Sunday, June 22, 2014

Korach and Demagoguery

Korach and Demagoguery
           

            A few weeks ago, there were ceremonies commemorating D-DAY, the Beginning of the end of the battle against Hitler's Third Reich.
            However, if you ask the historians, and get beyond our own PR-- it was not the American and British forces that broke the backbone of Hitler's army, but the Red Army, which lost
20,000,000 Soviet soldiers to get rid of the pestilence, Hitler. 
            At this commemoration, the 70th anniversary, Putin, representing Russia was invited, probably to make up for a snub to the Russians 50 years ago when they were not invited.
            Then, the Russian government was peeved at not being involved in the celebrations, remember that this was shortly after the Soviet system had fallen and the Iron Curtain had come down.. Now, the Russian government was invited, and the irony is that new kind of curtain is going up around Russian and around territories along its borders.
            There was a good reason, though, not to commemorate the Russian participation at D-Day! We did commemorate the liberation on the western front, but not on the eastern front.
            In the aftermath of the war, the western front, from France to the Oder-Neisse line, was liberated, but the eastern front, from East Germany and  Czechoslovakia till Bulgaria, were finally liberated some 40 years later. Although those lands were freed of Hitler, they had, instead, Stalin and the Partia Lenina, Partia Stalina.
            I bring up this distinction not for the sake of historical triviality. It is to make it clear that to fight to destroy an enemy is not enough. What is crucial is what replaces that enemy--what kind of society is created.
            Demagoguery of the left, made in the name of class warfare and the proletariat, has proved little better than demagoguery of the right, made in the name of race or the State.
            As Jews, we should be especially suspicious of anyone who claims to possess the instant answers to society's ills. We have an insight into this from our Torah and Haftarah reading.    
            In our Torah reading, Korach makes claim to a share of the power of Moses, and, as a result, the earth opens up and swallows him and his company. We who live in Los Angeles are always aware of what Korah and his company must have experienced.
            There is a telling account in the Midrash, in which the wife of one of the would be rebels tells her husband, " What are you up in arms for. Now, that Moses is the leader, you are just a follower. However,  when Korah becomes the leader, you will still just be a follower."
            Indeed, Korach leader with the classic statement of the revolutionary:” For all the community is sacred and G-d is in their midst!”. Under Korach, all would be equal!      But the wife in this ancient Midrash understood the sub-context of Korach’s message.
            It is a telling variation of that line in George Orwell's Animal Farm, in which he describes the democracy of communists-"- All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."
            The nature of the demagogue- fascist, communist, arch-nationalist, religious militant- is to promise power to the powerless and wealth to the wealth less, and then, of course, to hog it all for himself.
            The Jewish reluctance to allow any one human being ultimate authority is stated eloquently in a Biblical tale, the parable of Yotham. It is in the time of the judges, when the children of Israel were a loose confederation of tribes, each under its own tribal leader. There are signs of the beginnings of consolidation of these tribes, especially in the face of foreign invaders, and we see the rise of strong political leaders who look to aggrandize their power
            Abimelech, the son of Gideon, convinced his fellow tribesmen  that it would be better to have one united ruler rather than divide power among his 70 brothers. The people agreed, whereupon, he set out to assassinate all but one of the brothers, Jotham, who managed to escape. The people gathered to make Abimelekh their king ( Judges 9) at which point Jotham challenged them with this tale:
“Once the trees went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king!’
“But the olive tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my oil, which is how God and humans are honored, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’
10 “So the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and be king over us!’
11 “The fig tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’
12 “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and be king over us!’
13 “But the vine replied to them, ‘Should I stop providing my wine that makes God and humans happy, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’
14 “Finally, all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘You come and be king over us!’
15 “And the thornbush replied to the trees, ‘If you’re acting faithfully in anointing me king over you, come and take shelter in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the thornbush and burn up the cedars of Lebanon.’
16 “ He wrapped up his speech:Let fire come out from Abimelech and burn up the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo and burn up Abimelech.”
