Lepers or Not? Dangerous or Not? The Bonds of Friendship

April 12th: Shabbat Hagadol and Metzora
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Why is leprosy a subject fit for the Torah? Why are the priests the ones to inspect and determine whether a rash is leprosy, or whether some mold is leprosy of the house? The ancients believed that, since everything is part of God’s Creation, every aspect of life is in the religious realm. And, since the priests were trained in diagnostic techniques—“distinguishing between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure, to teach the Israelites…” (Leviticus 10.10-11), the priests were the ones best able to tell whether an outbreak was dangerous or not.

Danger is the salient factor, and the priest’s job is to ascertain the possible contagion and deal with it. If the outbreak on the skin is leprosy and therefore contagious and dangerous, then separation is required. If it is not leprosy and therefore neither contagious nor dangerous, then separation is not required.

The same could be said for people. Whether we are talking about Central Americans seeking to come into the United States, or Palestinians living in Judah and Samaria, or any other case of otherness, the salient question is whether the other poses a danger. If it/they do not, then extending the hand of friendship is the proper thing to do. If they do pose a danger, however, then we have the right and the responsibility to defend ourselves. Much depends on the result of our determination: is the other dangerous or just a slightly different version of us?

When we talk about immigration to the United States or the proper policy for Israel to pursue in regard to the Palestinians, we are blessed with the fact that we are part of the majority deciding the most judicious course of action. Let us not forget, however, that we Jews have often been the other and very much at the mercy of those in power. Sometimes, things have been good, but, sometimes, things have been very, very bad. We know that we have never been a danger to Christians or Muslims, but many times, they thought the opposite. The fact that we dared to have a different religion challenged some Christians and Muslims so much that they could not abide it.

How blessed we are, then, to live in a time and place where interfaith relations have improved so much. Today, we can stand together with our neighbors of different faiths and backgrounds, sharing friendships and working on mutual interests. The last 150 years of interfaith work has been wonderfully successful, and we all feel the benefits.

But, the progress is not universal, and terrible things still happen. While we are affected by every outrage against Jews, the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh last October seemed to hit us harder. How wonderful it was that our friends and neighbors voiced support for us in our time of tragedy, filling our synagogue with some 600 people who wanted us to know that we are treasured citizens of this community. Our Muslim neighbors experienced a similar trauma a few weeks ago—with the tragic news from New Zealand, and they were similarly comforted when hundreds of non-Muslims joined them in prayer and reflection, reminding them that they too are treasured friends and neighbors.

We do our best to spread the spirit of respect and friendship, and we extend the hand of care and comfort when sadness and fear come into our friends’ lives.

In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, a group of local Christians decided to make a formal gesture of affirmation for the Jewish community, and the fruition of their plan is happening this week. Each year, in observance of Palm Sunday, a group of local Christians participates in a Peace March, going from congregation to congregation and reflecting on the Gospel of Peace: that part of the Christian tradition that encourages love, respect, and kindness. Most participants are from what are called Peace Churches: Mennonites, United Brethren, and Society of Friends (Quakers). It is their way of ushering in the Easter season.

This year, the organizers want to extend the hand of support and friendship to us—realizing that many in the Christian tradition over the centuries have been less than peaceful or friendly. They want to include a stop at the synagogue in their Peace March, and they want to make a statement about their remorse at Christian anti-Semitism in the past and their commitment to good interfaith relations in the future.

So, this next Sunday, April 14th, they are coming to visit us. The Peace March starts at 3:00, and there are several stops before us. The estimate is that they’ll arrive around 5:00, but I suggest we gather around 4:30 just to make sure we are waiting for them. There will be some meditations about the need for healing from anti-Semitism, some statements of friendship and support, AND they are giving us a tree—a tree to symbolize the growth of goodwill and respect.

Please join us for this brief ceremony, as we accept our neighbors’ gestures and good will. It will mean a lot to them. It will mean a lot for tikkun olam, the Repair of the World.


Impurity and Separation?

April 5th: Tazria and Hachodesh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The issue of the equality between men and women—in Judaism and in the eyes of God—comes at us immediately in this week’s Torah portion: “When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days; she shall be impure as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed.” That is if the baby is a boy.

 “If she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days.”  (Leviticus 12.1-5)

In an age where we see equal opportunity as both a right and a challenge, our minds wonder why having a baby should be any impediment at all—much less an impediment based on the gender of the baby. Should not all women, regardless of their menstrual or pre- or post-childbirth status be completely equal to men? Why are there a distinction and a separation from the religious community?

Perhaps some answers emerge as the text continues: “On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or turtledove for a purification offering. He shall offer it before the Lord and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be pure from her flow of blood.”  (Verses 12.6-7)

While we may see such a separation as a negative, there is some evidence that the ancient women themselves were happy about it. The evidence comes from the experiences of Beta Yisrael, the Ethiopian Jews who lived a very primitive Jewish lifestyle in Ethiopia and then had to enter the modern world when they moved to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. In a life that was difficult and featured lots of manual labor, a week off every month was seen as a welcome vacation rather than a shunning or time of exclusion. And, how much the more so would a rest be appreciated after the rigors of childbirth! (Actually, in Israel, the common practice is for mothers and new babies to spend several days at a maternity nursing home.)

Of course, this analysis does not address the differences in the period of purification determined by the gender of a woman’s child. To understand this, I find it helpful to turn to the thinking of Dr. Herbert Chanan Brichto, the late professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College. Dr. Brichto saw the worship component of the purification process as crucial to understanding the ancient sensibilities. If it were simply a matter of hygiene, then no sacrificial offering would be necessary. If it were simply a matter of a family thanking God for a new child, then there would be no need for the woman herself to bring the offering; her husband could have done if. If it were simply a matter of rest or even sexual availability, then there would be no need for a sacrifice—as is the case with the monthly menstrual period.

Dr. Brichto’s answer comes in Verse 4 where we read that during her period of blood purification, “She shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary…”  What is it about the sanctuary and consecrated things (utensils and clothing of the sanctuary) that seem to be the issue—the salient factor? Dr. Brichto notes that all the purification rites—for this and other bodily emissions—involve a period of separation away from sacred objects. He also notes how some of the priestly rules require the priests themselves to enter into a state of impurity and then separate themselves from sacred objects. These separations are always for a limited time, and they often involve a chata’t, a sin offering. Why would things commanded by God require a sin offering before returning to contact with sacred things? Dr. Brichto senses a concern that too much contact with sacred objects—with the life-force (or God force)—can be dangerous. Contact is thus dosed—which makes the separation from consecrated things a temporary separation from overexposure to the life-force.

This potentially dangerous contact occurs when the natural barriers of the body are opened: in menstrual periods, in childbirth, in emissions of semen, in sores that discharge pus, and in contact with any dead body (animal or human). When such exposure occurs, the prescription is to hold off on any further exposure for a specified time—until the dose has dissipated. Then, when the waiting time is completed, the person is allowed to reenter the sacred precinct and contact sacred things again.

The chata’t / sin offering is not required because the impurity is a sin. The sin offering is to protect against any sins committed during the state of ritual over-exposure and vulnerability.

Why is the time twice as long for a baby girl as for a baby boy? Because the baby girl has the same reproductive energy as the mother, and this double exposure to the mother requires an extra time away from sacred things.

Note: these separations are only for worship in the sanctuary; they have nothing to do with prayer or rights or respect—or food or shelter or anything else we associate with equal rights.


There is no doubt that women were subordinated in ancient culture, and there is no doubt that the road to full equality has been long and full of difficulties. It would wrong to think that Dr. Brichto’s explanation in any way excuses or justifies sexist discrimination. However, not every form of gender separation was discriminatory or excluding. Some might have been based on awe at the procreative power of women, a power that that was and still is prized and respected.



Kashrut: My, How You Have Grown!

March 29th: Shemini
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This Torah portion has the beginnings of what we now call Kashrut, our Jewish dietary laws and customs. The first step is in Leviticus 11: “These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud—such you may eat.” After some specifics about mammals that either have split hoofs or chew the cud—but not both, the instructions continue with approved water-dwelling creatures: “anything that has fins and scales.” Birds and poultry do not seem to have any specific characteristics; rather there is a list of prohibited birds—with the understanding that birds not on the list are acceptable. There’s also a potentially disgusting angle. “Winged swarming things that walk on fours shall be an abomination,” but there are some insects that are permitted. “These you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground…” I have never seen locusts for sale at kosher food stores, but, then again, I have never really looked for them.

This is the start, but our Tradition has grown this notion of acceptable food into a much more significant system. Today, the system of Kashrut has five basic components:
(1)   Which animals are acceptable to eat (among mammals, fish, birds, and insects)
(2)   How these animals are to be slaughtered and butchered
(3)   The separation between dairy and meat foods
(4)   The special Passover rules forbidding chametz (leavened grain products)
(5)   Rabbinical supervision and authorization—due to the ever increasing length and anonymity of the food supply chain

Of these five, only two and a quarter of them are in the Torah. The Torah does tell us to “return the blood—that is, the soul—to God” by letting the lifeblood drain onto the ground, but it does not include the elaborate slaughtering and butchering techniques (including the inspection, salting, and washing of the meat) that are now part of kashrut. The Torah tells us not “to boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” but it says nothing about separating dairy and meat foods in the general sense. And, the Torah says nothing about Rabbinical supervision—which happens to be the most complex and controversial aspect of Kashrut today.

Why did Judaism grow and enhance the system of Kashrut? What were the purposes of each innovation and addition to the process? Why does it resonate with so many Jews—and not resonate with many more? These are the questions I would like to approach this week.

The formative documents of Rabbinic Judaism—the Mishnah and the Gemara—do not explain the rationale for these dietary rules; they assume them and then discuss a host of details. Thinkers have been speculating as to God’s rationale—or the rational of the Sages who “interpreted” God’s instructions for a long time. Back around 2000 years ago, Philo Judaeus (25 BCE-50 CE), an Alexandrian Jew and Platonic philosopher, suggested that Moses was a great scientist and philosopher and prescribed the various mitzvot based on rational thinking. Philo’s approach is interesting, but it is inevitably speculation. The fact is that we do not know why God commanded what is in the Torah or why the Rabbis enhanced the message into what we now know as Rabbinic (or Traditional) Judaism.

