Modern Day Korach's?

June 15th: Korach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Remember that old expression, “I’d love to be a fly on their wall”—to know what people say when no outsiders are around? Well, I sort of got to live the experience a few years ago. I was visiting my sister in Israel and went to one of the many Orthodox shuls in her neighborhood. In her extremely Orthodox town, there are no non-Orthodox alternatives, and rather than make for potential problems for her, I go incognito in re my religious Liberality. In fact, having my adjunct role at Penn State gives me a technically honest answer when they ask me what I do: I teach Jewish studies at Penn State.

So I’m at the Orthodox synagogue, and there is a guest speaker. He is a retired Orthodox Rabbi from America who has been asked to speak about Korach. He is an older man, one who has fought the religious battles of his life, and, for him, the story of Korach is about those battles. Korach is a kind of victory lap for religious leaders because this is one time when God comes down decisively on the rabbi’s (Moses’) side.
“Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi (cousin of Moses!), betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’” (Numbers 16.1-3)  The relevant question, here, is whether Moses and Aaron have raised themselves above their fellow Israelites, or whether God has appointed them into their leadership roles. The answer, in case you have not guessed it, is that God has appointed them, a fact that is made clear by the climax of the story.
“And Moses said, ‘By this you shall know that it was the Lord who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising; if these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was NOT the Lord who sent me. But, if the Lord brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that that belongs to them, and they go down alive in Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the Lord.’ Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them (Korach and his followers) opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.” (Numbers 16.28-33)

So, as I’m sitting in the back of the synagogue, a proverbial fly on an Orthodox wall, I hear the Rabbi pick up on the phrase, “these men have spurned the Lord,” and begin to explain how the modern day Korach’s are in the Reform Movement. The Reformers’ goal, he explained, is to destroy Judaism and its relationship with God. He went on quite a while, but you get the gist.

It was curious to sit in the room and to hear this uninhibited attack on my religion and me, but, since he did not know who I was, I was less personally drawn into the drama and able to be more reflective about his perception. Did the Reform Movement spurn the Lord? Is it trying to destroy Judaism and it relationship with God? Is it really a Korach?

Traditional commentators look at the dramatic end of Korach and take it as a clue from God that Korach’s intentions and motivations are less-than-good. The traditional understanding is that he is jealous and greedy and wants to take over what he perceives as a cushy, lucrative, and powerful position. In fact, though he claims democratization as a rationale, a big part of his claim to leadership is his membership in the tribe of Levi and in his close family ties to the Moses-Aaron-Miriam leadership team. In other words, the Tradition see his efforts as a power grab intended for illicit gains and in direct disobedience to God’s stated wishes. Thus could he be characterized as one “who spurned the Lord.”

I can understand the Orthodox anger at Reform Judaism: we do reject their understanding of God’s wishes. However, our rejection or rereading is based on high-level academic and spiritual study of the traditional texts. We do not disagree with the special relationship we Jews have with God. We do not spurn God.  Indeed, all of our efforts were and are intended to enhance our relationship with God and to heighten the quality of our devotion. Our disagreement with the Orthodox is with their claim that Orthodox Judaism is exactly what God commanded us back some 3000 years ago at Mount Sinai. We believe that Judaism is a progressive and continually developing religion that fell into a stultifying rut in the second half of the last Millennium—that Judaism once again needed the kind of reforming that it has undergone several times in our distant past.

Our Reforms were not to “spurn the Lord,” but rather to make our relationship with the Lord more healthy, more honest, and more spiritual. Our Reforms were a kind of liberation struggle, working to throw off the chains of religious teachings and customs that are, according to the Pittsburgh Platform (the founding document of American Reform Judaism), “entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state,” and favoring instead Judaism’s “moral laws, and…only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives.” It was a matter of purging our precious religion from observances that were “apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation,” and choose those parts of the Tradition that can help us be closer to God.

Was/is Reform Judaism a greedy, self-aggrandizing power-ploy—a Korach, or is it a sincere and more accurate reading of Jewish Tradition that seeks to improve Judaism and our relationship with God? I understand the Orthodox position, but I disagree with it. We are not Korachs. We have given Judaism new life and an expansiveness that enhances God’s position in the world. Our motivations are not only pure, but also they are well-informed, spiritually motivated, and continually reconsidered. Reform Judaism and its sisters in Jewish Modernity, Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism, and Jewish Renewal, have breathed new life in our ancient and continuing Jewish Tradition.


A Tradition of Grumbling?

June 8th: Shelach Lecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the persistent themes of the Book of Numbers is the complaining of the Israelites. Last week, we read (in Numbers 11.1), “The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord.” Though the manna is easy to get and totally dependable, they are tired of eating the same thing, day after day. They want meat and fish and cucumbers and onions and garlic like they used to enjoy in Egypt. Their longing for Egypt really hurts God’s feelings, and it seems as though they are not appreciating all the blessings that have been showered on them.

This week, they complain about the Land that God has promised them. Moses sends scouts to tour the Land and report on it, and everyone agrees that the Land is wonderful—that it “is flowing with milk and honey!”  However, ten of the twelve scouts say that the inhabitants of the Land are large, fierce, and undefeatable—describing God’s plan as a suicide mission. Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, try to downplay the difficulties, and they talk about how God is giving them the Land, how God will help them conquer it—how God has the whole process planned. But, the people are inconsolable, and despite the importuning of Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb, the people do not want to proceed into the Promised Land. So, God agrees with them and decrees that they can wander in the wilderness until a generation arises with more gumption and more faith.

The Tradition sees all the complaining as indications of small-mindedness, lack of faith, and a lack of courage. The Tradition encourages us to have faith and to bravely go on the various errands God’s sends our people—and not to complain.

Sometimes, however, I wonder about the different kinds of complaining and whether all complaining is bad. While presumably God knew what was in the hearts of the complaining Israelites, the complaining that we hear may not all be bad. In fact, one can even see a tradition of complaining or grumbling in our sacred history. While some voices speak with great enthusiasm, others speak with an acute awareness of the difficult things God asks us to do.

This divergence can be seen in a Midrash that has two different endings. The initial message of the Midrash is that Israel is God’s last choice as the chosen people. God wants one of the ancient seventy nations to accept the Ten Commandments and Torah, and God shops around to see if anyone will agree. God asks one group, but they ask for an example of a commandment. When God says, “Thou shalt not murder,” they reject the proposal because they like to murder. Another group refuses God because they like adultery; another group says No because they like stealing. After asking sixty-nine of the world’s nations, God finally comes to Israel, the very last choice.

Here the Midrashim diverge. In one ending, Israel declares, “na’aseh v’nish’ma/we will do and then we will hear,” accepting immediately—without even asking for an example. Thus do our ancestors show their intense devotion to God and duty.  The effects of this Midrash are twofold. We praise the holiness of our sainted ancestors, and we hold them up as examples for future generations (us!) to follow.

The other Midrashic ending was created when an ancient Sage picked up on a grammatical curiosity and described a totally different dynamic. He noted the text in Exodus 19, that, when the people received the Ten Commandments, they stood “tachtit hahar, under the mountain.” This obviously means at the foot of the mountain, but the Sage created the image of God holding Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites, forcing us to accept the Ten Commandments. Thus is the story not one of enthusiasm, but rather one of onerousness and ambivalence.

Another indication of Jewish ambivalence about our sacred calling can be found in the Talmudic discussion about gerut (conversion). The big question is when the ger (convert) is asked whether he will accept ol malchut hashamayim/the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. Yoke? Yokes are heavy cumbersome things, and one figures an ox’s first choice would not to wear his yoke or to use it to pull a heavy load.

We also use this term in the second paragraph of the Alaynu, at the end of the service and right before the Kaddish. The passage reads: “We therefore hope, O Lord our God…that every one will accept the yoke of Your kingdom and You will rule over everyone, soon and forever.”  We hope everyone will join us in serving God, but we realize that serving God is like bearing a yoke. (Of course, if one is an ox and will inevitably bear a yoke, then wearing God’s yoke and pulling God’s load are high honors.)

While some Jewish complaining may be seen as disloyalty—and as a precursor to departing Judaism, other Jewish complaining may be more constructive. First, there is the complaining that hopes for improvement. As long as there have been Jews, there have been suggestions about how we can improve our Jewish endeavor. Listening to these aspirational voices is important.

Second, there is the kind of complaining that expresses our dedication. For people involved in difficult work—people like construction workers or soldiers, grumbling is part of the ambience. It is a way of letting everyone know that their challenges are formidable, but, more importantly, it speaks to the fact that they are willing to meet them or weather them in order to accomplish the mission. Thus does complaining become a kind of swagger of devotion.

In the ancient story, the people’s complaining goes too far, impeding the progress and success of the mission. In our modern Jewish story, it is important for us to consider the nature of our complaints. Do we grumble because we do not want to be part of the Jewish mission? Or, are we complaining in an attempt to improve our Jewish work? Or, are we complaining as part of the team, as a kind of affirmative statement about the difficulty and importance of our Jewish work?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once commented, “How strange to be a Jew and go astray on God’s perilous errands!” These errands may be challenging. They may even be perilous. But, the work we are assigned as Jews is God’s work. Though we may grumble, we know that God needs our devotion.

The Light of the Menorah

June 1st: Beha’alotecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our Torah portion this week begins with an instruction: assemble the menorah.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand (menorah).’ Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses. Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal. According to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so was the lampstand made.”
(Numbers 8.1-4)

This ancient object—one among many in the Tent of Meeting—has become one of the most important and enduring symbols of our faith. As our Chumash, Etz Hayim, explains:
“More than 1000 years after the time of Aaron, the m’norah became the symbol of Aaron’s descendants, the Hasmoneans, who reclaimed the temple of Jerusalem after the Maccabees’ victory. The m’norah, carried off by Roman soldiers in a victory parade, is featured in a carving on the Arch of Titus in Rome, which celebrates the defeat of the Jews in 70 C.E.; nineteen centuries later, the seven-branched m’norah became the seal of the State of Israel. Recalling the bush that burned but was not consumed, the light of the m’norah would never be permanently extinguished.

