The Stories Before Our Story

November 17th: Toldot
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Translation is always an interesting proposition. Just put four or five different translations of the Bible side by side, and you’ll see the curious variations of the traditional text—all of which are correct! For example, Genesis 1:1 can be rendered “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” or “When God began to create the heaven and the earth.” Both are accurate translations, but the difference in philosophical or spiritual implications can be excellent fodder for discussion.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, the translation question comes up immediately. The opening words are “V’eleh tol’dot Yitzchak ben Avraham,” and the traditional English translation, going back to the King James translation of  1611, is “And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son.” This is literally accurate. Eleh means these, and toldot means generations, but is this what the ancients really meant? What follows this introduction is not  a genealogy but rather the story of Isaac’s family. Thus do more modern translators, beginning with the 1962 Jewish Publication Society edition, render it, “This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.”

Of course, the story is not actually the story of Isaac so much as the story of Isaac’s son, Jacob. We start with Isaac and Rebekah and their hope for a child. We continue with the birth of the twins, Jacob and Esau, but everyone else is pretty much a co-star. Jacob has the leading role for the next twelve chapters. (This changes in Genesis 37 when we have “Eleh toldot Ya’akov / These are the generations of Jacob”—which is really the story of Joseph!)

The spiritual point here is that the story of Jacob begins with the words, “This is the story of Isaac.”  Jacob’s origins and connection to the previous generation are thus declared, and a lesson for the nature of individual human identity is thus presented. We are who we are not only because of our own human uniqueness; we are influenced by and are the continuation of those who came before us.

This essential Jewish teaching—and human truth—was brought to mind this last week at the funeral of a long-time member, Henry Hoffman. His two sons spoke at the funeral, and both Ed and Bennett began their reminiscences of their father with memories of other elders who had passed on. Some were members of the family. Others were part of their social circle. All were role models, and the connection was that their beloved father was part of a tradition of caring and responsibility and righteousness. Hank clearly made his own unique contributions to the ongoing lessons of the generations, but it was deeply beautiful to see the context in which Hank’s sons saw their father’s life. He was part of a tradition of menschlichkeit, and he did that tradition proud.

Think about the people who influenced you—who taught you how to be a mensch. There were parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts. There were cousins and neighbors and family friends. There were teachers and rabbis and scout leaders and coaches. Some were better than others, and some, frankly, might have provided examples of how not to behave. However, when we reflect upon the internal voices that remind us of what we should be—noble, responsible, good, compassionate, honest, persistent, patient, appreciative, and reverent, it is profoundly appropriate to realize the chain of tradition that brings these values to us.

When we speak of the line of our tradition, we begin with and mention by name Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah, but the spirit of the text is that this noble and ancient line continues in each and every generation. Just as they are our past, so are we their future. Ours is an historic tradition, and the tug of tradition calls on us to live up to the holy aspirations of our ancient and continuing tradition.

The modern Jewish composer Doug Cotler expressed this sense of continuity in his song, Standing on the Shoulders:

“In the garden there’s a tree
Planted by someone who only imagined me.
What love! What vision!
I marvel at the gift, no fruit could be sweeter than this.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

 As my people went from land to land,
Something passed from hand to hand.
And it isn’t just the words and stories
Of the ancient laws and golden glories.
It’s the way we study the Book we study.
It’s the way we study the way.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

Today my life is full of choice
Because a young man raised his voice,
Because a young girl took a chance.
I am freedom’s inheritance.
Years ago they crossed the sea
And they made a life that’s come to me.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

So in the garden, I’ll plant a seed,
A tree of life for you to read.
The fruit will ripen in the sun.
The words will sound when I am gone.
These are the things I pass along:
The fruit, the Book, and the song.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.”

Our Place

November 10th: Chayeh Sarah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Abraham and his family are semi-nomadic shepherds, and the stories of their sojourning—i.e. moving periodically from one camp site to another—mention many places in the ancient Middle East, all the way from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Of particular note in Genesis are their experiences in Shechem, Beth El, Hebron, Moriah/Salem, and Beersheba. As they lead their flocks to different pastures, no place seems particularly permanent. God moves with them, and they call on God wherever they happen to be.

This all changes when Sarah dies, and Abraham wants to own the spot where she will be buried. Though the Lord has given the whole Land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron is Abraham’s first real estate transaction and the first sense of permanent place in the Land. Though Abraham continues sojourning, his permanent place is at the Cave of Machpelah, and he returns (is returned) there when he is gathered to his people. It is the same for Isaac and Rebecca, and for Jacob and Leah. Machpelah in Hebron in Canaan becomes their place.

In last week’s portion, when Abraham discusses with God the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, we have a similar idea as the story’s conclusion. “When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.” (Genesis 18.33) This seems to be a simple notation of movement. Just as Abraham has walked his guests (The Lord and two angels) out along their way, Abraham simply returns to his encampment—his place—after the conversation.

However, Jacob Weiner, our recent Bar Mitzvah, sees in this phrase something more significant, and it is my pleasure to share with you Jacob’s teaching on “And Abraham returned to his place.” The following is from Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah:

“There are three other possible interpretations. The first considers a recent transition in Abraham’s life. Previously, he has had a more compliant attitude. He has agreed with all of God’s decisions, though they were sometimes difficult for him. Now, he has adopted a more realistic attitude. At the time this story takes place, Abraham is still adjusting to his newfound realism, and this is his first time seriously challenging God. It’s a leap for Abraham, and it may be making him a bit uncomfortable. After confronting God, he needs to return to a more comfortable level. In other words, he has to ‘return to his place.’

A second interpretation begins with a problem, a koshi, in the text: Why does Abraham not try to go lower than ten, say five? I have my own Midrash, which is a story meant to resolve such difficulties, to answer this question. Perhaps after God says that he would save for the sake of ten, Abraham is about to ask if God would save for the sake of five. God knows that the answer was no. To avoid any disappointment on Abraham’s part, God says sharply ‘Abraham! Go no further! For if there is not ten there is not hope for Sodom! If there is no holy community, I can do nothing but evacuate the righteous. I will not sweep away the innocent with the guilty; nor will I preserve the myriads of guilty for a handful of innocent. Go no further!’ Abraham is taken aback by this harsh rebuke and backs down immediately – returning to his place.

The last interpretation involves an idea of moral debit. Whenever you do a good act or make a sacrifice for God, you get some moral cash put in your account. Whenever you commit a bad deed, your account is charged. Whenever you need a little help, you can draw on your account. Abraham has accumulated a large sum, most recently through hospitality to the angels and for going through circumcision willingly. Abraham, being the good person that he is, doesn’t use his surplus for himself. Instead, he petitions God for the lives of the Sodomites. However, his supply of moral cash is not unlimited. By the time he gets to ten, he has all but run out of bargaining power, and thus has to back down, and return to his place.

So, which interpretation is correct? In my opinion, the final interpretation - the moral cash - is the most powerful and most true for me. That interpretation teaches us an important lesson. Abraham the prophet, the father of Judaism, chooses to use his leverage with God to try to save those he didn’t even know. He could ask God to double the size of his flocks, and God would do it. But the fact that he chooses to use it for the sake of total strangers who may not even be good people teaches us about Tikkun Olam - fixing the world. Just like Abraham’s charitable use of his moral cash, we too should be charitable: to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to free the captives, to help the helpless. As Abraham is willing to spend his entire supply of leverage with God to give the gift of potential salvation to multiple cities, so too should we give the most we can to help those less fortunate than us.”

Thanks, Jacob. This is a beautiful lesson and one we should all appreciate.

Bartering With The Lord

November 3rd: Vayera
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In the discussion between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, we have one of the most important theological passages in the whole Torah. The conversation takes place just after God and two angels visit Abraham and Sarah and announce that, in a year’s time, Sarah will give birth to a son. As Abraham walks his guests out to the road, God ponders whether or not to discuss the Sodom and Gomorrah situation with Abraham. Thinking that Abraham needs to understand—so that Abraham can teach the rest of the world about God’s justice, the Holy One tells Abraham what is getting ready to happen. Then, Abraham comes forward and says, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of the all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18.23-25)

There should be a lot of tension at this point, while Abraham and we wait for God’s response. Will Abraham’s point stand, or is he utterly wrong about God? Though the Torah never says that God formally agrees, the continuation of the discussion implies that God accepts Abraham’s point: “The Judge of all the earth will deal justly!” Thus does God enter into Abraham’s negotiation about the minimum number of righteous people necessary to save the city.