The explanations that make the most sense to me come from two recent voices, the late Dr. Ellis Rivkin of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and Rabbi Marcia Prager of Philadelphia.

Dr. Rivkin discusses the development of Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism in his book, A Hidden Revolution: The Pharisees Search for the Kingdom Within. He notes the raging threat Hellenism posed to the then-traditional Jewish lifestyle in the third century BCE and sees the development of Rabbinic Judaism as a conscious attempt to craft a Jewish spiritual lifestyle as a counter-cultural option for Jews. This was accomplished by gradually adopting and adapting priestly practices and prohibitions for regular (non-priestly) Jews. Rather than occasionally attending sacrificial services at the Temple, regular Jews living outside of Jerusalem could pray more regularly and in their villages in a house of prayer called a synagogue. The priestly vestments were adapted and prescribed for regular Jews so that, through their clothing, they too could feel the ambience of holiness. Even the dietary limitations of the priestly sacrificial meals were adopted by many regular Jews as they sought to increase and enhance the Presence of God in their lives. The religion described and discussed in the Mishnah (225 CE) reflects a 400 year old “Oral Torah” process in which Rabbis and students sought to wrap themselves in adapted or newly developed religious techniques to help them feel closer to God.

 Rabbi Prager also discusses this process of sanctification. In her book, The Path of Blessing, she sees the practices of Rabbinic Judaism as techniques of mindfulness—of mental and spiritual focus—so that we can live life with more intention, moral integrity, and spiritual purpose. Is Hamotzi before eating bread for God or for us? It is for us in terms of reminding ourselves of the Divine and creative context in which we eat and live. And, it is for God in terms of mentally and spiritually connecting the Creator and the created. She even goes further. When we use the techniques of our Tradition, we turn ourselves into portals of Divine energy and thus bring God’s Presence—God’s consciousness and influence—into a world that yearns for it.

 Every layer of development and enhancement is part of this process. In order to sense God in a world that distracts our spiritual vision, our Sages have built upon the Biblical forms and crafted spiritual techniques to focus our attention on the Presence of God and to open ourselves to be channels for the flow of Divine energy into the world.

 From making the mundane slaughter of animals into an act of sanctification, from not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk to separating all meat and dairy foods, and from elevating the local production of Kosher food to an institutionalized holy food industry, each step of the growth of Kashrut has been an attempt to fill our lives with meaning. Whether or not Jews follow Kashrut—and to what degree—is based on how this Divine connection through food resonates or does not resonate with their spiritual sensibilities.



Israel, American Jews, and The Benjamins

March 22nd: Tzav
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Sometimes, we can follow our intuition and do very well. Other time, however, things are not as we would expect, and we have to check ourselves and our automatic assumptions and responses. A case in point comes in Leviticus 8 when we read about the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons. “A second ram was brought forward, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of Aaron’s right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot.” Moses did the same for the right ears, right thumbs, and right big toes of Aaron’s sons. Then, Moses took “the rest of the blood and dashed it on every side of the altar.” (Leviticus 8.22-24). What was the purpose of this blood?

The commentary in Etz Hayim explains that “dabbing sacrificial blood on certain extremities of the body is essentially a rite of purification.” Purification?! One would intuitively think that blood is something from which one needs to be purified, but here the ritual makes it a purifying agent. A similar dynamic comes into play in next week’s special reading Parah (Numbers 19.1-22), where the ashes of a red heifer, normally something from which one needs to be purified, are used in ritual cleansing. Things are not always what they seem.

I think of this intuitive/counterintuitive tension as I survey a recent news story and controversy: the remarks of Representative Ilhan Omar about Jews and American foreign policy. The anti-Semitic nature of her remarks has gotten a lot of attention, but I think that two other points need to be discussed.

First, it is a myth that Jews are the reason for the United States’ support of Israel. The fact that Israel is a Jewish State and that most American Jews support Israel may give rise to this kind of thinking, and AIPAC’s (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) fundraising self-promotion may give the impression that Jews are powerful in America. However, the real reasons for American support for Israel have very little to do with American Jews. As historian Ellis Rivkin explained, Israel is a beachhead of both democracy and developmental capitalism in a part of the world where, in America’s view, both are really needed. This was true when Rivkin taught this in the 1970s, and it is even more true today. Look at the crises in democracies throughout the region, and look at the intact and operating democracy in Israel. Even though squabbling is a way of life in democracy, look at the way that law and democratic representation reign in the Jewish State—even in the face of formidable challenges. Look also at the way that developmental capitalism thrives in Israel—with innovation and international integration driving both the Israeli economy and benefiting economies all over the world. There is also the military reality that Israel is, in Rivkin’s words, “the world’s largest aircraft carrier, stationed in one of the most strategically important places in the world.” When things get dangerous in the Middle East, Israel is there to support American interests and goals—and Israel is willing to man this “aircraft carrier” with minimal support from its allies.

We must also not forget the fifty million Christian evangelicals in the United States who believe that “blessing Israel” brings blessings and “cursing Israel” brings curses. As Rivkin would put it, if there were not a Jew in the United States, the U.S. would still support Israel.


Second, Representative Omar’s blaming “the Benjamins” for American policy is a paranoid tautology. The assumption of such an accusation is that nefarious interests are perverting the system by bribing the government (with $100 bills or Benjamins) to do the wrong things—to pursue policies inimical to what “the people want and need.” What it ignores is the assumption that the speaker knows what the people want and need—knowledge based on the speaker’s political thinking. In other words, this is a rhetorical device for claiming the moral and democratic high ground, something done by politicians in every party and on every issue. Think about how many times you hear the phrase the American people in most political conversations and how the American people are always in agreement with the speaker. Anything that goes along with the speaker is supported by the American people, and anything that is counter to the speaker’s opinion is against the will of the American people.

Are the Benjamins an important factor in American policy? Of course, they are. Anyone working for the prosperity and health of our society has got to pay attention to economic factors. Indeed, the vast majority of policy suggestions base their wisdom on positive economic effects. From Trickle-Down Prosperity to the Poor People’s Campaign for Economic Justice, proponents are always concerned with the practical economic effects. It’s just a matter of arguing which policy will bring about a particular effect.

My favorite example comes from the early 1990s, when many blamed U.S. involvement in the first Iraq war (Operation Desert Storm) on oil. “We’re just fighting for oil,” was a common complaint, suggesting that oil supply is not a vital American interest—that it is only a concern for rich people who, for the sake of their own wealth, are sending young Americans to die. It was a convincing argument, and it followed intuitive thinking. However, a little deeper thinking turned me around. If supplies of oil would drop and the price of oil would increase by 10% or 25%, would this only be a problem just for the fat cats and other immorally rich people? Or, would there also be problems for the common folk? Would prices on everything rise? Would poor people be able to drive to work or to the grocery store? Would auto sales and manufacturing decrease? Would food prices—for both rich and poor—increase? While there may be a critique about our national patterns of energy consumption, the fact is that oil is the lifeblood of our economy, and anything that threatens our oil supply is a legitimate threat to our people’s economic lives. Of course, it’s the Benjamins! It’s always the Benjamins because we all depend on money for our food, our shelter, our clothing, our security, our culture--our everything!  Whether Capitalist or Socialist, we need to be concerned about economic realities and about how people get the things they need to live. There are certainly different opinions about how to run the economy and address a host of human concerns, but suggesting that any philosophy or moral system can exist without economic factors is foolish and shallow—and ultimately demagogic.

Are the Benjamins a source of impurity, or are they simply a fact of life? Are economic interests inevitably a form of bribery, or must they be pursued within a framework of morality? The advice of the Torah is to integrate practicality and morality and thus bring godliness to the world.

The Purpose of Holiness

March 1st: Vayakhel and Pekuday
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to explain religious ritual in the following way. In our sacred history, certain moments stand out as sublime: we encountered the Holy One in a profound way and were affected spiritually, emotionally, and historically. We hear about these moments and are inspired, but would it not be better to relive them. This is where ritual comes in. A well-constructed and performed ritual is peak experience domesticated. We cannot travel back in time to the Red Sea and walk across it on dry land, but we can utilize ritual processes to put ourselves back in that spiritual moment and re-experience the closeness to God and the awe that our ancestors felt.

 In the next two weeks’ Torah portions, we read about the construction and assembling of the Mishkan and about when God enters it as a Divine habitation: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle (Mishkan). Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys.”  (Exodus 40.33-37) Can we recreate this moment? How can this peak experience be domesticated?

 For many, a really good worship service can bring the sense of God’s Presence. Just as we welcome the Sabbath Bride in Lecha Dodi, the combined spiritual power of the worshippers can invoke the Shechinah, God’s Indwelling Presence, and we can feel God in our midst.

 Others feel more connected in Torah study. As Rabbi Chananya ben Teradion used to say (Pirke Avot 3.3 ): “When two people sit, and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests upon them.” Studying about God and godly ways can bring us closer to the Divine.

 Others find it helpful to invoke dramatic visions, such as that of Isaiah’s famous dream/vision:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of God’s robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on God. Each seraph had six wings: two to cover the face, two to cover the legs, and two for flying. And one called to the other: ‘Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! God’s Presence fills all the earth!’ The doorposts would shake at the sound, and the House kept filling with smoke.

 I cried, ‘Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of impure lips, and I live among a people of impure lips; yet my own eyes have beheld the King, the Lord of Hosts.’ Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. Touching it to my lips, the seraph declared, ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin be purged away.’

 Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? And I said, ‘Here I am; send me.’ And God said, ‘Go, say to that people: “Hear, indeed, but do not understand; See, indeed, but do not grasp.’ Dull that people’s mind, Stop its ears, and seal its eyes—lest seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears, it also grasp with its mind, and repent and save itself.”’   (Isaiah 6.1-10)

 Part of this vision may be familiar because it is the basis of the Kedushah, an integral and inspiring part of the morning service. We imagine ourselves as the angels, turning to each other and declaring, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The fullness of the earth is God’s glory!” Imagine standing in God’s Presence, basking in the glow of ultimate holiness! It is an inspiring possibility and can elevate our souls and bring us closer to the Eternal One.

