Yehoshua and the Peaceful Transfer of Power: A Thought on Pinchas

In Pinchas, this week’s Torah portion, we see Moshe starting the process of transferring leadership to Yehoshua. There we read:

And the Lord answered Moshe, “Single out Yehoshua son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey.” ( Numbers 27:18-20)

Yehoshua’s assent to power is a clear juxtaposition to Pinchas who the Torah portion is names. Pinchas took power in his own hands when killing Zimri and Cozbi at the end of last week’s Torah portion. In comparison Yehoshua is eased into his role by Moshe. God instruct Moshe to invest in him his authority so that the people will start seeing him in the role of successor. It is hard to imagine trying to fill those shoes.

In thinking about I was reminded of part of this wonderful video that highlights the importance of being the first follower. Please watch:

As we see here, the leader needs to confer authority on the first follower as equals to start a movement. Moshe is clearly the leader of the Israelite people, but would it have been a movement that has lasted to today if it was not for that first follower?

Most of history has been plagued by violent transfers of leadership marked by Pinchas-like acts of aggression. One could even say that the health of a society can be measured by the peaceful transfer of power. Like Yehoshua John Adams, a remarkable political philosopher, served as the second President of the United States (1797-1801), after serving as the first Vice President under President George Washington. Our first president, George Washington chose not to try to be elected for a third term. Power is alluring. It take a huge strength to make room for others to grow into leadership, but ultimately it is for the best.

-See another post on followership and Nachshon here

 

Veggie Burgers: A Thought Experiment for the 17th of Tammuz

I wanted to share a thought exercise with you:

Think about a time you felt deeply connected to a community,cohort, or group. Why? What about the event or experience helped you feel connected?What were the elements or dynamics that made you feel like you belonged? Was it a large or small group experience? Did you have a long or short history with the other people in the group? Was it in your home or far away? Was it a place of comfort or did it push you beyond your comfort zone?

Think about a time in the last four months when  Covid-19 got real. What is the first time you missed out on an event or experience of connection? How did that feel? For me that moment was when we did not have Passover Seder with the extended family. That was the moment when I realized that something was broken and it was not going to be fixed any time soon.

Throughout the course of Jewish history Jerusalem has been our national connection hub. It is where we go to connect with our people, our history, and our God. Today was the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day in commemoration of the breaching of the wall that led to the destruction of 2nd temple in Jerusalem. This was the begining of the end. With the 17th of Tammuz we start the three weeks that reach its nadir with Tisha B’Av. Like this thought exercise it is a day to remember the moment when it got real.

While we will eventually get past Covid-19, our society is currently broken. The virtual world that many of us are working, learning, and living in seems to fall short. We do not know how to connect. Like the Rabbis before us who moved from Jerusalem to Yavneh, we need to explore new ways to connect meaningfully and create community. Instead of focusing on how we used to connect and commune and getting stuck, we need to examine why we connect and commune. We might not be able to do it the same way, but we might be able to meet our needs with new techniques. Who know’s we might even keep some of these new ways in our lives after Covid-19 has passed. Virtual gatherings will never be a substitute for in-person gatherings, but it might be enough. As I have been saying, ” Veggie burgers are not real burgers, but with the right fixins they are both delicious and nutritious.”

21 Delicious Veggie Burger Recipes | Cooking Light

Don’t Be an Ass: Chukat Balak and this Moment in History

In Chukat-Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak. There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. ( Numbers 22:2)

Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  But what is his name? Balak the son of Zippor- Balak the son of Bird. And of course this story of animals fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity. What do we make of all of this “parsha menagerie“?

To understand this we need to focus in on the story of the Bilaam’s donkey. In the story the donkey understood the Angel’s presence while Bilaam just did not understand. And Bilaam a prophet of God not only missed the Angel, but in the process also revealed his own ugly side by striking the donkey. The donkey is able to perceive the divine in ways that Bilaam is not initially able to perceive the divine in the Israelites. What happens to us when we do not see the divine in each other?

