew the percentage of American Jews who define themselves as Reform, a denomination that makes up only a tiny sliver of the Israeli Jewish population. Only 22% of Israelis said they understand Jewish denominations well, but more than double the percentage of respondents (49%) said they felt comfortable talking about antisemitism in the Diaspora. “We want Israeli Jews to understand Diaspora Jewry is not just about antisemitism,” said Laura Shaw Frank, AJC Director of Contemporary Jewish Studies. “While it’s certainly an issue of growing concern, we have a very vibrant and rich Jewish life here. That’s hugely important.”
2) American Jews should know more about Israel’s past and present, but especially its present. When given a pop quiz about basic Israel history and demographics, only 12% of American Jews answered all the questions correctly. Asked what year the modern-day state of Israel was founded, 84% of American Jews answered correctly with 1948. About 65% knew Israel acquired the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula in the Six Day War. Nearly half (49%) knew that David Ben Gurion was the first prime minister. Meanwhile, only 39% know that more than a third of the world’s Jews live in Israel.
3) Israeli Jews should know that Mrs. Maisel and Seinfeld are not archetypes of American Jewry. Jewish education should include lessons about the Diaspora. A whopping 69% of Israeli Jews received either no education about the Diaspora or reported that their education was not comprehensive.. Of those who say they did receive comprehensive education, a mere 44% said they got it in school while 29% said they learned about American Jews from television and movies. Woe unto us if one of the primary places Israelis learn about American Jews is via the unrealistic and inaccurate way we are typically portrayed on television and in movies! The lack of education seems to fuel a lack of curiosity. Less than half of Israelis (47%) want to learn about American Jews. Most (62%) who received comprehensive education about the Diaspora said they want to learn more. “Being able to work together for a rich Jewish future requires that we have nuanced and complex understandings of one another," Shaw Frank said. "That means more and higher quality education, which will lead to more curiosity and a desire for even more education."
4) American Jews should know Israeli Jews consider all Jews family, while Israeli Jews should know they have an open invitation to visit synagogues and homes when they’re in the U.S. More than 86% of Israelis consider American Jews to be family with 45% thinking of us as extended family; a quarter consider us siblings; and a fifth consider us first cousins.Even though 67% of Israeli Jews have family or friends living in the U.S., less than half (47%) have visited the U.S. Of those, only a quarter said it strengthened their connection to American Jews. The rest said it had no impact on their connection to Americans Jews or weakened their connection. But the 46% of American Jews who have visited Israel report the inverse impact. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of those who have visited said it strengthened their connection and a little more than a quarter said it had no impact or weakened their bond to the Jewish state. “Israelis don’t use visits to America as an opportunity to get to know the Diaspora community,” Shaw Frank said. “We want to get to know you. If we are family, then get to know us better. The American Jewish community should also be thinking about how to connect with visiting Israelis. It’s on us too.”
5) Both Israeli and American Jews should know that our responsibility for each other is a two-way street.
According to the survey, about three-quarters of Israeli Jews believe a thriving diaspora is as important as the state of Israel and vital to the long-term future of the Jewish people. Why? More than a third (36%) of Israeli Jews said American Jews advocate for Israel with their government; 27% said variety adds to the strength of the Jewish people; and nearly a quarter (24%) said Diaspora Jews support Israel with funding. But less than half (46%) of Israelis said the Jewish state is responsible for taking care of Jews in the Diaspora. “One thing we want to tell our Israeli brothers and sisters is we want more mutuality,” Shaw Frank said. “We’re responsible for taking care of each other. Israeli Jews should also be advocating for Diaspora Jews.”
8 Popular Jewish Superstitions (MJL) - As have all cultures, Jews have developed numerous superstitious practices applicable to a variety of occasions. Here are some of the most common:
10 Jew-ish Facts About ‘In the Heights’(Kveller) - I loved the movie, but why did they have to take out the Yiddish term "schmutz" that was in the play? When Vanessa tells Usnavi, "You have some schmutz on your face," suddenly now it's a "spot." At least Usnavi still toasts "L'chayim" in the club. This film is a celebration of New York's mosaic, which is a microcosm of America's. Even in Washington Heights they speak a little Yiddish. Actually, they speak a lot of Yiddish there. Yeshiva University is in the 'hood. The area was a refuge for German Jews fleeing the Nazis in the '30s. It's always embodied the American dream.
