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Friday, December 24, 2010


Dvar Torah For Parshat Shemot, 5771.

How significant are the differences between variant spellings of people’s English names? Let’s try a little experiment to determine this. If I spell Brian B R I A N and then I spell it B R Y A N, does the spelling difference make a difference? Now, let’s try another English name, Louis. If I spell it L O U I S, does this name differ in meaning from L E W I S? How about Billy? If I spell it B I L L Y, then spell it B I L L I E, is there a difference? Or, what about Barry? Is B A R R Y different from B A R R I E? In these last two examples, the variant spellings of Barry and Billy are significant only in terms of determining the gender of the person bearing the name, and only in written form. Just hearing the name Billy or Barry would not allow you to determine if the name belonged to a man or a woman unless the person bearing that name was being addressed in front of you. I would make the highly uninformed and speculative assumption that though English names are rooted in meaningful ideas based upon their Latin, Greek, or Germanic roots, variants on the spelling of those names do not normally have any real significance.

This is not necessarily the case in biblical Hebrew, which uses names consciously to predict the fates and establish the characteristics of its heroes. One example, not a great one, is Avram and Avraham. Apart from one Hebrew letter, we don’t think of these as two distinct names, but the Torah certainly does. The addition of the Hebrew letter Hey to Avram’s name by God completely changed him from Avram to Av Hamon Goyim, the father of many nations, as part of his covenant with God.

Another much less known example of this name phenomenon, one that the Torah itself does not spell out explicitly, is that of the names GershoM, spelled with a final MEM, and GershoN, spelled with a final NUN. We find both of these variant spellings in this morning’s Torah portion, Shmot, which by the way, means “names” and starts with the names of the people who moved to Egypt with Jacob. Looking in Exodus 2:25 (HEH 325), we find the following: “She (Moses’ wife, Zipporah) bore a son whom he named GershoM, for he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.’” GershoM is a compound of the Hebrew words, ger (stranger) and sham (there). Moses uses the birth of his first child as an opportunity to remember his (Moses’) precarious state as an exiled resident alien in the land of his wife’s family. Now let’s look at Exodus 6:16 (HEH 354): “These are the names of Levi’s sons by their lineage, GershoN, Kohath and Merari.” Of course, notice the spelling differences between the two, specifically the variant uses of final MEM and final NUN. I suspect that both of these names were originally mere variants with no significant difference, but over time, Jewish tradition came to read them as different. According to Halachah (Jewish law), when you write a get, a divorce document, if you write the name of the ex-husband as GershoN (final NUN) when his name is actually GershoM (final MEM), or vice versa, the get cannot be used and must be written again. Explaining this, the Torah commentator, Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel Epstein writes that GershoM refers to what the Torah had already written: Moses as a stranger in a foreign land. However, the name GershoN is derived from the Hebrew word, Gerushin, dismissal or divorce, which is based upon the Hebrew verb, garash, to chase away. The two names sound the same, but they derive from different roots with different meanings; thus they are not interchangeable for get writing purposes.

I would like to explore the difference between these two names, GershoM and GershoN a bit more closely with you. Though the Torah never explicitly tells us that GershoN the son of Levi was named to recall some traumatic experience of dismissal or divorce, we can readily imagine Levi, third son of Jacob, imputing such significance to his eldest son’s name. The Book of Genesis tells us that, with his brother Shimon, Levi murdered the residents of Shechem to avenge the rape of his sister, Dinah, but their leader. Upon his death bed, Jacob singled out the two brothers for particularly harsh condemnation, as the result of their actions. Gershon’s levitical descendants were charged with the task of transporting the covers of the portable sanctuary, the outermost (and some might say, least significant) parts of that structure, thus emphasizing symbolically how transient or “chased away” they might have been seen or felt themselves to be. Based upon an interesting polemic found in the Talmud, a much later Hasidic comment on the name GershoN relates it to the desirable and condemnable characteristics of a communal leader: a leader with great ancestral lineage who is not also well versed in Torah ( a bar avahan versus a bar uryan, according to BT Menahot 53a) is considered a GershoN, one who should be divorced from or chased away from leadership. Without the sobering and sanctifying discipline of Torah, lineage as a standard for leadership easily degenerates into ruthlessness born of a sense of inherent prestige and privilege. This certainly seems to be part of Levi’s problem: as Jacob’s son, he may well have believed that his lineage granted him license to react with violence, the horror and moral outrage of his sister’s victimization notwithstanding. Separated emotionally from his father, Levi may have named his first born son GershoN to reflect that sense of dismissal, divorce and estrangement, a kind of emotional exile.

Both names, seemingly unconnected in the story of the enslavement in Egypt, actually connect quite meaningfully. Moses’ son, GershoM, bore the memory of his father’s self imposed physical exile in a strange land, the result of his fear for his life at the hands of Pharaoh. Levi’s son, GershoN (Moses’ uncle) bore the memory of his father’s divorce like estrangement from his own father, Jacob. I suspect that neither was pleased about inheriting such darkly symbolic names or the legacies of so much alien residency brought about by their two fathers’ actions and wanderings. They were the dubious beneficiaries of family histories, choices, and migrations over which they had no control.

Let me suggest that the modern GershoNs and GershoMs are the children of illegal immigrants who populate our nation in the millions. A recent Washington Post article offers the following population statistics: by 2006, the number of foreign born children of illegal immigrants had leveled off at 1.5 million. By 2008, the number of children born in the United States to illegal immigrants had actually grown to 4 million. Though there are those who would like it repealed, federal law makes anyone born in the United States a legal citizen, even if his or her parents are not. The Dream Act, legislation recently defeated in the Senate just shy of five votes, would have provided legal citizenship for a limited category of young Americans who came to this country under the age of 16 with their parents illegally. It would have allowed them to apply for citizenship, especially for the purposes of enlisting in the armed forces or applying to college as long as they meet specific residency and legal requirements. Though I found it heartening that a majority of senators (including three Republicans) voted for the new law, it is quite sad that the requisite 60 votes to pass the bill was not reached. Opponents claim that the law would be abused by young illegals who would find ways around the age-at-immigration requirements, thus encouraging even more illegal immigration beyond the more than eleven million illegal immigrants residing here now. Given the byzantine bureaucracy that is the federal government, I doubt this would happen anytime soon; for all we know, the usual big government snafus that accompany all such new legislation would hold up most of these young people from ever seeing their status legalized anytime before the coming of the Messiah, so I am more inclined to believe that opposition to the bill was motivated more by nativist paranoia, a great deal of confusion about proper federal immigration policy, and plain old pandering to racism, most of it directed at Latinos who represent the largest body of illegal immigrants, as well as a growing political force to be reckoned with. Further, given the fact that the Obama administration is planning to deport an all time record high of 400,000 illegal immigrants this fiscal year, killing such legislation on the grounds that it is one more piece of liberalism that seeks to weaken American security is just nonsense. Consider the impassioned words of Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican from Alaska, hardly a liberal state. She was one of the three Republican senators who broke ranks to support the bill:

“I support the goal of the Dream Act which is to enable children who were brought to the United States by their parents to earn citizenship through service in the armed forces or pursuit of higher education… I do not believe that children are to blame for the decision of their parents to enter or remain in the United States unlawfully. The reality is that many of these children regard America as the only country they ever knew. Some were not even told that they were unlawfully in the United States until it came time for them to apply for college. America should provide these young people with the opportunity to pursue the American dream. They have much to offer America if given the chance.”

I personally support tough immigration legislation that protects us from absorbing immigrants who do not have good reasons to be here, especially in this era of international terrorism against the United States and in this broken economy. I stop way short of the illegal, racist and capricious immigration policies of the State of Arizona, and I am also well aware of how much we Jews have benefitted from immigration to this country. Still, I believe firmly that we need real immigration reform that will monitor immigrants carefully, prevent them from being abused by sweatshop bosses and prostitution rings, protect jobs for American citizens, and limit legal immigration to those who are seeking genuine political asylum from persecution or who possess high level skills and education that can benefit American society. However, the kids who would have benefitted from the Dream Act are, like GershoM and GershoN of the Torah, mostly the hapless recipients of their parents’ decisions. (We would do well, of course, to remember that most of their parents came here illegally because they wanted a better life for those kids.) What do we benefit by denying them the simple chance to be legal citizens in the only country that they know or have ever known? Surely, we can do better at dealing with this aspect of the very serious problem of illegal immigration. Surely, if GershoM and GershoN showed up at our doors today, we should have a much better way of providing them with a legitimate chance to fulfill the American dream.

Shabbat shalom.


A Dvar Torah For Parshat VaYehi, 5771.

Parshat VaYehi brings Jacob, his family, and us to the end of his physical life, and it allows us to touch the edges of the impending birth of the Israelites as a nation. Each of Jacob’s death bed scenes –the first with his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe and the second with his sons- is presented with the almost idyllic quality of cinematic death bed scenes; the patriarch of the family offers blessing and wisdom to his progeny, his infirmities do not prevent him from being mentally sharp and emotionally connected, and he simply dies upon completing his life tasks and putting his house in order, with no mention of his pain, suffering, struggle or physical degradation. Those of us who have encountered the final stages of life with loved ones and congregants know that, at least on the surface, this death bed portrayal by the Torah appears far too gentle and pleasant than it actually is a lot of the time. However, I invite you to look just beneath the surface at the more nuanced progression of the narrative about Jacob’s death, beginning with an important scene in last week’s portion, VaYiggash. When Jacob meets Pharoah, the king asks him, “How old are you?” Jacob replies quite intriguingly that the years of his sojourn on earth have been 130, and they have been few and difficult. Even at the moment of his reunion with his beloved Joseph and the supposed reconciliation among his children, he is fully aware of the losses and pain he has suffered, from the time of his complicated relationship with his brother, Esau, and his parents, until his old age. At the opening of VaYechi, we encounter Jacob as an old and dying man of 147, seventeen years later, the number of years a telling echo of Joseph’s age when his father’s favoritism set Joseph, Jacob, and his brothers on their course of tragic missteps, hatred and pain. As this final narrative continues, we watch Jacob express gratitude for seeing Joseph again, then we watch him privilege his younger grandson Ephraim over his older grandson Menashe, almost as if repeating his past errors of violating societal rules to favor a younger sibling in a way that could engender great resentment in his son’s family. Jacob calls his sons together for what is called, at the end, a blessing, but is really mostly an after- the-fact, bitter criticism of what they have done wrong, how they have disappointed him in the past, or his own observations of who they are. We may find his open assessment of his sons refreshing, but we are also left with the disturbing feeling that this is too little, too late, and that of the all times in his life, not being able to let go of his anger at some of his children at the end of his life is likely not a good thing. It is no wonder then that the Torah continues to call him by his former name, Yaakov (the sneaky heel) and his new name, Yisrael (the one who fights with God and men). To the very end, he is both: a prisoner of the devices and artifices of his younger life, and an older, wiser, freer man who learns from his errors to face himself and others with courage and honesty.