 Of course, God’s message to Isaiah—and what Isaiah is to communicate to Israel—is about more than mere ritual and sanctification. From the throne room of ultimate holiness, God’s concern is Israel’s morality. Just as Isaiah is morally inadequate, so is Israel morally tainted—“Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of impure lips, and I live among a people of impure lips.” God thus speaks to the need for repentance and moral improvement, and this is phrased in a kind of negative irony: “Don’t tell them, because, if you do, they might realize their evil and repent.”

 And so, from this encounter at the height of ritual purity and inspiration comes a message of ethical imperative, teaching us that the point of ritual is twofold: to bring us closer to God and to transform us into God’s instruments.

 Here is the way these two messages are brought together in a classic prayer text:
“O Lord, how can we know You? Where can we find You? You are as close to us as breathing and yet are farther than the farthermost star. You are as mysterious as the vast solitudes of the night and yet are as familiar as the light of the sun. 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.”

 (Slightly adapted from The Union Prayer Book, CCAR 1940, page 39; inspired by a poem of Judah HaLevi and Exodus 34)



Hate the Sin; Love the Sinner

February 22nd:  Ki Tisa
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In a world plagued by scandals, it is perhaps appropriate that this week’s Torah portion presents the greatest scandal in Jewish history, the Golden Calf incident. Fresh from the Exodus with all of its miracles and the incredible revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites quickly forget about God and Moses and feel the need to craft another god to lead them on their way. “The people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the Land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32.1) Aaron complies, solicits jewelry to melt down, and crafts the Golden Calf which the Israelites begin to worship.

 Suffice it to say that Moses and God are not happy. God considers destroying the whole nation, while Moses throws the Tablets of the Covenant down, shattering them into oblivion. Moses also destroys the Golden Calf, grinds it into dust, and makes the Israelites drink waters made bitter with the powder. Some people are killed by angry Levites, and others die from a plague, but the majority of the Israelites survive. Among these survivors, surprisingly, is Aaron.

 While some Israelites may be more guilty and others less so, Aaron is right in the middle of the sin. “All the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf.” (Exodus 32.3-4) How, then, does he get exonerated?! As one can imagine, the Sages spend quite a bit of time trying to figure how this works, and a number of their answers have interesting implications for our times.

 One explanation for why Aaron is forgiven by God—or perhaps not even blamed—is his intention. The people think that they will worship the idol: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”  But notice Aaron’s words: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!”  The Rabbis see this as Aaron attempting to divert the people’s worship back to the One God, and it is counted to Aaron’s merit.

 Another explanation involves Aaron’s motivation. As the Midrash observes, Aaron realizes that, after this terrible sin, the people will need expiation, and he is the only one authorized to officiate at the atonement rituals. If he resists the peoples’ demands and is killed, then there will be no priest, and the people will never have the chance to repent and be cleansed. He goes along with the crowd so he will be around to help them repent. Building the calf is wrong, but God takes into account his purer motivation and holds him blameless—or less at fault.

 In both cases, God seems to separate between the wrongness of the deed and the mindset of the sinner—which brings us to the case of  Governor Dr. Ralph Northam and his racially insensitive youthful indiscretions.

 The history of humanization has been long and rocky and plagued with misunderstanding. What seems obvious to the general public now was not even considered in past times. Or, perhaps we should put it this way. While some people are aware of injustice or disrespect at one point in history, it generally takes a while before such sentiments become widely accepted. Think of the very slow development of the equality of women. The principle was discussed a long time ago—for example by Jane Austen in the early 1800s, but the concrete steps toward egalitarianism were not actualized until many, many decades later.  Or consider the slowly developing equality of people of color, or of LGBTQA individuals, or, for that matter of various religious minorities. Humanity has come from some very dark places in our gradual realization that true human-ness exists in many forms and variations. This is what is called progress.

 One of my favorite examples is the Reform Jewish embrace of feminism. While the full equality of women has been part of Reform Jewish ideology since the 1800s, the particular issue of gender non-specific language was simply not on the radar for our movement’s leadership in the early 1970s. As a result, our prayer book, Gates of Prayer, was composed and edited with what were soon glaring problems: God is referred to as King and He, and the Amidah includes only the Patriarchs—ignoring the Matriarchs except in implication. Despite the fact that ours is a movement that jumps on every social justice bandwagon quickly and with institutional vigor, our 1975 prayer book is full of gender insensitivities! We invested great emotional, organizational, and financial energy but did so just before the issue of gender non-specific language came to the fore. As a result, our movement’s prayer book was, from an egalitarian perspective, obsolete very early in its career.

 The march of progress is agonizingly slow for those feeling the brunt of oppression, but, unfortunately, social and attitudinal inertia is hard to overcome, and awareness is generally slow to dawn. This is not an excuse; it is simply an observation on the nature of culture and progress.

 Indeed, the road to progress is often paved with weird and ironic incidents. Do you remember the 1993 episode at the Friars Club when Ted Danson and then girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg thought it would be funny for Danson to appear in blackface? That it was not received as funny surprised them both. Do you remember when Mickey Rooney appeared as a Japanese neighbor in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s? I cannot say that Japanese people appreciated the performance, but the producers of a very cutting edge and deep film somehow thought that this comic relief was appropriate. A more obscure film reference comes from the 2005 movie Prime, starring Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. Produced by a very liberal and politically correct Hollywood and set in the very liberal and politically correct Upper West Side of Manhattan, its young white men use the n-word ­as an expression of affection for each other. Is this a matter of cultural insensitivity or cultural appropriation, or does it represent a different or time-bound opinion about what is appropriate?

 My point is that motivation, intention, and historical context should be considered when we judge another person’s actions. This is certainly the Midrash’s understanding of the judgment of Aaron. Moreover, if the indiscretion or insensitivity occurred long ago, should not the sinner’s behavior in the intervening years be considered? The point of progress is not to destroy one’s opponents, but rather to convert them. And, if that conversion has been operative for many, many years, should the discovery of a very old sin affect the sinner’s current moral standing? Hate the sin; love the sinner! Hate the sin; love the repentant sinner!

Organized Religion, Part II

February 15th: Tetzaveh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week, as we continue God’s instructions for the Mishkan, the portable tent temple that we carried with us in our wanderings, I would like to continue last week’s discussion of Organized Religion and why some people find it problematic. Our starting point was the original Jewish building fund, launched in Exodus 25, when God requests gifts from the Israelites—gifts for the sanctuary so that the Divine could dwell among us.

 We talked about spontaneity versus fixed forms in worship, the various administrative challenges that often arise in organized religion, and the imperfection of some of the people involved in religious institutions. These issues are serious, but I maintain, the goodness and purity of the religious message aspires to transcend these challenges. As this week’s Haftarah (Ezekiel 43.10-27) makes clear, moral contrition and repentance are essential to qualitative spirituality. We need to do religion right.

 Another issue, brought home by the Divine request for building materials, is the whole financial angle of religion. Money is necessary for organized religious institutions, but paying for religion is off-putting for many, so much so that they resist fundraising or simply do not affiliate.

 There was a time, in the ghetto paradigm of Jewish life, when individual Jews did not have the option of standing apart from communal institutions. The Jewish community was given the power to tax all ghetto residents, and this enforced financial support allowed it to sponsor synagogues, schools, infirmaries, mikva’ot, and charitable endeavors. However, when the gates of the ghetto were opened, this all changed. In our free society, participation is a matter of personal choice, and religious institutions have no enforcement power.

 It is hard to say whether the original building fund campaign in Exodus is voluntarily or forced. Though God specifically says, “Accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so inclined(Genesis 25.2), everybody know that God is the One Who is asking, and I wonder whether the individual Israelites feel autonomous or obligated. In any event, our ancestors respond enthusiastically, and the drive brings in much more gold, silver, copper, yarn, ram skins, etc. than is needed. When the artisans report, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done” (Exodus 36.5). Moses sends out an announcement to all the camp telling people to stop bringing gifts.

 In our congregation, we’re not quite there (yet!).

 How are we to regard the continual need for money in religion? Is it an intrusion into spirituality or an enhancement of spirituality? I think about this every year when we plan our Yom Kippur services. On Kol Nidre, do I place my sermon before the annual Kol Nidre Appeal—heightening the spiritual moment before we break it off and talk about money, or do I place my sermon after the annual Kol Nidre Appeal—seeing the appeal as a buildup to the spiritual message I bring to the congregation? In other words, is the appeal a part of the worship experience, or is it an interruption?

In Christian churches, there is a big emphasis on giving money, and they build it up sermonically, liturgically, and musically as a form of holiness. The ushers pass the baskets and then walk them up the aisle to present to God on the altar. As alien as this might seem to us, it is very close to the description of our ancient Temple worship. Look at Deuteronomy 26.1-10 and notice the beauty and sublime appropriateness of the ritual: “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish the Divine Name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, ‘I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to assign to us.’ The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt small in number and dwelt there, but there he became a great and exceedingly populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us, forcing us to work at hard labor. We cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our pleas and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and awesome power—displaying signs and wonders. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.’”

 We do not pass baskets for money during our Sabbath services—as part of our traditional prohibition of commerce and carrying money on Shabbat, but this does not mean that our financial contributions cannot be touched by spirituality. When we write a check to the synagogue, we are participating in the religious work of God, continuing our ancestors’ commitment to a relationship with the Divine and keeping the light of Judaism burning brightly. It is also a way to give thanks to God for the blessings in our lives and to offer some back to God. 

Is giving money to religion a distraction or necessary evil? Or, is it a form of prayer? It’s all a matter of our kavannah—our spiritual intentions.


Organized Religion, Part I

February 8th: Terumah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though many may consider this section of the Torah to be among the most pointless, it has the potential to be among the most relevant? Why would some thirteen chapters on the assembling of the Mishkan—the ancient “tent temple” which traveled with our ancestors during their wanderings in the desert—be relevant? Because this is the first organizational meeting in Jewish history, and we have the original synagogue building fund! “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so inclined. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointed oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25.1-8)

 In the practical work that allows synagogues to exist, funds must be raised; leadership must be elected; worship services and programs must be arranged. There are lots of details which must be determined, and the product of the membership and traditions and decisions are what we could call organized religion. It is organized because communal endeavors require organization. What then are we to make of the comment, “I do not like organized religion”?