 If one believes that God wrote or dictated the Torah, then here we have it from the Lord God of all the Universe: God is always just. If one believes that the Torah is the work of human beings, writing in a state of inspiration, then we have the expectation very clearly stated: God is just and fair. In a sense, God has no choice but to be just. Later thinkers may wonder at this understanding of the Divine, but this belief in a just God is a cornerstone of Biblical theology. Indeed, it is against this standard that many theological arguments have been conducted. (See the Biblical Book of Job, Rabbi Isaac Luria’s Kabballah, and Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.)

 The conclusion of the discussion between God and Abraham—after God agrees that, should there be ten righteous people, Sodom will not be destroyed, takes the form of a seemingly innocuous passage. “When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.” (Genesis 18.33) Paired with the introduction to the famous discussion—that Abraham “walks along with God and the angels to see them off,” this would simply mean that Abraham walks back to his tent, perhaps to talk to Sarah about the amazing visit. But, given the depth of Biblical interpretation, could there be a deeper meaning to the phrase, “Abraham returned to his place?”

I have never really thought much about this passage, but Jacob Weiner, our Bar Mitzvah this week, sees in it some very interesting possibilities. I do not want to reveal his Midrashic treatment before he gets to share it at his Bar Mitzvah, but I ask you to think about the question. After such a dramatic, potentially dangerous, and theologically significant encounter with the Lord, what could “Abraham returned to his place” mean? What lessons can it teach us?  Think about it this week, and I’ll share Jacob’s insights in next week’s Torah essay.

Sending Us on God's Perilous Errands

October 27th: Lech Lecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the most meaningful quotations I have ever read comes from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essay, The Earth is the Lord’s:
“Our life is beset with difficulties, yet it is never devoid of meaning. Our existence is not in vain. There is a Divine earnestness about our life. This is our dignity. To be invested with dignity means to represent something more than oneself. The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents…We are God’s stake in human history. We are the dawn and the dusk, the challenge and the test. How strange to be a Jew and to go astray on God’s perilous errands. We have been offered as a pattern of worship and as a prey for scorn, but there is more still in our destiny. We carry the gold of God in our souls to forge the gate of the kingdom. The time for the kingdom may be far off, but the task is plain: to retain our share in God in spite of peril and contempt. There is a war to wage against the vulgar, against the glorification of the absurd, a war that is incessant, universal. Loyal to the presence of the ultimate in the common, we may be able to make it clear that man is more than man, that in doing the finite he may perceive the infinite.”

How strange to be a Jew and to go astray on God’s perilous errands! Could Heschel have been thinking, in crafting this metaphor, of God’s call to Abram? “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Genesis 12.1-3)

The Midrash elaborates on this simple instruction and has Abram preaching his new religion like a missionary. Indeed, the verse about the retinue that Abram brings with him to Canaan is said to reveal his successes as a proselytizer. 
“Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 12.5). The Hebrew word translated as “acquired” is actually the word for “make,” ‘asu. The Midrash uses this to teach that Abram converted lots of people in Haran—and that converting someone is like re-creating them.

Both converting people to Judaism and setting a moral example are parts of our Jewish mission: we are to bring the Torah way of thinking and way of life to the attention of the world. Exodus 19 describes our role as a “kingdom of priests and holy people,” and Isaiah 42 speaks of our intended role as “a light unto the nations.”

In the Pittsburgh Platform, a founding document of Reform Judaism in America, our mission was characterized like this: “We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages. We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended midst continual struggles and trials and under enforced isolation, this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.” Though phrased in rather grandiloquent 19th Century prose, the message that comes through is that we brought this religious truth to the world, setting in motion its propagation through not only our religion but also the religions which we inspired!

Another understanding of role comes from the 20th Century philosopher Henry Slonimsky, of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In an essay entitled, Judaism and the Religion of the Future, he writes: 
"How can we view our long history of narrow escapes without becoming demoralized? We have to tell ourselves a story that makes sense out of being perennial refugees. Stephen Strauss describes our forced emigrations as holy acts.  They fit into a divine plan for the amelioration of human civilization. He writes: ‘… the Kabalists [sic] tell [a tale] of God’s remorse after he destroyed Babel and the peoples of the world were sequestered in their own languages.  It was good to chasten their pride, God mused, but perhaps humanity would lose as well the true notion that they were of one race. Each of their tribes will think humanity is limited to a certain set of customs and a certain sound they make with their mouths. So God decided to create a people who passed through all the others yet remained itself, and that, the Kabalists say, is the source of the long exile into the nations that the Jews have endured. Speaking any tongue, under any flag, and in whatever antic gowns, the Jew, as the messenger to mankind, remains.’ What the tale means is that the nations of the world can relearn the true notion of one humanity by having their humanitarianism tested in the treatment of the Jews. If they learn to live with differences instead of attacking those who are different, then the Jewish message is carried to mankind. But if the lesson is not learned, then we Jews must experience the same event that stands at the beginning of our history as a people—the flight from oppression

In other words, God’s agenda--the purpose of God’s perilous errands—is not restricted to the Jewish people. God’s goal is the moral perfection of all the world—and of all the inhabitants thereof. Thus are we Children of Abraham sent out to the world to become blessings, and thus do our Prophets speak in terms that are both Jewish and universalistic: 
“It shall come to pass, in the end of days, that the Mountain of the Lord’s House shall be exalted above the hills. The nations shall flow unto it, and many peoples shall say: Come ye, and let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob. God will teach us holy ways—that we may walk in holy paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2.2-3 and Micah 4.1-2)

Not Like the Generation of Noah

October 20th: Noach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though I had heard it hundreds of times, I never really understood the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty until I was a grown-up.
     Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
     Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
     All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

As we are growing up, lots of things go wrong. We fall. We fail. We try things and don’t get them right. We drop things. We bump into things. We miss. And, so often, to calm our frustration, we heard the words, “Don’t worry. It’s okay.” And many times, it is okay. Things can be fixed. We can get up. We can try again. We may even succeed. Sometimes, it is okay. Sometimes.

But, sometimes, things cannot be fixed. Sometimes, we do not get a second chance. Sometimes, it is not okay.

I remember a friend commenting on her anxiety as her daughter started driving. “Now,” she said, “with that 3000 pound car, she can do some real damage.” As we’ve all learned, some mistakes in driving can be corrected. Some cannot.

I think of these things as I read the story of Noah and the Ark—or, at least, the introductory paragraphs. The story actually begins at the end of last week’s Torah portion. 
“The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He has made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.’ But Noah found favor with the Lord.”  (Genesis 6.5-8)

There is not a lot of specificity in this evaluation, and so my tendency is to wonder what exactly was so bad that humanity deserved destruction.

The explanation in this week’s Torah portion is not much more helpful.
"The earth became corrupt before God: the earth was filled with lawlessness. When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make for yourself an ark…’” (Genesis 6.11-14)

We do not know much about the specific crimes—what it takes to incur such Divine wrath, and we also do not know much about Noah’s distinguishing behavior. All the Torah tells us is: 
“This is the line of Noah—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age: Noah walked with God. Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. God seems very clear about what constitutes evil and what constitutes a savable life, but, as we try to plot lives that will curry God’s favor and not invoke God’s destructive fury, we are left with an element of mystery. What are we supposed to do? What are we supposed not to do?!

The Torah is full of advice on leading holy lives—teaching us both moral and ritual mitzvot. The moral commandments push us to live lives of integrity and righteousness, and the ritual commandments push us to open our awareness to our place in the cosmos. They can all be very helpful, and we can look forward to the Divine instruction that our yearly Torah cycle offers.

However, beneath all of the advice and commentary, the story of Noah reminds us that the stakes in life can be very serious. There are some mistakes for which there is no remedy. There are some situations in which we simply do not get another chance. There are some mistakes or missed chances or sins that cause real and lasting harm. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men” cannot remedy or fix or undo some of our misdeeds.

And so, the story of Noah reminds us that we need to approach our lives with careful consideration. Careful consideration!


The Ongoing Communication of Torah

October 13th: Simchat Torah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When we conclude Deuteronomy on Simchat Torah, why do we re-start everything and begin reading Genesis again? Haven’t we already covered everything?!

Our constant repetition of the Torah is a sign of our devotion to God and to our tradition of holiness, but, there is more.