In the last chapter of his celebrated book, How We Die, Dr. Sherwin Nuland writes the following:

The dignity that we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives…the art of dying is the art of living. The honesty and grace of the years of life that are ending is the real measure of how we die. It is not in the last weeks or days that we compose the message that will be remembered, but in all the decades that preceded them.

I am not certain that I agree entirely with Dr. Nuland. I have watched people of great dignity become ravaged by the indignities of dying that affect deeply their mental capacity to live with and love those around them. I have also watched dying people whose lives were filled with undignified wrongdoing towards others make serious, often successful attempts at repentance and reconciliation with others. Still, his general point is well taken: the quality of our dying often does relate closely to the quality of our lives. So, I ask us: do we, readers of faith, feel that Jacob’s impending death reflects the way in which he lived? More importantly, did he live well? Most important, are his life and death mirrors that we can hold up to ourselves and from which we can learn? Let’s read VaYechi together and continue the ongoing conversation about these critical questions.

Shabbat Shalom


A Dvar Torah For Parshat Mikketz and Shabbat Hanukkah 5771.

We all know that our common practice is to light one candle on the first night of Hanukkah (not counting the helper candle, of course) and to add one more candle each night until the final night, when we light eight candles. In the early part of the common era, there were actually two conflicting candle lighting practices. The Talmud tells us that the School of Shammai would begin Hanukkah by lighting eight candles, then reduce the number of candles lit each night, so that by night eight only one candle would be lit. Shammai’s intellectual rival, the school of Hillel, would begin Hanukkah by lighting one candle, then increase the number of candles lit each night, so that by night eight, eight candles would be lit. Shammai’s reasoning was that, since Hanukkah was originally an imitation of Sukkot –a holiday that the Maccabees could not celebrate during their battles with the Greek army- we imitate the practices of Sukkot in our candle lighting. On Sukkot in the ancient temple, the number of sacrificial offerings burned on the altar decreased each day of the holiday, until the Shmini Atzeret holiday on the eighth day, when only one offering would be burned. So too on Hanukkah, the School of Shammai would offer fewer and fewer candles, as it were, on the imitative altar known as the Hanukkiyah. Hillel’s reasoning was that, since the true Hanukkah miracle involved the small jug of oil being sufficient for the people to light the Menorah for eight days, we imitate them by lighting an increasing number of candles each night, until we light eight. However, a careful look at the words used in the Talmud to describe Hillel’s reasoning reveals something interesting: The Hillelites never say explicitly that we increase the number of candles for the reason just mentioned. The Talmud cryptically explains that they practiced this way because we are supposed to increase the presence of holiness in our lives, not decrease it. What the Talmud seems to be getting at here is what we all know intuitively. As a winter holiday, Hanukkah is all about increasing God’s holy presence in our lives by actively increasing the light in a dark, winter world. Hanukkah may have connections to Sukkot, but what light starved people truly crave as we come together during the holiday or on any night, is more light, which brings more joy and more security.

The great 18th century Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, explains this basic human quest for more light in his extended essays on Hanukkah, which I am privileged to be studying with our fellow congregant, Anschel Weiss. Levi Yitzchak views the disagreement between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai as two unique spiritual postures. He asks us to imagine a person in the desert who is starving for food and water. When that person finds out that food and water are on their way, his gratitude and sense of relief continue to increase because he can anticipate getting closer to nourishment, even though he is still intensely hungry and thirsty. When he finally eats, he initially thanks God for what he now has, but his sense of gratitude begins to wear off as he eats and drinks more and more. Comparing this to the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, Levi Yitzchak explains that Hillel’s practice reflects how they thought the Jews of ancient times must have felt each night of that first Hanukkah. Once they were out of harm’s way, each night they lit the Menorah in the Temple with that one small jug of oil, they became hungrier and thirstier –as it were- for more opportunities to show gratitude to God. Their increasing joy at the possibilities of restoring light to their own dark world only made them increase their thanks to God: thus, Hillel’s practice. Shammai’s practice, however, reflects a very different assumption about the people’s feelings during that first Hanukkah. Once they were out of harm’s way, each night they lit the Menorah in the Temple, the initial thrill of God’s redemption began to wear off as they moved further and further from the original miraculous experience of defeating the Greek occupiers. Like a community slogging through the rituals of Sukkot day after day, after having already observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Maccabean Jews’ spiritual enthusiasm grew dim: thus, Shammai’s practice.

We record and study both opinions, Hillel and Shammai, but we only observe the opinion of the School of Hillel. We recognize, as does Levi Yitzchak, that our experiences of God and of life are always most powerful at the moment that they happen, and we are always most appreciative of them then. But time, forgetfulness, and the difficulties of life distract us, so that our exhilaration starts to diminish and grow dim. It is human nature to want to practice like the House of Shammai, and we need to accept this about ourselves. However, the lighting of our Hanukkah lights in accordance with the House of Hillel is a symbolic challenge to us to resist that impulse to darken the world further by growing dark ourselves. By lighting more lights each night of Hanukkah, we indicate our steadfast refusal to be swallowed up by that despair that daily accompanies the dark little indignities of life in a world that is less than just, less than perfect, and seemingly so far away from the miracles that life has to offer. By lighting more lights each night of Hanukkah, we shed more light on the ordinary that surrounds us, so that we can see the extraordinary hiding in its shadows.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Hanukkah.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010


Dvar Torah for Parshat Toldot.

One of the hallmarks of great Jewish literature is the ability of its writers to engage in intertextuality. This is a fancy word for taking a word, phrase, or verse from an earlier text of Jewish tradition and weaving it into what you are writing in a creative and meaningful way. An excellent example of this is the refrain from Shir Nechama, The Consolation Song, by the very popular Israeli hip hop group Hadag Nahash, that you can find in your Shabbat announcements. The song is one of many the group has written bemoaning the decline of Israeli society and the attempt to escape all of its pressures. Before we get to that song, let’s look at one telling verse and scene from this morning’s Torah portion. The portion opens with God healing Rebecca and Isaac of infertility, her discovery that she will give birth to twins, God’s revelation to Rebecca that her younger son will rule over her older son, the symbol laden births of the boys, and the favoritism that Isaac shows to Esau, the older son, while Rebecca shows partiality to Jacob, the younger son. One day, Esau the hunter comes in from the fields, famished, while Jacob the homebody is cooking a red lentil stew. Take a look at the first passage in your Shabbat announcements, our verse from Genesis. “And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished….’” Note the Hebrew words for feeding someone in gulps: hal’iteini na. According to the great Torah sage Avraham ibn Ezra, this word is found only this one time in the entire Tanakh, the Jewish Bible. Note how the word paints this scene for us: Esau is portrayed as an animal who is so hungry he wants his brother to feed him, as if he were gulping down his food from a bucket or a trough, without thought for his behavior or demeanor. This portrayal of Esau, using this rare Hebrew word, accentuates how devious and manipulative young Jacob truly is: he knows his brother very well, and he easily wrestles Esau’s legal birthright as the older child from him by offering him the food in exchange for it. Esau, not one to think too far into the future and convinced he’ll die an early death anyway, gulps down the food along with Jacob’s shrewd offer.

If you look at the second passage in the Shabbat announcements, note how this verb, l’hal’it, to feed a gulping animal, is used by the later rabbis. Remember, of course, that they are living and writing the Mishnah well after the writing of the Torah: “In order to avoid physically exertive behavior on Shabbat, a camel driver may not force feed his camel or cram food in its mouth, but he may feed the camel fully, allowing it to gulp down food. (mal'itin). (Mishnah, Tractate Shabbat, 24:3.)” The rabbis use this verb in a purely legal context –laws concerning Shabbat- to convey once again what the Torah was conveying: human beings eat with decency; animals are fed by their masters by being allowed to gulp down their food.

Now we’ll take a look at how our modern, very secular Israeli protest song takes this same biblical word, hal’iteini, “let me gulp down some food,” and subtly reworks it to make a very important point. Note the words in my translation, and then we’ll look closely at some of the Hebrew:

Sovevuni bash’qalim Surround me with Sheqels.
Hal’ituni ba’kzavim Let me gulp down lies.
Va Ani k’seh tamim I am like an innocent lamb.
Odeini maamin. And I still believe.

In each brief line, Hadag Nahash uses echoes of biblical sources and even a reference from the philosopher, Maimonides, to reinforce their feeling that the average Israeli citizen is manipulated and exploited by society. The Hebrew word, sovevuni, “surround me”, echoes the psalmist who speaks about being surrounded by his enemies who swarm him like bees, yet who he fights off with God’s help. Here, however, the almighty sheqel, symbol of rampant materialism, is the implacable enemy that even God seems unable to fight off. The seh tamim, or innocent lamb, calls forth two images: in the story of the binding of Isaac, suspecting that he is the sacrificial lamb, Isaac asks Abraham, “Ayeh ha she l’olah?” “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” The word tamim, meaning unblemished or more figuratively, innocent, often refers in the book of Leviticus to sacrificial animal offerings. By now you should get the picture being portrayed here of a person as a lamb led to the slaughter in a predatory society. The phrase odeini maamin, echoes Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith, each of which begins with the statement, Ani maamin b’emunah shleimah, “I believe with perfect faith.” Hadag Nahash seems to turn this phrase on its head by asserting, “Go on society, keep taking me for a ride. Like an innocent lamb, I’ll just keep on believing whatever you tell me.”