            That is the summation of what brings people to leadership in a lawless society. Of course, Jotham had to escape for his life at that moment.
            In our Haftarah, Samuel, just a few generation later, acts as king-maker, yet he is full of misgivings.  Samuel is a charismatic leader, without an army behind him, who led the people of Israel to regain their lost lands. His power came only from the willingness of the people to listen to him as the spokesman for God.
            This is not enough. The people clamor for a hero, a savior, with the force of arms behind him, a king, melech, who will force them join together and lead them aganist their enemies by the power of the authority of his office, kechol hagoyim-Just like any other nation.  That desire for political power, national prestige, is , an act of rebellion against God.
            Samuel warns them--A king will merely take your sons and daughters to be your slaves, to serve him and to make war with them. The Jewish people, he teaches, can have only one king, which is God.
            Our Torah recognized the dangers of dictatorship. To the south was Egypt, run by a Pharaoh, a god, of absolute power, and to the North were the Mesopotamian empires, run by absolute monarchs, also designated as divinities.
            It is our Torah which established principles embodied in modern government:
            The ruler may not amass wealth, may not take the luxury of an unlimited harem, may not amass a military force for any purpose other than national defense and, above all, the leader is subject to a body of law. Some kind of ruler!
            It is the pagan wife of King Ahab who must teach her impotent husband how to expropriate property. “ Now you are going to act like a King of Israel,” as she proceeds to have the land owner tried and executed by a kangaroo court and the land taken over by eminent domain. That’s government in the Middle East, then , and today, and in much of the world!
            It is our Torah which is the first document that I know of to affirm the limits of power. 2000 years ago, the Jewish historian, Josephus, explained to his Roman readers these very concepts, and spoke of "division of powers" and "Check" by priesthood and by prophets. It is the very concept of checks and balances which, two thousand years later surfaced as our Constitutions principal of " Checks and balances".       
            If we have, set herein, the limits of power, we must also ask ourselves, to what purpose, to what goal should power, whether of the government, or society, be put. As I said, we celebrate D-D to affirm the values of our democratic society against dictatorship--but if we stand against, we must also stand for something.
            Again, throughout our Torah we have clear indications of the theme that should permeate our society.
            --Shoftim ve shotrim--we are told--you shall establish judges and executive officers in your towns and cities-- we are commanded to have a well functioning legal and courts system.
            Tsedek tsedek tirdof--Justice , justice shall you pursue. Literally, we have obligations to establish proper methods of testimony and  impartiality of the judges, as well as a system of appeals. Figuratively, our Rabbis taught that the pursuit of justice demanded that we seek to prevent injustice from taking place.   
            It is clear from the Torah, as well, that a just society had to establish a safety net, so that the poor would never be abandoned and so that all would have a chance to build up their lives. The Jewish ideal of social justice was to provide every one with the tools, skills, and means to become self-supporting and free of any need for a hand-out.
            Finally, as we look back to D- Day of 50 years ago, and to the sacrifices made to preserve this nation, we ask what goals we have as a nation.
            Can a society survive, for example, if its goal is only the pursuit of happiness?
            Judaism has its answer. To a great extent, American Christianity shares in that perspective.
            Happiness in life was found in a rich moral and spiritual life.
            Business in Jewish tradition was always with appreciation of the benefits and an awareness of the societal dangers.
            Judaism spurned the cult of violence and machismo which endangers so many.
            Jews and Judaism hold public education for values  a sacred responsibility.
            Finally, our sages looked at the quarrel of Korah and his company. Our sages loved quarrels and controversy. They never believed in a society in which all marched to the same drummer.
            They did question, however, the motives behind any controversy.
            " Any controversy which is for the sake of heaven-- for the sake of finding the truth, of finding out what is the good to be done--like the debates of Hillel and Shammai--such controversies are eternal.” Hillel and Shammai and their students continue debating to all eternity!
            " But any controversy which is not for the sake of heaven--the controversy of Korah, which was for self-aggrandizement and power alone-- such a controversy has no future." There is no debate-it is a bogus straw man, and as such, can never foster any further discussion.