We are taught that God knows everything—because God created everything—and that Torah is the way we access the Mind of God. Some Sages teach that every possible bit of knowledge is included in the Torah—in the seventy levels of interpretation for every word and letter. Many moderns may not go this far, but there is a case to be made for the attitude that Torah gives us as we approach the many kinds of information available to us. Whether we learn scientific facts or technological possibilities or artistic insights, the mindset we develop in studying Torah can help us approach all our new information with equanimity and holiness. Perhaps this is what the ancient Sage, Ben Bag Bag, meant in his famous advice about the Torah: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” (Avot 5.22)

There is also the awareness that different messages come through to us in subsequent readings. Look at all the Midrashim: some rabbi somewhere noticed something different about a passage, and the world of interpretive possibilities grew. Hillel was not the first person to read the passage about eating the matzah and bitter herbs and lamb together. Jews had been reading that verse for centuries! However, he heard the word together in a new way, and we have the Seder’s Hillel Sandwich.  He was also not the first person to read about the seven year limitation for debts, but he was the first to fix that seven year limitation to individual debts—as opposed to a rigid time period for all debts, and he thereby made loan money available to people even as the sabbatical year drew close. We are the beneficiaries of all these sprouts in the field of God’s wisdom. 

There are also our own varying sensitivities and insights. As we go through life, we understand things differently based on our experiences. A passage which meant one thing to us twenty or thirty years ago may have a significantly more profound message for us today: we are not the same as we were.

God and the Tradition are also working with the fact that the members of each generation need to learn the lessons of life for themselves. We may try to teach them the wisdom we’ve gained—just like our parents and grandparents tried to teach us, but only some of this accumulated wisdom gets through. Why? It is impossible to understand love or temptation or rage or devotion until you’re actually experiencing it. When they or we are finally in a place to understand the lessons, our Tradition offers them again through the yearly repetition of the Torah’s insights and wisdom. Stated another way, God gives us second or third or fourth chances at finally understanding things through the ongoing communication of Torah. Who knows what lessons await us? Who knows what we shall be able to hear this time around?

The Flow of God's Energy

October 6th: Sukkot

Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The special Torah reading for Sukkot is Exodus 33.12 to 34.26 and includes the famous passage where Moses begs to see God’s Face: “Moses said, ‘Oh, let me behold Your Presence (Face)!’ But, God answered, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the Holy Name, and I will show you the grace that I grace and the compassion that I show, but you cannot see My face, for humans may not see Me and live.’”

I’m not critiquing God’s literary technique, but I think I would have said it differently. I would have started with, “You cannot see My face,” and then explain, “But, I will make all My goodness pass before you.” But, of course, I’m not God—as should be very clear to everyone after all these years….

Nonetheless, this nechemta—this caveat of kindness—is, to me, the most important message. While we cannot see the essence of God, we can see the effects of God—and these blessings are all around us.

Reb Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813) instructed his disciples in what he called “transparency:” that the Presence of God can be seen in every creation. Consider the people with whom you have contact in your daily life. Every single one of them is a creation of God with God’s imprint—a spark of Divinity—within. Some people’s image of the Divine may be more apparent than others’, but we are urged to look closely at every other person or object and see the creative spirit of God. The Hindus speak of this when they bow to each other and say, “Namaste: the god in me bows to the god in you,” but we monotheists may prefer, “The Image of God in me bows to the Image of God in you.” If we can develop this vision, we can see God’s goodness before us—and realize the truth in God’s promise to Moses.

We can also “see God” in the blessed events of human life. This was the message in the passage in the old Union Prayer Book (1940): “To the seer of old You did say: You cannot see My Face, but I will make all My Goodness pass before You. Even so does Your Goodness pass before us in the realm of nature and in the varied experiences of our lives. When justice burns like a flaming fire within us, when love evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we proclaim our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness, do we not bow down before the vision of Your Goodness? You live in our hearts, as You pervade the world, and we through righteousness behold Your Presence.

Another sacred text can help us to an awareness of God’s energy in our lives. In the Talmudic discussion of Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals, a question is asked about the minimum one must say to adequately thank God. When one has time or the knowledge to say the full blessing, one should. However, if one is rushed or ignorant or infirm and cannot say the full blessing, what is the minimum acceptable? The answer is: “B’rich Rachamana, Malka d’Al’ma, Maray d’hai pitah. Blessed is the Compassionate One, Ruler of all the World, Master of this food.” This ancient blessing was adapted by the modern spiritual leaders, Rabbi Shefa Gold and Cantor Jack Kessler, to include the following interpretation: “You are the Source of Life for all that is, and your blessing flows through me.”

 Not only does God’s goodness pass before us, it also is manifested through us.

As we leave the intensity of the sanctuary—and all of the important things we have prayed or learned during the High Holy Days, let us focus on the outside world, looking through the walls of the Sukkah to see the goodness of God and the sacred opportunities for service.


Written on Rosh Hashanah, Sealed on Yom Kippur

September 29th: Yom Kippur
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the curious things about our traditional prayers is that, though they can be very challenging, there is nonetheless a persistent urge to keep on praying them. One of the most challenging prayers in the High Holy Day liturgy is Un’taneh Tokef:
Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day: it is awesome and full of dread. For on this day, Your dominion is exalted, Your throne is established in steadfast love; there in truth You reign. In truth You are Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness. You write and You seal, You record and recount. You remember deeds long forgotten. You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being. This is the Day of Judgment! Even the hosts of heaven are judged, as all who dwell on earth stand arrayed before You. As the shepherd seeks out the flock, and makes the sheep pass under the staff, so do You muster and number and consider every soul, setting the bounds of every creature’s life, and decreeing its destiny. 

 Setting the bounds of every creature’s life?! God really does this? Is our fate for next February or May being decided right now?! Then the prayer gets positively graphic: 
On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning; who shall be secure and who shall be driven; who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled; who shall be poor and who shall be rich; who shall be humbled and who exalted.

But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree. 

 This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. It is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live. Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You. 

There is something terribly disturbing about this prayer, and, yet, it also seems to speak a kind of ancestral truth. It is a prayer that is frequently discussed at study groups on Yom Kippur: it bothers some and seems necessary to others.

Here is a piece written for our Machzor that considers the logic of the prayer and the Jewish sensibility in praying it every year:
As much as we are masters of our own fates—making decisions and living with the consequences, there are also times when greater powers toss us around like small boats on a stormy sea. Whether the “storm” is caused deliberately by God—as a punishment or a test—or by the vagaries of the natural world, we find ourselves victims or objects of the slings and arrows of fortune. Are events pre-determined, or do we have free will? This ominous prayer, Un’taneh Tokef, has for some 1500 years represented our people’s grappling with this question. We know that many of our decisions make a difference, but we also know that greater powers impact our lives in significant ways. We pray that the greatest of powers eases our way and makes our challenges manageable, and we pray that the decisions we make will be good ones.

Praying and Working for Perfection

Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuva
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There is something Messianic about the High Holy Days. Though Jewish Tradition has us waiting and praying for the coming of the Messiah, there are things we can do to hasten the day. What are these things? They are the mitzvot we are supposed to do all the time. In other words, we have a role to play in the perfection of the world; our good and holy deeds can pave the way for the Messiah.

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and the closeness to God it can bring, here is a hymn that speaks of the glorious future that we pray will come soon—and that we can help to bring. It was found in the Machzor Vitry, an 11th Century High Holy Day prayer book from France. No author is listed. The English translation is by Israel Zangwill, a Jewish public intellectual and man of letters in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It is slightly adapted.

All the World
All the world shall come to serve You,
And bless Your glorious Name.
And Your righteousness triumphant
The islands shall proclaim.
And the people shall go seeking
Who knew You not before.
And the ends of earth shall praise You
And tell Your greatness o’er.

They shall build for You their altars,
Their idols overthrown,
And their graven gods shall shame them,
As they turn to You alone.
They shall worship You at sunrise,
And feel Your Sovereign might,
And impart their understanding
To those astray in night.

With the coming of Your victory
The hills shall shout with song,
And the islands laugh exultant
That they to God belong.
And through all Your congregations
So loud Your praise shall ring,
that the utmost peoples, hearing,
Shall then Your greatness sing.

L'shanah Tovah!


We Were All There, At the Mountain

September 15th: Nitzavim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When the Torah says, “You are all standing here this day before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 29.9), the nature of the occasion and the constituency of the audience are both a little ambiguous. Is it a new covenant ceremony as the people prepare to enter the Promised Land? Is it a farewell lecture of Moses—reminding them of their national history? Is it a rehashing of the revelation at Mount Sinai? Is it a kind of initiation ceremony for the new generation, born in the wilderness after Mount Sinai? Or is it a ritual re-creation of the revelation intended to remind everyone of the covenant with God that is still in effect?