Finally, we have the phrase hal’ituni ba’kzavim, “let me gulp down lies”. Here, Hadag Nahash out-do themselves as masters of intertextual creativity. Recall what I told you before. This word, hal’iteini, shows up only once in the entire Bible, here in our Torah portion. The group uses the word in its plural grammatical form to reinforce not only the feeling of being deceived, but of being deceived like the biblical Esau, like an animal having food shoved down its throat, as it gulps insatiably, with no sense of anything other than eating!

The magic of Torah is in how successive generations of people, Jews and non Jews, use its words in bold new, creative ways to teach new and important things, as even a totally secular musical group like Hadag Nahash has done. Yet, it is not my place to comment on Hadag Nahash’es critique of Israeli society in this song. As much as I love and support Israel, I am not an Israeli, so I cannot make such comments. Nonetheless, I also read these words of our song’s refrain with the eyes of a proud, patriotic, and somewhat anxious American. Specifically, I have now lived through a fair number of local, state and national elections. I am truly disappointed when I watch our most basic democratic institutions of voting and electioneering being surrounded by and tangled up in big money, fear mongering, false hopes, the short attention spans of the electorate, and frankly lots of lies and deceit. Our political culture has nurtured an impatience for change and a hunger for sound bite quality half truths that, coupled with genuine desperation about our economic woes, turns too many people into Esau: too many of us simply give up thinking critically about the real issues and trying to discern with wisdom the difference between what some politicians say and what the truth is. It is as if we are telling our leaders: “Let me gulp down whatever you have to tell me because I am so confused, so scared, and so unable to figure out what the truth really is that I might as well just swallow whatever you want me to hear. “ Too many politicians –partly out of exploitative cynicism and partly because they are so afraid of losing an election- are all too happy to play the role of young Jacob: “Give me your vote, win me this election, and I’ll tell you what you want to hear and what I want you to hear.” No, I am not another northeastern, liberal elitist who thinks that only the right people with the right degrees should elect political leaders. I am a true populist who sees through the so called populist rhetoric of the current political climate. I think I see what is really going on in America: too many Americans, like Esau, are coming in from the fields famished. They are desperate for work, desperate for stability, desperate for security. They are being fed a lot of rhetoric on both sides of the political divide to gulp down, rhetoric that may boil our collective blood and lead to sweeping midterm changes, but that may offer no substantive change in the long run. Ultimately, no one but a small group of political elites wins, and what they win is the birthright of American prosperity and power that belongs to all of us. In return, what we, deserving, scared, hard working Americans get is pot of stew: hot and tasty in the beginning, but easily consumed and gone forever.

Hadah Nahash,and even more so, the Torah before them had it right: it is way too easy to gulp down whatever those in power decide to hand us, in fulfillment of their promises to restore and nurture the great democratic dream. Let’s watch our politicians and debate our great issues with civility, wisdom and discernment; let’s hold the leaders accountable for their actions and their claims, and not gulp down everything they want to feed us; mostly, let’s be vigilant in not abdicating our birthright of freedom and good governance to them. Let’s learn from Esau’s tragic example.

(Many thanks to Professor Azzan Yadin-Israel of Rutgers University for his review of Hadag Nahash'es new album, 6, and their use of intertextuality, in the most recent edition of The Jewish Review of Books.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Dvar Torah For Parshat Breishit, 5771.

Well folks, here we are once again reading the richest, juiciest, meatiest, stormiest portion in the Torah, the very first portion and the one to beat all portions. There is so much for us to talk about, so many sermons for me to give you, such pathos in the text as it teases out God’s stormy and difficult path from lone Creator of a perfect Garden of Eden world to regretful, angry, first time parent of the children who disappoint him. Think of the possibilities: we could talk about the majesty of the creation story with its emphasis on goodness and people being created in God’s image. We could talk about the tumultuous tale of Adam and Eve, the fratricidal tragedy of Cain and Abel, God’s deep disappointment with God’s creative experiment gone wild that leads God to wipe it all out and start again.

So what did I choose to talk about this morning in what will be an admittedly brief dvar Torah? A brief and often overlooked detail in the portion that I think says so much about the ancient and indelible nature of love, hope, and human perseverance. Let’s look together in Genesis, 4:25 (HEH, p. 29): “Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, ‘God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,’ for Cain had killed him.” This verse is part of an early genealogical list that identifies the founders of cities, musical instrumentation, tool and weapon making. We would expect it to follow directly after the end of the story about Cain murdering Abel, his brother. However, it is more directly connected to the strange story fragment about Lamech and his two wives. Lamech is described as a man who loves to crow about his violent tendencies, so perhaps or verse about Adam and Eve’s new child Seth is well placed here: it’s theme of new life, especially after fratricidal tragedy seems to be a response to Lamech’s arrogant emphasis on violent death. Commentators on the Torah going back as far as the early rabbinic midrash, Genesis Rabbah, have a somewhat different take on this verse. Based upon later genealogical hints in the Torah, our rabbis assert that, after their expulsion from Eden, Adam and Eve refrained from relations for 130 years. Lamech and his wives were, in the rabbis’ imagination, also celibate. When Adam criticized Lamech for threatening the survival of humanity through not procreating with his wives, Lamech countered Adam’s complaint by accusing him of hypocrisy. With a “new and improved” sex drive and a new sense of existential urgency, Adam made love to Eve and they bore Seth, as a literal replacement for Abel, so that humanity could survive those early traumas of expulsion from paradise and of fratricide.

Taken together with these comments, Genesis 4:25 can be understood as more than a mere fragment in the book’s early genealogy of the human race. In the midst of many painful stories about the corruptions of human desire, our lust for power, and the murderous origins and results of familial jealousy, this verse returns Adam and Eve –and us- to sexual intimacy and reproduction as one of the most potent, hope filled responses to all of this human heartache. Somehow, despite –or perhaps because of- the tragic disruption of their family by their son’s murderous outburst against his brother, Adam and Eve managed to find each other once again in the mystery of sex, thus rebuilding their family and humanity. Is this because the human capacity to love is one of our greatest weapons against engulfing despair? Yes, I think so. This verse and its midrashim seem to be telling us that Adam and Eve used their physical and emotional desires for each other to fight despair at a personal and a universal level. They refused to allow their horrible grief to destroy them personally and globally.

Rochelle Krich, the renowned mystery author who is a child of Holocaust survivors, once spoke at our community Yom Hashoah program a number of years ago. She told the story of how her father’s entire family, including his first wife and children, were murdered by the Nazis. He survived the Shoah, came to this country, and began a new family, the one from which Rochelle is descended. When she asked him why he did this after so much personal trauma, he responded with deceptive simplicity: “Because I met your mother.”

Krich’es story is part of that even longer narrative, really the Torah’s counter narrative, to its first dark tale about our human impulses and their destructive capacities. Hiding just behind, but not too far behind, that dark tale is another equally powerful lesson: our impulses to love, to create, to heal, to hope and to build are the angels of our better natures, whether expressed sexually or otherwise. We would do well to cultivate those impulses, that have been given to us as God’s greatest gifts.

Shabbat shalom.


Dvar Torah For Day 2 Sukkot 5771.

For this morning’s Dvar Torah, let’s review the underlying reason for a simple halakhah that we have been observing when we wave the lulav and etrog. According to the Shulkhan Arukh, Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Code of Jewish Law, we hold the lulav in our right hands and the etrog in our left hands during Hallel, the waving, and the Hoshanot prayers. The reason for this according to the Shulkhan Arukh is that the lulav contains three separate commandments for us to perform, -taking possession of the palm branches, the myrtle, and the willows- whereas the etrog stands alone as a single mitzvah. Since the right hand is considered the stronger and more important one, and given the prevalence of righties in any population, it retains the honor of being the hand in which we hold the lulav branches, the myrtle, and the willow branches. Though I have no proof for this, I would not be surprised if the etrog is also reserved for the left hand because the etrog is a symbol for a person’s heart; the left hand and arm are closest to the heart, of course.

What is less known is a variation on this halakhic rule, the minority opinion that a left handed person should reverse this order, by holding the lulav bunch in the left hand and the etrog in the right hand. Underlying this minority opinion is the halakhic concept of azlinan batar yamin didei: a leftie holds the lulav in the hand that is the right, or stronger, hand, for him or her, and not in one’s actual right hand. Though this is not common ritual practice today, Halakhah records this opinion as a legitimate option for ritual practice.

Let me stretch your thinking based upon this somewhat obscure bit of flexible ritual law. This idea that a leftie’s right hand is what he or she considers the right hand to be points to an important insight. Like righties and lefties, we are all wired differently. Each of us has different learning styles, personality strengths, disabilities major and minor, and ways of perceiving and knowing. Though at times, every person has to conform to the culture and modalities of the majority of society and fit in with its rules, force fitting the individual like a square peg into a round hole often produces no positive results, and is in fact dangerous to that person and his or her community. At times, we all act like righties, and at times we lefties have to be allowed to behave like lefties.

