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.
Thursday, June 10, 2021
In This Moment, June 10: Pride Shabbat, Vax-in-Nation, Wandering Elephants and Screaming Cicadas, The First Populist, Something New In Our Sanctuary
In This Moment
Celebrating Pride Month
Class photo from this week's TBE Hebrew School Graduation
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.