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to speak about the power of ritual re-creations in religion, referring to them as peak experiences domesticated. An important event happened long ago, but we want to feel its power and influence today. To accomplish this, we construct a ritual—some stories, some holy texts, some ritual process involving movement, chanting, special clothing, and even some food. They all revolve around the central purpose of putting us back in that moment of greatness or inspiration or insight.

This might have been a moment of great emotion for Moses and the Children of Israel—what, with Moses’ retirement coming up and the entrance to the Promised Land about to begin. There is every reason to see this grand gathering as a transition ceremony concluding one chapter of the national life and looking forward to the next. And yet, as the portion has been handed down for so many centuries, it has taken on the feeling of a re-creation-ritual in which these new Israelites (the ones born in the desert) and all the Israelites of subsequent generations see themselves as standing at another mountain, Mount Sinai, and hearing the voice of the Eternal as we entered God’s covenant.

When we read this passage in synagogue this weekend, this peak experience domesticated will certainly be on the agenda. And, when we read it again on Yom Kippur, we can again see ourselves at the mountain, hearing and responding to the Lord God.

As for the constituency of the audience, the text gives us both specificity and ambiguity: 
“You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your tribal captains, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the stranger who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; that you should enter into covenant with the Lord your God, and join in an oath which the Lord your God makes with you this day; that the Eternal may establish you today as a holy people, and that the Lord may be to you a God, as has been said to you, and as has been sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  It is not with you alone that I make this covenant and this oath; I make it both with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with those who are not here with us this day.” (Deuteronomy 29.9-14)

The listing is pretty comprehensive, but, at the very end, we have the cryptic, “It is not with you alone that I make this covenant and this oath; I make it both with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with those who are not here with us this day.”

Who exactly are “those who are not here with us this day?” The logical answer is that some people didn’t make it out of the camp that morning. With 600,000 or so people, you figure someone is ill, or taking care of the ill, or in a state of ritual impurity, or on guard duty, etc. The point here is that everyone in the community is included, whether he or she is physically present for the covenant ceremony.

However, our Sages picked up on this phrase and saw in it a much more mystical possibility. They taught that every Jew of every generation was present at Mount Sinai. Every Jew of every time was standing right there, hearing the voice of God and accepting our holy mission.

This would mean that our ritual recreation of this peak experience is really a matter of remembering something we all already know—because we were all there. So, rather than it being like a historical re-enactment (like the yearly Washington crossing the Delaware River event), this is more like a couple playing a tape of their wedding and feeling that special love again—or someone playing a tape of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and once again feeling the closeness to God from that special, special day.  

We were all there, so we can all, at some level, remember.

But, what about the converts—all those individuals who have chosen Judaism and joined our people in the intervening centuries? The answer is that they were there, too. All Jewish souls were present at Mount Sinai. All Jewish souls heard the thunder of God’s voice. All Jewish souls of all time were there to affirm the covenant with the Most High.

In other words, those who have chosen to convert to our faith already had Jewish souls. They were just born to non-Jewish families. As much as they loved and respected their birth families, their Jewish souls yearned to be with other Jews, and they gradually found their way into the Jewish community, spiritually settling into the religious home that their souls were seeking all along.

Thus do we stand together in this day, alongside all those people with whom we stood so long ago. Sinai is not just a story; it is a seminal moment of our lives—a pivotal and holy moment of our souls’ development. We have been somewhere special. We have witnessed God’s Presence ourselves. And, we are called to respond to this awesome memory in the way that we live our lives.


Living in the Promised Land: Politics & Religion

September 8th: Ki Tavo
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

“When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it…”  (Deuteronomy 26.1) Thus begins Parshat Ki Tavo and the mitzvah of taking first fruits and sharing them with God, with the Priests and Levites, and with orphans and widows and strangers. God’s blessings are gifts which should be shared with others.

Of course, for almost 2000 years, this particular mitzvah was impossible. Very few Jews lived in “The Land,” and therefore most Jews had to celebrate this mitzvah theoretically and in a different context. Thank God that this is no longer the case, and Jews can now both enter the Land of Israel and live in it, bringing Judaism’s holiness to the Holy Land.

Among the many challenges facing the modern State of Israel is religious diversity. There are many different approaches to Judaism and Jewishness among the Jews of Israel, and there are often conflicts about who is in charge and how will Judaism officially be practiced.

A lot of news was generated this summer over the issue of access to the Kotel, the Western (retaining) Wall of the Temple Mount. When the Kotel was regained in 1967, it could have been assigned to the Ministry of Antiquities as a historical site. However, politics being what they are, it was assigned to the Ministry of the Interior (and Religious Affairs) and thus was classified as a “synagogue” and given to the Orthodox Rabbanut to manage. In Orthodox synagogues, men and women pray separately, and so the two sides—a men’s and a women’s—became the new arrangement. (Formerly, before the Kotel was seized and desecrated by the Jordanians in 1948, men and women had prayed there together.)

For the past several years, a group of courageous and determined feminists, The Women of the Wall, has gathered on the women’s side every Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) and tried to lead a public service and read Torah. There has been a lot of resistance by the Orthodox, and, things have gotten pretty ugly on more than one occasion. It has been an example of the lack of religious freedom in Israel for non-Orthodox Jews. Then, a coalition of civil liberties activists, representatives of a range of Jewish “denominations,” and some high ranking governmental leaders worked on the problem and came up with a solution. Instead of two sections, the Kotel would have three: one for men, another for women, and a third for mixed groups and Liberal Jewish worship. The details were all hammered out, and everyone was on board, but, at the last minute in June, some Orthodox political parties threatened to withdraw their support from Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and the whole plan collapsed.

A lot of people had a lot to say, and the controversy reverberated around the Jewish world. Unfortunately, the Liberal branches of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—are too often marginalized in Israel, denied government funds, and thwarted by a wide range of Orthodox strategies. It is a continual struggle.

And yet, the story of Liberal Judaism is Israel is not a tale of woe or failure. There has been a lot of progress—a lot of success, and I want to share with you a recent statement of Rabbi Micky Boyden, one of the long-time leaders of Progressive Judaism in Israel. He writes:

 When one reads about the way in which Bibi backtracked on the Kotel agreement and the disgraceful manner in which the Women of the Wall are treated by the police and security personnel, one could be mistaken for believing that Reform Judaism is having a bad time of it in Israel.

If you add to that the dislike that many feel for Israel's right-wing/religious coalition government, one can see why many Reform Jews in North America and elsewhere are lukewarm about the Jewish State. That having been said, the High Holydays are approaching and it is time to put the record straight.

Reform Judaism in Israel is, by and large, an amazing success story. Thirty years ago there were only a handful of congregations and not one single purpose built Reform synagogue anywhere in Israel apart from at Leo Baeck in Haifa and HUC in Jerusalem. We were viewed as an American outpost, whose supporters were almost entirely from English speaking countries. There were maybe two or three couples a year who dared have a Reform rabbi officiate at their wedding.

 Fast forward thirty years. There are some 50 Reform congregations across the country. Religious pluralism is part of the landscape much to the dislike of the charedim. Many Reform synagogues are being built on public land. The Reform Movement in Israel conducts over 200 conversions per annum. Those who have converted through us are recognized as Jews by the State of Israel and registered as such in the Interior Ministry's population register. We
are inundated by couples wishing us to officiate at their weddings. These requests, and indeed all of the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies at which we officiate, come from so-called "secular" Israelis disgusted by the religious establishment and looking for a liberal Jewish alternative.

Of course, many people don't like Bibi. (I know one or two people who aren't that happy with Donald Trump either!) However, that doesn't stop us from loving our country and working for a better tomorrow.

Ownership: Rights, Responsibilities, and Limits

September 1st: Ki Tetze
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Some sections of the Torah seem to be a random assortment of commandments, a kind of holy hodgepodge. Each mitzvah can certainly be understood on its own terms, but, sometimes, finding an overarching theme can help us to understand the mindset of our ancient ancestors and their moral code. In the case of Ki Tetze, one of the themes one can identify is that of property. Who owns what? What are the owner’s obligations and prerogatives? What is the relationship between the property of an individual and other people in the community.

Here are some of the mitzvot involved in this general theme:

21.10: In the course of war, women can be captured, but they cannot be abused. If a man desires a captive woman, he must marry her and give her the full rights of a wife.

21.15: If a man has two wives, he must treat both fairly, and he must give the eldest son his birthright—even if that son’s mother is less loved than her co-wife.

21.18: If parents have a “wayward and defiant son” who will not mend his evil ways, the parents shall bring him to the community to be stoned to death.

21.22: If someone is to be executed by impaling, his body must be buried the same day.