This is particularly the case with education. President Obama’s Race To The Top, his challenge to states to improve their schools in order to get large federal grants, has certainly sent departments of education in numerous states scrambling to prove a number of things to the White House. Everyone is trying to show that they can test students more often, demonstrate student and teacher success and failure based upon standardized testing, and standardize teacher training more rigorously. As a teacher, I am all for tightening standards for teacher training and tenure, as well as for strengthening student performance in our nation’s schools, especially for the purposes of making our students more competitive with the rest of the world. But I am fearful and skeptical about a mad nationwide dash to secure federal education dollars that may sacrifice emphasis on students as individual learners. Asian schools, especially the Chinese, often force teach their students in a cookie cutter fashion that emphasizes testing and conformity. That may produce a lot of students who can answer test questions and spit back information, but is it really a mark of educational success? What about developing critical thinking skills and appreciation of the world as goals of education? What about character development, moral reasoning, and becoming a thoughtful, active participant in democracy? Most important, what about the student who either because he is learning disabled or she is just different, learns and thinks differently: the student whose left hand is his or her right hand? Now, we are not China. Whatever Marxist critiques exist of our education system as a feeder for the great, hungry capitalist free market monster that demands worker docility and conformity, we are way ahead with respect to respecting individuality and free choice. Still, we need to be careful that in our educational race to the top, we do not go over the top in deemphasizing the unique gifts of individual students and teachers, even if they do not fit the standard marks of success as they are now being defined. Surely, even Halakhah, which generally favors communal conformity over individual predilection, understands that sometimes an individual’s left hand is that person’s right hand; that is where that person’s strength lies. Our politicians and educators would do well to remember that wisdom as well.

Chag Sameach.


Sermon For Yom Kippur, 5771.

What if you had only one day to live, and you were lucky enough to live it over and over? What if you had only one day to live and you were cursed to live it over and over? What would or would you not do with it? Imagine yourself able to live that one day any way you liked, with no concern for consequences or shame, for the next day you would awaken, and realize that it was the beginning of yesterday, an endless today. Imagine yourself unable to ever move forward with your life and learn from your mistakes, as you played that one scene of your life over and over again. Would you ever want to leave that playground of joyous moral depravity, unleashed from all moorings of conscience and guilt? Could you ever leave that prison of existential frustration and boredom, that supposed heaven of eternal youth that is actually a mask for hell?

These sound like questions of people who live entirely in the mind, rather than in the real world of everyday lives found in every new day. However, I want to suggest that they, in fact, reflect much deeper concerns about freedom and personal meaning that we human beings struggle with all the time. Do we ever get to do over the mistakes we make in our lives? Can we return to and relive parts of what we did and who we were, in order to redeem ourselves from mistakes? Are there ever second chances?

You probably already know that rabbis think about these questions a fair amount, especially around this time of year, when we come together with our congregants to face God and ourselves, and try to figure out the spiritual technology of repentance and growth. However my current interest in these questions derives only partly from Judaism and its holidays. I recently viewed–seventeen years late- a rather curious film that, since 1993, has become almost a cult classic: director, Harold Ramis’es Ground Hog Day. Citizen Kane the film is not; it is fairly light and stars the rather droll and goofy comedian, Bill Murray. However, upon closer inspection, the film possess an existentialist charm and insightfulness about second chances and freedom, by turning the questions I posed before into an interesting story. Murray plays Phil Connors, an egocentric, mean spirited, and small minded meteorologist who plods through the mental boredom and physical drudgery of his daily work at a local news station. The film opens with Connors leaving with his producer and his camera man on their annual trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on what he considers to be the soul deadening observance of Ground Hog Day: February 2, when Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog will inevitably see his shadow, thus predicting like clock work another six weeks of winter. Connors hates his job, hates his life, hates the people he works with, and hates the good folks of Punxsutawney who actually revel joyously in the celebration of their local culture and history. After a snow storm forces the TV crew to remain overnight in the town, Connors goes to sleep. Upon awakening and reawakening over what appears to be a succession of several days, he comes gradually to the conclusion that he has not woken up each time to a new day, but to the same day, February 2. Convinced at first that he is now truly imprisoned in a life not of his own making, he slowly recognizes that getting to do the same day over and over again actually liberates his darkest desires: he can be as destructive, rude, and sexually rapacious as he likes, because when he wakes up the next day, no one but him will remember what he has done. The next day is simply yesterday, rerun like a film clip played over and over again. As Connors’ indulgence in selfishness and stupidity wears thin, he attempts anything, especially death, which will allow him to escape the prison of the present day with all of its predictable sameness. Yet even death, the ultimate form of liberation, fails him in his quest to move time and his life forward: he can’t even die. As the film progresses, Phil Connors gradually begins to understand what will free him from eternity and allow him to grow. The endlessly replayed scene of his life on Ground Hog Day –symbolized of course by the endlessly boring life of the other Phil in the film- has one catch in it. He can change the scene day to day through how he behaves, not only for evil but for good. In a way that actually requires the skeptical viewer to set aside the film’s logic, he comes to know and affect positively the lives of the people of the town; he learns to treat the people he has abused more kindly; he figures out how to show his producer, with whom he is in love, that he can love her like a grown up who cares about people. Only when he finally gets this scene of his existence right, can Phil Connors break the surrealistic spell of his constant feedback loop of a life and go home.

Though Judaism recognizes the indestructibility of the soul after death, it also recognizes that we don’t literally get to live the same day or the same life over and over again. So, I ask: are the ideas found in this film Jewish ideas? From a Jewish perspective, is there no opportunity when we are alive to relive the past –as it were- so that we can reshape it? How irreversible are our actions and choices? Moses Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, took on these vital questions in his monumental book, Laws of Repentance, which is found in his compendium of Jewish law. There, he lays out what Judaism says about personal change, and forgiveness: how we reach them, and our beliefs about human freedom that underlie them. Listen carefully to what Maimonides has to say:

There is a difference between repentance and complete repentance. What is complete repentance? A person finds himself in the same circumstances of wrongdoing as he had been in previously: he has the opportunity to commit the same sin, to do the same wrong, but he decides not to because he is commited to behaving differently, not because he is afraid of getting into trouble or because he lacks the physical strength to do so. For instance: two people have an illicit affair. They find themselves alone with each other at the exact time of year and in the exact place as in the past. They both still love each other and their physical desire for one another is just as strong. They can easily resume their illicit relationship, but they refrain from doing so.

Maimonides took his idea about complete repentance from earlier traditions found in the Babylonian Talmud, the master work of Jewish tradition and law. A close comparison of his writing with this original source reveals that, in fact, Maimonides chose what appears to be the most extreme explanation of complete repentance found in the Talmud. The seemingly more realistic definition of complete repentance found in the tradition is that a person may find him or herself in circumstances similar to the one in which he or she had done wrong, but that person nevertheless chooses to behave differently. But to be in the same place, at the same time of the year, wanting to do the same things with the exact same person that we know are wrong? What are the chances that two people would be so motivated by desire or even true love to do this? Clearly, I am being somewhat facetious. We all know perfectly well that life is messy and complicated. The human heart follows its most passionate desires, sexual or otherwise- whether they are right or wrong- and we are well equipped with very powerful tools of self deception and rationalization that make it easy for us to justify doing what we know we should not do. Maimonides knew this too. I think he chose precisely this version of the complete repentance idea to make an important point about making choices and about teshuvah, Hebrew for repentance. Like our hero, Phil Connors, we may find ourselves placed repeatedly in the same situations over whose outcomes we think, or want to think, we have no control. “What a dream I’m having, what a nightmare this is! How did I get here again?” we ask. Our pain is real enough, as we struggle with the old impulses, the persistent sadness, the old addictions, the self deceptions, whose acting out we know will get us nowhere fast. They may make us feel ok in the short term, but they contribute to our self destruction in the long term. Maimonides is inviting us to look at the most extreme possibilities in human behavior precisely to teach us that, if you find yourself going back to earlier times and behaviors, you may not be able to undo what you did then, but you can choose not to do it again, now. Like Phil Connors, you may find yourself in the same life scenes of your complicated past, but you can change those scenes, and you can change them for the better in the future. As Maimonides explains it, complete repentance is really hard to do, and it may cause you excrutiating pain. You deserve all the love, support and compassion from others that they have to give you, as you are working on doing it: but you can do it….

Except of course, for when you can’t… or you just plain don’t. Maimonides wrote with firm, rigid religious and philosophical commitment about the idea of human moral freedom, the bedrock of complete repentance. If you look in his book, Laws Of Repentance, you find him engaging in scathing attacks upon other philosophers, Jewish and non Jewish, who limit the extent of what we would call free will. For him, “a human being directs him or herself deliberately to any course of action or life that he or she desires.” End of discussion. Or is it? Remember that, in addition to being a rabbi and a philosopher, Maimonides was also a prominent physician. I am going to assume that as he saw patient after patient, Maimonides likely encountered and was affected by what any competent, sensitive physician encountered: plenty of pain, suffering and disease inflicted upon his patients by themselves and by others, repeatedly. He likely detected crippling physical and emotional traits in multiple generations of families; he likely recognized that they could not so easily be overcome, and that they affected people’s behaviors and lives; all of this hundreds of years before the world knew anything about DNA or the human genome, and well before the advent of psychoanalysis. And beyond Maimonides the rabbi, philosopher, and physician, there was yet another Maimonides: the one who understood from personal loss and grief that at times, our attempts to “just do it” or “just get over it” or “just decide to do the right thing” are fleeting shadows of wishful and naïve thinking. At the height of his leadership, fame, and intellectual acumen, when Maimonides could talk with easy confidence about the difficult but can-do path to complete repentance and personal change, his beloved brother and benefactor, David, died suddenly and tragically, leaving Maimonides impoverished and responsible for David’s bereft family. As Dr. Sherwin Nuland points out in his biography of Maimonides, the great rabbi revealed in some letters and even one medical treatise just how devastating and debilitating was his ensuing depression: we get a much more truncated, compassionate, limited picture from him of the capacity for a human being to make free, life affirming choices for personal growth. Certainly, we now know enough about clinical depression and so many inherited traits to understand well that their crippling influence upon a person’s behavior are not at all the same thing as a person’s free choice to continue to behave one way or another. However, my point is that Maimonides’ intense spiritual commitment to complete repentance and free moral choice was likely balanced in his own soul with his own personal and professional experiences that told him life is not so simple. Yes, we possess free moral choice, we can make decisions to stop making excuses for our behavior, and we can change; but in real life, there are things that hurt us or that are just beyond our control, partly or completely, that affect who we are and what we do. That is why in Jewish tradition, we talk about balancing judgment with mercy, both divine and human; that is why in Jewish law, you can ask sincere forgiveness from God and others even upon your deathbed, after a life of repeating the same ground hog day, day after day, and the forgiveness is there waiting for you. That is why I think Maimonides himself explicitly distinguished complete repentance and just plain old repentance. Listen now closely to another great teaching of his from the same Book, Laws of Repentance:

So, what is plain old repentance? The person who does wrong stops committing his sin, stops thinking about it, and he makes the firm mental commitment to never do it again, even to the point of making God, the One who knows all secrets, his witness to this effect. He expresses sincere regret for the past. Whatever he resolves in his heart he must also confess out loud.