 Is the complaint that one wants spontaneous religiosity rather than something that has been planned? This is actually an ancient concern, expressed in the Mishnah by Rabbi Shimon: “When you pray, let not your prayer become routine, but let it be a sincere supplication for God’s mercy.”  (Avot 2.18) As a result, there is a dynamic tension in Judaism between keva, the fixed forms of prayer, and kavannah, the spontaneity that is necessary for a true connection to God. All forms of Judaism work on keeping both approaches, but the Reform Movement encourages it even more—hence our many “creative prayer books” that incorporate traditional forms and more modern expressions. 

 Or, is the complaint that all the organizational work—fundraising, committee decision making, the adjudication of different and competing visions of congregational life—is distracting from spirituality? There are certainly different skills and activities involved, but a mature person realizes that a certain amount of work is always necessary in enjoyable or meaningful activities. Just as a good meal requires preparation and cleanup, so does the spirituality in religion require planning and infrastructure.

 Or, is the complaint about the inadequacies of many of the people involved in religion? Whether it is outright criminality or rude or disrespected behavior in the holy precincts, religion is often maligned by its own practitioners: “religious people” behaving irreligiously. This can certainly be disappointing and off-putting, but it is the exception which proves the rule. Though religion can bring out negative personality traits in people, its aspiration is to bring out the best. When we are beset in congregational life with conflict or bad behavior, it is an opportunity to respond with respect, patience, and the love that God has for us. Remember Hillel’s advice from Avot (2.6): “In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human!”

 Unfortunately, examples of “religious people behaving irreligiously” abound. Among the most notable is the ongoing scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Somehow, the Church has been unable for decades to deal properly with the child abuse practiced by a number of priests, and it is a stain on their pride and the holiness. Indeed, many Catholics have had their faith shaken to the core. It so happens that a friend and colleague of mine, Kathleen Cotter Cauley, a devoted Catholic and a mental health therapist, is one of the people working on the Church’s response and at a fairly high level. She knows the sinfulness and the irresponsibility that has plagued the Church in this regard—as well as the grave damage caused to many, many members of the Church, and nonetheless she is hopeful. She is hopeful because she believes in the pure message of the Catholic Church and in the need for this message in members’ lives. And, she is hopeful because she sees her beloved Church, a large and slow-moving religious institution, finally responding in appropriate and holy ways to a religious tragedy.

 The word religion too often gets a bad reputation because individuals bring their imperfections to religious institutions. The religions preach goodness, but the goodness is tenuous and can be obscured or diverted by people who mistake their own egos for the will of God. Every time it happens, it is a shame, and, all too often, it is worse. But, the imperfection of these individuals does not take away from the message of goodness and godliness. It just means that the religious message is not being communicated successfully.

 This was certainly the view of Rev. Franklin Littell, a United Methodist minister who spoke of the Holocaust as a Shadow on the Cross. Since every person who carried out the crimes of the Holocaust was a baptized Christian, he sees the Holocaust as a failure of Christianity in Europe, and he dedicated his career to teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. With his ministry of the Anne Frank Institute in New York, his mission was to bring Christianity back to its pure and godly message—and to purge it of the hate that shamed Jesus and every other true Christian.

My point is using these extreme examples is that the very real problems in religion are not inevitable. They are rather failures of religion. It is not the organization of religiosity that is the problem; rather, it is the imperfection of people who misuse the spiritual energy religion makes available. While some may reject religion outright, my position is that we are called to use religious teachings and energy correctly—with kindness, compassion, righteousness, and understanding, with the Divine love that God bids us to share.


Next week, we’ll continue our discussion of the organizational pitfalls and possibilities of religion.

The Strangers Among Us

February 1st: Mishpatim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the Rabbis’ rules of thumb is the belief that God is not redundant. If the Torah says something more than once, it is not mere repetition. Rather, the double or multiple expression of a thought or mitzvah is for a reason—and the Rabbis’ task is to figure out what God has in mind.

 A prime example of this Midrashic work is the number of cups of wine we drink at the Passover Seder. The purpose of the Exodus was to save us from Egyptian slavery, but God does not just say this once. Instead, in Exodus 6.6-7, God uses a bunch of synonymous statements to speak of our redemption:
1)      “I will bring them forth from their suffering in Egypt,
2)      I will rescue them from their slavery,
3)      I will give their lives meaning with My outstretched arm and great actions,
4)      I will take them unto me as My people.”

The Rabbis see each phrase as a different dimension of the salvation, and they prescribe a different cup to celebrate each one.

 (There is, of course, a slight complication. While the Exodus 6.6-7 passage identifies four dimensions of redemption, the very next verse gives what could be considered a fifth: “And I will bring you into the land.” Does this verse mean that we should add a fifth cup of wine? There were divergent opinions among the Sages, and the debate raged for years. Finally, the Rabbis realized that a resolution is currently impossible, so they decided to wait until the end of days, when Elijah will herald the coming of the Messiah, and all questions will be answered. In the meantime, we pour five cups, drink four, and leave one for Elijah.)

 The Four Children section of the Seder is similarly based. Four times God gives the instruction that the Israelites should tell their children about the Exodus—in Exodus 12.26–27, Exodus 13.8, Exodus 13.14, and Deuteronomy 6.20–21. Is God just being emphatic, or is there a subtle difference in each mitzvah that suggests a different kind of telling. The Rabbinic answer is that there are four different types of children, and that each one needs the message to be communicated in a particular way.

 This principle of God is not redundant comes to bear in this week’s Parshat Mishpatim where we hear a single message spoken twice. First, we read Exodus 22.20: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The mitzvah seems obvious and simple enough. Why, then, would God repeat the message just nineteen verses later? “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9)

 The commentary in Etz Hayim suggests that the two mitzvot are directed at different audiences—the first being an instruction for individual Israelites in their daily lives, and the second being a specific instruction to judges. Just as a judge should not favor people he knows, so should he not show judicial prejudice against outlanders/strangers. This is a principle approached several times in the Torah. In Exodus 12.49, Leviticus 24.22, and Numbers (15.29), we read that the same laws and rules should apply to both native born and resident aliens.

 One could also interpret these two mitzvot as referring to two types of strangers—two types of strangeness. Some are strange because they come from other places—from other cities, states, countries, religions, or cultures. When we encounter these strangers, we are bidden to find the common humanity we share and to treat them with respect and fairness. As the Prophet Amos reminds us, (9.7), God loves all humanity and has a special relationship with every people. “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir.”

 How are we to treat people from other places? Within our country, there are often differences with which we need to contend, but what happens when people seek to join us from other countries? Though we certainly have the right and the responsibility to maintain our borders and to protect our country, we also have an obligation to respect the humanity of the immigrants who arrive upon our shores or at our borders. The Torah reminds us that they are human beings and not political footballs, but the political process seems more focused on politicking than approaching these human beings with respect and fairness. The solutions to our immigration debate have been obvious for some thirty years, but our administrators and legislators have allowed themselves to be paralyzed by political gamesmanship, and the immigrants and the many citizens who depend upon them have been forgotten in the politic haggling.

 The other strangers among us are individuals who are not foreign but who are strange in their appearance or abilities. Most of us have enough manners not to publicly berate or make fun of someone with a developmental disability, but do we extend the same awareness and respect to those who are unattractive or socially awkward? And, what about the people with disabilities? We have laws mandating accommodation for them in employment and public facilities, but do we treat them as human beings and welcome them into our conversations and social circles? One of the most upsetting things about adulthood is the realization that we never outgrow middle school and the dynamics of socializing and ostracizing.  Oh, how we need the wisdom of the Torah when we are tempted to focus on someone’s strangeness and not on the image of God residing within.

 We are given guidance in this sensibility by the second version’s psychological clause: “for you know the heart of the stranger, seeing that you yourself have been a stranger…” Though we work very hard to find places where we belong—where we fit in, the fact is that we have all experienced social alienation, and we know the awkwardness and psychic pain of being strange. Let us take these painful memories and use them for good. Let us pay attention to our social dynamics and endeavor to make everyone feel at home. We know the heart and the pain of the stranger; let us take the Torah to heart and extend to every stranger the warmth and the welcome we all need.



At the Mountain: Intensity and Purpose

January 25th: Yitro
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This is the portion where we stand at Mount Sinai and hear the Eternal One thunder the words we know as the Ten Commandments. Beginning with, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: you shall have no other gods besides Me”  (Exodus 20.2-3), the Torah makes it very clear God’s words are at the center of our Divine purpose—and our relationship with the Divine.

 Shortly before the actual revelation, the Lord explains to Moses the nature and purpose of the relationship which is now being made official: “…I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Me. Now, then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19.4-6) The Ten Commandments are not just words; they are the basis of a covenantal partnership.

 The intensity of the experience at the mountain—a volcano like fire at the top and God’s words thundering from On High—frightens the people, and they shrink back from the Divine. “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. ‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’” (Exodus 20.15-16)

 This is an early case of people dosing themselves with religion—a process in which all human beings are involved. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we decide how much religion or spirituality is helpful, inspiring, perhaps even challenging? How much, on the other hand, is too much for us—too much or unnecessary or perhaps even distracting from other important components of life? All of us need some spiritualty, so the key is determining how much we require.

 Some of us thrive on more religion; it is just the way we are. So, as much as our Tradition urges us to increase our religious thinking and observance, the Tradition also teaches us limits. Notice the famous proverb from Simon the Righteous in Pirke Avot (1.2): “On three things does the world stand: on Torah, on Worship, and on Deeds of Lovingkindness.” This ancient founder of Rabbinic Judaism certainly sees religion—Torah and Worship—as important, but it is not the only important component of life. As Reb Shimon instructs us, going out into the world and doing good deeds is also vital.

 Perhaps this is what God was thinking when God repeatedly tells Moses to descend from the mountain—or from the intimacy of a direct encounter with God—and return to the people. This is not to say that God does not enjoy Moses’ company but rather that God sees the relationship with Moses as a conduit for a greater relationship with the people.