22.1: If you find lost property, you must return it to the owner or take care of it until the owner is found.

22.4: If you see someone else’s ox or donkey fallen on the road, you must help it up.

22.5: Woman may not wear men’s clothing, nor may men wear women’s clothing.

22.6: When you find a nest of eggs or hatchlings with the mother bird, do not take the mother along with the eggs or hatchlings. Send her away.

22.8: When you build a new house with a flat roof, put a parapet around the roof so no one will fall off.

22.9: Do not plant two species of plants together in a field.

22.10: Do not plow with an ox and a donkey together.

22.11: Do not wear cloth combining wool and linen.

Clearly, many of the mitzvot are far from our way of thinking. The mindset in which some of them are even thinkable—much less holy—is far from our sense of ethical behavior. They represent the difficult passages which tradition has had to interpret—and which I have discussed these past three weeks. Others, however, possess a rudimentary fairness and decency which makes us proud. Indeed, even in the midst of situations which we see as heinous (forcing captive women into marriage, stoning undisciplined children), there is an attempt, in an ancient and harsh society, to insert some decency and fairness.

In the case of the captive woman, forcing a woman into marriage is horrible, but one can see an attempt by the Bible to improve upon the custom of battlefield rape. A similar tendency can be seen in the passage about having one’s son stoned to death. Here it is in its entirety:
“If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21.18-21) Whereas, in other societies, parents owned children and could do with them what they wanted, the Bible establishes a set of very specific and frankly unlikely circumstances before such a stoning can take place—and it puts the ultimate judgment on the community and not on the parents. Killing in a fit of fury is not the way it works. Parents may own their children, but their autonomy is not without limits.

Indeed, this is the message in all of these passages and in the portion, in general. People own things—property, material possessions, livestock, and even people. (Remember the ancient notion that fathers owned their wives and their children. Why else would fathers give their daughters away at weddings?) But, God establishes limits on what we can do with what we own. There are standards of decency, respect for the property of others, respect for the comfort of animals, and respect for the natural order. As we learn over and over again in the Torah, the gifts we are granted by God are dependent upon how we treat them.

Let me close with two pieces which illustrate this sensibility. One is a Midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabba, and the other is from Kahlil Gibran, the modern Lebanese-American poet.

From Ecclesiastes Rabba 7.13:
“When Adam and Eve were created, God took them on a tour of the Garden of Eden. The trees, flowers, animals, and birds were so beautiful that they sang out, ‘How glorious are Your works, O Lord! In Wisdom have You made them all.’ Then God said, ‘My children, all these creations are gifts from Me to you and your children forever. They are yours to enjoy and yours to protect.  If anyone ever ruins them, there will be no one else to come after and repair the damage. This world is yours. Please take care of it.’” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7.13)

“On Children,” from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, 1923:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit,
not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, 
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”



Difficult Words in Holy Texts, Part III

Shof’tim: August 25th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

What do you do when a text you revere and hold holy has passages which go against your notion of goodness and morality? Do you figure that your understanding of ethics is faulty and accept the holy command? Or, do you reject the whole book, figuring that anything with such an unfair or unrighteous decree must be wholly bad? Or, do your interpret the problematic passages in ways that defangs their poison. This third path, as I have observed over the last two weeks, is a long and venerable tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

These interpretations have generally involved non-literal readings of the passages, and we found, for example, that both historical records and Biblical records suggest that the Israelites did not destroy the Canaanite population when they moved into the Land—despite the command to do so in Deuteronomy and the report that they had done so in Joshua. We also considered the context of difficult passages, and found that understanding them in situ renders them much less hostile.

This week, I want to speak to the motivation of various interpreters/commentators and how it can play a major role in the messages found in holy texts.

The historian Ellis Rivkin used to note an interesting fact in regard to Christian and Muslim anti-Semitism. Though both religions have a long history of anti-Jewish teachings and actions—sometimes heinously cruel, neither Christianity nor Islam has ever united their disparate elements in the mission of ridding the world of Jews and Judaism. The record of anti-Semitism in both religions is remarkably spotty. When one king or sultan or bishop would embark on a campaign against Jews—burning the Talmud, massacring a village or a valley, or expelling all Jews, another Christian or Muslim leader down the road would welcome the Jews and treat them well.

If eliminating Jews or Judaism is a real pillar of either religion, why would there be this division of religious purpose? Dr. Rivkin’s reading (and that of many Christian and Muslim scholars!) is that neither Christianity nor Islam is inherently anti-Jewish or anti-Judaism. This suggests that the anti-Semites in both religions are doing some interpreting of their own, finding hostile messages because of their own motivations or agendas—and not those of the holy texts themselves.

What, Dr. Rivkin asked, would be a trigger for taking generally ignored anti-Jewish passages and using them for great evil? Looking at case after case of anti-Semitic episodes, Dr. Rivkin noticed a pattern. Every time, Christians or Moslems mounted a major onslaught against Jews or Judaism, it was connected to an economic crisis. Though generally ignored, anti-Semitic passages were been dredged up in the midst of financial disaster and used by demagogic religious leaders. In some cases, the demagoguery was to project blame from the real culprits to an easily other-able group. In other cases, the demagoguery was used by one group to steal money from another.

Let me give two examples. Though the Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula expelled both Muslims and Jews during the 15th Century, the only Jews remaining in Spain after 1492 were converts to Christianity—sincere converts. Many became priests, nuns, and even bishops. But, when a major economic crisis hit Spain, all of a sudden, Tomas Torquemada and his Inquisitors, based in one major Spanish economic center, discovered a whole network of secret Jews—all from the other major economic center. Despite all those romantic legends about persecuted Jews secretly practicing their religion, the only evidence for this secret Judaism comes from (1) claims by the Inquisition and (2) confessions exacted under torture. All these Jewish families who wanted to practice Judaism could have fled with the others—both during and following the 100 years of the Expulsion. The ones who stayed accepted Christianity and were real Christians. They were known as coming from Jewish parentage, and many occupied a position in Spanish cultural and intellectual society similar to the way New York Jewish intellectuals have been so influential in America. However, there is no evidence that any of them were anything other than loyal Christians. This pernicious myth of secret Judaism was used to dispossess the leadership and wealth of a major Spanish economic center so that the other center—Torquemada’s—could emerge wealthier and more powerful.

A second example comes from Russia in the latter part of the 19th Century and the terrible pogroms that caused great suffering and lots of emigration. The real problem was an extravagant imperial budget being financed by taxing a pre-industrial economy. The Russian tax base was much lower than that of Western European kingdoms, and the Czar had to tax much harder to enjoy an opulent life—and to run the Empire. Blaming the heavy tax burden on the Jews was a way of deflecting the criticism that eventually led to the various Russian Revolutions. Life in Russia for Jews was not wonderful, but the imperial regime fomented the discovery and use of anti-Semitic texts to inflame the peasant mobs.

The same pattern can be seen in countless European and African and Asian outbreaks of anti-Semitism. The hostile passages are there in the Christian or Muslim texts, but they are not important to the faith. The salient factor is the attitude or motivation of the religious leaders who, all of a sudden, find the passages and use them to promote other than religious agendas. It is a cynical and manifestly ungodly use of religion, and it has brought great suffering to the world.

And so, as we look at our own difficult passages, the key is to remember that ancient documents need to be interpreted for both ancient and modern readers—and that our interpreting needs to be done with kind, just, and godly motivations.

Difficult Words in Holy Texts, Part II

Re’eh: August 18th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Last week, we considered how one can revere and follow Holy Scriptures while holding back or editing out some of its problematic passages. I gave the example of Thomas Jefferson’s “Bible” where he cut and pasted what he considered to be the gems of Christian teaching and left out the rest. Given that the Bible is an inconsistent work—with a variety of instructions and principles, some contradicting others, Jefferson joined in a long tradition of commentators who interpreted their way around offensive or ungodly passages. I observed that this tradition exists in Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity. Interpretation is vital to discerning God’s wishes.

The passages in Deuteronomy that provoked my discussion are the ones that command the Israelites to annihilate the native Canaanite population. These instructions are found many times in Deuteronomy, and their successful execution is reported in Joshua. And yet, the historical, archeological, and even Biblical records show that such a mass extermination did not occur. The point I drew last week is that the ancients did not regard these passages as marching orders or literal history. This is another kind of literature.

By the way, the one part of these instructions which the Israelites did apparently carry out—at least, in part—is a destruction of Canaanite idols and religious sites. The commandment is in this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 12.2-3): “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” And, sure enough, there are archeological ruins in Hatzor (northern Israel) showing burned Canaanite temples, with idols whose heads have been chopped off.