Note what is missing in this teaching of Maimonides. A person looking to repent has to make every sincere effort, before God, himself, and humanity to do so. But nowhere in this passage did our teacher ever say that this process is some kind of an immunization against bad behavior down the road. Taking his cue from the Jewish tradition he followed and the imperfect, broken human nature he observed, Maimonides offered us a formula for breaking out of the cycles of pain we inflict upon ourselves and others that recognizes with compassion the power and the limits of our ability to change. Part one of that formula is all about apologizing and doing better towards those we have hurt. Part two –discussed by Maimonides elsewhere- is the often grueling, but healing response to repentance: forgiveness, of oneself and of others, even and especially when our hurt from the past and our often logical assumptions about people’s future tendencies fill us with anger and mistrust.

Yom Kippur ritualizes and concentrates this dynamic in one powerful day, whose echo we should listen for and respond to during the rest of the year. That is why we are here in prayer and here, living in the world. We are here because we are struggling to break the cycles –the groundhog days- of our behaviors and attitudes that we know hurt us and others; and we are here because we are struggling to forgive ourselves and each other for not always being successful at breaking those cycles. We are here because we are free, and God calls us to take responsibility for what we are and what we do as adults; and we are here because God knows well the nature of human nature, loves us all the more for it, and asks us to forgive ourselves and each other too. We are here because in remembering our loved ones at the time of Yizkor, we can appreciate them for their love and the good that they did, and forgive them for their imperfections, some of which may have scarred us; and we are here because in remembering them we know that we can learn from them what to do and what not to do with our lives, and act upon those teachings. Finally, we are here because our creation in God’s image always demands of us the dignity and courage of repentance; and we are here because being a loving reflection of God always grants us the opportunity to try over and over again, when our personal limits make us fail to live up fully to that reflection.


Dvar Torah And Torah Intro For Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5771.

I have never been a big fan of Bob Dylan’s music and mystique, not because I do not like what he sings and stands for, but because I kind of missed the Dylan moment in American pop culture. Though Dylan continues to be an important force in American music, his greatest influence over the ears and hearts of America was likely in the 60’s and early 70’s, when I was a little kid. Nonetheless, when his music and lyrics speak to me, I know it.

In anticipation of the reading of the painful and complex story of the Binding of Isaac, I have been thinking of the opening stanza of Dylan’s song, Highway 61 Revisited, found on the 1965 album by the same name. The words sound better when sung, but no such luck today: I am going to read them to you.

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run.”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

Dylan’s words at first strike us as pretty simplistic poetry. The rhyme scheme doesn’t appear to be very creative, and God’s dialogue with Abraham –who Dylan refers to as Abe in an overly folksy way- feels somewhat forced. Moreover, we have seen this midrash, this interpretation, before: the seemingly compliant Abraham of the Torah is turned into the protesting Abraham of later rabbinic legends, the one who opposes the awful divine decree that he murder his own son. But note how, at the end of the stanza, Dylan turns the biblical story- and its back story- of Abraham’s dialogue with God into something entirely unique, and actually quite sinister. Minnesota State Highway 61, which originates in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, runs for 151 miles along the shores of Lake Superior until it reaches the border with Canada. Legend has it that the great Blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and highway 49, in return for professional and artistic success. The Abraham of the Torah –a courageous yet enigmatic man of faith- is turned by Dylan into an abused man who would contemplate killing his own son for the sake of protection from the demonic, abusive God demanding such a horrible thing from him. That is why God tells him to kill Isaac, not on Mount Moriah, but out on the notorious Highway 61.

On one level, Dylan’s reading of God’s demonic cruelty that he draws from the Binding of Isaac is an overstatement. As bizarre and terrifying as God’s demand is, we the readers already know that God has no intention of allowing Abraham to kill Isaac. Our Torah portion makes clear: “V’Ha Elohim Nisah Et Avraham,” God puts Abraham’s faith and loyalty to the test only. Further, this is the same God who earlier in Genesis accedes to Abraham’s demand that God behave justly by not killing the righteous people along with the evil doers in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Knowing the context of Abraham’s encounter with God in this terrible story, we are perhaps more inclined to see God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in less extreme terms.

And yet, Abraham himself does not know these things. When we try to imagine Abraham’s experience as our own, to place ourselves in his shoes, we recognize that perhaps Bob Dylan’s take on our story is not so far off the mark emotionally. Can we not safely assume that, when confronted with God’s wildly cruel and capricious demands on the life of his son, Abraham feels like any other parent or in fact any other person who has feelings and a conscience? Literary theorist, Erich Auerbach, points out that the Binding of Isaac is a classic mimetic story: like a mime performing silently, it uses mostly action, no interior monologue and almost no dialogue to convey brilliantly the tensions and deep dilemmas posed by God’s and Abraham’s actions. It never tells us what Abraham is thinking or feeling. However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: just because we have no direct idea about how Abraham feels in the story, does not mean that he has no feelings. We just need to imagine them and tease them out of the text with creative interpretation.

So, let me suggest the following as we read this awesome and terrible story. We Jews read it as a faith community on Rosh Hashanah because of its themes of self sacrifice and of hope despite despair, which are the perennial signatures of Jewish faith throughout the ages. We Jews also read it as critically thinking people of conscience who have no problem taking issue loudly with God when we perceive God not living up to the ethical standards that God demands of us. Yet we Jews can and should also look at this and our other great stories as rich works of art that force us to think about the fearful, stormy and often conflicting emotions standing behind our heroes’, God’s, and our own actions. They stir up in us the deep feelings of love, outrage, despair, desire and hope that make us fully human and engaged in dynamic relationships. These emotions are ultimately some of the enduring bases for Jewish religion: a jealous God Who makes impossible demands upon our loyalty, a people torn between loving God in return and wanting to be left alone, and the promise of a relationship between us that transforms us and the world.


Sermon For Rosh Hashanah, Day 1: 5771//September 9, 2010.

Shanah Tovah. Just a few minutes ago, we listened to Anschel Weiss sound the shofar for us quite beautifully. The blasts of the shofar give us such a mystically inspiring feeling because they transcend all words; they get to the heart of what people are feeling but cannot necessarily articulate. Several years back, Rabbi Kieval and I did a high holiday exercise with our USY youth group called “I Shofar That Emotion,” whose title is a kind of wordplay on the famous Motown hit song, “I Second That Emotion,” sung by the great Smokey Robinson. We brought in a variety of shofarot, the Hebrew plural for shofar, and –in keeping with ancient teachings- we asked the USYers to show how they would convey different feelings without using words, and only making sounds with a shofar. How could the blasts of the shofar help them to imagine voicing those deepest human emotions and anxieties that often cannot –and should not- be expressed in words? I want to try this exercise with you this morning, though we will have to improvise a bit, since I don’t have 700 shofars to hand out to everyone praying here today. Instead of blowing on a shofar, I invite you for just a couple of minutes to use your own voice and become a shofar. As we sound out each of the shofar calls with our voices, think of some feeling, some idea, some urgent insight or warning that you need to call out to someone else, or to yourself. Imagine, as the sound pours out of your throat, something important to which you want to give a voice, something that you need to have recognized.

I understand that, for some of us, this kind of exercise will feel silly, or hokey, or just plain uncomfortable. Certainly, if you choose to sit quietly and listen to others making these human shofar calls, that is fine. If closing your eyes as you are making these sounds helps you feel less self conscious, then close your eyes. However, I encourage you to try this spiritual exercise of imagining that your voice is a shofar. We are going to shout out the three basic shofar notes. I will start, then I invite you to repeat the sound that I make. We will pause briefly after each call. Here we go:

Tekiah! (sound) Now you call. (pause)
Shevarim! (sound) Now you call. (pause)
Teruah! (sound) Now you call. (pause)

I hope that each imaginary shofar call that you made called up important things for you that you need to voice. Now, if you are skeptically thinking that what we just did is nothing more than another fluffy, new age, feel good, touchy feely, pop psych meditation, think again. One Hebrew word in our tradition that is used to describe the sound of the shofar is Kol which literally means, “voice.” The shofar itself has a voice that is so simple, clear and uncluttered, it provokes very primitive, at times childlike, emotions in us. We hear its voice, and perhaps we feel that fear stirred up in us when an ambulance or fire truck siren wails ominously on its way to an emergency. We hear its voice, and perhaps we feel that aching compassion stirred up in us when a baby cries without consolation. We hear its voice, and perhaps we imagine shouts of rage between people fighting, moans of desire between people in love, the elated yell of two friends greeting each other after a long absence, or our own cries of desperation and protest to God and Man in the darkest moments of life. The shofar’s sound is an echo of each of our voices in every life situation. Jewish tradition alludes to this when it teaches that the shofar blast known as Teruah could be nine staccato blasts (blow shofar) like a person wailing, or three longer blasts, called Shevarim, (blow shofar) like a person sighing heavily in sadness. Originally, the number of shofar blasts required during Rosh Hashanah was a mere thirty, but over time the custom developed to blow a hundred notes on the shofar in public each day of the holiday. Later interpreters of Jewish practice explained the hundred shofar blasts by comparing them rather imaginatively to the hundred cries of a woman in active labor. Situated at that most awesome, painful, beautiful moment of helping her newborn to transition from the womb to being in the world, she cries out with the recognition that new life is beginning, and that all life will ultimately end. So too, as the new year is born, we listen to the shofar cry out in our behalf, as we cry out for life, and give voice to the sobering truth that mortality will catch up with some of us in the year to come, and all of us eventually.