Our Common Destiny, A roadmap for the future of the Jewish people: All Jews are connected to each other even though our journeys may be different. Now, more than ever in our recent history, it is important that we forge strong bonds with one another and embrace the diversity of the Jewish people. Together, we can create a movement that unites us in our pursuit of a brighter future for the global Jewish community and entire world.…
I am so looking forward to hearing from Elon Greenat Pride Shabbat on Friday night at 6. As you can see from the photo above, we'll be welcoming another guest into our sanctuary as well - the banner arrived this week, and immediately we let it flow it from chains (typically used for a huppah) suspended from our bima's skylight. Elon and I will engage in some spirited Q and A, and you are welcome to bring questions of your own. If you will be watching on livestream, email the questions to me in advance of the service (there will be no "chat" function at the service.). And by all means read Elon's book, "Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York," It is a stunning story, meticulously researched and wonderfully laid out.
Call to Vax-ion
This letter appeared last week in the Stamford Advocate:
This evening I'll be participating in a community wide forum convened by the Stamford heath Department, where religious leaders will convene to discuss how our faith traditions can guide us out of this valley of the shadow of death. And - spoiler alert - each faith tradition, in its own way, advocates vaccination. (That said, it is also important for me to add that Judaism also advocates love, understanding and inclusion, which is how one should approach anyone who harbors doubts about vaccination).
Below is an invitation from TBE's Meira Rosenberg, who has been very involved in the current effort to vaccinate 70 percent of Americans before July 4, so that American can truly become the world's shining example of a "Vacci-Nation." She shares a volunteer opportunity for TONIGHT:
Hi Everyone, You may all have heard that the National Month of Action to get as many people as possible vaccinated against Covid-19 has just begun and goes through July 4. There are various activities that individuals can join to help with the effort including phone banking, texting, and a growing number of other events. One activity tonight of special interest to our congregation is the Jewish Community Vaccine Virtual Phone Bank from 6-8:30 (with plenty of time for a break from 7-7:30 to attend the Rabbi’s “Faith in the Pandemic” Zoom event).
Whether texting or on the phone, the idea is to answer questions about the vaccine, to direct people to nearby places to get vaccinated, and to let people know about Uber and Lyft rides and childcare to make getting vaccinated easier. There are scripted answers for almost everything, and there are people to ask for more information. I joined the national texting campaign over the weekend. It was a great feeling to help people who wanted the vaccine, were not computer savvy, and were not sure where to go. (Not every town in the country has a giant “Vaccines Here” flashing sign in front of a store like Lord & Taylor.)
This week has been marked by images of wandering elephants in China and cacophonous cicadas in the U.S. The Washington Post ran a contest, inviting readers to send in haikus about those annoying insects. Here's my favorite:
A cicada's plight.
Seventeen years without love
Then frenzy and death.
The predictable but still confounding emergence of the cicadas after a 17-year hibernation, and the inexplicable year-long, 300-mile wanderings of this elephant herd are mysteries to us. But they both point to the universality of family and our instinctive need for connection and for group survival.
Prolonged absence and wandering share a primal desire to get things right. In the words of Anatole France, "Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe." Exodus 23:4 instructs us to assist a wandering animal back to its original owner, even if that owner is your enemy. With this mitzvah, the Torah is teaching us not to be bystanders in the unfolding drama of the natural universe, or to be annoyed if they ruin the plans of the White House press corps, as the cicadas have, or trample fields, as the elephants are doing, but to help, to care, to protect and to learn from these amazing creatures.
Brian Skerry, an award winning National Geographic reporter, spent much time recording the activities of whales, He writes, "The photographic results exceeded our wildest expectations. But one aspect of their lives was a complete surprise—they play games with little rocks. In this shallow, three-foot-deep water, belugas will occasionally pick up pebbles with their mouths. They’ll carry them around for a while, and then drop them. Another whale then swims by to pick the pebble up again."