The subject this week is the context of ancient texts. Historical perspective and an understanding of context can often render problematic passages much less insistent on ungodly behavior.

In Christianity, the Jewish sages known as Pharisees are much maligned. Why? The Gospels tell of Pharisees arguing with Jesus, and later generations regarded these arguments as disrespectful. What many Christians do not know, however, is that Jesus himself seems to have been a part of Pharisaic Judaism—the movement that brought us the Rabbis, the Mishnah, the Oral Law, and the World to Come. The Pharisees (Pietists/Separatists) were scholars who made studying and teaching the Torah their life’s work. Part of the study involved discussing how various passages, laws, and principles were to be understood. Sometimes, these discussions got pretty animated, and one might refer to them as arguments. A historical reading of the Gospel stories shows a group of Pharisees (Jesus included!) discussing interpretations of Sabbath Law: what one can and cannot do on the Sabbath. In none of these arguments is Jesus voicing an opinion outside of Rabbinic/Pharisaic Judaism. He is simply putting forth one Pharisaic view, and the other Pharisees are arguing back with others. In the context, Jesus was just another Pharisaic Jew, discussing or arguing about Halachah. However, when these stories were told decades later, after Paul had crafted Christianity not from the historical Jesus but from his spiritual vision on the road to Damascus, Jesus was no longer seen as another teacher with whom one could discuss the Torah. At that point, Jesus was considered divine, and his words were to be obeyed and believed. The different context created the traditional Christian disparagement of the Pharisees—one which can still be heard in some Christian churches.

In the case of some very anti-Jewish passages in the Koran—passages that have recently made the news, it is important to remember the struggles of the founder of Islam. As with all religious innovators, Mohammed faced some fierce opposition from the authorities of his time, and, at one point, when his life was threatened, the Prophet took refuge among the Jews of Medina. They welcomed him and protected him for quite a while. Later, when he achieved success in his new understanding of religious monotheism, he expected those Jewish tribes to join him. When they refused, an armed conflict ensued, and he unleashed a torrent of anger on those Jews. Many were killed, and, to modern readers of the Koran, it can look like a blanket attack on all Jews of all times. This is not the inevitable interpretation of the Koran, but the passages are there if an interpreter chooses to use them in demagoguery.

For a truly shocking Jewish passage, let us turn to the Talmud, to Yevamot 61a. Here the rabbis are discussing the ritual impurity caused when someone dies, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai draws a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, saying, “The Jewish people are called Adam (men/humans), but Gentiles are not called Adam (men/humans).” Does this mean that Judaism does not consider non-Jews to be fully human? Do we not learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5: “All humanity was created as one person, the original Adam of Genesis, to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world. And also, to promote peace so that no one will say that ‘My ancestors are greater than yours.’”? All humans come from the same ancestor, Adam. All are created in the image of God. All people are human beings.

What then are we to make of Yevamot’s statement that Gentiles are not human? The passage is in the context of assigning ritual impurity in the presence of a corpse or buried body. Jewish corpses are buried in clearly designated cemeteries so that a priest can easily avoid walking through them. However, given that Gentiles do not always observe the Halachic burial rules—and that land use changes over centuries, it is possible that any place one walks could be over a long lost non-Jewish burial. Hence, ritual purity is always in doubt, and the Rabbis need a way to accommodate Jewish priests walking through the world. Though clearly not a theological point, they establish this legal fiction—that Gentiles are not human—in order to protect the ritual purity of a priest whose path covers what might have, at one point, been a place of burial.

In every other instance, Gentiles are clearly considered human—human and beloved children of God. So, when looking through the Talmud, it is possible for an unlearned reader to read a passage out of context and come to a totally incorrect conclusion about Judaism.

Let us remember that every communication originates in a particular context and for a particular purpose. If we want to understand a text, we need to understand its context and purpose.

Difficult Words in Holy Texts, Part I

Ekev: August 11th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Thomas Jefferson was one of several founding fathers who were not mainstream Christians. Their approach to religion was called Deism, a construct that envisioned a supreme being as a sort of watchmaker who had created the world but no longer intervened directly in daily life. Though he was accused of being a “howling Atheist” in the 1800 presidential election, Jefferson was in fact a very religious man—a man dedicated to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. His dedication, however, was conditional and based on a discrepancy between what he saw as the true teachings of Jesus and the “corruption of schismatizing followers” which he believed had taken over the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament. His solution was cutting and pasting—excising what he thought were the pure and true teachings of Jesus and pasting them into a new “Bible.” In his words, this new work was “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has never been offered to man.”  (Thanks to the Smithsonian Magazine, January 2012, for this summary of Jefferson’s attitudes and Biblical work.)

In other words, Jefferson found some passages of the Holy Scriptures much more valuable than others, and some he found to be positively problematic. His solution was to choose the good and discard the bad. Though Jefferson’s “Bible” was a novel idea, editing the Scriptures has been a tradition among Biblical commentators for centuries. Why did they mold the Biblical message with their hermeneutic techniques, selective readings, and Midrash? Because, as much as we revere the Holy Scriptures and the Divine Author, there are some passages which contradict other passages or are in direct conflict with values and principles that are themselves Biblical.

The Bible is not a consistent document, and any serious reader must grapple with the varying views and instructions contained therein.

We get a first-hand look at the problem in a recurring theme in Deuteronomy, the commandment to the Israelites to completely obliterate the native Canaanite population. In this week’s portion, the theme is stated no less than four times. The first instance comes in 7.5: “You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity.” The second comes in verse 23: “The Lord your God will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic until they are wiped out. He will deliver their kinds into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.” I think you get the idea. It is a brutal instruction that makes one wonder what kind of moral code is being taught—and what kind of Moral Authority is doing the teaching.

The God we know would not and could not have given this command. So, what do we do with it? How can we read our Scripture reverently and devotedly and somehow neutralize or deal with such horrible instructions?

Over the next few weeks, I want to address this problem of Holy Scriptures with unholy commandments and discuss the problems that Judaism and our neighboring religions of Christianity and Islam have with such texts. It is a ubiquitous challenge for religions—and one in need of wisdom, moderation, and holy insight.

This first week, I’ll approach the passages in light of the historical record. Next week, we’ll look at context—both ancient and modern. And, the third week, we’ll look at how the motivation of the interpreter can affect the shape of Heaven’s message.

Though the wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites is ordered—and though the Book of Joshua documents its execution, the historical and archeological record show that such a genocide did not occur. While there are certainly archeological sites of destruction, they do not reveal the total annihilation the Bible both commands and reports. “Obliterating their name from under the heavens” would certainly have left some kind of evidence, but there is none. We do have, interestingly enough, evidence of the destruction of Canaanite gods—their heads cut off and burned, but there is no evidence of a mass destruction of the entire Canaanite population. In fact, the historical record gives ample evidence that these Canaanites were around for centuries—and are still around today! (Modern DNA evidence suggests that the Lebanese—not the “Palestinians”—may be the modern descendants of the ancient Canaanites.) The Bible agrees with this conclusion, describing the continuing snare of Canaanite gods and religious rituals for centuries after the Conquest. Clearly, the Canaanites were conquered by the Israelites, but they were never wiped out.

In other words, we are left with instructions that were never taken literally. And, if our ancient ancestors did not take them literally, we need to understand that such passages are not marching orders or history, but a different kind of literature.

We find a similar disconnect in the anti-Semitic history of Christianity and Islam. Though there are clearly some virulently anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament and the Koran, and though there have definitely been some terrible and murderous campaigns against Jews by both Christians and Muslims, Dr. Ellis Rivkin observes that neither religion has every united its own disparate elements in a common campaign of destruction against Jews and Judaism. This is not to minimize the terror that has been visited upon us many times, but where the ugly head of anti-Jewish Christianity or Islam has reared itself in one location, other elements of these two religions have been relatively welcoming and peaceful. In other words, killing Jews or Judaism is not a faith component of either religion, and the majority of Christians and Muslims through the centuries have known it.

In other words, there is something else operating in re these murderous passages: why they are usually ignored or filtered out, but sometimes seen as marching orders. Could we be seeing a battle between the good and evil inclinations in the hearts of religious leaders? Somewhere, somehow, there is some interpreting going on.

We shall return to this discussion next week.


How Does One "Love" the Lord our God?

August 4th: Va’et’chanan
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Almost all of the 613 mitzvot commanded in the Torah deal with specific behaviors: Do not murder anyone. Make sure your weights and measures are accurate. Do not let your goring ox go rampaging around the village. Build a parapet on your flat-roofed house—so people do not fall off. Leave some of your crops unharvested so that the poor can have something to eat. Do not oppress the stranger.