 “Isaac Luria taught that the six branches of the m’norah represent the several scientific and academic disciplines, whereas the center stalk represents the light of the Torah. Secular learning and faith are not rivals; each has its own concerns and addresses its own set of questions. They shed light on each other and together they illumine our world.” (Etz Hayim, page 816)

Most of us are more familiar with the special Chanukah menorah—also called a chanukiah, with its nine candle holders for the eight candles and Shamash. The chanukiah is a special menorah, redesigned to celebrate the miracles of the victory and the oil. However, it is the original seven-branched menorah which stands in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem and is found on Israeli currency and stamps.

This ancient menorah is also the origin of our ner tamid, the eternal light that stays on in the front of Jewish sanctuaries. Another origin of the ner tamid is the continually burning incense altar that was kept burning continuously in the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. All three—the menorah, the incense altar, and the later ner tamid—represent God’s eternal presence.

Of course, back in the wilderness, this might have been unnecessary. We are told that God’s Presence was not only with the Israelites, but also that it was quite visible—God being manifest in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Why, then, did God instruct the Israelites to light a fire to burn eternally?

This question reminds me of another question, one in regard to the basic illogic in our blessing over food, Hamotzi. When we pray, We praise You, O Lord, our God, Ruler of All, Who brings forth bread from the earth, are we really saying that God brings forth bread from the earth? One could say that God brings forth the wheat from the earth, but we do not get actual bread until various people reap, thresh, mill, sift, mix, knead, and bake. I have heard two answers to this question, both of which are spiritually helpful.

(1) When we say that God brings forth the bread from the earth, we are acknowledging God provenance over the whole process. Yes, people are involved, but all of the physics and chemistry and artistry of baking bread were all invented/created by God and are only pursued by the grace of God.

(2) God could have had loaves of bread sprout up from the earth, but God wanted to give us a role in the ongoing creation of the world. Thus, many things are not wholly created; they require humans to participate in their preparation. This gives us the joy of creating, and it reminds us that the perfection of the world—tikkun olam—is both a human obligation and a human possibility.

It is the same with the menorah. God certainly did not need the extra light. And, with that pillar of fire by night, the Israelites did not need the extra light. God’s instructions to fashion the menorah and to keep it lit continually reminds us of the continuing Divine presence in both created things and in the things that we get to help create. Moreover, the menorah humans assemble and keep kindled reminds us that God gives us a role to play in the world, lighting the way physically, ethically, socially, and spiritually. We have it in us to be light-bearers of the Divine. Let there be light!


The Priestly Benediction and Us

May 25th: Naso
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Nestled in our Torah portion this week is the ancient Priestly Benediction:
“May the Lord bless you and protect you.
May the Lord look upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord smile upon you and give you peace.”
(Numbers 6.24-26)
It is one of the most well-known passages from the Torah, and it has an active place in our services. In the traditional service, it is placed between the sixth and seventh blessings in the Sabbath Amidah—after Modim Anachnu Lach (We Acknowledge You) and before Sim Shalom (Grant Us Peace). Since peace is a theme of both the Priestly Benediction and the seventh blessing, the benediction could be seen as an introduction to Sim Shalom. But, since this is something the ancient priests actually said to the worshippers, we could also see the pairing as a kind of call and response. The priests ask God’s blessing upon the people, and then the people pray our prayer, adding our hopes for God’s blessings.

In traditional synagogues, the moment is enhanced by a ceremony called duchenen, where the kohanim are called to the front of the synagogue. They step out of their shoes, put their tallesim (tallitot) over their heads, faces and hands, and make the priestly sign (a shin). Then, the service leader intones each word of the Numbers 6 passage, and the priests chant it word by word. In most traditional synagogues, this ritual is done on Sabbaths and Holy Days, but the Jerusalem custom is to do it every day.

In the Reform Movement, the maintenance of the priestly line—with its various restrictions and honors—has been discontinued, so many rabbis ask the blessing themselves. Many even make the priestly sign with their hands, lifting them high in a gesture of blessing upon the congregation, whether they are kohanim or not. I remember these moments of blessing from my childhood. Even though we were already in the presence of God, the rabbi lifting his hands and intoning the blessing increased the spiritual intensity in the Temple and made us feel even more filled with holiness.

When I grew up and learned to lead services, taking on this particular role proved to be quite daunting for me. My ancestors were not kohanim, and so it seemed rather audacious to lift my hands and speak the blessing. But, we no longer have the priestly cult, and we do not do duchenen, and our Sages taught that our post-priestly Judaism can get us just as close to God as the Judaism we practiced in the days of the Temple. In my mind, our people today deserve to have this spiritual moment. Moreover, the person who asks the blessing is not doing the blessing him/herself, but rather serving as a vessel for God’s blessings. As the Rabbis in the Talmud make clear, this was true even for the ancient kohanim: the priests did not bless the people; they merely asked God to bless the people. And so, I learned to lift my arms and try to draw God’s energy into the room.

Our power exists in our yearning to reach out for God, and, as the prophet assures us, God will return this energy to us. “They that wait for the Lord shall exchange their strength.” (Isaiah 40.31)

The larger lesson is about more than my decision. The larger lesson is about all of us taking on the role of priesthood—an aspiration set before us by Rabbinic Judaism’s reading of the Torah. Judaism offers both a ritual and a moral priesthood to anyone who wants to be a vessel of God. Yes, in the Bible, the priests were the ones who officiated at the rituals, but God’s goal was for the entire people to attain a kind of priesthood. Remember God’s charge to us just before we were given the Torah at Mount Sinai: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19.4-6)

And, if we jump forward some 3000 years, from Mount Sinai to our modern world, we can see this aspiration of priesthood in universal terms. Not only Jews, but all people are called by the Eternal to bring godliness into the world. Though our traditional texts speak in terms of our special relationship with God and our special role in the world, the Kabbalah and our modern universalistic insights expand the call to everyone. Humans were created as entry-ways for God into the world, providing points of Divine access when we open ourselves to the influence of heaven. We do this ritually when we work to ascertain our relationship with the Infinite and express it in ritual language. We do this ethically when we determine what is righteous and endeavor to make good behavior the way of the world. In other words, we can become the blessings for which we pray.

We can connect with God by being holy vessels. We can bring God into the world and connect the shefa, the flow of blessing. When God turns toward us, as the Priestly Benediction prays, we have the opportunity to meet God’s gaze with our own and to join in the work of holiness.

Community and Individuality

May 18th: Bemidbar
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This book we call Numbers in English is title Bemidbar (In the Wilderness) in Hebrew. The Hebrew names for the Torah’s books are not thematic—based instead on the first important word in the book, but it turns out that Bemidbar/In the Wilderness describes pretty well the book’s subject: our forty years of wandering in the desert. The book opens “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt” (Numbers 1.1) and concludes right as the Hebrews are “on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho,” (Numbers 36.13). This is just before they enter the Land—which means that there is very little narrative in Deuteronomy: the book is mostly Moses’ historical lectures on our sacred history.

The Greek—and later Latin and English—titles of the books are thematic, dealing with the major events in the book. Genesis tells of the world’s and our people’s origins. Exodus tells of the slavery in Egypt and our deliverance from there. Leviticus details the many rules and procedures of the Levitical priesthood. Deuteronomy (“second telling”) is a set of Moses’ summary of the important themes in our relationship with God. And, Numbers, the book we begin this week, begins with the instructions for a census. Though the census is not a continuing theme of the book, this title seems to have been the best the ancient Alexandrian editors decided when they translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

In the story of the census, we learn the names of some Israelite leaders—“from the tribe of Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur; from Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai; from Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab; from Issachar, Nethaneel the son of Zuar; from Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon; from Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud; from Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur; from Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni; from Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai; from Asher, Pagiel the son of Ochran; from Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel; and from Naphtali, Ahira the son of Enan” (Numbers 1.5-15), and we learn the population of each tribe—at least of the males above age twenty.

In other words, while some names are recorded, most are not. And yet, even the ones that are recorded are pretty much forgettable. With the exception of Nahshon the son of Amminadab—about whom there is a delightful Midrash, we have a list of people who were very important back then but whose accomplishments are lost in the larger communal history of our people.

We can figure that the named people were important. As the Torah explains, these were the heads of their ancestral houses, “the elected of the assembly, the chieftains of their ancestral tribes…the heads of the contingents of Israel.” (Numbers 1.4 and 16). But, what about everyone else? There were the 59,299 unnamed men of the Tribe of Reuben, the 45,649 unnamed men of the Tribe of Gad, and the 74,599 unnamed men of the Tribe of Judah, etc. Though the census totals 603,550 men in all the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all but a dozen or so are unnamed. Were they not important, too? Yes is the Jewish answer for we are taught that every human being is important.  The Midrash teaches us that God created humanity in a single human being (Adam Kadmon, the first Adam) to make the point that each individual life is worth the life of the entire world. And, as Martin Buber explains, “Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique…if there had been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world. Every single man is a new thing in the world and is called upon to fulfill his particularity in the world.” (The Way of Man)

 Though there is a tendency, in our corporate focus on the peoplehood of Israel, to pay more attention to the forest rather than to the individual trees, we need to remember that each and every individual in important in his or her own way. Without all those individual trees, each doing whatever trees do to survive and prosper, there would be no forest. Likewise, without each individual Hebrew/Israelite/Jew living his/her life individually, the story of our tribes would be quite different.