Balaam, the Ass, and the Irony of the LORD – naSlovensko

Well it seems that we are in the situation we are in this moment in history. This is the moment when people are not observing social distancing because it is perceived as more of an infringement of their rights than a protection of the vulnerable. It the pervasive and unchecked violence of police against black and brown people. It is the rising levels of antisemitism. We do not need perfection, but we must do better. We do not need to be angels, but we need to strive to see the divine in each and every person we come across in our path. If I do not, I am just being an ass. Don’t be an ass.

Black Lives Matter and Korach: Swallowed Whole by Racism

There is no excuse for one person to hurt let alone kill another, but I have to say that I am particularly outraged by police violence. Dealing with difficult situations is their job. I am not saying that it is an easy job, but that is what they signed up for when joining the police force and taking an oath to serve and protect. Mind you, if it was not for cell phones we would not even know about these situations. It is only recently that so many citizens have devices to keep an eye on the police who were supposed to be keeping an eye on us. Its makes you think about how deep the history of police violence has been.

And for us as a society not admitting that there are profound and deep issues around race is a problem. Seeing how this is compounded by issues about policing makes fixing these problems intractable. Confronting or avoiding the history of racism in this country seems to be played out in the tired volley between “Black Lives Matter”, “All Lives Matter”. and “Blue Lives Matter”. You do not need to be against police to want to see them do their jobs and make sure that black and brown men and women are not being targeted.

I have been reminded of these dueling slogans for too many years when reading Korach, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Now Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up in face of Moshe, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown; and they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aaron, and said unto them: ‘You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’ ( Numbers 16:1-3)

What does it mean when Korach says,”all the congregation are holy”? On this Rashi quotes Midrash Tanchuma to say that, “All of them heard [the] words [of the commandments] at Sinai from the mouth of the Almighty.” On the surface Korach is arguing that everyone should share power because they are all equal. While his words are noble, his actions are not. In reality he shows up with his posse to demand power for himself.

Like Korach, when people say “All Lives Matter” their language of equality is but a thin veil. While Korach was trying to get power for himself, people who say “All Lives Matter” are trying to preserve a racist status quo and keep power for themselves. If that was not the case the “All Lives Matter Movement” would be leading the protests against the police. Were not all of the Black people killed by the police in America also people? Did their lives not matter? Do you even remeber their names

I cannot imagine that the people who say “All Lives Matter” actually think that they are racists. It is too easy for us all to point our fingers at the bad apples in the police force or the leaders like Korach’s who overtly misuse their power. What is our responsibility? I often find myself going back to the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he wrote:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. ( Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963)

If we do nothing to dismantle the system of oppression we are part of the problem. As a white person I must accept my responsibility that other people are being hurt to maintain a status quo to support my life. So lets just say “Black Lives Matter”. It does not mean that their lives are the only things that matter, but it gives voice to the fact that we need to change our racist system. I do believe that words matter too, but in the end we will be judged on our actions. Sadly I have been writing the same blog post on Korach since 2016. When will be learn? Let’s choose to be on the right side of history. I am afraid that if we do not deal with these issues the violence will swallow us whole like Korach.

2017 version of this blog 

2016 version of this blog

Juneteenth: Between Revelation and Relevance

One of my favorite mishnayot in Perkei Avot starts:

Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi said: every day a bat kol (a heavenly voice) goes forth from Mount Horev (Sinai)… ( Avot 6:2)

Surely Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi believed that there was an event of transmission of the Torah at Sinai. If it was a singular event, what did he mean? Is it the a same message going out from the Mount Horev radio tower on the daily or does that message change? If it does changes did he think that that revelation at Sinai was incomplete?  What are the implications of a daily progressive notion of revelation?

Radio Tower PNG Images, Free Transparent Radio Tower Download ...

This idea seems to be connected to the teaching of Ben Bag Bag who taught:

Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein. And look into it; And become gray and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it. (Avot 5:22)

There was an event of revelation and there is an additional mandate to help that message go forth and be turned into something that is relevant.  This work is not reserved for one period in our lives.  This is a daily practice that is year-round and life-long. While the Torah might have gone out at Sinai centuries ago, it is our work to make sure it is heard every day.