A few however, are not at all specific, and figuring them out can be a challenge. Take, for example, the mitzvah in this week’s Torah portion that follows the Shema in Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The command that we love God sounds like a wonderful thing, but what does it mean in terms of practical human behavior?

One could read this mitzvah as an instruction for an emotional attachment—a feeling of affection for the Eternal One. The problem, we all know, is that there is more to a relationship than feelings. In our human interactions, certain behaviors are required if we are to translate affection into relationships. This is the tack of many commentators in our Tradition as they take principles of human relationships and apply them to our relationship with God—showing us how we can love God.

 A first principle is that it is hard to have a relationship without spending time together. One might say that spending time with God is inevitable: since God is omnipresent—that it is impossible to ever be away from God. Then again, we all know that relationships require more than physical proximity; they involve intentional connection. In the case of God, this means setting aside time on a regular basis to pay attention to God. We could pray, study the Bible, meditate, or involve God-consciousness in the little moments of life: saying a blessing upon awakening and when retiring, or before or after meals. This kind of love and attention do not take us away from life; rather, they remind us of the Presence of God in each and every moment of life. This kind of attention loves God.    

Could this be why the Torah phrases the actual mitzvah of loving God in terms of a lifestyle of continuing awareness? Notice the way the Deuteronomy 6 passage continues: “These words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently unto your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and upon your gates.” God consciousness is not an addition to life; it can be part of life.

A second principle is that mutual interest and shared values bind a relationship together. One does not have to agree with the other on everything, but mutual sympathy and understanding are at the base of any friendship. They also provide a locus for the relationship. In the case of God, we can find a lot about God’s values and hopes by studying the Holy Scriptures. There are lots of values, but a common theme running through the Torah is that God cares about us—and wants us to care about each other. Notice the way the Torah presents its ultimate expression of Divine instructions, the Ten Commandments (also in this Torah portion, in Deuteronomy 5). Whereas other ancient religious texts explain how to treat the gods right, the Ten Commandments are more interested in how we treat each other than in how we treat God. Numbers 1-4 are God-oriented:
“I am the Lord your God; don’t have any other gods besides Me.
Don’t make idols and worship them.
Don’t take God’s Name in vain.
Remember and observe the Sabbath Day.”

Numbers 5-10, however, are human-oriented:
“Honor your parents.
Don’t murder, commit adultery, or steal.
Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.
Don’t let jealousy ruin relationships.”
These are all about treating other people right, and God commands them because God cares about us and the way we treat each other. Again and again the Bible teaches us that God deeply identifies with each and every person and cares about us. Sharing God’s values of righteousness and love can bring us closer, deepening our relationship with the Divine.

Third, there is the desire, among friends, for the happiness and success of the other. Even if the other’s pursuit is not ours, part of the relationship is hoping that the other’s pursuit is successful or satisfying. In the case of God, this principle of love invites us to participate with God in tikkun olam, the healing and repair of the world. One of our traditional prayers (Shochen Ad from the morning service for Shabbat), speaks of this reciprocity in our relationship with the Divine. It begins with a statement and verse from Psalms 33: “You dwell in the heavens; holy is Your Name. It is written, ‘The righteous rejoice with the Lord; it is fitting for the upright to praise God.’ (Psalm 33.1) At this point, the ancient liturgist reads the Psalmist’s “it is fitting for the upright to praise God” as a description of the types of human behavior a relationships with God requires: “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.” In other words, 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.

Loving God is certainly an emotion, but it is much more. It is making time in our lives for an awareness of the Divine—a lifestyle of God-consciousness. It is learning God’s values and priorities and sharing them—making them our own values. And, it is joining in the work that God invites us to share, bringing the blessings of heaven to all the earth, manifesting God’s holiness and love with our eyes and our hearts and our hands.

Israel: A Real Country with Real People

June 16th: Shelach Lecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, once famously said that Israel will be a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes and the Jewish policemen arresting them will all conduct their business in Hebrew. In this rather earthly statement, he was echoing Hayim Nachman Bialik, the famed Hebrew poet, and other visionaries who knew that the Jewish State would be a real state with real people—and not a utopian Disneyland of Jewish culture and religion. In other words, the earthly manifestation of the Zionist dream would be less than perfect and subject to the full range of human thoughts, emotions, faults, and experiences.

This is not a new situation. In our Torah portion, we have perhaps the original debate about the dream of the Promised Land and its reality. In Numbers 13, Moses sends twelve scouts to the Land of Canaan to report back to the Israelites on their divinely assigned destination. The scouts/spies tour the land and find it an amazing place. In one particularly impressive area, the Wadi Eshkol, they cut down a single cluster of grapes that is so large that it takes two men with a carrying frame to bring it back to the Israelite camp. When the scouts return, they all agree that the Land is wonderful, but there is a difference of opinion about the realistic possibilities of taking it.

“We came to the land you sent us to scout; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted saying, “The country that we traveled and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim (giants) there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13.27-33)

Most of the people believe the ten pessimistic scouts and break into cries, weeping all night. “All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron, ‘If only we had died in the Land of Egypt…rather than we die in the wilderness!’” The end of the story is that they do end up dying in the wilderness: God decides that they are not ready to take the Land of Israel and so they are doomed to wander the desert for forty years—until the current generation dies out and a new, stronger, braver, and more resolute generation arises which will pursue God’s mission.

The people who built the modern State of Israel were, by and large, very tough people—strong, brave, resolute, and perhaps even fanatical in their drive to save themselves and Judaism by creating a Jewish State. They were not perfect. In fact, some of the greater Zionists had some significant faults. It is like the old Hebrew saying, “The greater the man, the greater his evil inclination.”

It is very fashionable to revisit Zionist history and dispel the myths of the heroic Zionist leadership—pointing out that pretty much every single Zionist hero had significant flaws. Some were egotistical while others were impatient. Some were greedy, while others mistrusted all non-Jews. Some were adulterers, and others suffered from various forms of mental illness. And, as their decisions are deconstructed and analyzed, some, it turns out, were less than perfect. Information was sketchy or incorrect. The graveness of the threat seemed existential when it was not. Some decisions were made in haste, and many brought unintended consequences. There were times that the Zionist endeavor wrought great morality and nobility to the challenges of human life, and there were times of tragic failure. The people were not perfect. Nor were the situations they faced. And, with the benefit of hindsight, criticisms abound.

The question, it seems to me, is what we do with this information. Do we use it to give the Jewish State a failing grade and devalue the Zionist process? Or, do we use it to analyze the discrete causes of current problems—unraveling them to find solutions? Do we revel in the toppling of heroes, or do we dismiss the analysis, repelled by the meanness in each stage of revisionism?

And, don’t forget politics. Depending on the perspective of the analyzer, the quality of historical figures can vary widely. A few years ago, I had the chance to visit the Menachem Begin museum, a beautiful facility near the old Train Station in Jerusalem. In my liberal (Labor Zionist/Mapam/Ratz/Shinui/Meretz) circles, Begin was a villain—a plague on the Zionist house. In his museum, however, his is a singular heroic life that brought life to the nation and to countless individual Israelis. As I went through the museum, I found myself wondering about their sources of information—and my own!

I believe that Zionism is akin to our American patriotism. It is possible to analyze and disagree and still be supportive and loyal. However, it is also possible to overdue the criticism and to follow it down the road to hateful de-legitimization. I hope we can stay on the loyalty side of this divide and maintain our constructive support of both our United States and Israel.

Israel is not perfect, but it is a wonderful example of how dedicated and imperfect people can create a democratic and successful state. It is not perfect, but, among human institutions, it is striving toward the ideal and making significant progress. Israel’s continuing quest to be the “land flowing with milk and honey” deserves our support.





Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, and a Family Squabble

June 9th: B’ha’alotecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week’s Torah portion offers us a glimpse into the family dynamics of Israel’s leading family. In Numbers 12, we read: “When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’ They said, ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?’ The Lord heard it. Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth. Suddenly the Lord called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, ‘Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting.’ So the three of them went out. The Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, ‘Aaron and Miriam!’ The two of them came forward; and God said, ‘Hear these My words: when a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and be beholds the likeness of the Lord. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!’ Still incensed with them, the Lord departed.”

 “As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-while scales! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales. And Aaron said to Moses, ‘O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, ‘O God, pray heal her!’”

 “But the Lord said to Moses, ‘If her father spat in her face, would she not bear the same for seven days? Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted.’ So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted. After that the people set out from Hazeroth and encamped in the wilderness of Paran.”