One of my teachers, the late Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, used to say that each of us lives our lives alone. Though I heard this bit of advice as stark and perhaps a little jaded, I have since learned that it is actually self-reliant and self-aware. Though we may have many people in our lives—people with whom we share affection and responsibility, each of us must ultimately negotiate the paths of existence individually. Even if we are part of a group, we experience the group individually—with individual attitudes, decisions, reactions, and perseverance. Ultimately, we live alone and must learn to be responsible for ourselves.

And so, as is usual, wisdom lies in living in a dynamic tension. On the one hand we have our various tribal groups living the perspective of John Donne:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

But, on the other hand, we join and participate in our associations individually, deciding how we can and shall be a part of the group.

In something as simple as an ancient census lies a lesson for us all. Our significance is found both in our individual lives and in the associations we choose.




How do You Understand God and God's Presence in the World?

May 11th: Behar/Bechukotai
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though the word atheist is used for someone who does not believe in God, the technical meaning is one who does not believe in the Theistic Definition of God. This Theistic Definition is that God is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and conscious Entity which takes an interest in human and earthly affairs, occasionally breaking into the natural order to perform miracles—the purpose of which is to reward the good/obedient or to punish the evil/disobedient. Thus can many atheists describe in great detail the God in which/whom they do not believe. They know the definition of the word God, and they do not believe that such an entity exists. On the other hand, there are some a-theists who believe in God—but not the God described in the Theistic Definition. They believe that the Theistic Definition is an inaccurate description of the Divine Force; for them, God is best described in other terms.

Among the famous thinkers in this second category of a-theistic God believers are Aristotle, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Rabbi Isaac Luria, Baruch Spinoza, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and Rabbi Harold Kushner. Some see God as conscious but uninvolved in the world—the Unmoved Mover. Others see God as a Force that contains and binds existence but that is not what we would call conscious. Others see God as extremely powerful but not all powerful—a conscious deity who is limited and thus in need of human assistance.

Each of these alternative understandings is in part a response to the biggest challenge to the Theistic Definition of God, the problem of Theodicy. If God is all-powerful and all-good, how can God cause/allow evil and imperfection to exist? Some may point to a cataclysmic event like the Holocaust to prove their point, but, philosophically, much smaller cases of unfairness or imperfection are challenging enough. While theists have answers to the question of Theodicy, some people find the answers satisfying, and other people do not.

This week’s Torah portion contains passages that support one of the Theistic answers to Theodicy. In Leviticus 26.3-5, we read: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” “But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules….I will wreak misery upon you—consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you; you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues.” (Leviticus 26.14-17) In other words, the problems in the world are not cases of unfairness or imperfection. Rather, the things that happen to us are consequences of our obedience or disobedience to God’s instructions.

This is one of the perspectives in the Book of Job when Job’s friends keep insisting, “You must have committed some sins.” It is a concern of the Psalmist who prays: “Who can 2 know all of one’s errors? Forgive me, O Lord, from accidental sins.” (Psalm 19.13) There is also the possibility that the sins might have committed by an ancestor, and we are the ones paying the price. Notice the way the second of the Ten Commandments introduces this notion of trans-generational reward/punishment: “I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20.5-6) For many pious people, these verses and this thinking adequately explain the comings and goings of good and bad events.

However, for many other pious people, this kind of reward/punishment scheme just does not ring true, and these are the thinkers who have rejected the Theistic Definition of God and sought other descriptions of the Divine Presence they sense. William James, the 19th Century philosopher and psychologist, described this spiritual search when he defined religion. To James, religion is the human response to an undifferentiated sense of reality—to the “more” (an undefinable, non-empirical feeling of a Presence). I believe that all religious thinking is an attempt to understand this undifferentiated sense of reality and to live in conscious relationship with it.

The Theistic Definition of God is the Torah’s writers’ thinking on the subject, and many people over the centuries have agreed. To them, good fortune is a reward for obedience to God’s instructions, bad fortune is a punishment for disobedience, and both reward and punishment come in this world to either us or our descendants.

Do you agree with this scenario, or do we think that there are other more accurate ways to understand what happens in our lives? The history of philosophy is in many ways the history of people working on these issues. Why do things happen to us—bad or good, and what can we do to about our fortune? The Theistic Definition of God is one answer, but, for those who find it unhelpful or inaccurate, there are alternative definitions that can help express the Infinite that many find both attractive and compelling. 

Concentric Circles of Duty (and Anxiety)

May 5th: Emor
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Kohanim, the descendants of the ancient priests, do not have many priestly duties these days, but there are still some rules that apply to them. In many synagogues, they conduct the duchenen, the ritual of the priestly blessing. In many synagogues, they are given the first Aliyah to the Torah. They are not allowed to marry divorcees. And, they are not supposed to go into cemeteries or funeral homes—except for the funerals of immediate family members.

This last custom is derived from the opening passage in this week’s Torah portion:
“The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she is not married, for her he may defile himself. But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself.”

Though the words defile and profane sound harsh, what the Torah is addressing here is the ritual status of someone who officiates at the altar. It is not a sin or disgusting or inappropriate to be a mourner in the proximity of a corpse, but it does render a priest temporarily unfit for priestly duties.

(There are many theories as to why the ancients believed that touching a corpse or having various bodily discharges—semen, menstrual fluid, pus, and various childbirth-related liquids—render one ritually unfit. The best I have heard is from Rabbi Chanan (Herbert) Brichto. He believed that it had to do with dosing of the life force. Officiating at the sacrifices means coming very close to God, and, if someone has recently had a dose of the life force via various bodily emissions or contact with the dead, that person is at risk of an overdose. That is why the Torah requires a waiting period and a ritual bath before re-entry to the worship space.)

One could look at this ritual “fitness” or “unfitness” passage as a delineation of the conditions under which a priest is allowed to be “off-duty.”  As with any job, there are some times when it is okay to miss work and some times when it is not. You may remember from a few weeks ago (in Parshat Shemini in Leviticus 10) when Aaron and his two younger sons were not allowed to be off-duty despite the fact that Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two older sons, were killed. Formal mourning would render Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar ritually unfit to officiate at the altar, and so the rest of the community performed the mourning rituals. “Your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought.”(Leviticus 10.6) In God’s instructions not to formally mourn—though clearly they grieved, we have an interesting notion. “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community.”

The anger would not be because they were mourning. Rather, should anyone sin and draw Divine anger, a mourning Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar would mean that no priests would be available to officiate at the altar and stave off God’s anger. In other words, the spiritual welfare of the whole Israelite nation could not be deferred for their mourning, so they had to remain on-duty despite the great tragedy that had befallen their family.

At this early point in our religion, there were no other priests to take their place. However, as the priesthood developed, there were enough trained priests so that replacements could be found. What we have in this passage is an explanation of which emergencies allow a priest to be off-duty and which ones do not.

This principle of concentric circles of connection to a tragedy may be helpful in other areas of life. Sometimes, we are personally involved or in immediate proximity to a crisis, and sometimes we are a degree or two or three removed. If we are in the immediate circle—as the patient or victim or an immediate family member, it may be a time to be “off duty” from life and fully immerse ourselves in the crisis. However, if we are in a relatively outer circle, then our best role may be to stay “on duty” so that those immediately affected can be temporarily relieved of their responsibilities.

We can also use this principle as we consider the outrages or tragedies of the world—much of which we discover via newspapers or television. Most of the time, we are mere observers to things that are happening far away from us. We can be concerned or saddened, but do we need to let that anxiety or grief take over our lives? Every single day, news reports can provide us dozens of opportunities to experience anxiety or panic or grief, and yet falling apart or being exercised to the point of distraction depletes our strength and our patience—making us less able to deal with the issues that are close to us.

I am not suggesting that we ignore the issues or crises of the outside world, but the lesson of the ancient priests can remind us of the circles of proximity and how close or far we are from the center.

One final thought: Though there is much to admire in the thinking and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of his most famous statements has some troublesome implications. In his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Sometimes quoted as “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere,” this sentiment is very inspiring, but it is an exhortative/rhetorical statement and not a philosophical truth. It is very possible to have justice well-established and secure in one place, while other places are mired in terrible injustice. The one does not necessarily have anything to do with the other. Of course, injustice is always a possibility. Thus does the Holy Yehudi explain the repetitiveness of the phrase from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” as a reminder that one instance of justice must be followed by another instance of justice, and another and another. However, Dr. King’s exhortation can make us forget that justice does reign in some places, and that we needn’t live in a state of perpetual panic and anxiety and grief.

Every crisis or tragedy does not have to be our crisis or our tragedy. God may have infinite attention and love, but we humans do not. We need to consider our relative distance from a problem and utilize our emotional and intellectual energies appropriately. Thus can we marshal our resources, think clearly, and figure out what we can do.



Biblical Rules and Personal Autonomy: Homosexuality?

April 27th: Achare Mot/Kedoshim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In Orthodox synagogues, the Saturday morning Torah reading includes the whole parashah which is usually several chapters long. Most Conservative congregations use an old Babylonian triennial system where a third of each traditional portion is read each year over three years—thus sticking with the traditional weekly portion but focusing on a shorter part. Reform congregations generally focus on a passage of ten to twenty verses from the weekly portion with the Rabbi (or Bar/Bat Mitzvah) choosing the section of the traditional parashah that is most meaningful.

On a week like this, when the Torah portion goes from Leviticus 16 through Leviticus 20, I usually choose what is known as the Holiness Code, the beautifully spiritual and practical passage that starts with “You shall be holy,  for I, the Lord your God, am holy,”  and concludes with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19.1-18).  One cannot get more profound than this essential message from the Torah. That is what I usually choose.

What I usually do not choose are the two verses in the Torah which prohibit homosexual relations. They are problematic on several levels. In Leviticus 18.22, we have the commandment: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” And, in Leviticus 20.13, we have this law: “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them.” Though the Hebrew Bible does not seem to know about lesbian relationships, the negative judgment about male homosexuality is quite clear, and we who have more modern sensibilities are put in a position of choosing between the Bible and individual liberties.