When we consider the role of the voice and speech in the history of human evolution, we should not be surprised that Jewish religion would establish such a powerful connection between our voices, our deepest thoughts, emotions, and even actions, and the shofar. Jared Diamond, the renowned scientist and social critic, points out that even though modern human beings evolved and diverged physically from our cousins, the chimps, a million years ago, our great leap forward as full human beings only happened a mere forty thousand years ago: a blip on the timeline of human and natural history. What made this happen were evolutionary changes in our heads and necks that allowed us to use our voices to speak and develop language. Once we could speak and communicate with each other, human creativity and ability leaped forward, securing our place as the most powerful –and simultaneously the most destructive- of all species. Diamond points out that we share with our closest primate cousins almost everything in our genetic make up, except for this singular gift of meaningful speech. With it comes the almost limitless capacity to make free choices by being able to give voice to every thought and to understand and respond to the thoughts of others. But the dark, often demonic, side of this great leap forward is the monstrous human capacity to use our unfettered power to silence the voices of other people and other species. For example: I recently learned that cultures at war with each other have been committing acts of genocide for millennia, not merely since the 20th century. Another example: I recently learned that, well before they had contact with European colonialism and industry, native cultures from North America to the south Pacific islands were already mindlessly annihilating hundreds of species of animals for thousands of years in their quest for food, leading gradually to the slow deterioration of our global environment that we in the West have merely catalyzed. A final example: I recently learned that the current yawning gap between the powerful voices of the world’s wealthiest nations and the near silence and powerlessness of vast segments of Asia and Africa is due, not entirely, but in part to the blind accidents of history and geography. Societies in the right climates that were blessed with animals and crops they could cultivate, became the victors who have taken the spoils for thousands of years in a grossly uneven global competition for food, resources and power that continues today.

Theoretically, all human beings possess equal potential to make their voices heard –to plead and protest their case before family, community, society and the world, to attain and possess power, security, comfort. Yet, paraphrasing what the animals of George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm taught us so cynically: some human animals have the tools, the luck, and the power to be more equal than others. This is the depressing, despairing truth about being human, a truth that is cemented by the sad realities of human greed, aggression and short sightedness. In the great cacophony of our planet’s many peoples, communities, classes, and nations, the voices of some shout down or drown out the voices of others. That is why this seemingly tame musical ritual of blowing shofar on the day commemorating the world’s creation grabs us by the soul and will not let us go. Every musical note blasted from the shofar represents a voice of some human being crying, shrieking the demand –“Here I am, don’t ignore me!-“ into the vast space between that person’s lips, the world’s ears, and ultimately, the attention of God. These crying voices abound.

There are the nearly silenced voices of countless women and girls in the developing world who are brutally repressed by religiously motivated terror, physical abuse, sexual slavery, and the status of chattel conferred upon them by the men in their societies. Read the unbelievable book, Half the Sky, by prize winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn, to learn these women’s stories and to hear their voices. Find out from them what you can do –as a Jew, as a human being- to give them back their voices through various strategies of empowerment and Western support.

There are the nearly silenced voices of disadvantaged children from neighborhoods no more than two miles away from us in our own city, who could just as well be dwelling in another galaxy. They brush shoulders with many of our children in the halls of the middle schools and the local high school, but the equalities and similarities mostly end there. How many of these children possess the deep potential to add their voices of creativity, insight, leadership, and courage to the ongoing dialogue of society? How many of them are born, will live, and die in voiceless, dead end poverty because of parental neglect, a subculture that tells them education is meaningless, the persistence of racism, and governments at all levels that don’t listen to them because poor people lack political clout?

There are the nearly silenced voices of our friends, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, students, and fellow congregants who suffer quietly or wordlessly what the renowned psychiatrist and rabbi, Abraham Twerski calls the shame borne in silence: domestic violence at the vicious hands of family members and other people in positions of physical and emotional power. The old, emotionally numbing self deceptions that domestic violence and sexual abuse don’t happen in the Jewish community have been long discredited. It is time to listen much more carefully to the voices of the Hagars and Yishmaels who are right under our noses.

There are the nearly silenced voices of hundreds of species of living things the world over that are nearing mass extinction not because of natural selection but because of our environmental short sightedness. I am no Neo-Luddite. I believe and participate in the blessings that technology, science and industry have brought and can bring to the lives of every person on this planet. But biodiversity and global environmental health cannot continue to be the poorer cousins of progress; if so, we might as well say goodbye now to this planet on which our attempts at human advancement will become utterly futile, as we destroy the fragile, elegant balances of life and nature that sustain us. We, our captains of industry, and our leaders need to listen as one to those voices of warning. We are coming dangerously close to what the ecologist Rachel Carson called the Silent Spring.

There are the nearly silenced voices of the lonely people who live alongside of us in the midst of our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our public spaces. They appear to be at the center, yet they feel marginalized and ignored because of the deaths of loved ones, the ravages of divorce, our society’s polite obsession with privacy, and the devastating, uprooting effects of mobility upon families and communities.

You know, this year our synagogue theme is “100 Years, 100 Voices.” We are rightly and proudly celebrating our 100th anniversary of existence and achievement as a sacred Jewish community. Throughout this year to come and well into next year, we will explore the many voices – that is, the people and ideas- that have made our congregation a wonderful place over the last 100 years. Together we will explore 100 of the greatest ideas, values, practices, people and events that have made, and that make, Judaism and the Jewish experience so meaningful. I want to expand our theme a little bit: I want to challenge each of us to make this the Year Of the Shofar, a year in which we find some way to be a resounding, piercing voice of advocacy, of compassion, of protest, of caring for at least one other person or community. We will offer at least 100 different ways for you to find your voice within Judaism and this Jewish community this coming year, and some of them will be in the form of being a voice for others. For example, over the years, our congregation has been growing a collective voice in behalf of people in the wider community who cannot make their voices heard sufficiently because they lack the power and resources to do so. Get active in the programs of our social action committee, by bringing food to the synagogue next Friday afternoon as we kick off our Project Isaiah Food Drive prior to Kol Nidre. Find out about how they can help you to contribute to helping the poor and the homeless of our community, and to defending our global environment by guarding our earth, our water, our precious resources here at home. For a number of years, our congregation has been growing a collective voice in behalf of our brothers and sisters who cannot make their voices heard sufficiently because they are challenged by disabilities. Learn more about and help support the truly magnificent work that our preschool and religious school programs do to integrate children with special needs and their families into our school communities and into Jewish life. Make a commitment this coming March to volunteering at our annual seder for people with special needs. Many of our brothers and sisters spend their entire lives in group homes with tremendous personal challenges, at times neglected by their families and easily forgotten by the rest of the world. Imagine yourself helping to bring true joy and a sense of personal liberation to them through the celebration of Passover. But the congregation is not the only place in which to make your voice heard in behalf of others. Some say we are cursed by living in the state capitol, but I would ask us to think differently about this. The Capitol District is home to one of the largest centers of political and social activism in the nation, and our state government’s terrible health notwithstanding, our activist community is alive, robust and thriving. Pick one issue, one concern, one cause that you want to fit into your busy life, and make a difference in the lives of people who lack a powerful voice. You be their voice in your small, modest way. You be their shofar.

In a few moments, we will listen to the shofar blasts of the Musaf service. Each set of blasts is specifically connected to the unique blessings recalling God’s universal dominion, God’s undying remembrance of us and all humanity, and God’s revelation of the Torah amidst the shofar blasts at Mount Sinai. As we listen to those notes, my hope is that we can imagine ourselves as shofarot, ready in mind, body and soul to meet this coming year with courageous voices whose echoes pierce the heavens and bring down the walls of oppression.


Do you remember this experiment with babies that you learned about in developmental psychology class years ago as an undergraduate? Place a brightly colored object like a toy or a bottle in front of a baby’s face. His or her face will of course light up, and if the baby has sufficient dexterity, he or she will reach out and grab it. Now, place a piece of cardboard in front of the object so that the baby can no longer see it. Before the age of about 12 months, the child will quickly lose interest, assuming that the object is no longer there, or perhaps was never there to begin with. From a year of age onward, the child will begin to look for the object, perhaps even growing sad, restless and whiny when he or she cannot find it. Developmental psychologists refer to this phenomenon as object permanence: the cognitive ability to hold something in your memory and even to be able to figure out logically where it may have gone to, when it is no longer in your sight. Object permanence is the reason why young children at a certain age love the game Peek-A-Boo: when I hide my face from the child with whom I am playing, that child knows I am still there behind my hands, and is eagerly anticipating my return. The great psychologist, Jean Piaget, was able to define formally the different stages of cognitive and intellectual development in the life of a human being. He called this earliest stage at which object permanence begins to develop, sensorimotor: from ages 0-2, we are trying to figure out the relationship between ourselves, our bodies, and the world around us. We begin life quite egocentrically, not understanding that we and the world are not the same thing, and that it does not revolve around us. As we grow older, we recognize that the world and its objects are separate from us, and that just because we do not see something does not mean it is not there.

I always think about these developmental insights when I come to the high holiday season and read this double portion, Nitzavim-VaYelekh. This is because of the haunting idea, hastarat panim, the hiding of God’s face, that is found in the parshah and in psalm 27, the psalm for the high holidays. In Deuteronomy 31, after Moses warns the people about the consequences for violating the covenant, God tells him: “…My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them…And they shall say on that day, ‘Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.’ Yet I will keep My face hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.” Torah commentators are generally of two minds about what hiding God’s face is. Some, like Rashi, say that God is threatening to ignore the people and to refrain from watching over them. Others, like the early Targumim (who translated the Torah into Aramaic) say that God is threatening literally to remove God’s presence from the people. The first interpretation focuses on the psychological dimensions of God’s absence: the feeling that we are abandoned. The second focuses on the ontological –or spiritual- dimensions of God’s absence: the fact that God has abandoned us. Whatever the hiding of God’s face means, for the Torah, it is the result of the Israelites’ decision to worship and serve other gods, a punishment for their behavior.