 This comes out again in Moses’ review of Israelite history in Deuteronomy (1.6-8): “The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai), saying: ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill county of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, the hill country, the Shephelah, the Negeb, the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, as far as the Great River, the river Euphrates. Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them.’”

 Some focus on the territorial aspects of the Deuteronomy passage, wondering about why we never actually obeyed the mitzvah and took possession of all this land. Some modern zealots insist that it was and is a sin to refuse to take over the entire Middle East. Others realize that this mitzvah was and is impossible—that, if God actually intends it as a mitzvah to perform, it is for a time in the distant future. Halachah does not consider every mitzvah it a present expectation: some must wait until God makes them possible.

 There is, however, another way to look at the passage. Just as God instructs Moses to descend from the mountain in order to instruct the people, this passage could be God’s way of sending the people out to teach the world. The time with God in the wilderness—both at the mountain and in the years establishing the holy community—is precious, but that time is preparatory, intended to help Israel learn how to bring God’s words and God’s ways to the world.

 As we pursue our lives, finding a balance among all of life important components, let us not forget the precious relationship that we can have with the Divine. It is a relationship that our religion can help us develop and nurture. But let us also remember God’s stated desire that we take the good and holy thoughts of our faith and bring them to life in the world.


God Dwells in Us


January 18th: Beshallach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In Beshallach, we read about the long awaited Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.
“They set out from Succoth, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Exodus 13.20-22)

The excitement and drama is incredible as God’s Redemptive power is on display. Huge numbers of people who have lived in slavery their entire lives are suddenly able to go marching forth—with God leading them with giant pillars of cloud and fire!

In all the redemptive glory, however, we can fail to notice the internal dynamic at play. Not only is freedom dawning within each Israelite and within the community, but also awakening is purpose. A well-known passage from the Psalms can focus our attention.
“When Israel came forth out of Egypt,
The House of Jacob from a foreign people,
Judah became the place of God’s holiness,
Israel the place of God’s power.” 
(Psalm 114.1-2)

God’s Presence is triumphant—in Egypt and at the Red Sea, but notice how the Psalmist emphasizes the Presence of the Divine in the community. Not only is it manifest in the world—in nature and in supernatural events, it has entered the people of Israel and will be manifest on the human level.

The Children of Israel are on their way to the Promised Land—with holiness of the Land held up as a central part of our holy mission, but, for the forty years in the wilderness and for all the years in the Diaspora, God’s Presence is found in the hearts and minds and communities of God’s people.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the field of historiography was taking shape—and being influenced by Darwinism, scholars saw in civilizations the life patterns of species and organisms. There seemed to be a pattern throughout history as civilizations developed and rose and then fell. It was a life cycle, but there was one curious exception—the Jews! Though we had endured defeats and diaspora and seemingly continual persecution for some 4000 years, historians and historiographers marveled at the way our ever-dying people managed to survive and even thrive. The religious explanation is, of course, that God is active in history and that Jewish survival and agency are part of God’s plan. However, for these historians and social scientists, supernatural or theological considerations were not part of their working or thinking vocabulary. How did the Jews manage to avoid the cyclical rise and fall of every other civilization?

A very persuasive theory came from the poet Heinrich Heine who spoke of Judaism’s portable homeland. The Torah and the way of life it teaches comprise a way for us to live spiritually and culturally wherever we are and whatever our physical condition. Many Jewish thinkers picked up on his notion and used it in their teaching of Judaism and in their conceptual crafting of modern Judaism. Our God and our relationship with God are not dependent on any particular land or landscape; they exist in the commitment we have and the approaches we have developed over the years. In the words of the Psalmist:
”The Jewish people are the place of God’s holiness,
The Israelite people the place of God’s power.” 

 I do not know if Rabbi Chananyah ben Teradion had this in mind, but his famous teaching in Pirke Avot (3.3) resonates with this sensibility: “When two people sit and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them.” If God is universal, and if Torah can help us to access God, then we can live in holy relationship with God anywhere.

 In both Israel and in the Diaspora, the salient aspect of Jewishness is whether and how we manifest Torah—God’s holiness and energy—in our lives.



Wandering and Permanence and God

January 11th: The Book of Exodus
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

As we closed our study of Genesis, we considered God’s words to Jacob: “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will also bring you back…” (Genesis 46.3-4) Though God knew of the slavery that waited for the Israelites in Egypt—and while Israel with his prophetic abilities probably knew about it as well, God’s instructions say that the move from Canaan to Egypt is a good plan—for now. Later, it will be time to leave Egypt and return to Canaan, but now Egypt is the place to be.

In our long history of wandering, there have been innumerable places that have been good. It was good in ancient Egypt for a long time. It was good under the Greeks for a long time. It was good under the Romans for several periods of their rule. It was good in Babylonia in many periods (of our 2500 year sojourn there). There was a kind of Golden Age of Jewish life in the Rhineland (Speyer, Mainz, and Worms) for a few centuries. The times were so good in Andalusia (Muslim Spain) that we call that period the Jewish Golden Age of Spain. Though anti-Semitism reared its ugly head from time to time, Jewish culture, religious scholarship, prosperity, and involvement in the general community thrived in many places and for many years. One can even point to the good years in places like Germany and Austria of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. As for England, things have been good there for several centuries—though Jews were banned for some 350 years, from 1290 to 1657.

Even when much of the European climate was hostile, the anti-Semitism was sporadic. When one king or bishop sanctioned oppression, another one 100 or 200 miles away would encourage Jewish refugees to come to his region, and things would be good there.

As the late historian Ellis Rivkin used to explain, there is no tenet in Christianity or Islam that demands the destruction or even conversion of the Jews. Otherwise, the whole of Christendom or of Islamdom would have united in such a campaign. What we have, rather, are certain texts in both religions that can be used for anti-Semitism in economic or political crises. Dr. Rivkin could go through a list of anti-Semitic incidents in history and, for every single one, show an economic or political problem in which anti-Semitism was used by despots to relieve or divert the crisis.

As we begin Exodus, we reflect on how our good life in Egypt turned bad: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’ So the Egyptians set taskmasters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh; Pithom and Rameses.” (Exodus 1.8-11)

What could account for such a change of attitude? Contrast it to the initial invitation from a different Pharaoh: “Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land…never mind your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours” (Genesis 45.17-20)

An important thing to remember about history is that we Jews were/are not the only wanderers. Permanence in the human experience is at best temporary. Who knows where the “original Egyptians” originated or how homogenous were the Egyptians who built the Pyramids. Egyptologists work on putting the story together, but there seem to be a variety of ethnic, religious, and power groups that vied for influence during the thousands of years of “the Egyptians.” Around 1640 BCE, the then current rulers of Egypt were displaced by a well-organized and militarily better equipped people from Anatolia known as the Hyksos. They swept into the Nile delta and took over for over 100 years. Then, they were driven out by the “native Egyptians” around 1532 BCE who installed their own new king/Pharaoh. Some historians believe that it was a Hyksos Pharaoh who welcomed Joseph and his family—and a post-Hyksos new Pharaoh who expelled the “foreigners” and enslaved our ancestors.

One could compare the situation to the Edict of Expulsion from Spain in 1492 when the Jews were expelled as part of the Reconquista, a centuries’ old effort to rid the Iberian Peninsula of the Muslims who had conquered it some six centuries before.

The point is that our wanderings from place to place—and the good times and bad times we have faced—have been part of the context of human impermanence. Rulers change. Borders and countries change. Weather and topography change. And, we humans scurry around trying to find good places.

 Our Tradition draws two lessons from this dynamic in which we have lived and in which we continue to live today.
(1)   Appreciate the blessings we have and the resilience of our bodies, our wits, our families, and our cultures. Like Jacob who became a Patriarch in a struggle, we find our best humanity in the striving of life and in the search for meaning.

(2)   Realize that the only permanence lies with God. We need to learn to live in relationship with the Eternal One Who is the context for all existence. Like every one of our forebears, we are accompanied along the paths of life by God.


Facing an Uncertain Future

December 21st: Vayechi
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

A sense of dread hovers over the Torah portions as we conclude Genesis. The refuge of Egypt is wonderful—with Joseph in charge and Jacob and the Children of Israel all welcomed, but we know that the Book of Exodus will soon begin with the new Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph.” As wonderful as it was when, last week, Pharaoh says, “Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land…never mind your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours” (Genesis 45.18-20), a little voice in my head is crying out, “No, don’t go. You’ll end up being slaves there for 400 years!”

This is not a surprise for God, nor is it for Jacob. Before Jacob/Israel leaves for Egypt, God appears to him in a vision by night: “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will also bring you back…” (Genesis 46.3-4) In other words, going to Egypt is a good idea—for now. Later, leaving Egypt will be a good idea, but the fact that things will be bad at a distant time in the future does not diminish the good sense of going down there now.

We who like to think in terms of permanence are troubled by the temporary. We want to solve problems, resolve situations, and remove any and all anxiety. Given our incredible technological abilities—and given the many privileges which characterize our lives, we feel that complete fixes are within reach and that not achieving total security is a personal failing.

The problem is that the world itself is impermanent, and the only permanent feature of life is change. Nonetheless, we yearn for “things to be settled,” to be fixed, to be permanently good. We even learn and teach about the wisdom of permanent security in our common wisdom. We read, in The Three Little Pigs, how we should build strong houses that won’t fall down. There is a parable in the New Testament (in both Matthew and Luke) about the wisdom of building a house on rock and not on sand. We even have Abraham Lincoln cautioning us that “a house divided cannot stand.” However, the permanence of any human construction is only temporary, and this persistent, inevitable impermanence has plagued the human psyche since time began.

I am reminded of the very anxious Mrs. Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and how she looks at the marriages of her daughters—when they are “all settled”—as the completion of her parental responsibilities. Little does she realize that parents are concerned for children forever—and that this concern is part of the blessing of a loving relationship.

This notion of the permanence of love leads us to the religious response to impermanence—the search beyond the worldly to the spiritual. When the usual candidates for certainty—money, power, strength, status—fall by the wayside, the Psalmist tells us to look to God because God is permanent—eternal, everlasting, infinite. When we attach ourselves to God, we can attach ourselves to infinity.

Thus does Psalm 15 list the traits of honesty and truthfulness and conclude, “One who lives in this way shall never be shaken.”