I was thinking about this today on Juneteenth. On June 19th we commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the US. The holiday was first celebrated in Texas, where on that date in 1865, in the aftermath of the Civil War, slaves were declared free under the terms of the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. While that day was a revelation of a truth that we are all free and equal, it is clear that our society is still not living up to this promise of treating people equally. It has been 155 years and there is still much work for us to do every day to ensure that we are all living up to this truth. What do we need to turn and turn again in our society to uproot systemic racism? There is still so much work to be done to reform our police force that targets people of color. We still have so much work for do to deal with bias at every level of our society.

I am not sure what we need to do, but I know that we need to do more. I do want to offer one insight from Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi. In the same mishna he taught:

And it says, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not harut [‘graven’] but herut [ ‘freedom’].( Avot 6:2)

Even when it is written in the law – harut that we are all free, there is still a lot of work to do to make sure we are actually all free- herut . We cannot hide behind the law, we need to do the daily work of making sure that we are living up to our aspiration and that all of us are safe and free. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

The revelation of freedom is incomplete until we all treat each other with respect and dignity.

FOMO, Family, and the Question of Pesach Sheni

On the first anniversary of Passover — one year after the Exodus from Egypt  — the people were instructed to offer the Paschal Lamb sacrifice as they did in Egypt. This  plan did not work out for everyone. Since some of the people were doing the holy work of dealing with the dead they had come into contact with human corpses, were ritually impure, and could not participate in this rite. As we read in Behalotecha, this week’s Torah portion :

Appearing that same day before Moshe and Aaron, those men said to them, “Unclean  by reason of a corpse, why must we be denied from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” (Numbers 9:6-7)

Moshe asked them to wait while he asked God for the answer for their query. God’s response is Pesach Sheni. This Friday is the day when those that were left out of the communal experience of Passover are invited back for a do-over.

We jump from their question right to God’s answer: these Israelites were allowed to offer the Paschal Lamb sacrifice a month later. What the story doesn’t explore, however, are what motivated them to approach Moshe and Aaron with their question in the first place. What were their emotions while waiting for an answer? Surely, it must have been painful for them to be denied this central communal experience. These Israelites were “essential workers” who were caring for their community. They were being excluded and clearly yearned to be part of the group.  It could be argued that this was the original case of FOMO  (fear of missing out).

Experiencing 'Data Fomo'? - Appsee - Medium

The theme of “yearning” has always been poignant to me, and seems to take on particular resonance this year. Many of our children feel this sense of yearning right now after hearing that their camp will not or might not run this summer. And even though we know that someday this pandemic will pass and we can return, it doesn’t mitigate the sense of loss we are experiencing in this moment. On a personal level my mother has not seen any of her 4 children or 14 grandchildren in over 3 months. We yearn to be together.

When my father passed away, I read many books on grief and loss. One quote that has stuck with me comes from Martin Prechtel’s The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise. He writes:

Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.

Before we run ahead to meet the demands of the day — and we will —  let’s reflect on this praise for what we miss. Our campers and staff members who will be stuck at home feel homeless without camp. I still do not know when my family will be back together.

In a poem about Israel, Yehuda HaLevi, the 12th Century Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher, wrote, “ My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west”. Similarly our teens who were going to go to Israel- long for a homeland thousand of miles away where they have never been. They are  yearning to be part of Jewish Life.  This crisis has been unsettling, but the tribute being paid to the places and people we call home is a foundation upon which to build. We will figure out  our do-over to reconvene as a community and as a family, but today on the answer of Pesach Sheni let’s honor the question. Let’s honor our yearning.

-similar cross-posted at FJC Blog

All That Breathes: Language of the Unheard

These last few month with COVID-19 things have been bad, but recently we reached a new low. The tragic murder of George Floyd has brought into focus the systemic racism in our society. And his last words have been resonating for many of us:

George Floyd: Liam Payne shares 'I can't breathe' quote after his ...