There is a lot in this story for us to consider. What is the actual complaint against Moses? Is there a connection between Moses’ wife being a Cushite and the competing claim for prophetic power? What is a Cushite, and is this term derogatory? Why is only Miriam punished? What does it mean for God to speak to Moses mouth to mouth, or for Moses to behold the likeness of the Lord?

Some commentators think that Cushite is a reference to Zipporah, Moses’ wife. While Cush is the Hebrew word for Ethiopia and Nubia—making Cushite a reference to a Nubian or Ethiopian, some scholars think it could be a reference to Zipporah’s clan in the Midianites, the Cushan tribe. If it was indeed Cushan, then the gossip would be about Zipporah. But, if Cushite refers to Ethiopian or Nubian, then perhaps Miriam’s issue is with her little brother’s second wife—whose name is not given.

We do not know what concerns Miriam and Aaron, though their questions, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?” suggest to me a concern with the influence Moses’ wife is having over the prophet. We all know situations where powerful people are caught between the differing influences of advisers or family members, and one can imagine Miriam and Aaron expressing their concern that their advice is not being heeded.

As for the punishment, it does not seem fair that misbehavior by both Miriam and Aaron brings about punishment for Miriam alone. Is this a matter of Biblical or Divine misogyny? Anything is possible, but the text gives us a hint that Miriam started the lashon hara (evil tongue/ gossip). In the opening verse, the verb for to speak against is in the feminine singular. In Hebrew, when a male and a female are doing something together, the verb form is both plural and male. In this case however, the verb form is singular and female. Perhaps older sister Miriam started the ugly talk, and Aaron was just drawn into it.

Another possible reason for only Miriam getting leprosy is that leprosy would render Aaron unfit for his priestly duties, and the whole Israelite people would suffer from not having a ritually-abled priest. On the other hand, Aaron had two sons who were ordained and who could function as priests—not high priests, but priests nonetheless.

The most important question regards the nature of Moses’ revelatory experiences with God. When I read the phrase “mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles,” or the statement that Moses “beholds the likeness of the Lord,” my first thought went to Exodus 33. There God refuses Moses’ request to “behold God’s Presence.” As God explains: “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But, you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live?” Knowing then that literally seeing God face to face is out of the question, perhaps these terms are colloquial and metaphorical, with the real meaning being in the comparison between getting a revelation from God in a difficult-to-interpret dreams and direct communication—“plainly and not in riddles.”

Or we could understand these words as a more mystical message. Since we know from Exodus 33 that the revelation from God is not face to face but rather in letting “all My goodness pass before you,” then perhaps Moses’ wisdom comes from reading the reality of God’s goodness in the world, of perceiving the wisdom that is imbedded in the goodness of life. When one looks hard enough and understands what one is seeing, then God’s goodness and God’s message of goodness, kindness, justice, compassion, righteousness, lovingkindness, and grace is self-evident. We just have to look and perceive—as did our teacher Moses.


The Priestly Benediction

June 2nd: Naso

Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our weekly portion contains one of the most famous passages in religion.
“May the Lord bless you and protect you!
May the Lord smile upon you and be gracious to you!
May the Lord shine upon you and bless you with peace!”

It is a very moving passage, especially when used as a blessing. This is the blessing with which our Tradition teaches us to bless our children on Shabbat. It is a standard conclusion of the Jewish wedding ceremony. Many rabbis use it to bless Consecration, B’nay Mitzvah and Confirmation students. When I was growing up, many rabbis used this to conclude the service. I can still see our rabbi lifting his hands to bless the congregation and saying the words, first in Hebrew and then in English. It was a very solemn moment.

And, it is used by our Christian neighbors. I’ve heard it many times in Roman Catholic services, and, just the other night, Sister Julienne of Nonnatus House (in Call the Midwife) used it in wishing recovery to one of her patients.

The original context of the blessing, in Numbers 6 (verses 22-27), is very interesting. 
“The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: May the Lord bless you and protect you! May the Lord smile upon you and be gracious to you! May the Lord shine upon you and bless you with peace! Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

The blessing was spoken by Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim/priests, in ancient times, and Tradition has accorded this blessing as one of their few remaining priestly duties in Post-Temple Judaism. In a ceremony called duchanen, the priests present take off their shoes and go to the front of the synagogue. They cover their eyes and hands with their tallesim. Though the others cannot see their hands, the tradition is for them to make sign of the Shin with the fingers on each hand. Then, the prayer leader intones each line of the blessing, and the Kohanim repeat it. I have only seen it in Orthodox synagogues.

There is some discussion in Rabbinic texts about the process of this blessing, and, even though the priests are special, the Rabbis are clear that the Kohanim are not the ones blessing the people. They are just conduits for God’s blessing; the actual blessings come from the Lord.

By and large, the Reform Movement does not set apart the Kohanim (or the Levi’im) for special consideration or duty. As the Pittsburgh Platform (1885) explained it:
 “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

 As a result, duchanen is not something one would find in a Reform synagogue. However, the blessing itself is so compelling that an interesting parallel developed. In many Classical Reform Temples, at the conclusion of the service, the rabbi—whether a Kohen or not—would lift his hands recite this Priestly Benediction.

As I said above, I found this a very moving part of the service when I was a child, and, when I became a rabbi, it seemed like something I should do. I even learned how to make the Shin sign with my hands—though I am not a Kohen. Though rabbis are not priests, we do often function in a kind of priestly role, and there is that Rabbinic teaching: the blessing does not come from the Kohanim; it comes from God.

Why is this benediction so moving? There are, no doubt, many answers, but I like to focus on the last phrase of the instructions: “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” This translation is subjective. The literal translation is: “Thus they shall put My name on the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” When God’s name is put on us, we are reminded that we are one of God’s most important investments in the world. We have the ability to manifest God’s wisdom and goodness, and the Priestly Benediction reminds us and inspires us to fulfill our holy mission.


A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation

May 26th: Shavuot
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In anticipation of Shavuot—officially observed on May 31st, our weekly Torah portion will be the Ten Commandments. Though the text of the Ten is in Exodus 20, there is much to be learned from the context as set in Exodus 19. Beginning in the second verse, we are told that the Israelites “entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mount, and Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel, ‘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.’”

What does it mean for us to be a kingdom of priests?

 Perhaps the original intention was metaphorical. By virtue of our special relationship with God and our modeling of godly behavior in the world, we could function as a kind of moral and spiritual priesthood and lead the world toward holiness.

Or, the phrase could have referred to the sense of communal support that the actual priesthood received from the rest of the Israelites. Though the priests (kohanim) were the priests, the rest of the Israelite team supported them and, in that sense, were part of the priestly relationship with God. In the regular weekly Torah portion, Bemidbar, there is an interesting delegation of duties giving the various non-priests important work to do. For perhaps more detail than a modern needs, check out Numbers 4 where we have the instructions for packing up the Tent of Meeting and its holy utensils. When it was time for the Israelites to move from one place to another, the kohanim did the packing, but it was another group, their Kohathite cousins, who did the carrying. In the worship system detailed in Leviticus, the kohanim may be the main functionaries, but they are presented as helping the rest of the Israelites in their relationship with God. It was definitely cast as a team effort.

The longest enduring and most spiritually fulfilling interpretation came in the Rabbinic Period, 200 BCE – 200 CE. The Rabbis took this notion of everyone being a priest and used it to create a lifestyle of holiness for every Jew. Prior to this, individual Jews supported the Temple worship system, but their individual roles were restricted to support and occasional attendance—pretty much as spectators. There is certainly something to be said for attending and watching an event of great significance, but personal participation is another step that the Rabbis sought in their new and creative form of Judaism.

Individual Jews continued in their support of the Temple in Jerusalem and its worship system. However, the Rabbis crafted rituals and practices for non-priests, patterning them after the priestly functions. Rather than just support the Temple worship from afar, local Jews could pray in local synagogues using a service based on the Temple service. Rather than only have the priests wear special holy clothing, individual clothing mitzvot were adopted so that non-priestly Jews could develop their own sense of holiness with a holy uniform. The dietary rules, originally just intended for sacrificial meals, were applied to all Jews and all meals—again, bringing the holiness of the priesthood to all Jews.

In other words, though non-priestly Jews could not become priests, they could—through the Rabbinic lifestyle of holiness—develop a sense of God’s Presence in their lives and their own direct participation in the relationship with God.

All the Judaisms of today are heirs of this Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism, and realizing our religious theme—to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people”—can help us to see our significance and our purpose as Jews.