The context may give us a little help. The Leviticus 18 passage is in the midst of prohibitions of sexual practices of surrounding nations—sexual practices that the Torah considers terrible. Leviticus 18 begins with, “You shall not copy the practices of the Land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the Land of Canaan to which I am taking you…” and concludes with “Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants.” One could read this text as the Torah’s writers trying to establish a separation between our behavior and that of our sinful neighbors.

A similar reading could be attempted for the Leviticus 20 passage: it is part of a section prohibiting incest. Could one read this as a prohibition of intra-family sexual liaisons and not as a blanket condemnation for all homosexuality?

There is also some thinking that some of the forbidden sexual behavior was part of the Canaanite religion. They believed that the fertility of the land is the result of the copulation of the two main gods, Baal and Ashtoreth, and their temples featured all kinds of sexual rituals which “got the gods in the mood.” The Bible’s Prophets considered these temples with their sacred prostitutes and religious orgies disgraceful and spoke against them vehemently. Therefore, a modern could ask: Was the objection to these sexual practices moral or ritual? Were the sexual practices evil in-and- of-themselves, or was the problem that they were part of a polytheistic, idolatrous cult?

Some modern thinkers have also wondered whether the Bible’s writers understood the possibility of a loving, consensual homosexual relationship. Indeed, one modern rabbi, Arthur Waskow of Philadelphia, gave a kind of tongue-in-cheek Midrash on the subject. The prohibition forbids a man lying with a man as with a woman, but, in loving homosexual relationships, both men are thinking of each other as men and not as women; hence the verse would not apply.

These are all ways that modern liberal religionists try to historicize or Midrash their way out of the prohibitions, but I think that these verses are so clear that such Midrashim are more eisegesis than exegesis—reading our thoughts into the text, rather than drawing out the essential truths of the text. The fact is that Torah is quite clear about prohibiting homosexual relations. What can we do with this very clear declaration?

Some subjects are not so clear and are much more amenable to modern interpretations. An example is abortion, a subject not addressed anywhere in the Bible. In order to derive a Biblically-based opinion on the voluntary termination of pregnancy, moderns are forced to engage in a reasoning process in which they draw on (tangentially) relevant Biblical principles and extend them into relevance. This is how both pro-choice and anti-abortion thinkers arrive at their religious positions. However, when it comes to homosexuality, there is no ambivalence in the Bible, and thus it is very difficult to argue with Orthodox Jews or Fundamentalist/Literalist Christians. Even if one were to explain that homosexual/lesbian inclinations are innate—created by God in each LGBTQA individual, the text still stands: God creates all kinds of sinful urges in us, and it is our duty is to be guided by the Biblical rules and resist the sinful urges.

So, while some modern subjects can be Midrashed, something as unequivocal as the Biblical prohibition of homosexuality pushes us to clarify our thinking on the nature of the Torah and its authority over our lives. If the Torah/Bible is as Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist/Literalist Christians believe, the authoritative and unchanging law that God commands us to follow—and upon which God will judge us at the end of our days, then there is very little wiggle-room. The Torah considers homosexuality perverse and sinful, and it says so twice in this week’s portions.

If, on the other hand, we have a different view of the revelatory texts—considering them human works based on what the authors thought was piety and goodness, then we can thoughtfully and spiritually disagree with some of their opinions. The liberal religious understanding—in both Judaism and Christianity—is that the Torah/Bible is the product of wise human beings whose writings reflect their thinking about God and their ideas on how to live in relationship with God. It makes sense that they would have written in their time-bound and culture-bound attitudes of propriety, but time, culture, and science have redefined our understanding of many components of life—among them, sexual orientation. We see LGBTQA sexual orientations as natural varieties of human sexuality and therefore not moral or theological problems.

In some religious circles, it is uncomfortable to draw a distinction between reverence for the Bible and strict obedience to it, but, in my mind, it is the only way that we moderns can reconcile traditional religiosity and our modern beliefs in personal autonomy and civil liberties.

Can Personal Things be Religious?

April 20th: Tazria/Metzora
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Back in 1979, when the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Pahlavi Dynasty and brought the exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini back to Iran to rule their new “Islamic Republic,” Americans wanted to know who this religious leader was: What did he believe? What did he plan for Iran? How was his idea of an Islamic Republic going to work?

Journalists quickly got to work, and one of the findings was a book the Ayatollah had written about living a holy life. In excerpts printed in one of the weekly news magazines, we learned the kinds of things he prescribed for believers. Among them—and pardon the graphic details—were instructions on how a male should hold his organ while urinating. The implication was that this guy was going to try to control everything—and, indeed, his Islamic Republic brought a reign of terror to the people of Iran. The largely secular Iranian population suffered significantly, and one can see the gradual but persistent movement back to civil liberties over the last few decades.

I am in no way defending Ayatollah Khomeini or his government’s actions. However, I think that the news magazine misinterpreted the section of his book giving detailed instructions for non-religious activities. While we think of things like personal hygiene as non-religious, this is a new sensibility in human thinking. While we compartmentalize the various realms of our lives, the ancients saw everything as coming from God and everything as having a proper, God-created way to be done correctly. Not only did God create the Torah, but also God created the bladder and urethra. We Jews even celebrate this fact in the following traditional morning prayer: “We praise You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the World, who has fashioned the human body with sublime wisdom, creating in it various openings and chambers. It is well known before the Throne of Your Glory that, if one of the chambers would stay open or one of the openings would be blocked, it would be impossible for us to exist and stand before You in prayer. We praise You, O Lord, Who wondrously heals all flesh.”

Given the physical details of our bodies, traditional religions figured that part of the Divine creative process was how best to deal with our physicality. Thus there are lots of instructions or suggestions for parts of life that we might find shockingly personal.

In the Talmud, we read:
We have been taught: A person should wash the face, the hands, and the feet every day for the sake of the Creator, as it is said, “The Lord has made everything for God’s purpose.” (Proverbs 16.5)  (Shabbat 50b)

Beware of three things: do not sit too long, for sitting aggravates hemorrhoids. Do not stand too long, for standing too long is harmful to the heart. Do not walk too much, for too much walking is harmful to the eyes. It is best to spend a third of one’s time sitting, a third standing, and a third walking. (Ketubot 111.b)

Eight things are harmful in large quantities, but beneficial in small ones: travel and sexual intercourse, riches and trade, wine and sleep, hot baths and blood-letting. (Gitten 70a)

 In Midrash Rabba, we read:
Once, when Hillel went out for a walk, he said he was going out to do a mitzvah. What mitzvah? To take a bath (in preparation for Shabbat). This is a mitzvah? He explained, “If the statues erected to kings in the theaters and circuses are washed and scrubbed by those in charge of them, how much more should we who are created in the Divine Image take care of our bodies. As it is written in Genesis (9.6), ‘For in the image of God was the human created.’” (Leviticus Rabba 24.3)

In the Shulchan Aruch (circa 1565), we read:
One should not sit [to defecate] in a rushed or forceful manner. And one should not force himself exceedingly, so that he might not rupture the anal sphincter. (Orach Chayim, Paragraph 9)

One should not urinate from a standing position lest it sprinkle down upon his legs, if he is not on a high place, or relieving himself upon loose earth… (Orach Chayim, Paragraph 13)

One who delays his cavities [from elimination] transgresses the commandment in Leviticus 11.43, “You shall not make yourselves loathsome.” (Orach Chayim, Paragraph 17)

The thinking is that even the little details of our physical selves are part of God’s provenance and are therefore potentially holy, and this sensibility goes all the way back to the Torah. That is why this week’s passages that deal with ejaculations and menstrual fluid and various other bodily functions are included in the Torah. They too are part of God’s creation and should be treated with dignity and holiness.  

So, while there is ample reason to decry the authoritarianism and tyranny of the Iranian Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s advice on personal hygiene should not be seen as part of that tyranny. It is part of an ancient and multi-cultural sensibility in which every little detail of life is deemed religious. As we learn, we are created in the Image of God—all of us, in every detail.


"Why Have You Not Built Me a House of Cedar?"

April 13th: Shemini
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our Torah portion celebrates the dedication of the Mishkan, the portable tent temple which our ancient ancestors carried with them on their wanderings through the wilderness. When they arrived in the Promised Land, the Mishkan was pitched in several places, but the most famous was Shiloh. (The modern West Bank city of Shiloh celebrates this heritage with a synagogue constructed to look like the ancient Mishkan.)

Eventually, of course, the Mishkan was replaced with the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, and our Haftarah wrestles with a kind of ambivalence about which is the best setting for worship. On the one hand, the Temple was glorious: it was renowned the world over, and the closeness to God achieved there was amazing. On the other hand, does God really need such a fancy place? As God says to the prophet Nathan: “Go and say to My servant David: Thus said the Lord: Are you the one to build a house for Me to dwell in? From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle (Mishkan). As I moved about wherever the Israelites went, did I ever reproach any of the tribal leaders whom I appointed to care for My people Israel: Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?” (Second Samuel 7.4-7.)

Indeed, after the Temple was built by David’s son, Solomon, there were still holdouts among the Israelites for a simpler, nature-oriented worship: not in the midst of a great edifice in a noisy city, but on the top of a hill or in a grove of beautiful trees. We know about these holdouts because, for centuries after the Temple was built, the prophets railed against those who continued to worship at these bamot / high places.

 In modern times, many worshippers feel the same tension. Synagogue and church architecture can be wonderful, and there are some incredible buildings that give honor to God and inspire the worshippers. On the other hand, many worshippers also feel a special holiness in more natural places—mountain tops, forests, or seashores. I remember the story of one of my predecessors in Savannah, Rabbi Solomon Starrels, who used to live on the beach and found great holiness in the surf. That, said he, was where he felt the closest to God. Those of us who have spent time at Jewish summer camps can attest to the special spirituality of an outdoor chapel. In fact, if you look at the publicity materials of most camps, special mention is made of the natural holiness the campers find in these non-synagogue worship places. And, do not forget the special sense of the Divine which many pilgrims find pretty much anywhere in Israel: on Masada, overlooking the Jordan Valley, on Mount Carmel or Hermon. Even the remnant of the Temple—the Western Wall—is now an outdoor worship space, and it is certainly filled with holiness.