COVID-19 and the protests have come together in the expression of not being able to breathe. Seen here are two of thousands of people with masks to protect them from COVID-19 expressing outrage for a government and police force that is not there to protect them:

George Floyd protests reveal racism in coronavirus and police ...

I found myself thinking about this breathe and I found myself reading Psalms found in the liturgy. There we see:

Hallelujah. Praise God in God’s sanctuary; praise God in the sky, God’s stronghold. Praise God for God’s mighty acts; praise God for God’s exceeding greatness. Praise God with blasts of the horn; praise God with harp and lyre.Praise God with timbrel and dance; praise God with lute and pipe. Praise God with resounding cymbals; praise God with loud-clashing cymbals. Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah. (Psalms 150)

At first glance I noticed that the symphony being described as all families of instruments represented. On this Psalm Saint Augustine (354 –430 CE) commented:

The breath is employed in blowing the trumpet; the fingers are used in striking the strings of the psaltery and the harp; the whole hand is exerted in beating the timbrel; the feet move in the dance

This Psalm gives voice to every dimension of the human experience. This comes to a head in the end when it describes human beings as that that breathe. We are beyond animals because we use that breathe to praise God. This Psalm reciprocates the creation of Adam in Eden. There we read:

The Lord God formed human from the dust of the earth. God blew into their nostrils the breath of life, and human became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

Breathing is the essence of what it means to be human. The tragic snuffing out of George Floyd’s breathe reminds us that there are many in our society who have been stripped of their rights and do not have a voice in society.

We are all reminded of the holy words of Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) who said that, “Someone else’s physical needs are my spiritual responsibility.” We are spiritually driven to secure the safety, voice, and opportunity of “all that breathes.”

We cannot dismiss the voices of those that are responding in rage to this senseless killing. We are reminded of the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr who said:

Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

We must all do what we can to amplify the voices of the unheard to make sure that we have “social justice and progress”. It is only at that time when we will live out the words of Psalms and enjoy the rich symphony of humanity in praise of God.

The Wholehearted Hurt of Revelation: Nine Inch Nails, Johnny Cash, and Rava

Recently I had a chance to teach a class for the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s S’more Learning: A Campy Pre-Shavuot Celebration. It was a great event. We have a great team. Noting the COVID-19 pall that has fallen over us this year I wanted to give some voice to the anguish and sadness that many of us are experiencing. I wanted to share with you a taste of that class.

During this time of extended social isolation I keep finding myself listening to Johnny Cash‘s 2002 cover of Michael Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nail‘s song Hurt. Enjoy this video:

 

There is a lot of emotion in this song. While it might have originally been a lament of drug addiction and depression, Cash’s rendition seems like a painful retrospective of a long life. One line that I have been mulling over is:

I hurt myself today

To see if I still feel

I focus on the pain

The only thing that’s real ( Hurt, NIN 1994)

While I hope no one wants to hurt themselves, I think many of us can relate to experience of feeling numb after weeks of sheltering in place.

I was thinking about this image when reviewing a Gemara in Shabbat that discusses what happened on Shavuot at Sinai. The Israelites receive the Torah with the words  Na’aseh V’nishmah- we said “We will do” before “We will hear”. In the Talmud our merit is our belief and conviction coming before our discernment and understanding. It is in this context that we learn a strange story about Rava. There we learn:

The Gemara relates that a heretic saw that Rava was immersed in studying halakhaand his fingers were beneath his leg and he was squeezing them, and his fingers were spurting blood. Rava did not notice that he was bleeding because he was engrossed in study. The heretic said to Rava: You impulsive nation, who accorded precedence to your mouths over your ears. You still bear your impulsiveness, as you act without thinking. You should listen first. Then, if you are capable of fulfilling the commands, accept them. And if not, do not accept them. He said to him: About us, who proceed wholeheartedly and with integrity, it is written: “The integrity of the upright will guide them” (Proverbs 11:3) ( Shabbat 88a-b)

Like the song Hurt we see Rava injuring himself. In this context the heretic seems very reasonable. Why would anyone want to hurt themselves?