Psalm 90 (verses 10-12) speaks of our limited lifespan—“three-score years and ten, or, even by reason of strength, four-score years”—and the travail and vanity that are inevitable, and then holds up the ideal. “Teach us to number our days that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”

 We cannot be victorious forever, but God can.
“How great are Your works, O Lord, how very subtle Your designs!
A brutish person cannot know, nor can a fool understand:
Though the wicked may sprout like grass, and evil doers may blossom,
They are only temporarily: they shall be destroyed forever.
But, You, O Lord, You are exalted for all time!” 
(Psalm 92.6-9)

We even read this in our High Holy Day prayer books:
“Many of our actions are vain, and our days pass away like shadows. Our lives would be altogether vanity were it not for the soul which, fashioned in Thine own image, gives us assurance of our higher destiny and imparts to our fleeting days an abiding value.” (Union Prayer Book for Jewish Worship, Part II, 1894)

 We could muse with Kohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity, vanity. All is vanity,” but even this tired and frustrated philosopher realizes that the problem lies in our expectations. “Put not your trust in princes, nor in a human being, in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146), nor even in things that seem immovable—mountains, oceans, rivers, continents. Try instead to develop a relationship with the one thing that is immovable—God—and that wants to have a relationship with us. Over and over, our Tradition teaches us that God wants us to participate in the Divine Process—to do the work of godliness in the world. This is our ultimate hope, our chance to be a part of God. Thus does Kohelet ultimately reset his frame of reference and conclude, “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe God’s commandments! This applies to all humankind.”

 Yes, we are mortal, but we have a chance to touch eternity. As Rabbi Jacob explained, “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world that all the life of the world to come.”  (Avot 4.16)


Watching Our Enemies Squirm?

December 14th: Vayigash
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There is a verse in the Sabbath Psalm that speaks to Joseph’s potential mindset. Abandoned to slavers (or, in some versions, sold to slavers) by his brothers, forgotten by his family, misjudged by his employers, and forgotten by his friend, Joseph has lots of enemies. He could have mused with the words of Psalm 92, “The wicked flourish like grass—those who do evil are blossoming!” He might have continued, “Yet they are doomed to destruction…See how Your enemies, O Lord, see how Your enemies shall perish—how all who do evil shall be scattered.” Then, he could have imagined a day of release and reckoning, “You lift up my cause in pride, and I am bathed in freshening oil. I shall see the defeat of my foes; my ears shall hear of their fall.” (Psalm 92.8-12)

Though he was a victim for a long time, Joseph is now a major figure in Egypt and in charge of all the food. When his brothers arrive, asking on bended knee for provisions, Joseph is transported back to his youth and to his victimhood. The brothers do not recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them. What should he do with his enemies?

His response is interesting. He does not tell him who he is, but instead plays a kind of “cat and mouse game” with them. Is he trying to figure out what to do? Is he testing their moral fiber? Is he setting them up for a dramatic and humiliating moment of reckoning? The story gets rather lengthy, and one can imagine significant emotional turmoil in Joseph’s head as each step of the drama goes on. Finally, after pushing the brothers to the limit, one brother, Judah, stands up and self-sacrificingly tries to save Benjamin from the trap Joseph has set, and Joseph can no longer control his emotions. He has seen his enemies on bended knee before him. He has manipulated them and can dispatch them in any way he chooses. But, the family love comes back to him, and he sees them as brothers and not as enemies. “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” (Genesis 45.3)

We all have our enemies, and we often need to know how to defend ourselves against them. God comes to tell us, however, that there may be remedies to enmity. When we can de-escalate conflict or hostility, when we can remove the element of danger and anxiety, there is a possibility of seeing the other as one of us. This is not always possible, but sometimes it can be the case.

In the midst of hostility, how do we hope to see our enemies? The Psalmist’s answer—and often ours—is that we want to see them weakened, frightened and at our mercy. We want the threat removed, but do we really want them dead?  At our better moments, I believe we can regard our enemies as God approaches sinners. As we are taught during the High Holy Days: “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.”

The analogy is not completely accurate because we are not God, and our enemies can do us real harm. However, once we have defended ourselves, we can aspire to be like God in hoping that our enemies turn from their evil ways—and behave like friends.

In so many instances of human conflict, the ideal resolution is of rapprochement, with a violent destruction being, at best, a tragic consequence. Remember the Midrash about the angels singing joyfully after the Splitting of the Red Sea. They are exuberant, but God shushes them with, “How can you rejoice when My children are floating dead in the sea?”  Though the Egyptians are evil and thoroughly deserving of their punishment, they too are God’s children, and God is grief-stricken at the consequences of their actions. God’s ideal resolution would have been for them to repent and return to the hospitable and just ways of the Pharaoh who knew Joseph and who welcomed the Hebrew strangers with, “Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt…” (Genesis 45.18)

A number of years ago, I was part of a group of interfaith leaders invited to attend the consecration of the new Roman Catholic Bishop. It was a beautiful and spiritual event, and, toward the end, we were all invited to come up to their bimah and greet the new bishop. When I reached out to shake his hand, he said to me, “I am Joseph, your brother.” It puzzled me for a minute because his name is John, but then I realized that he was quoting the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Though the Roman Catholic Church has been an enemy of the Jewish people for over 1500 years, the last 100 years have seen a major change in its thinking. Repenting in both theology and behavior, the Church has reached out to the Jewish community and has engaged us in many positive ways. In fact, the Catholics have helped to lead other branches of Christianity in renouncing supersessionism and other vestiges of anti-Semitism and engendering better and more respectful interfaith relations.

So when Bishop John Ricard said, “I am Joseph your brother,” he was expressing ex cathedra (because he was sitting in his Bishop’s chair) the new practice of the Roman Church to see Jews as brothers and sisters and fellow believers.

Do we forget the tragedies and atrocities of the past? Of course not. However, we should give thanks that God’s spirit of tolerance and respect is alive and well in our sister religion. It is a good resolution to an old problem.

Though we can understand the yearning of the Psalmist to “see the defeat of his foes,” our Tradition also encourages repentance and reconciliation. As we learn in the Talmud (Berachot 10a, Midrashically interpreting Psalm 104.35): “Some criminals in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood were giving him a great deal of trouble, and Rabbi Meir prayed that they should die. His wife Beruriah said to him: ‘How can you think that such a prayer is permitted? Is it written, “Sinners will cease?” No. It is written “Sins will cease.” Pray for an end to sin, and the criminals will stop sinning.’ Rabbi Meir prayed for them, and they repented.”



The Value of Suffering? Part II

December 7th: Miketz
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In the Torah this week, in Par’shat Miketz, we see the beginning of the end of Joseph’s suffering. It has been a long road of abandonment, exploitation, and injustice, but God’s redemption is coming. Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembers the Hebrew lad who can interpret dreams, and he calls Joseph to Pharaoh’s attention. Pharaoh calls Joseph from the prison and poses his two perplexing dreams. Joseph humbly explains that he cannot interpret dreams—that he is merely channeling God’s message, and he gets down to business, interpreting the dreams and suggesting a course of action. Pharaoh is impressed, and a day that began with Joseph sitting forlorn in prison ends with him as the second most important official in Egypt.

We are also, of course, celebrating Chanukah—a very happy holiday. The Festival of Lights celebrates the dual miracles that led to the rededication (chanukah) of the Temple back around 165 BCE AND the resilience of our people and our faith. We are happy, as were the Maccabees when they were able once again to worship in the holy Temple. However, a lot of suffering was necessary in order for that first Chanukah to take place, and the suffering continued as the war with the Greek Syrians continued for a number of years.

 A hint of these generally forgotten difficulties comes in the English version of Ma’oz Tzur, the Chanukah Hymn. In the second verse we have:
Kindling new the holy lamps,
Priests approved in suffering,
Purified the nation’s shrine
Brought to God their offering.

 And, in the first verse, we sing:
Furious they assailed us,
But Thine arm availed us,
And Thy word broke their sword
When our own strength failed us.

We don’t tell the children about the fact that Judah Maccabee died in the ongoing war with the Greek Syrians—and the fact that the wars were real wars, with plenty of casualties on both sides. There was also suffering before the wars when many Jews were martyred for refusing to worship the Greek idols.

These stories are not in the Bible because they happened after the Bible. And, they are not included in the Talmud because the Rabbis did not want to emphasize the warrior ideal of the Maccabees. After all, they put together the Talmud in the aftermath of disastrous military efforts against the Romans (70 CE and 135 CE). From 140 CE until the mid-1800s, Judaism eschewed any kind of physical and forceful resistance—and therefore Chanukah was remembered through a different filter. (If it were not for the Christians and their Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha, the four intertestamental Books of the Maccabees and their stories of gruesome martyrdoms might have been lost.)

This situation of large-scale martyrdom directly counters Biblical “Deuteronomic Theology.” The reward for faithfulness to God’s mitzvot is supposed to be earthly reward. So, when Jews died because they were faithful to God and God’s commandments, it seemed that Deuteronomy is wrong.  Believing that God is ultimately just and fair, the Rabbis—the scholar class which supported the Maccabees and which was swept into religious authority with their victory over both the Greeks and the Hellenized Jewish Priesthood—figured that our purview must be too limited. Perhaps they intuited, God’s justice is not only for this world, and they began to teach about the Olam Haba, the World-to-Come, the place we go after we die—a place where the scales of Divine Justice are brought into balance. Thus, the suffering of this world can be seen as a test—a test that, if passed, can prepare our way for the eternal rewards of Olam Haba.

 Modern Judaism does not emphasize this reward-in-the-afterlife part of our tradition, but it has been a very important element for those dealing with suffering. If, despite the dangers and deprivations and profound sadnesses that afflict us, we can remain faithful to the mitzvot of morality and our religious responsibilities, then the rewards of Olam Haba will far exceed the pain we experience in this life. As Rabbi Judah says in Pirke Avot (4.16): “This world is like an anteroom before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the anteroom so that you may enter the banquet hall.”

There is also the notion of an eternality one can achieve through godliness in the world—through acts of  nobility, principle, justice, righteousness, compassion, lovingkindness, charity, and love. In fact, Rabbi Jacob followed up his teaching on Olam Haba with this eternal but more earthly wisdom: “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world that all the life of the world to come.” He is not negating his previous teaching, but he is speaking about a closeness to God in the deeds of this world which is of ultimate value.