This curious irony can sometimes be seen at Protestant churches. On the lawn, right next to a beautiful church, many congregations will set up an old-fashioned revival tent—to get back to the simplicity of the good ol’ days, but only occasionally.

How fortunate for us that God can be met in many places—in the sanctuary and in the field, in communal worship and in solitary meditation. Remember what David said: “The Lord is near to all who call, to all who call out wholeheartedly.” (Psalm 145)

Pesach and Moral Transformation

April 6th: Last Day of Passover
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Passover is full of messages. In addition to all the lessons in the Haggadah, there are also traditional Torah readings assigned for the first and second days AND the seventh and eighth days AND the Sabbath in the middle (if there is one). In other words, the ancient Rabbis putting together the Seder texts and the schedule of Torah and Haftarah readings were working with lots of possible lessons. It is interesting to see which lessons they decided to include.

For the end of Passover, we are bidden to return to Passover’s most important theme: concern for others. Since we are supposed to be in the mindset of someone who experienced both the slavery in Egypt and the redemption, it should not be too difficult to see ourselves in the situation of those who are poor or oppressed or alienated. As we read in our Haggadah: “This holy experience can effect within our hearts and our minds a moral transformation: we pledge not to be oppressors and to do our best to set the oppressed free.”

 So, our Torah portion (Deuteronomy 14.22-16.17) gives us a kind of ethical to-do list of good and righteous things:
(1)   Save the best of your resources for a major festival to God.
(2)   Share these choice foods with the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.
(3)   Forgive debts that are more than six years old.
(4)   Be kind-hearted in collecting money due you from poor people.
(5)   If people serve you to pay off their debts, release them after six years and give them resources when they leave—so they won’t be reduced to debt-slavery again. 
(6)   Give honor to God Who is the source of all your blessings—and your freedom.
(7)   Remember and observe all of God’s festivals—for God’s blessings are with you all year.

One of the most striking things about Jewish law is the way it appeals to the heart. Oh, yes, there are plenty of regulations and rules. But, there is also an essence of sympathy and empathy at the base of it all. Notice, the basic lesson from Passover as it is stated in Exodus 23: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

And, note the way the ancient Sage Hillel summarized the entirety of the Torah: “Once a heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘I will be converted if you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.’  Shammai instantly drove him away with the builder’s measure he had in his hand.  The same man came before Hillel.  ‘I will be converted if you teach me all the Torah while I stand on one foot.’  Hillel converted him. He said to him: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.  That is the whole Torah.  All the rest is commentary.  Now, go and study.’” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31A)

When we think about how we feel—and project our feelings onto the people around us, we realize their value and our own—and the importance of behaving righteously and with kindness.

Pesach Musings on Our Jewish Mores

March 30th: Pesach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When we read the instructions for the first Passover meal, we usually focus on the communal killing of the lambs at sundown, the painting of the doorposts, and the hurried eating of the roasted lamb with matzah and bitter herbs. However, the Torah is also concerned about leftovers: “Do not leave any of it over until morning; if any of it is left until morning, you shall burn it in fire.” (Exodus 12.8-10)

 What do you do with leftovers of a holy, sacrificial meal? They are not in the same category as regular leftovers: this is holy food, and the Torah does not want them treated disrespectfully.

This concern is found in other passages throughout the Torah. Just last week, we read: “And the flesh of his thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until morning. If, however, the sacrifice he offers is a votive or a freewill offering , it shall be eaten on the day that he offers his sacrifice, and what is left of it shall be eaten on the morrow. What is then left of the flesh of the sacrifice shall be consumed in fire on the third day. If any of the flesh of his sacrifice is eaten on the third day, it shall not be acceptable; it shall not count for him who offered it. It is pigul, an offensive thing, and the person who eats of it shall bear his guilt.” (Leviticus 7.13)

This same word, pigul / disgusting or offensive is found in Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code: “When you sacrifice an offering of well-being to the Lord, sacrifice it so that it may be accepted on your behalf. It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it, or on the day following; but what is left by the third day must be consumed in fire. If it should be eaten on the third day, it is pigul—an offensive thing, it will not be acceptable. And he who eats of it shall bear his guilt, for he has profaned what is sacred to the Lord; that person shall be cut off from his kin.”

The concern here seems to be one of propriety—of treating the sacred food and the relationship it represents with God in a respectful and dignified manner. Also, in last week’s Torah portion, there was a concern with eating a sacrificial meal while in a state of ritual impurity: “Flesh that touches anything impure shall not be eaten (in a sacrificial meal); it shall be consumed in fire. As for other flesh, only one who is pure may eat such flesh. But the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin. When a person touches anything impure, be it human impurity or an impure animal or any impure creature, and eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin.” (Leviticus 7.19-21) The Torah wants us to know that leaving sacred food to rot in an empty house—after the Israelites departed Egypt, or eating three day-old leftover sacrifices, or eating the sacred foods while in a state of ritual impurity is not the proper way to conduct one’s relationship with the Divine.

As with any discussion of propriety or impropriety, there are levels or intensities to consider. Notice how the Torah applies three different levels of penalties in regard to these pigul / disgusting behaviors. The first level is simply informing the worshippers of proper and respectful behavior. Every society or group sets mores so that its members know how to behave in various situations. Many people want to be compliant and will follow the prescribed behavior once they know what it is. The second level of penalty is a bit more ambiguous: “that person shall bear his guilt.” Apparently, there is no immediate penalty enforced by the group, but the misdeed goes on the person’s cosmic account, and God will consider it when the time comes. The third level is intriguing because of its multivalent significance: “That person shall be cut off from his kin.” In the tribal wilderness experience, this punishment might have involved abandonment—in the middle of nowhere, with no water or provisions. In the more settled agrarian setting of the Talmud, this Biblical phrase was often understood as involving exclusion from reward in the next world—making it worse than death. In subsequent generations, cutting someone off involved the cherem or ban or excommunication. The communal authorities would ban the rule violator and instruct the rest of the community to cease and desist all contact with him/her.

In the modern world—where generally we do not ban people for incorrect ritual behavior, perhaps there is another way to look at this phrase. Perhaps, rather than seeing aberrant behavior as the reason for an expulsion, we can look at aberrant behavior as a way for an individual to cut him/herself off from an affiliation. Most people are intelligent enough to recognize social mores, and they have been trained in proper and respectful behavior. When they break with respectful behavior, is it possible that they are acting out their disagreements or discomfort and voluntarily removing themselves from the group?

This brings us back to Passover and the traditional story of the four sons: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t even know what question to ask. The “wickedness” of the second son is based on the way the question is asked: “What do you mean by this celebration?” The Rabbis interpreted the word you as the child saying, “This is your celebration, and not mine.” The traditional answer is, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”  By emphasizing the words me and I, the suggestion is that this child would not have been included.

For many traditionally minded Jews, moving away from communal mores is a great sin. One who does not commit fully or participate fully in the tribe is deemed a sinner or a traitor—hence the characterization of this second son as wicked.

 On the other hand, I think that many modern Jews experience a kind of ambivalence about Judaism and Jewish behaviors. Based on a variety of factors—both sociological and psychological, they feel less than 100% comfortable and wonder how they fit into Jewish Identity and the Jewish community. When the deviate from communal customs and mores, are they being wicked, or are they just uncomfortable?

I prefer to think of this second child as standoffish rather than wicked. The question, “What do you mean by this celebration?” could be an expression of this feeling of distance. My answer would be: “Only those who included themselves as members of the Israelite people experienced the Exodus. Would you have included yourself?” I would also add, “If you do not feel part of us today, please know that we miss you, and we hope that you come back soon.”


Attracting the Lord's Presence

March 23rd: Tzav
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There are lots and lots of details in Leviticus, and some seem more compelling than others. In some ways, this part of the Torah is like a recipe book. As a step by step guide to offering sacrifices, it is excellent. However, without a narrative thread, Leviticus can be hard going. Nonetheless, there are some compelling lessons—where the ancient spiritual dynamic can instruct us in our own.

The sacrifices were in most cases meals—sacred meals cooked and eaten in honor of God. Worshippers would bring forth their offerings of food materials, and the priests would prepare the holy meals. Then, both worshippers and priests would share the food. Depending on the ritual purpose of the sacrifice and the relative wealth or poverty of the worshipper, various animals were brought forth: oxen, calves, sheep, goats, and even doves. Then there was the grain—probably wheat or barley. Then there was oil, and then there was wine. Sometimes, the worshippers would bring already prepared bread—and the Torah mentions several kinds, some leavened and others unleavened. Other times, the priests would mix grain and oil and make a kind of griddle cake on the altar.

The inedible parts of the animals were, of course, not eaten. These were burned until they were ashes and removed from the holy precinct. In the case of the grain offerings, some were made inedible by the addition of frankincense, and they were burned as a re’ach nicho’ach ladonai, a “pleasing odor to the Lord.”

This phrase re’ach nicho’ach ladonai is used quite a bit in the Torah, though I think the current colloquial understanding of odor as unpleasant is not what the ancients meant. Perhaps the word aroma might be a better translation. The idea was that God liked certain aromas and would come to enjoy them. The smell of certain incenses and the smell of cooking meat was pleasant, and the ancient understanding was that such good smells would attract God (or the gods) so people could offer their prayers.