He continues, "Ever since I captured these images, I’ve thought often about these polar whales living far away, at the top of the Earth. Their daily lives are busy and challenging. They have to catch food and take care of their young. They deal with social situations, where no doubt conflicts occur. And they have to face predators and serious threats every day. Yet they still make time to play. They find a perfect pebble and carry it around because it makes them happy. How wonderful is that?
We can see ourselves in these creatures. Humans also speak different languages, enjoy different foods, and pass down family traditions.
But perhaps most strikingly, we also rely on one other."
The Jewish people, whose origin story begins with "a wandering Aramean," and continues through the wanderings of the Wilderness, which this week takes the Israelites to the brink of self-destruction at the hands of the populist Korah - we know more than most how much we rely on one another. Or as another Washington Post haiku-ist put it:
I happily lend this space to the late, great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who labeled Korach as the “first populist.” Even asRabbi Sacks, who died of cancer last November, wrote this in 2018 he could not have imagined what we would be dealing with just three years later - a violent insurrection instigated by a Big Lie in Washington and a Prime Minister of Israel trying to cling to power by libeling his opponents as traitors. As it becomes more and more common to see leaders in supposedly "safe" democracies following the autocrat’s playbook, the lessons of this week's portion become more relevant than ever before. (And if you need a primer on how to recognize when autocracy is winning out, read this).
The Korach rebellion was a populist movement, and Korach himself an archetypal populist leader. Listen carefully to what he said about Moses and Aaron: “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3).
These are classic populist claims. First, implies Korach, the establishment (Moses and Aaron) is corrupt. Moses has been guilty of nepotism in appointing his own brother as High Priest. He has kept the leadership roles within his immediate family instead of sharing them out more widely. Second, Korach presents himself as the people’s champion. The whole community, he says, is holy. There is nothing special about you, Moses and Aaron. We have all seen God’s miracles and heard His voice. We all helped build His Sanctuary. Korach is posing as the democrat so that he can become the autocrat.
Next, he and his fellow rebels mount an impressive campaign of fake news – anticipating events of our own time. We can infer this indirectly. When Moses says to God, “I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them” (Num. 16:15), it is clear that he has been accused of just that: exploiting his office for personal gain. When he says, “This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my own idea” (Num. 16:28) it is equally clear that he has been accused of representing his own decisions as the will and word of God.
Most blatant is the post-truth claim of Datham and Aviram: “Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness? And now you want to lord it over us!” (Num. 16:13). This is the most callous speech in the Torah. It combines false nostalgia for Egypt (a “land flowing with milk and honey”!), blaming Moses for the report of the spies, and accusing him of holding on to leadership for his own personal prestige – all three, outrageous lies.
Ramban was undoubtedly correct when he says that such a challenge to Moses’ leadership would have been impossible at any earlier point. Only in the aftermath of the episode of the spies, when the people realised that they would not see the Promised Land in their lifetime, could discontent be stirred by Korach and his assorted fellow-travellers. They felt they had nothing to lose. Populism is the politics of disappointment, resentment and fear.
For once in his life, Moses acted autocratically, putting God, as it were, to the test:
“This is how you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.” (Num. 16:28-30).
This dramatic effort at conflict resolution by the use of force (in this case, a miracle) failed completely. The ground did indeed open up and swallow Korach and his fellow rebels, but the people, despite their terror, were unimpressed. “On the next day, however, the whole congregation of the Israelites rebelled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, ‘You have killed the people of the Lord” (Num. 17:6). Jews have always resisted autocratic leaders.
What is even more striking is the way the sages framed the conflict. Instead of seeing it as a black-and-white contrast between rebellion and obedience, they insisted on the validity of argument in the public domain. They said that what was wrong with Korach and his fellows was not that they argued with Moses and Aaron, but that they did so “not for the sake of Heaven.” The schools of Hillel and Shammai, however, argued for the sake of Heaven, and thus their argument had enduring value. Judaism, as I argued in Covenant and Conversation Shemot this year, is unique in the fact that virtually all of its canonical texts are anthologies of arguments.