Is there value in suffering? We certainly do not want to suffer, but we have learned through the ages—and through our lives—that suffering can be transformed to a purpose. It can be something to endure for a future goal, or it can be an opportunity to give witness to a greater good.

Through it all, we are taught, God is with us—with us at every moment: doing justice, soothing pain, setting free, giving light, lifting up, taking care, inspiring, challenging. In both the good moments of our lives and the bad, God is our companion and our eternal hope. As we sing: Children of the martyr race,
Whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs,
Where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering
That the time is nearing
Which will see all free
Tyrants disappearing.

The Value of Suffering? Part I

November 30th: Vayeshev
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

We who suffer—some more and some less—do not generally approach suffering as a good and purposeful experience.  

There are exceptions, of course. When suffering is necessary to prepare us for something important, we can often endure it for the sake of the ultimate goal. This would go for soldiers suffering through basic training or women suffering through labor and delivery. It could also be the case for athletes suffering through difficult training drills or students suffering through homework. When there is a purpose, the connection between the suffering and the goal can help us endure. 

But, generally, the purpose or value of suffering is not so obvious, and we struggle to make sense of our pain or deprivation or deep sadness. Lest we despair, we work hard to deal with the difficulties in our lives, and this is where religion enters. The late philosopher, Dr. Alvin Reines, used to describe the basic predicament of humans as finitude: we have infinite desires and finite possibilities. To remedy or deal with this finitude, we search for meaning—in Dr. Reines’ words soteria, ultimate meaningfulness, and this is the purpose of religion. As Rabbi Chaim Stern puts it, we hope “to impart to our fleeting days an abiding value.” 

As Judaism has developed through the ages, a number of responses have been formulated to help us understand the vicissitudes of our lives. Several of these lessons can be discussed in the context of this week’s Torah portion and the whole Joseph saga, and we shall consider them over the next two weeks.  

When Jacob is told, in Genesis 37, that Joseph has been eaten by a wild beast, he suffers great grief. The only comfort is that the rest of the family survives and will continue on into the future. As God has promised him, “I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the seas, which are too numerous to count.” (Genesis 32.13) There is less concern in the Torah for individual salvation and more concern with the survival of the tribe or nation. Though individuals do not continue indefinitely, God promises that the Children of Israel will continue forever. 

This limitation of Biblical thought is also expressed by Jacob’s wordsRefusing to be comforted by his children, he says, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” (Genesis 37.35) Sheol is the place our ancient ancestors believed awaited them upon their deaths. It was not a place of reward or punishment; just a place where dead people dwelled. As for reward for obedience to God’s will or punishment for disobedience, the Torah’s teaching is that they come in this life (in a teaching called Deuteronomic Theology). The Book of Job struggles with this notion as Job, a righteous and blameless man, suffers all kinds of terrible things. The book ends with a resolution of sorts—that God’s ways are beyond human understanding, but we are still left with the fact that bad things happen to good people—and that good things happen to bad people. It is not the kind of answer we are seeking.  

Another answer comes in the Torah, though it takes quite a while to emerge. At the end of the story of Joseph—some twelve chapters and three parshiyot hence, Joseph speaks of his suffering with equanimity, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many peoples.” (Genesis 50.20) Of course, this comes after a lot of suffering: Joseph is abandoned by his family, sold into slavery in Egypt, falsely accused of rape, imprisoned, and forgotten by someone he thought was a friend. The rest of the family suffers, too: Jacob mourns his son continually and coddles the baby Benjamin, smothering him with “protection.” And, as we find out later, the other brothers are plagued with guilt over a spat that got completely out of control. 

So, we have to be careful in quoting Joseph’s philosophical reflection with too much sanguinity. Yes, God meant it for good, but how does one accept misery and family dysfunction in anticipation of something good in the distant future? The answer lies in the faith we are taught—the faith in God’s ultimate victory that is expressed so often in Scripture and the prayer book. Consider, for one example, the Kaddish. Recited throughout the worship service and after study sessions and after a loved one’s death, the Kaddish prays that “v’yam’lich mal’chutay” that God’s kingdom will ultimately prevail. And, though we say, “b’chayechon uv’yomechon…ba’agala uviz’man kariv / In your lifetime and in your days...quickly and very soon,” we know that the wait may be long. Nonetheless we have faith, and we pledge ourselves to do our small parts to eventuate in Tikkun Olam. 

If we can see the long picture—that step by step and mitzvah by mitzvah, God’s influence can rule the whole earth, then we can find meaning in being a part of the solution. And, we can find meaning despite our finitude. This can be our spiritual aspiration. 

Next week, as Joseph’s long wait for redemption continues, we shall revisit this notion of the value of suffering and consider more lessons from our tradition. 




Wrestling with Outrage and Danger

November 23rd: Vayishlach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The most famous part of Vayishlach is the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It is a mysterious passage that begs for symbolic interpretation—especially since we get our group name, Israelites or Children of Israel, from the new name given to our Grandfather Jacob. Here is a paragraph in our prayer book that draws some lessons from the story (page 150):

We Jews who are called “The Children of Israel” should always remember how we got the name. It was the name given to our grandfather Jacob—Jacob who wrestled the angel, Jacob who would not let go. “Israel” they called him for he was a wrestler. “Israel” they call us for we are wrestlers, too. We wrestle with God as we search for wisdom. We wrestle with people as we struggle for justice. And, we wrestle with ourselves as we make ourselves better and more holy. Yes, we Jews are the Children of Israel, the children and grandchildren of a man who wrestled an angel.

Wrestling is not a gentle sport, and sometimes matches can be quite brutal. In a less famous story in the par’shah, our family finds itself in a very difficult situation, with some real wrestling to do. In Genesis 34.1-31, we read about Jacob/Israel and his family returning to the Land of Canaan from Padan Aram (Syria) and settling near Shechem (modern day Nablus, a town about thirty miles north of Jerusalem). Everything seems fine until Shechem, son of the local chieftain Hamor, sets his eyes on Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. One day, when she goes “out to visit the daughters of the land,” Shechem takes her by force and rapes her. Declaring his love for Dinah, he initiates negotiations to marry her. Her family has mixed reactions. Some seem to think that marriage would be the best course. Others are “very angry because he had committed an outrage in Israel!”

The pitch for the marriage—made by Shechem’s father, Hamor—is worth examining. He sees it as an opportunity to combine the tribes. “My son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him in marriage. Intermarry with us: give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. You will dwell among us, and the land will be open before you. Settle, move about, and acquire holdings in it.”

Modern readers will note the glaring omission of any concern about Dinah herself. What is her feeling about the liaison? Does she want to stay with Shechem’s family—having been brought there by force? What is her desire in re marrying the man whose “affection” is so brutal? Though she certainly has feelings, they do not seem to be part of the ancient conversation. (For a fascinating midrash on Dinah’s feelings and experiences, see The Rent Tent by Anita Diamant.)

The eventual answer is to allow the marriage, but with one important condition. Hamor and Shechem and their entire tribe must be circumcised. For an Israelite maiden to marry an uncircumcised man would be “a disgrace among us.” These “words pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son Shechem,” and they proceed to arrange a mass circumcision. Is it a matter of overwhelming love—Shechem’s love for Dinah, Hamor’s love for Shechem, and the entire tribe’s love for Shechem, or are their intentions more nefarious? Knowing that Shechem’s approach toward the woman he loves has not been respectful, the commentators look for clues to their motivation in the appeal that Shechem and Hamor make to the tribe. In verse 21, we read: “These people are our friends; let them settle in the land and move about in it, for the land is large enough for them; we will take their daughters to ourselves as wives and give our daughters to them…their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours, if we only agree to their terms, so that they will settle among us.” In other words, the circumcision is seen as a painful but lucrative strategy so that “their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours.” Shechem and Hamor are planning to seize everything Jacob and his sons own, and their tribesmen agree to be part of this strategy.

The wickedness of Hamor and Shechem sort of justifies the surprise strategy and vengeance of Dinah’s family. “On the third day, when they (the newly circumcised tribesmen) were all in pain, Simon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled.”

Is this strategy a reasonable or fair response to the rape of their sister? Is it a proportional response? Or is their response responding to a much larger offensive—an offensive that only begins with the rape of Dinah? If you know your enemy has no respect for you—thinks you are weak and can be lulled to lethargy with words and incremental aggression, must you play a quid pro quo game of proportional responses, or should you recognize the threat being mounted and stop it? Or, getting back to Dinah, does not such an outrageous crime demand justice (when you know the tribe is not going to let Shechem alone be punished)?

Jacob is unhappy with what his adult sons have done. “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites.” He seems to think that their actions are way beyond reasonability, but his sons see things differently. When they respond to Jacob with, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” I believe they are saying that the best defense is a devastating offense.

We do not have a complete history of this period of Jewish history, but the Torah does not report anyone else in Canaan messing with the Israelites after this.




Visiting Uncle Laban's Family

November 16th: Vayetze
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Part of what makes the Torah ring so true is its portrayal of our ancestors as real and imperfect people—with real and imperfect families. In last week’s par’shah, Rebecca and Jacob conspire to fool Isaac into blessing the wrong son. In this week’s par’shah, Jacob meets his Syrian family: Uncle Laban and Cousins Rachel and Leah. Love soon develops between Jacob and Rachel, but family dynamics get very complicated when Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel in what must have been a rather concealing bridal costume. This is just the beginning, and the complications of sisters/wives competing for the husband’s affection, of working for a dishonest father-in-law, and of the subsequent rivalries and competitions among the children make life challenging and have long-lasting consequences. Imagine sitting around the “Thanksgiving table” up in Padan Aram with Laban, Jacob, Leah, Rachel et al!