The question for us—some 3000 years later—is how do we attract God’s presence? Of course, our attitude is that God is omnipresent: already here and paying attention. We do not have to get God to move from another place to our vicinity. And yet, there is still a notion of making God feel welcome. We do so with our sincerity, with our piety, with our righteousness and holiness and humility—and here are the Biblical verses which remind us how this all works:

Psalm 145.18: “The Lord is near to all who call, to all who call out with sincerity.”

Psalm 33.1: “The righteous rejoice with the Lord; it is fitting for the upright to praise God.”
Which has been interpreted by the Sages of the Prayer Book to mean: “By the mouths of the upright are You acclaimed. By the words of the righteous are You praised. By the tongues of the faithful are You exalted. In the midst of the holy are You made Holy.”

Micah 6.8: “It has been told you, O Humans, what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Fixing What is Broken?

March 16th: Vayikra
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

A great resource for studying the weekly Torah portion is “Ten Minutes of Torah,” a feature sent out every Monday by the Union for Reform Judaism. This e-mail includes a Torah commentary and an alternative view of the portion. The writers are usually Reform rabbis or professors at the Hebrew Union College, and they always combine traditional and modern insights as we search our sacred texts for meaning. (Available at

This week, as we start Leviticus, the main commentary is written by Rabbi David Lyon of Houston, Texas, and the alternative view (Davar Acher) is written by Rabbi Paul Cohen of Northfield, Illinois.

Given that the Book of Leviticus instructs the ancient Israelites—and their kohanim /priests—on the rituals that God requires, Rabbi Lyon focuses on the meaning of the Hebrew word, korban, which is usually translated as sacrifice. What did it mean for the ancients to bring sacrifices? “To begin, in Near Eastern cultures of the time, sacrifices on altars were brought to feed gods that were represented by statues of deities. People brought them animals, grains, and oils, among other gifts. In contrast, we learn in Torah that animal and grain sacrifices were brought by Israelites to create a link between the One God, God’s people, and the world. The priests facilitated the process, for which they were compensated; but, it was the presentation of the sacrifices by the Israelites themselves to the priests that was the most precious gift because their personal sacrifices drew them closer to God. The Hebrew root of the word, korban, means “to draw near” or “to draw close.” Unlike the English translation, “sacrifice,” which suggests losing something in the act of offering, a korban enabled the Israelites to draw nearer to God’s justice and mercy.” The rest of his message deals with the quality of our motivations when approaching God. Do we approach with our best intentions, or do we shortchange our relationship with the Divine?

Rabbi Cohen focuses his alternative view on the remedial nature of the ancient sacrifices—how many of the rituals involved restoring ritual purity or atoning for sin—and reminds us of one of the Torah’s most important life lessons: if it can be broken, it can be fixed. He writes:  “So much of this book and in particular, this Torah portion…speaks to the fact that we will commit transgressions. Some will be by mistake and some will be intentional. Regardless, the Torah clearly teaches that we have the opportunity and the responsibility to repair the damage we have done and to seek forgiveness. Forgiveness and repair are always available to us. What a powerful lesson to teach our children. You do not have to be defined by your mistakes. You can fix what you have broken.

 A story is told about the Musar master, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. One night he walked past the home of an old shoemaker, and noticed that despite the late hour, the man was still working by the light of a dying candle. "Why are you still working?" he asked. "It is very late and soon that candle will go out." The shoemaker replied, "As long as the candle is still burning, there is time to make repairs." Rabbi Salanter spent that entire night repeating to himself: "As long as the candle is still burning, there is time to make repairs." The Book of Proverbs teaches that a person’s soul is the lamp [candle] of God (Proverbs 20:27). From the simple shoemaker, Rabbi Salanter took the message never to give up on the idea that we can repair that which is broken. As long as the candle is burning you can still make repairs. As long as there is life, there is still time to make spiritual repairs as well. We can set right all the things that are wrong.”

I appreciate Rabbi Cohen’s teaching, and I think that it is very important these days—when there is so much wrong-doing. Wrongs should not be done, but they often are, and we are left with the question of responding to less than godly behavior. It clearly needs to be identified and decried, and the victims need to be heard and comforted. And, the perpetrators need to stop their evil deeds. But, can they/we ever be forgiven? Can they/we ever fix things?

I think it is a mistake to think in terms of removing the pain and making things as good as new. For many misdeeds, pain, trauma, and a sense of vulnerability persist. Things cannot be made perfect again. And yet, one hopes for a way to continue living and finding meaning in life. And, one hopes for a way for evildoers to repent. How does a sinner turn from his/her evil ways, do teshuvah/repentance, and return to God and godliness? It is an essential teaching of our religion—though it may take our best thinking to figure out exactly what real repentance may involve.

Consider this Midrash, found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10.2 and in Midrash Rabba on Ruth, 5.6.  It deals with the most evil king of Israel, Manasseh, an idolater who persecuted the Prophet Isaiah and committed every kind of evil. Eventually, he was captured by the Assyrians and tortured. “They placed him in a device made of copper. (2 Chronicles 33.11) A copper caldron with many holes in it was devised for the torture of Manasseh. After he was put into the caldron, a slow fire was started under it. When Manasseh saw that his peril was indeed great, there was no idol anywhere in the world that he failed to call upon by name: O idol So-and-so, and O idol Such-and-such, come and deliver me! When he perceived that his appeal availed him nothing at all, he said: I remember that my father had read me a particular verse, “In thy distress, when all these things come upon thee…return to the Lord thy God.” (Deuteronomy 4.30) All right then, I will call upon my father’s God; if He answers me, well and good, but if not, then all deities are alike—equally worthless. At this point, the ministering angels began shutting heaven’s windows so that Manasseh’s prayer would not come up before Him who is everywhere. They put the question to Him: Master of the Universe, a man who set up an idol in the Temple—can you possibly accept the repentance of such a man? The Holy One replied: If I do not receive him in his repentance, I shall be barring the door to all those who would repent. What did the Holy One do for Manasseh? He made an opening under His very throne of glory—so the angels could not interfere with it—and listened to Manasseh’s supplication. Hence it is written, “And he prayed unto Him, and He was entreated of him.” (2 Chronicles 33.13)

The gates of repentance are always open. What must we do to enter them?



Bringing Heaven to Earth

March 9th: Vayak’hel and Pekude
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

I often get a sense of déjà vu when I read one of the passages as this week’s portion begins:“Moses said to the whole community of Israelites: This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart is so moved shall bring these gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other fine stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastplate.” (Exodus 35.4-9)
Didn’t we already read this—back in Exodus 24, three weeks ago?!

Well, yes, we did read pretty much the same words. However, the Exodus 24 version is God talking to Moses—beginning the very long, very detailed instructions for the Mishkan, while this week gives us Moses down from Mount Sinai and conveying the instructions to the children of Israel. It’s what we could call “follow through.” It is one thing to hear instructions; it is another thing entirely to follow them. The Israelites certainly follow through, responding so enthusiastically with the requested donations that Moses has to stop them. They bring more than enough! Then, Betzalel and the other artisans get to work and follow God’s instructions precisely. The project is diligently completed, and the result is all that God and the Israelites hope it would be: God has a place to dwell in our midst. “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” (Exodus 40.34)

Though none of us have had an experience like that of Moses up on Mount Sinai—or of the Israelites in all of the miracles of the Exodus, I suspect that we have had our moments of inspiration—moments when we realized important paths to pursue. Sometimes, we follow through on these compelling ideas. Sometimes, they remain in our aspirations—as theoretical but unfulfilled possibilities. Of course, we cannot pursue every great idea or right every wrong. And, sometimes, our great insights turn out to be unrealistic or temporarily impossible. However, a mark of a successful life is our ability to take advantage of the revelations we are given and to move toward the goodness we can sometimes glimpse. This story of Moses and the Children of Israel following through and making the revelation real should be a reminder that we too are called by God and charged with making a difference in this world.

Apropos to this reminder, let me share three pieces. One is from our synagogue’s foyer and is a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson—inscribed in memory of Denise Ziff:
 “To laugh often and love much, to win the respect of intelligent persons and
the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and
to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation;
to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.”

The second is a piece by Rabbi Chaim Stern, using a number of quotations from the Psalms, the Prophets, Pirke Avot, and the Talmud.
“We live in two worlds: the one that is, and the one that might be.
Nothing is ordained for us: neither delight nor defeat, neither peace nor war.
Life flows, and we must freely choose. We can, if we will, change the world that is,
into the world that may come to be, as we were taught from of old:
Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from deceitful speech.
Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it.
Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it,
Loving all human beings, and bringing them to the Torah.
The whole Torah exists only to bring peace, as it is written:
Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.
Let justice dwell in the wilderness, righteousness in the fruitful field.
For righteousness shall lead to peace; it shall bring quietness and confidence for ever.
Then all shall sit under their vines and under their fig-trees, and none shall make them afraid. 

(Gates of Prayer, page 216)

The third is a meditation on God’s Name and our role in making it great. It is in our congregational prayer book, Siddur B’rit Shalom on page 70.
“The Aramaic term שְׁמֵהּ דְּקֻדְשָׁא Sh’may d’Kud’sha means “God’s Holy Name,”
but it can also mean “God’s Reputation,” and thus does it reflect a particular Divine
vulnerability. God’s power and reputation are dependent on the behavior of God’s
people. It is nice to declare our faith in God or to have a religious experience,
but neither is complete unless we actually behave in godly ways.
Praising God is fine, but praise from the righteous is what really counts.
Sanctifying God is lovely, but only one who is behaving in a holy manner
can show the world that God’s ways are worth adopting as our own.”

Let us treasure those moments when we see something useful and important—and that we can do. And, let us endeavor to make our contributions to the World That May Come To Be.