I have no interest in defending Rava, Nine In Nails, or Johnny Cash, but I do want to understand this urge to experience reality through an exploration of grief and pain. I have many thoughts here but for now I just want to offer one word alluded to in Rava’s response to the heretic- wholeheartedness.

As Brené Brown, my Vulnerability Rebbe, writes:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

The risk of revelation is that we will be forced to confront the darkness. If we are brave enough to explore this we will be blessed to share the infinite light. One of the lessons of Shavuot is that if we can get in touch with the hurt, we can wholeheartedly experience the joy.

-For full class check the source sheet

 

Sheltering in Place: COVID-19 as a Time of Sukkot

As we start reading the book of Numbers- Bamidbar, Hebrew for “In the Wilderness”, I wonder where I am in my wandering. Like every other year I find myself pondering the Midrash where we learn, ” There are three ways to acquire Torah, with fire, with water, and with wilderness.” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:1). The midrash could be understood to mean that we acquire Torah through passion (fire), immersion (water), and through a long trek in unknown land (the wilderness). For decades this has validated my understanding of camps and travel experiences as the best ways to acquire Torah. But with the advent of COVID-19 and many camps not being able to open up this summer, we find ourselves in a new unknown land. In this new situation we are all sheltering in place spending hours connected to our computer screens. How are we acquiring Torah in this new wilderness?

This gives me pause to think about where we are in history at this moment. For most of us who are not working on the front line of COVID- 19 we are out of harms way at home, but we are still not out of the woods. We are in the space between averting risk and still not totally free. We are reliving our time in the wilderness having left Egypt but not made it yet to the Promised Land. In spirit we are reliving the time of sukkot. About this time we read:

You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

The porous structure of the sukkah speaks to our vulnerable state of being during this period of time between unknown and known. The sukkah is both a time and the location for sheltering in place.

On Beacon, NY's Main Street, a sukkah turns townhall | The Times ...

But what was the original structure of the sukkot? About this we learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b)

Both Rabbis assumed that this was time of connected with God, but were the sukkot divine and virtual according to Rabbi Eliezer or real sukkot according to Rabbi Akiva? Both Rabbis celebrated sukkot in real sukkot, so what was the difference?

Our COVID-19 social distancing reality has made us aware that we actually want to connect.   When this started I doubted it possible to connect in a deep way virtually through a computer screen. Being forced to engage with each other in the cloud of the internet seemed forced and inauthentic. After having to move two in-person conferences online I can say it works. It might not be what we wanted but it is much more then we expected. In this timely and timeless moment of Sukkot we are all vulnerable and open.  The virtual can itself be real if we are open to making the connection. Torah can be acquired if we use a new pedagogue for this new wilderness. As we shelter in place we realize that we are in a time of sukkot  in which Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva are actually agreeing. The cloud based connection can be a safe alternative to make real connections.

A Different Kind of Shmitah

With the advent of COVID-19 and the shelter in place regulations we have not driven our family van. At the start I realized that we had a flat tire and eventually switched it out for a doughnut, but still the car has not moved in 9 weeks.

This whole existence has caused a forced Shmitah of sorts. As we read in this week’s Torah portion, Behar Bechukotai:

God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

On one hand I have never worked this hard in my life, on the other hand this unique 9 week period has been a prolonged period of “complete rest”. Our car’s idle state represents our staying in one place. This has been a blessing of a prolonged family Shabbat.

On our Torah portion Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  What is so special about a “complete rest”?

While on Passover we were slaves, by the time we reach Shavuot we ascended to the level to receive the Torah at Har Sinai. When we were slaves were bound by our masters to work in their land and not move. While we were traveling around in the desert as refugees it was hard to forget that we were a band of lowly liberated slaves. It is Gods world and we were just drifting through it.  Eventually we will be in the Land of Israel and again sedentary working our own land. Even if we are unsettled at this moment, the laws of Shmitah are here by Har Sinai to remind us of our humble beginnings as slaves and to point us to a wonderful autonomous future. In many ways this flat tire is doing a similar thing. It reminds me that even if everything is crazy now, I am safe, with the people I love, and there is a future when everything will settle down.


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