Psalm 27 takes a different approach to the hiding of God’s face. After telling us that God literally hides him in the hiddenness of God’s tent (yastireini b’seter ohalo) from his enemies, the psalmist turns to God with plaintive desperation: “To you my heart says, ‘Seek my face!’ O Lord, I seek Your face. Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger; You have ever been my help, do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O God, my deliverer.” For the psalmist, God’s hiding of God’s face is a source of terror, the adult spiritual equivalent of a child experiencing the most primitive separation anxiety when his or her parent walks away. There is no morally causal reason for the hiding of God’s face, no explanations are to be found in the individual’s behavior: after all, the psalmist is called God’s servant, hardly a term for someone who has sinned against God.

Whichever of these interpretations and contexts for understanding Hastarat Panim we connect with, we are still missing an important piece of the puzzle that the idea of object permanence can help us to find. Note what is implied in these both of these scriptural passages: the hiding of God’s face is real and effective because we experience it as such. Paradoxically, we are bereft and terrified at God’s hiddenness precisely because, like the child who has learned object permanence, we expect God to be there, always, behind the hiddenness. In fact, unlike the young infant who loses interest in the bright object behind a screen, we know that God is there, even as we seek God out in such desperation. So, whether we do wrong and alienate ourselves from God, or we just feel terribly disconnected and hidden from life, God is there always, and always waiting with love, patience, and compassion. Our perceptions of God’s fluid presence and absence are the result of our many experiences. Our deeper perceptions of God’s permanence lie just beneath them, waiting for us to take them out and affix them as wings that carry us home to God. Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Old Friends, Book Ends (D'var Torah For Parashat Shoftim 5770)

Do you remember this opening stanza of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic song, “Old Friends”?

Old friends, old friends sat on their parkbench like bookends.
A newspaper blowin' through the grass
Falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends.

The song is about two men (perhaps Simon and Garfunkel themselves?) imagining their friendship projected from the position of lively youth many years into the future, when they find themselves much older and lonelier but still together. The song possesses a melancholy beauty, though the rest of its lyrics are somewhat naïve, almost ageist, given the assumptions about aging that the two youthful song writers seemed to have, and given the American youth culture in which they lived.

I actually am not as interested in the song’s treatment of friendship and aging, as in the striking metaphor that it uses: old friends sitting on a park bench like bookends. We could say that this image conveys a kind of deadness and stiffness. After all, bookends may hold in and maintain the shape and position of books, but unlike books, they have no life of their own. Another way to hear this metaphor is this: bookends contain between them the rich breadth and depth of the books that they support; they are a supportive structure and a physical context, without which books lie around and become broken. To the books, those bookends are truly “old friends.”

Let me suggest that to anyone hungry for understanding and wisdom, the beginning and ending sections of this morning’s parashah, Shoftim, are definitely important bookends, and if we allow them to speak to us we will see that they are truly old and trusted friends as well. The first bookend of Shoftim is the all-important theme of justice and some of the rules for its realization: the people of Israel will need a judicial system when they enter the land of Canaan; their judges are forbidden from judging unfairly, from showing partiality, and from taking bribes; we must pursue justice, not wait passively for it to happen to society. The parashah continues with other rules about judges, justice, and the limits of rulers within the rule of law: we are commanded to go to the highest court of the land whenever a case of law is too difficult for us; we may appoint kings to rule over us, but they are bound by specific God given laws, and they must keep a written copy of God’s law with them at all times, to prevent them from grasping too much power; we are only to listen to prophets who speak to us in God’s name when those prophets command us to follow what God has commanded us; in cases of accidental manslaughter, we must provide cities of refuge that protect the killer from the passionate anger of family members of the victim, who would seek to avenge the death of their loved one upon a person who killed without malice. This first bookend of Shoftim is all about justice pursued under the rule of law, with reason and deliberation predominating.

The second bookend of Shoftim, seems to be the exact opposite of the first. It contains a strange passage about a murder victim found in an open field, whose assailant’s identity cannot be determined by normal judicial means of evidence, law and investigation. The same elders and judges who were called upon at the beginning of the parashah to dispense rational, thoughtful justice are now called upon to perform a ritual. Those leaders of the town closest to where the victim was found break the neck of a young heifer over an ever flowing stream. They wash their hands over the animal, and symbolically wash their hands of culpability for the commission of the crime whose injustice they cannot adjudicate and rectify by using the regular apparatus of law. Thus, they cleanse the land and the people of blood that has been shed, for in the minds of our ancestors, the unrequited blood of victims would literally pollute land and society.

In America today, we do not perform rituals like this when a crime cannot be solved or an injustice cannot be rectified. We prefer to focus insistently on our faith in the rational aspects of our laws, judicial proceedings, and judges. After all, we are a democratic, secular society. Are we not fully committed to the idea that the rule of law is supreme, that reasoned investigation will ultimately bring justice, and that our legal system, though imperfect, is the best there is for preserving justice, freedom and human dignity? What do these two bookends, our old friends at each margin of the parashah, seem to be teaching us when they are taken together contextually? Perhaps it is this: the pursuit of justice through law, the courts, fairness, and reasoned application of law is of unparalleled importance: it is the sacred scaffolding upon which our society is founded. But there are times when even the reach of law cannot adequately bring justice; there are times when even those judges and lawmakers charged with dispensing justice according to the rule of law allow people in power to get away with murder, figuratively, if not literally. In those times, Americans and their leaders need rituals -ways of coming together and articulating our sense of injustice- that are comforting and electrifying, religious and secular, personal and communal; they are the ways through which we say to ourselves and each other: “Our hands did not shed this blood, but we still need to cleanse ourselves of the outrages that have occurred by seeing to it that justice and the balances of power are restored.” Only then can the community feel whole and begin to restore justice.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Moses: Judge And Lover


Dvar Torah For Parshat Devarim, Shabbat Hazon: Third Of The Tlata D’Puranuta, 5770.

From the very beginning of Deuteronomy, the Moses that we encounter is a contradictory man who defies what we have known about him previously. All through Exodus, our law giver has shunned the role of public speaker, preferring to hand that task to his brother, Aaron. The reason for his reticence? Exodus 4:10 tells us the whole story. Desperately attempting to get out of God’s charge to him to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelite slaves, Moses begs: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” After a bit more haggling with God, God appoints Moses’ brother to be his mouthpiece, and Moses is then dispatched to a life of leadership, struggle and nation building. Fast forward from that moment at the Burning Bush when Moses complained about his oratorical disabilities to this very first verse in Deuteronomy: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” Note what is so significant about this verse. Moses, the man who is not a man of words, addresses an entire assembly of over a million people with words. The Hebrew words, devarim (words) and dibber (addressed) are grammatically related, thus intensifying the meaning of what is happening here: Moses is about to pour out a profusion of words, specifically words of warning, admonition, complaint and judgment upon the motley and rambunctious Israelites prior to his death and their entrance into the promised land. Not only that, Moses –the same man who is slow of speech and tongue- will speak to his charges for a total of 33 long, eloquent, and haranguing chapters, all in God’s name! (Note of course that throughout Deuteronomy we never hear what the people think about his speeches. Is it that, like the overly long rabbinic sermon, his words simply made everyone go to sleep? We’ll come back to that question, maybe.)

Clearly, words matter to Deuteronomy, and placing them in the mouth of Moses is of the greatest importance. What we see as a contradiction between the Moses of Exodus and the Moses of Deuteronomy may in fact be that. Scholarly consensus identifies Deuteronomy as a book that was composed and edited later than the first four books of the Torah and then appended to the Torah during the age of religious reform of the Judean king, Josiah, around 621 BCE. However, that historical fact does not do justice to the inspired religious and literary purposes of whoever attached Deuteronomy. Whatever the histories of her respective sources, the Torah as she stands is a literary and spiritual unity. The Moses who reluctantly accepts his mission, then gives the people God’s law, then begins to burn out as the Israelite trek wears on for forty years, is the Moses who now will reflect upon his life, the failings of the Israelites, and his insights about how the people can succeed in the promised land as a people of God. He is a man with one last opportunity to tell this people he loves so much, how angry they make him and God at times. And tell them he will.

From the very beginning of his final addresses to the people, Moses does sound like a man haranguing and judging them, quite harshly. This morning, only 12 verses into his first address, we read these words of his to Israel, at Deuteronomy 1:12: “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden and the bickering?” Note that this verse, in Hebrew, begins with the word Eichah, “how?” You may have noticed that it was sung using the tune of the book of Eichah, also known as Lamentations, that we will read on Monday night at Tisha B’Av services: a not too subtle reminder that the people who tried Moses so sorely in the desert later wound up in exile from the land of Canaan as a result of their sinfulness. For the following 33 chapters, Moses will really annoy them about worshipping only one God, remembering their earlier backsliding, preparing to live according to the covenant, and accepting that they will likely fail at doing what God wants anyway. Like an emotionally abusive parent whose child can never do right, Moses does not exactly seem to be interested in warm nurturance and positive reinforcement. He is all judgment all the time.