Mining the Tradition or Losing it

March 2nd: Ki Tissa
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though the Golden Calf Incident is the big story in this week’s Torah portion, I would like to look at the passages around it: the continuing commandments for the priesthood and the sacrificial cult—a form of worship which we no longer practice. We read about this system in great detail, but we have not worshipped this way for almost 2000 years. Though there is the traditional hope about returning to the glories of Temple sacrifices, there is a strong sense among many Jews that our prayers can get us just as close to God as the ancient sacrificial meals. The great mediaeval scholar, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, even says as much: God did not need the meat or the blood. What God wanted was the attention of our ancestors and their piety and obedience. Understanding that the sacrificial form of worship is what was commonly understood as worship at that time, God turned it into part of the Israelite religion. Now, however, worship has been redefined as prayers, piety, and obedience, and therefore God has no need for sacrifices again.

This religious transformation is one of the largest changes—or, as historian Ellis Rivkin would put it, quantum leaps—in Jewish history, but it is not the only one. Think for a minute about how Chanukah has changed from a minor holiday to a major Jewish event. Think about how Sukkot and Shavuot—once major pilgrimage festivals—are now observed in minor ways, if at all. Though we often hear someone railing against the importance of Chanukah, insisting that it is a minor holiday (a statement that is historically and Talmudically true), the fact is that Chanukah has grown significantly in the last century. The insistence that Chanukah is minor is only argued because the holiday has morphed into something much more than minor.

 I used to be one of these railers, and I remember going on and on at an adult study group about how Sukkot is supposed to be much more important than it is. Complaining about the relative inauthenticity of modern Judaism because we have changed the priorities of the traditional holiday calendar, I thought I was being fairly eloquent when one of the participants cut me down and changed my thinking. “Don’t we have the right to find meaning in what is most meaningful to us? If we are not celebrating Sukkot in the traditional and emphatic way, could it be that we modern Jews do not find it particularly meaningful? Could this be a case of Judaism developing to meet the religious needs of each new generation of Jews?”

Perhaps for those of us who do not live agrarian lives, a harvest festival does not resonate with our lives—certainly not like it struck a chord with farming communities who worked and waited anxiously all summer, hoping for a good harvest. Perhaps, our ways of making a living call for a different kind of celebratory “harvest festival.” Perhaps, in our modern and decidedly non-Jewish world, a more meaningful holiday is one which celebrates the courage of standing up for our religious beliefs—both back in 165 BCE and now. Perhaps the Maccabees are the kind of role models we need now. Perhaps we are intuitively finding meaning in our Jewish Tradition in ways that feed our modern spirits.

Yes, I stopped railing and started looking at modern Jewish religiosity a little more anthropologically. Rather than comparing modern observance to that of the past and finding fault, I began to look at modern observance as Jews mining their religious tradition for ways to nurture and express their Jewish souls. So, when I see a religious change, I feel the need to invoke patience and sit back in observation. Is this an organic development in religiosity, or is it something to resist?

How, for example, am I to regard the fact that our congregation’s Saturday morning service is dying? Though Jewish Tradition has always considered the Saturday morning service to be the primary worship experience of the week, the 20th Century saw the Friday night service rise in popularity—especially in the Reform Movement. Indeed, in many congregations, people stopped attending Saturday morning services and chose Friday night instead. This is why many Reform congregations read Torah on Friday night: they want their congregants to have a full worship experience. In many congregations, the only Saturday morning services are for B’nai Mitzvah.

This is the way it was in Congregation Brit Shalom for our first forty years. According to the stories I have been told, the main and only service of the week was on Friday night, and the only times there was a Saturday morning service was for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Then, around twenty-five years ago, a group of people decided that they wanted a Saturday morning service, too. They got the minyan together and, for many years, it functioned very well. However, during the last several years, a variety of things happened to dampen participation. Some people moved away. Others passed away. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah families felt less motivated to attend services—particularly the longer and hebraically more difficult Saturday morning service. Minyans were harder to get, but we limped along. Recently, however, infirmity, death, and relocation have really hit the service hard. We get a minyan less than a quarter of the time. The only times we are sure of a full service in when we have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah—or Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. (This last year, when Yom Kippur was on a Saturday, our “minyan” was over 300 strong!) However, on an average Saturday, we’ll get four or eight worshippers, and those who come to say Kaddish cannot. I have compiled a special non-minyan prayer so that mourners can memorialize their departed loved ones, but there is no minyan, and a full service is not possible. It has gotten to the point where I say to people who want to say Kaddish, “Friday night is a much safer bet.”

So, is this a time for railing, or is this a time to simply observe the changing nature of our congregation? Can the Saturday morning service be saved, or is it like the ancient sacrificial cult and priesthood, something that was good at one time but which is simply not the way we do Judaism anymore?

Our congregation has much to celebrate: a spiritual and well-attended Friday night service, a vibrant and well-attended Adult Torah Luncheon, a very active and exciting religious school—and Tot Shabbat and Teen Torah and High Holy Day Services and a Communal Passover Seder and a film series and lots of great programming. We have lots of ways to be Jewish and to do Jewishly. We get what we want by voting with our feet. It will be interesting to observe our choices.



Wearing the Uniform of Priesthood

February 23rd: Tetzaveh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Among the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle/Tent Temple), we read about the vestments to be worn by the High Priest. It must have been a grand uniform, with woven work of blue, purple, and crimson yarns and of fine twisted linen. There was a breastplate with twelve gem stones and gold chains. The hem of the robe had little pomegranates and golden bells all around. There was an elaborate headdress with a gold “frontlet” handing down onto the priest’s forehead. Upon this frontlet were the words, “Holy to the Lord.”

The idea was to dedicate the priest’s work to God. This was not the aggrandizement of a human, but rather the tasking of a human, and the human had to remember to stay on task—to do God’s holy work.

The ancient priesthood is today just a part of memory. Instead of sacrifices performed by the kohanim/priests, our services consist of prayers. This means that there really are no priestly duties—though descendants of the priests are honored in various ways in the synagogue. Until the Temple is rebuilt and the sacrificial worship system is reinstated, the priestly role is primarily honorific.

There is another way that we can look at this notion of priesthood—that a special group of people can be dedicated to holiness. Though the ancient priests had specific tasks to do in the Mishkan and later the Temple, all of the Israelites were charged with a responsibility for holiness. Remember what God said just before the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19.4-6

Before the rules for the priests, before the instructions for their vestments, and before the declaration that Aaron and his sons were to be the priests in perpetuity, there is this metaphorical ordination of the entire people. There is for each one of us an element of ritual and moral priesthood. We are all called to be priests!

The Rabbis understood this, and, though they did not de-emphasize the priesthood, they did craft a series of rituals that elevated individual Jews to a sense of priestly value. And, they followed the sensibility of the High Priest’s uniform, offering individuals the suggestion that they, too, can be “Holy to the Lord.” Here is how our Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, explains it (page 509):

“The gold template marked ‘Holy to the Lord’ was to remind him to direct his thoughts to God when he officiated and to protect him against feelings of excessive pride (Talmud Zevachim 88b). This awareness is reflected today in the practice of wearing t’fillin on the forehead and of wrapping a t’fillin strap around the arm and hand in a way that spells out God’s name Shaddai (Almighty). Not only the High Priest is consecrated to God but every Israelite man and woman is. The development of Jewish law and observance has produced numerous instances of obligations and prohibitions that originally were intended only for kohanim (priests) democratically extended to all Jews. This is to help us fulfill our mandate to be ‘a kingdom of priests” (mamlekhet kohanim) (Exodus 19).”

Many Jews find great meaning in wearing t’fillin during morning prayers. Many find meaning when wearing a tallit—as weaver Ruth Gaines put it, of wrapping themselves in sacred space. The same can be said for any number of Jewish observances, from wearing a kippah to keeping kosher to praying and to wearing Jewishly themed jewelry. These are all ways of declaring that we are “Holy to the Lord” and instilling/inspiring a sense of priestly mission.

Of course, the symbolism is all for a point: God is hoping that we act on our priestly potential by exercising moral leadership—choosing the right and holy way to live in every aspect of our lives. Just as the enormity of the world was created molecule by molecule, so will the world be perfected: deed by deed, righteousness by righteousness, kindness by kindness, enlightenment by enlightenment. In every place and every moment, we have the opportunity to make the vital and holy choices upon which God’s hopes depend.

The Biblical assignment of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” is both a great honor and a great responsibility. We have it in us to be “Holy to the Lord,” and God is praying that we live up to our destiny.


Making the Tradition Our Own

February 16th: Terumah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

If one were to make a list of the most archaic Torah portions, this week’s would be near the top. It is the one which details the details of constructing the Mishkan—the Tabernacle or Tent Temple used by the Israelite in the desert. As God puts it in Exodus 25.8, “Let them make me a sanctuary (Mishkan) that I may dwell among them.” This is a beautiful and profound sensibility, but then we get to details about materials and building instructions ad infinitum, ad naseum. Other than the concept of making God welcome, the details and details make this one—pardon the expression—a “yawner.”

Some may suggest that other portions are equally as difficult. What about the Leviticus portions with the extensive rules for sacrifices? They are not very useful today, but if/when the Temple is rebuilt, we shall need all those rules to know how to properly worship God. Some may nominate the rules in Leviticus that deal with leprosy of the skin and “leprosy” of the house. True, our medical and mold procedures are more modern, but the morality and practicality of dealing with contagion are still relevant: Torah principles can guide us in our modern situations.

The reason that I would put this week’s portion—and the others devoted to the building of the Mishkan—at the top of the list is that these instructions are for a one-time project: something that was important back then but that is never to be repeated again. This portable “Tent Temple” was designed to travel around with the Israelites while they were wandering in the desert. Then, it resided in various locations in the Promised Land—but only until a permanent Temple could be built.

The most famous location of the Mishkan/Tabernacle was at a place called Shiloh, in what is now the West Bank north of Jerusalem. The modern settler community there constructed their synagogue in the form of the ancient Mishkan, and it is very striking. However, it is a synagogue and not the Tabernacle. No sacrifices are offered. There has not been a Mishkan for some 3000 years, and the Bible does not suggest that there will ever be one again.