 Coming right between the difficulties of family life in in Beersheba and the difficulties of family life in Padan Aram is Jacob’s incredible encounter with God—God Who stands at the top of the Ladder between Heaven and Earth. One can imagine Jacob feeling very pleased with himself after the meeting because God blesses him with a holy destiny: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28.13-15)

 After such a meeting, Jacob must have great confidence as he strides into Padan Aram, but this confidence is soon mangled by Uncle Laban’s deceptive behavior. Yes, God is with Jacob, but, in the emotional cauldron of a dishonest father-in-law, two competing wives, a few concubines, and children who may be learning the bad along with the good of what they see, the going is not easy. Again, imagine what it would have been like to sit at their table for “Thanksgiving”—or whatever holiday brought the whole family together. Think of all the agendas and possibilities.

 We do not know how the Patriarchs and Matriarchs navigated their family gatherings, but we know that ours are fast approaching. As we think about our own Thanksgiving gatherings—and about the conceivably challenging family dynamics, what would some guiding principles be?

 Dr. Christena Cleveland, a Christian teacher who focuses on justice and peacemaking, offers these insights in her newsletter, in an article entitled, Eight Tips for Difficult Conversations Over the Holiday Table:

First, be encouraged that you’re probably the best person to talk to your family about politics. Social psychology research on extended contact theory reveals that we can play a critical role in opening our family members’ minds about different groups. Research shows that our prejudice toward groups significantly decreases when we learn that someone we know has a positive relationship with someone in the other group.

Second, dig deep into humility. Over the course of our lives, we’ve become ignorant, internalized oppressive ideology, hurt marginalized people, and resisted self-examination. Remember your journey as you seek to jump-start other people’s journeys.

Third, plan a Sabbath during your time with family. While you’re with family, plan to take time off for restoration. Take a 20 minute walk to breathe deeply, visit a coffee shop or take a night out with friends.

Fourth, do some spiritual strength training. We are not invincible; we cannot continually enter into difficult conversations unless we are clothed in an armor of love. Amp up your spiritual strength training.

Fifth, prepare to tell the story of your justice journey. Rather than planning to launch shaming justice grenades on your family members, spend time preparing to strategically and vulnerably share your story with them.

Sixth, remember that this isn’t the only conversation/interaction you’re going to have. As Archbishop Oscar Romero believed, “We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.”

Seventh, be kind to yourself. The pain, fear, and anxiety you are experiencing right now are human and justified. Give yourself permission to be imperfect and to do imperfect justice work.

 Eighth, do some more spiritual strength training.


Part of our Jewish legacy is that we have all stood under that Ladder to Heaven and heard God tell us that we have a special destiny—that we have in our souls a special truth. So, when we meet and eat and speak with the confidence of that Divine Encounter, let us remember that others’ viewpoints also have their origins in God.




Rabbi Ostrich’s Remarks at Special Shabbat Service in Aftermath of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Murders

Several members and visitors have asked for a copy of Rabbi David Ostrich’s remarks at our special service on Shabbat November 2, 2018. In the aftermath of the murders at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Jewish congregations all over the country held special services where non-Jewish friends and neighbors joined Jewish communities in worship and memory and resolution. At Brit Shalom, our service was attended by some 600 people, and the support and love was overwhelming. Here are Rabbi Ostrich’s remarks:

We have gathered together this Sabbath evening to thank God for the Creation and for the blessings we enjoy, and in the aftermath of a great evil that happened last Saturday just a few miles down the road.

 When a tragedy like this occurs, the bonds of sympathy felt with the victims are often widespread and deeply rooted. There are concentric circles of outrage, fear, sadness, and resolve. Some have friends and relatives in Squirrel Hill. Some used to belong to the Tree of Life Congregation. Jews are connected by the sacred bond of our covenantal community—and by the anti-Jewish statements of the murderer. Some are connected because they are people of faith who believe that worship places should be respected and that worshippers should be able to pray in safety. Some people realize that heinous acts against any citizen who is somehow “different” spell danger for all minority citizens—realizing, of course, that pretty much everybody belongs to one kind of minority or another. The idea that someone could be targeted and murdered because of religious or racial or cultural or gender or any dozens of differences is profoundly perverse and sinful and filled with evil. It is also deeply unpatriotic.

 This sense of horror is widespread, and the resulting support for and affirmation of the Pittsburgh congregation, Jewish congregations all over the country, all immigrants, and all potential victims of hate have been significant and remarkably inspiring. Jewish communities all over the country have received e-mails, phone calls, and letters from thousands of non-Jews also aghast at the outbreak of hate and anti-Semitism that erupted last Shabbat. Let me share three examples.

 First, this peace lily flower arrangement in the front of our altar was donated by a group of local Christian clergy who work with me on a variety of interfaith efforts and who want to remind us of the commonality of our aspirations—and of the respect, cooperation, and true friendships that bridge our theological and liturgical differences. Thanks to these friends for this kind gesture and for the fellowship of holiness that we share.

 Second, joining us this evening are Donald Hahn, the mayor of State College, and a number of council members and local leaders. They are here to say that a common humanity binds all of our residents together, and that acts of hate have no place in our town, our county, our commonwealth, our country, or our world.

 Third is a letter we got from the local Orthodox Church—that’s Christian Orthodoxy—voicing their friendship with the Jewish community, offering us a memorial donation to plant trees in Israel in memory of the Tree of Life victims, and giving us a copy of a letter sent out to all Orthodox congregations in North America by their Primate. I would like to read to you from that letter...

 “To the Clergy, Monastics and Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America,

 On Saturday, October 27, 2018, as congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were observing the Jewish Sabbath, a man of violence entered into their midst and murdered eleven men and women at worship. Before finishing his acts of horror, he wounded several others, including four brave police officers who had rushed to the scene. Reports indicate that this man had the sole intention of killing members of the Jewish community, and that he shouted, ‘all Jews must be killed’” while he committed this atrocity. The Orthodox Church in America grieves with the families of the murdered. We pray fervently to God for the healing of the wounded, and consolation for all who are affected.

 The perpetrator of this barbarous crime sought to falsely justify his actions with a particular hatred for a Jewish organization that gives support to refugees and immigrants of diverse nationalities, races, and religions, thus fulfilling the command of God himself who said to the people of Israel through the Prophet Moses, ‘The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19.34).” Orthodox Christians have received this same teaching in the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which our Lord teaches us that the ‘neighbor’ we are enjoined by God to love is hidden in the ‘other,’ who is a human being of a different nationality, race, or religion.

 We abhor and condemn this wicked deed, and reject its false justification. Instead, we offer the hope that can be found in God alone. In Him, we are free from the assault of attitudes and ideologies of prejudice and hatred, fear and anxiety about those who are indeed our neighbors. As we stagger under the impact of the murders in the Pittsburgh synagogue, and as we walk alongside the Jewish citizens of our nations while sharing their grief and anxiety, we must turn to God, the source of mercy, consolation, and hope...

Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada”


When evil erupts in our world and people suffer, we who believe in a just and loving God find ourselves shaken. But, lest we think that God is unmoved, our traditions teach us that God is also deeply traumatized. In the Jewish Tradition, we are taught that God is with us in our troubles, grieving with us and loving us continually, eternally. In one ancient Midrash, the Rabbis even suggest that, when Israel was enslaved in Egypt, so was God. God was right alongside us in our suffering; God’s Presence never leaves. Christians have the same belief as voiced in Matthew 25 (40): “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” In other words, both heaven and earth are shocked and saddened and profoundly disappointed when hate attacks the innocent. This is true of Pittsburgh and Louisville and Charleston and Houston and Parkland and Las Vegas and every location where the godly potential of human beings is perverted and diverted and wasted. God grieves with us.


And, we are taught, God hopes for better. God hopes along with us that love, kindness, honesty, and respect, that compassion, righteousness, justice, and grace will burst forth in the world—that we can bring light to darkness, understanding to ignorance, and love to intolerance. We may pray to God, but I believe that God is praying to us that those who gather together tonight in shock and in sadness also gather in resolve to bring forth the godliness that is possible in the human soul.



How Should/Do Jews Celebrate Christmas?

November 9th: Toldot
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

We have been invited to hold an American Red Cross Blood Drive on December 24th, and it offers us a mitzvah possibility that brings together some of today’s most pressing concerns.

 (1)   Just a few weeks ago, we were inspired by the message of Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement. He urged us to be activists in the work of Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. Sometimes, Tikkun Olam involves social justice work, and sometimes it involves less controversial but equally important acts of healing. A Blood Drive is absolutely necessary for those in need of transfusions, and donating is a fairly quick and easy way to contribute something of substance.

(2)   The tragedy at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh has also inspired many of us to find ways to stand up for life and to work together for the moral values that all good people share. What better way than to literally share our life-blood with random strangers—fellow children of God who are in desperate need.

(3)   As we approach Kristallnacht, November 9th, an anniversary of great destruction and a harbinger of the even greater destruction that engulfed Europe and so many of us, we should resolve to respond to darkness with light, to respond to terror with love, and to respond to the absence of humanity with the quintessential commodity of human life.

(4)   As we reflect upon the importance of neighborly respect and support—a quality so evident in the non-Jewish response to the Pittsburgh atrocity, we should resolve to do our part as members of the general community. There is a modern Jewish tradition of helping our Christian friends and neighbors as they celebrate their yontif—taking shifts for them, volunteering at hospitals for them, etc. Christians are busy at Christmastime, but the need for blood is continuing. Let us take this opportunity at this time of the year to carry the responsibility for blood donations when our Christian friends are involved in their holidays.

(5)   And, there is even a connection we can draw from our weekly Torah portion. In the story of Jacob and Esau, in Genesis 25.29, we read: “Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished…at the point of death!” In Esau’s case, lentil stew worked. But, in many emergency medical situations, more than nutrition is necessary. The red stuff we can give can make the difference in people’s lives.

 We are being offered a mitzvah of the first order, and I am hoping we can generate interest and support. Here is what we need.

(a)  We need two or three volunteers to help with the blood drive that day, Monday December 24th, from about 9:00 AM until 2:00 PM. The duties will include helping with registration, serving snacks, etc.

(b)   We need a few dozen people to come and give blood. Please let me know (by e-mail) if you’ll be in town on the 24th and can commit to giving blood that day.

 To sweeten the pot AND to recognize the official ways that Jews celebrate Christmas, the Red Cross people are working on Chinese food for snacks AND gift cards for the movies! What more could you ask for?

Please be in touch so we let the Red Cross know that they can depend on us.