But this analysis of Moses’ relationship with the Israelites, even and especially at the end of his long life and tortured dealings with them, barely scratches the surface. Moses could never have spoken to the children of Israel this way effectively were there not something much deeper to their relationship that gave his words credibility. Consider the insight of our rabbis who commented upon this first verse of Deuteronomy, which is found in the great midrashic compilation, Devarim Rabbah:

The words of rebuke and judgment found in Deuteronomy really should have been spoken by Bilaam the prophet, who was originally sent to curse the people of Israel. The blessings that Bilaam gave them back in the book of Numbers really should have been spoken by Moses, their leader! However, had Bilaam rebuked and judged them, the Israelites would have dismissed him, saying, “Of course Bilaam’s berating us. He hates us!” Had Moses blessed them, the nations of the world would have scoffed at him, saying, “Of course Moses is blessing them. He’s one of them, so he’s biased towards them and he loves them! Thus God decreed that Moses their lover should rebuke and judge them, while Bilaam who hated them should bless them. (Devarim Rabbah 1:4)

Recall, of course, that Bilaam is the non-Israelite prophet and magician sent by the Moabite king Balak to curse and destroy the Israelites. He ultimately blesses them because, as he warns Balak, he can only speak what God puts into his mouth. Later biblical and rabbinic traditions cast Bilaam not as a hapless hired gun, but as a person who actively hates the Israelites. He is the perfect person to bless them in this reversal of fortune. Yet what is most significant about this rabbinic teaching is the way it applies good political and psychological insight to talking about rebuke and judgment between people: to avoid others’ accusations of gushing bias, you want to show that you can criticize the folks you love for their shortcomings, even more than the folks you hate. Even more important, your judgment of others can only possess the highest credibility and human authenticity when you do it out of genuine love. It is easy to tell off the people in your life for whom you have no use or who are your enemies, but such judgment often carries little moral or spiritual weight with it, weighed down as it is by bias. It is much harder to criticize those you love, yet only with love as the basis for a real relationship can your more harshly critical words have any value or impact. This certainly seems to underlie the sharp critiques by the prophet Isaiah of the people of Israel in the haftarah that we are about to read. After chastising them for their sins, and calling them to do justice, God has Isaiah tell the people: “Come let us reach an understanding. Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow white. Be they red as dyed wool they can become like fleece!” (Isaiah 1:18) God and Isaiah speak in judgment with the people because their judgmental words emerge from real love, passion, and investment in their well being.

In our own lives, we learn over and over again that judgment and criticism have to be balanced with rahamim, mercy and compassion for the person we are critiquing, that is founded upon love and respect for that person. Certainly, there are many times when judgment and criticism can be excessive, and when a great deal more compassionate and humble understanding of a person’s actions and attitudes is called for, and when we would do well not to be so quick to judge. However, a truly authentic moral choice for human beings is not only between total neutrality and excessive judgmentalism. That is a simplistic pseudo-choice concocted by a culture that often wants to live by the relativistic motto of “everything goes.” Like Moses, we human beings who are defined by loving relationship can also carefully choose between criticism of others that is based upon love and respect, and criticism that seeks only to hurt and denigrate. As we approach these final days before Tisha B’Av, may we learn from the words of our teacher Moses, who judged us precisely because he loved us and wanted the best for us. Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Microfinancing Zelophehad's Daughters


Dvar Torah For Parshat Matot/Masei and Second Week Of Tlata D’Puranuta 5770/2010.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad that we read in last week’s Torah portion, comes back to haunt us this week in an inverted way. Recall what we learned in Parshat Pinchas. As Moses is preparing the Israelites for entering and conquering the promised land, five women –the daughters of a man named Zelophehad- approach Moses with an unprecedented concern. The inheritance rules given to the people by God privilege sons over daughters. Only sons inherit their fathers’ estates. But the daughters pose a unique problem: they have no brothers to inherit their deceased father. Is it fair that his property and legacy should be lost because they, his descendants, are forbidden from inheriting him? This is one of four “on-the-spot” cases that are brought to Moses and God in the book of Numbers, generally as complaints, because they present the potential for injustice and unfairness. God addresses the daughters’ complaint by ruling that in a case of a man who has only daughters, his estate reverts to them upon his death. At the very end of Parshat Masei that we just read, the leaders of Zelophehad’s tribe approach Moses on the eve of entering the land of Canaan and press the matter of his daughters’ inheritance in the other direction: if these five women, and other women in the tribe, inherit their fathers’ estates then marry out of the tribe, the tribe’s property holdings will be diminished. Once again, God engages in an on-the-spot ruling that the daughters are only to marry within the tribe itself, so that the tribal property will be maintained. The book of Numbers ends with the five daughters marrying their cousins within their clan.

As I have mentioned in the past, these two stories about Zelophehad’s daughters fascinate me because they show us how even God, as it were, has not anticipated each real life situation of injustice encountered by the Israelites that requires rectification. Even God has to be moved by the complaints of human beings who see an injustice being created inadvertently. Back in Genesis, Abraham challenged the Judge of all the earth to act justly by distinguishing the righteous from the evil citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah before punishing the cities. Here in Numbers, the same challenge to God to rectify potential injustices is brought up, howbeit on a smaller scale. Continuing this theme of human beings alerting God to potential injustices, note of course that God only modifies the ruling about the daughters’ inheritance rights with respect to their marriages after their tribe complains.

As I noted last week, this is not the feminist text that some would like to read it as. The daughters do not press their case with Moses as an issue of fairness to women: “Why should we not be able to inherit like the men? Aren’t we as good as any brother?” They pose their question to Moses in order, ostensibly, to achieve justice for the memory and honor of their deceased father. Further, what we would think of as the ultimate injustice –that daughters were not allowed to inherit equally with sons- is never really addressed in this story at all. Nor is it ever rectified in later Halakhah, even though in much of the ancient world women did inherit equally with men. Nonetheless, as the basis for a discussion about Judaism and women’s empowerment, our story is remarkable, given the boldness of these daughters in even making their case before Moses and God. I believe that this is the only case of bold women pressing God directly for justice in the five books of Moses. Generally when biblical female characters advocate for themselves or for others, they do so surreptitiously, well behind the scenes, and as it were, behind the backs of God and men.

What more can we take away from this unique story about the proactivity of Zelophehad’s daughters? Is it there to teach us more than what we have analyzed? Though what I am about to say is admittedly a midrashic stretch, I think its spirit has a basis in the bold spirit of these women as narrated by the Torah. I imagine the following scene. Zelophehad has died, as the Torah tells us in Numbers , ch.27, because of his sinful behavior, something that his daughters make very clear to Moses and the community. Later rabbinic commentators identify Zelophehad with the man who was put to death for violating Shabbat, a story found back in Numbers , ch. 15. The daughters pick up from shivah, grieving, distraught, and humiliated. They are now tainted as a family by daddy’s public behavior and execution, they lose pedigree that will help them to find husbands, and worse yet, they have no property rights. Soon enough, the males in the family will grab everything, leaving them even less empowered than they already are. Surely, the God who commanded their community to love one’s neighbor and to protect the orphan and the widow would not want them to lose their one source of empowering livelihood—the ancestral property of their father! With that land, they can grow their own food, make money, and support themselves. However, no matter how just God may be, the men in the community are very set in their traditions, especially when it comes to women inheritance rights. The daughters huddle one night. “Look, we know what we need to have happen here, but if we argue this with Moses in our own behalf, he’ll never go for it. He simply lacks God’s expansive vision for equality and justice, as great a man as he is. Besides, the community overall will have too many problems with this. We need to frame this demand of ours as being about daddy: how can the community allow his name to be utterly obliterated just because he was unlucky enough to only have girls?” The next day, they call out Moses and the community. God, Who wants these women to have real earning power, but Who also knows that even He can’t change a community’s attitudes over night, gives Moses the ruling. A man dies, leaving only daughters? Let them inherit his property. Yes, Zelophehad’s tribe will come back and complain about the negative effects this may have on their property holdings, but God will deal with that later. For now, five women have taken one small step forward in preserving their family’s livelihood with God’s backing. This is my modern midrashic take on the story.

In a world very much controlled by a male power structure, the daughters needed courage, ingenuity, and a lot of help from God to secure their father’s property for their well being. We should not think that the reality for women is all that different in many parts of the world today; if anything, it has always been much worse for women and their children, especially in vast parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, than it had ever been for them in the times of the Torah, a book that does care deeply about loving one’s fellow human beings. In their powerful book, Half the Sky, journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn describe the hideous treatment of women in a good part of the developing world today. They are often viewed as subhuman compared with men, they have no real access to health care, no political rights, and most of all they lack the two things that actually give them status in their largely rural communities: property on which to grow crops, and resources to make money by starting their own modest businesses. The authors advocate strongly for an empowerment tool for these women –and many poor men as well- that is both simple and very Jewish: microfinance, which is the brain child of Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus, a Pakistani economist. Yunus realized that the best way to empower poor women economically and emotionally is to give them small loans to build businesses, grow food, or stabilize their families so they can build their earning power. Since the time that he developed this practice through his Grameen Bank, microfinance has “gone viral”. Its benefits to poor but proactive women are obvious: like Zelophehad’s daughters, they don’t just get hand outs from government or private sources, they get tools for taking care of themselves and their families in the dignified form of loans that they can pay back after making money. With increased earning power, their status in their villages and towns increases –thus bettering their lives with the men among whom they live. Its benefit to you and me, Western benefactors, is the incredibly small amount of invested –not donated- money it takes to help them. My family recently made a modest investment with Kiva, a major, reputable clearing house for microloans, to six entrepreneurs and business groups in Africa and Asia, many of whom are women or made up of women. Together with others around the world, we are lending them amounts, which to Westerners, are very low, but to them will make all the difference between chronic poverty and self subsistence. This kind of lending also gives them the ability to contribute to their nations’ emerging free market economies, something that can only make them stronger. Finally, in case this was not clear, microfinance is exactly what our teacher, Maimonides, was talking about when he taught that the highest level of Tzedakah is when you lend money or give a job to a needy person. By doing this, you are restoring his or her independent earning power and dignity.

One of the best things to do during these three weeks of contrition and sadness leading down to the Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning and fasting, is to do mitzvot that help others, thus contributing to the redemption of one small piece of the world. I strongly recommend that you think about the traditional mitzvah of microfinance as one way of making a difference in the world. and American Jewish World Service’s website at can tell you more about how to do this. The daughters of Zelophehad could easily have despaired themselves into a cycle of endless poverty and misery, following the death of the most powerful male in their lives. Instead they took a small but significant action, with God’s support, an action that provides us with an empowerment model for all people –women and men- throughout the world today. We have a positive role to play in helping the modern day daughters of Zelophehad. Let us do our best to play that role.