So, why do we read and study this every year? The first answer is Tradition. There is something appealing and grounding and meaningful about repeating cultural forms that have come down through the generations. The second answer is Symbolism and Allegory. Ours is not the first generation to realize the problem of relevancy, and our Sages have constructed an elaborate system of symbolic explanations and allegorical lessons for the many details in the construction plans. Remember, Torah is more than just an ancient text; it is the living embodiment of the historical quest for understanding life and holiness. In so many ways, the Torah serves less as a rulebook and more as a locus for the development of wisdom.

A third answer is related to the first two. Facing such archaic texts on a regular basis keeps us in the discussion about how we can be both ancient and modern at the same time. The history of our religion shows a continuing dialogue about what old things we should keep and which old things we do not have to keep—except in memory.

As the historian Ellis Rivkin explains, each generation of Judaism has been faced with a choice about what to do with the religion it inherits. Most often, the choice is replication. Continuity is an important part of any tradition, and countless generations have practiced and taught the Judaism they inherited. Sometimes, however, there developed variations on a theme. An example is the institution of prophecy. At first, the prophet was a tribal leader, a patriarch like Abraham. Later, leaders without tribal seniority but with national responsibilities—like Moses, Joshua, and Samuel—were the prophets. Still later, prophets did not have any political or military authority, functioning rather as advisors and commentators. Nathan, Isaiah, and Elijah were these kinds of prophets. Such variations did not happen very often, but, when they did, it was because the conditions of the world and the needs of our sacred mission demanded adjustments. On three occasions, however, small changes were not enough: the survival of our people and the continuation of our holy work required changes so large that Dr. Rivkin terms them mutations or quantum leaps.  After the Temple was destroyed (586 BCE) and some exiles returned from Babylonia (circa 500 BCE), so much was different that resurrecting our people, our civilization, and our mission required significant changes: the limiting of the priesthood to one family, the elevation of the priests to political and religio/social leadership, and the compiling of many sacred stories into what we now know as the Torah. The other two mutations were the transition from Priestly leadership to Rabbinic (circa 165 BCE) and the development of modern Judaism (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) with its belief in individual religious autonomy.

In every generation, the question has been: what in the Tradition do we continue, and what do we change? This has been a thoroughly Jewish question ever since Sinai. During the last 200 years, the basic position of Reform Judaism—and actually of Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, though they use different language—is that traditional components that are meaningful should be continued, and those that are not meaningful can be put aside. Here’s the way the Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism stated it in 1885:
“We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”

Which ceremonies of traditional Judaism elevate and sanctify our lives? There has often been consensus but never unanimity in the movement. And, the consensus has changed in significant ways over time. Kippot and Tallitot were originally worn, then not worn, and now are worn again. Hebrew was the main part of the service. Then the vernacular became the main language of prayer. Then, in the last 40 years, Hebrew has made a comeback. As the movement itself explains, Reform is a verb. We are not Reformed Jews. We are constantly reforming as we approach life and religion seriously and craft and re-craft our religiosity in ways that elevate and sanctify our lives.

So, when we read about the Mishkan and all those mitzvot that no longer apply, we put ourselves into a very traditional Jewish conversation. We have a tradition that we revere. How do we use it to continue and enhance our sacred endeavor?


"Loved, Each of Us, For the Peace We Bring to Others"

February 9th: Mishpatim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Most of us have had the experience of feeling strange—of being out of place physically or psychically. Though some of us have “never met a stranger” and seem to be able to negotiate most situations smoothly, there are times when we have not fit in and felt awkward, self-conscious, and perhaps even alienated. These are times of vulnerability, and the reaction of those around us—those among whom we are out of place—is very important.

In the case of our ancient Hebrew ancestors, we began our years in Egypt feeling strange but being welcomed. We were semi-nomadic shepherds in a settled agrarian society. The Egyptians, apparently, did not like the taste of lamb or the smell of sheep, so there was a social problem. However, given the great respect Pharaoh had for Joseph—and therefore Joseph’s family, Pharaoh welcomed us with a place of our own, Goshen. Our strangeness was negotiated, and our lives were good. Things changed later, however, when a new Pharaoh “did not know Joseph:” our strangeness was turned into a rationale for oppression, and we were enslaved and treated terribly.

Our experience of strangeness and both good and bad treatment leads us to two complementary ethical texts from the tradition. The first is in this week’s Torah portion. In Exodus 23.9, in the midst of dozens of very specific laws and regulations, we find an almost psychological mitzvah: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The complementary text comes from the Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, 31a:
“Once a heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘I will be converted if you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.’  Shammai instantly drove him away with the builder’s measure he had in his hand.  The same man came before Hillel. ‘I will be converted if you teach me all the Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Hillel converted him. He said to him: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.’”

 As correct and reasonable as Shammai is, Hillel uses the opportunity to teach the convert and us an important lesson: we should think about how we do not want to be treated and then be sure to accord others the same respect and consideration we want for ourselves.

Notice also how the two passages transform a meta-experience—the oppression of a whole nation—into interpersonal advice. Though enslavement and mass murder are clearly more egregious evils, our Tradition realizes that social interactions can also have a kind of brutality, and we are urged to be kind and respectful in both the large and the small realms of life.

Let me share two competing examples. The story is told of a college president who used to invite new faculty members to dine at the presidential mansion. Given the rural setting of the college, many of the faculty were fairly poor scholars from unsophisticated backgrounds. The president’s wife knew this and would serve artichokes—full steamed artichokes—and wait to see if the new teachers knew how to eat them. Apparently, she enjoyed watching them squirm as they tried to figure out what to do with this strange-looking thing. It wasn’t murder, and it wasn’t illegal, but it was unkind to make them feel out of place and strange. One would think that she would have remembered her own moments of social unease and then not have visited similar awkwardness on her guests.

Another is a story about the famed rabbi and professor, Abraham Cronbach. He was famous for his pacifism and for his willingness to officiate at the funerals of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. After their conviction for treason, many rabbis were frightened to give them the dignity of a Jewish funeral—lest their own patriotism be questioned. But Dr. Cronbach was a man of deep conviction who adhered to principle on both the large national and small interpersonal stages. Once, when chaperoning a dance—and noticing the social awkwardness and embarrassment of those who were not invited to dance, he mused, “If I could live my youth again, I would attend all the dances and dance only with the wallflowers.”

Look into your heart and remember those awkward, embarrassing, and perhaps even painful moments where you were a stranger. Think about those feelings and remember Hillel’s words: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

We can also remember this prayer composed by Rabbi Richard Levy:
“May we gain wisdom in our lives,
Overflowing like a river with understanding,
Loved, each of us, for the peace we bring to others.
May our deeds exceed our speech,
And may we never lift up our hand
But to conquer fear and doubt and despair.
Rise up like the sun, O God, over all humanity.
Cause light to go forth over all the lands between the seas.
And light up the universe with the joy
Of wholeness, of freedom, and of peace.”

God and Competing Goods

January 12th: Va’era
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

It is hard to know when the opening dialogue in this week’s Torah portion takes place. It seems the kind of conversation that would be part of the Burning Bush story three chapters ago. There, in Exodus 3, God tries to convince Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the Israelites’ freedom. Moses has all kinds of reservations, but, eventually, he accepts God’s mission. That was all last week. Now, as we begin the new portion in Chapter 6, we seem to be right back in that same dynamic: God is again trying to persuade Moses of the importance and eventual success of the mission:
“God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord (YHVH). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my Name YHVH. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord!’” (Exodus 6.2-8)

The repetitiveness could mean that this passage is another version of the original charge God gives to Moses. Or, it could be a pep talk. Though Moses is a man of faith, the task God sets for him is difficult and overwhelming, and even heroes need regular encouragement.

In any event, we have the situation of God trying to explain to Moses the origin of their relationship and the nature of the Divine. God wants Moses to understand all the factors at play in Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.

There are many Midrashim commenting on these encounters and this special working relationship, but I find one particularly helpful.

As God is explaining the whole Exodus plan to Moses, Moses realizes that this is going to take a long time. It’s just some twelve chapters in Exodus—or fifteen minutes during the Passover Seder, but God’s timetable in Exodus from the Burning Bush to the Red Sea is about a year. A year! On the one hand, freedom is wonderful. But, on the other hand, cannot God work faster? Moses challenges God on this extended time plan, and God has a mixed reaction. God’s right hand of justice lashes out to kill Moses for his impudence in daring to challenge the God of the Universe. However, God’s left hand of compassion catches the right hand before it can inflict any damage: God realizes that Moses is not challenging out of disrespect but rather out of concern for the suffering of the Israelites—some of whom may not survive to see freedom.

This Midrash teaches us a lot about God—and about our aspirations of godly behavior. Sometimes, our moral decisions involve the difference between right and wrong, but, sometimes, we must choose between two rights. Sometimes, values and principles that are good compete with one another, and we are forced to adjudicate the tension. Do we not see this in God’s situation with Moses? God is absolutely just, but God is also absolutely compassionate. What does God do when justice and compassion struggle? What do we do when we are faced with competing goods or competing principles? The answer is not easy, but we can feel close to God in this moral reasoning: working our way through the issues and principles is a godly thing to do. Indeed, God has put us on this earth to do this kind of moral wrestling. Thus can we help God to be manifested in the reality of the world.

I conclude with another Midrash. Since we are created in the image of God, and since we are supposed to pray, the question is asked: Does God pray? Of course! God prays just as we do—and, in the imagery of the Tradition, with Tallit and Tefillin. The question then becomes: For what does God pray? God prays that the Divine Sense of Justice (Midat HaDin) will always be overcome by the Divine Sense of Compassion (Midat Rachamim). Else, the world could not continue. God realizes our inadequacies, but God loves us nonetheless. God pulls for our moral progress and offers encouragement and instruction and inspiration. We’re all in this together: God and humanity!