What matters in Judaism is why the argument was undertaken and how it was conducted. An argument not for the sake of Heaven is one that is undertaken for the sake of victory. An argument for the sake of Heaven is undertaken for the sake of truth. When the aim is victory, as it was in the case of Korach, both sides are diminished. Korach died, and Moses’ authority was tarnished. But when the aim is truth, both sides gain. To be defeated by the truth is the only defeat that is also a victory. As R. Shimon ha-Amsoni said: “Just as I received reward for the exposition, so I will receive reward for the retraction.”
In his excellent short book, What is Populism?, Jan-Werner Muller argues that the best indicator of populist politics is its delegitimization of other voices. Populists claim that “they and they alone represent the people.” Anyone who disagrees with them is “essentially illegitimate.” Once in power, they silence dissent. That is why the silencing of unpopular views in university campuses today, in the form of “safe space,” “trigger warnings,” and “micro-aggressions,” is so dangerous. When academic freedom dies, the death of other freedoms follows.
Hence the power of Judaism’s defense against populism in the form of its insistence on the legitimacy of “argument for the sake of Heaven.” Judaism does not silence dissent: to the contrary, it dignifies it. This was institutionalized in the biblical era in the form of the prophets who spoke truth to power. In the rabbinic era it lived in the culture of argument evident on every page of the Mishnah, Gemara and their commentaries. In the contemporary State of Israel, argumentativeness is part of the very texture of its democratic freedom, in the strongest possible contrast to much of the rest of the Middle East.
Hence the life-changing idea: If you seek to learn, grow, pursue truth and find freedom, seek places that welcome argument and respect dissenting views. Stay far from people, places and political parties that don’t. Though they claim to be friends of the people, they are in fact the enemies of freedom.
What to Read...
(Note: I do lots of reading so you don't have to. But actually, you do. And some of these articles link you to a paywall. While I support the need to sustain good journalism, and therefore subscribe to a number of periodicals - on your belhalf - if you are unable to access a particular article that you really want to read, drop me a line and I'll send it).
Change government’ agenda: Electoral reform, budget and Jerusalem building boom - On religion and state, the document said: “The sides agree to advance issues related to religion and state in which there is wide public support,” without elaboration. Direct references to conversion, the Western Wall pluralistic platform, public transportation, and the opening of supermarkets on Shabbat, civil unions, and other issues were removed from the final document, Channel 12 said. The new government is scheduled to be sworn in on Sunday.
High school football coaches fired after allegedly forcing player to eat pork- This is the next installment in a story I shared last week. I'm not sure what saddens me more about this incident: the sheer cruelty of forcing someone to betray their faith traditions (sort of like the coach who schedules a game for Yom Kippur and forces kids to be there - we've had that around here), OR the fact that the vast majority of Jews would have no idea what the big deal is and just say, "Pass the pepperoni." I live in the real world and know that the fact that this saddens me may anger you. That saddens me too.
Stepping into the Unknown (Shira Jacobson). Writing in the Buffalo Jewish News, Shira, daughter of Cantor Deborah Jacobson, asks "How can Jewish Buffalo continue to be more welcoming to a diverse array of individuals and families who identify as Jewish? As (last week's portion) Shelach teaches us, we must take steps towards the unknown in order to grow."
ADL Tracker of Antisemitic Incidents - (Incidents zoomed waaay up in May) ADL’s Tracker of Anti-Semitic Incidents is a compilation of recent cases of anti-Jewish vandalism, harassment, and assault reported to or detected by ADL. This list is not exhaustive and incidents in the Tracker may be removed if they are determined not credible upon further investigation by ADL. ADL’s H.E.A.T. Map provides comprehensive statistics on domestic instances of anti-Semitism, extremism and terrorism. The Map is updated monthly with incidents from the Tracker and should be viewed in conjunction with the Tracker’s list of recent events.