            For our society--may it also be split, in dispute, in argumentation, in debate, all for the sake of heaven, so that we never be swallowed in the earth, but exist forever. Amen

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Look at the Benefits of Prostitution


A Look at the Benefits of Prostitution

We wonder if Jewish kids ever can go wrong-- or if troubled kids from the Hood can go right?
            Some years ago, some “ good” Jewish girls-- from middle, and upper middle income houses-- well to do—from the better side of the Valley-- hang around with gangs. It had gotten to the point that one of these Jewish girls, from a good house, drove her boyfriend, a gangbanger, as he drove in a mall parking lot to shoot and kill a Jewish boy who had said something to her about hanging out with such types.
            Good Jewish girls don't hang around such guys--or do they.
            Good kids, from supposedly good homes, do get in trouble-especially if the parents don't have a strong hand on who they are out with or what they are doing.
            On the other hand, and  there's always the other hand, the one who has had every thing go wrong in life, from the very beginning, and nevertheless , pulled his or her act together. Look at Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas-- I don't care if you like his politics or not--but you know, that with his childhood background, he should have been in some gang. Instead,  somebody at Yale decided that he was worth taking a risk with, and he made it to the highest court of the land.
            Our lesson is that we can never be very smug about our standing, nor look down the nose at those less fortunate.
   That is why our heroine of the Haftarah is such an engaging personality.
            This great woman was the heroine of the reading of our Haftarah, the famous Rachab, who helped the spies enter and escape from Jericho. She single-handedly delivered to the children of Israel their first conquest.
            Who was she, first of all, this mother of the great prophets?
            The Hebrew word to describe her is very unusual-- Rachab haZonah.
            If we look at the classical Jewish commentator, Rashi, he quotes  the Aramaic translation, the Targum Yonathan, and  described her as Pundakita--an  innkeeper, and he adds-she sells a variety of foods. She runs a Motel 6 with a MacDonalds, or a bed and breakfast. That's why the spies find her, and that’s why they stay with her. Rashi explains that  Zonah is from the word for food,  Mazon. Even our commentator, Rabbi Hertz, whose Humash we use, adopts this explanation. It may not be so far off. Perhaps one  of the oldest novels in history, the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating to the time before Abraham, talks of his discussions with a “ tavern-keeper”, perhaps  the ancient feminine equivalent of the modern  bar-tender to whomone opens one’s heart out.
            However, one of the commentators, Rabbi David Kimhi explains the Aramaic translation" Pundakita" as  a metaphor. She is like a hotel-she makes herself available to anyone who pays the bill! Therefore, a “zonah” is a “zonah”, a prostitute, “pshuto kemashmao”- the explanation is its simple meaning. Now, you have a better guess as to what the Hebrew word Zonah means. By the way, in contemporary Israeli usage, a surrogate mother  is referred to a “ rechem pundakit”, which we may translate as “ womb for rent.”
            Rashi, our great commentator, is embarrassed. He is writing his comments for his grandchildren, the einiklach, and he is embarrassed by what he reads-- So is Rabbi Hertz, who, writing in the beginning of this century, was still concerned for Victorian propriety. But the authors of the Bible were not embarrassed--they believed in  calling a spade a spade.
            This is very embarrassing. Our success depended on the conspiracy of a woman of ill repute with the spies Joshua sent.   The Talmud made the case even more embarrassing. The Rabbis declared: There was no prince or ruler who had not gone to visit Rachab the prostitute. (A High society call-girl!) She was ten at the time of the Exodus, and had worked for all the forty years that they wandered in the desert"
( Pesahim 115 b).
            So why is she such a hero, that later on the prophets themselves describe her descendants as models to be copied by the children of Israel?
            The same comment in the Talmud continues--at the age of 50 , she accepted Judaism, and declared --may I be forgiven for my past on account of the flax whereby I hid the spies and the rope by which they escaped."
            She went on, the legends say, to marry none other than  Joshua, and to be the ancestress of 8 prophets, among them, no less than Jeremiah himself. It is furthermore said, that whenever the Jewish people do God's will, the Holy One himself goes around the world seeking righteous people, like Rahab, to bring into the fold.
            The lesson, as all Jewish literature can attest, is “It is never too late”. Every human being can change.
            This account raises yet another question. How did Rahab get to be where she was, and what happened to the people who let it happen to her?
            She declares to the spies that the people had heard of the great wonders and triumphs of the children of Israel-- yet that itself is no a reason to betray her own city. Many peoples have been in lost-cause battles and fight yet harder.
            Look at her occupation.       
            Rachab hazonah--Rachab the prostitute, is engaged in the occupation of least repute. She sells herself, she is left without pride or dignity.
            Where does she live? She lives, our text tells us, on the city walls. Is it for the beautiful view of Jordan river and the mountains of Moab?  That's a modern desire. In antiquity, the poor people lived in the outskirts, surrounding the city, while the wealthy lived in the center. Jews, in Yemen, for example, were made to live on the outside perimeter of the city walls, not inside, where they might pollute the Moslem majority.
            In the cities of antiquity, the most vulnerable part of the city, the first part to be attacked in event of war, was the wall. It represents the outskirts of the society--the outer perimeter-- the first to be dumped and let go in time of shortage. It is intended as an indication of the degradation to which the society of Jericho had fallen, that there were such women who had to sell themselves in order to survive. Jericho is the world's oldest continually inhabited city, the oldest known city on the face of the earth, yet it could not properly care for its citizens. The grandeur of civilization was built upon the degradation of certain elements of its society.
            Is it any wonder that Rahab betrays her city. She has been forced to sell herself to the first bidder, constantly. She has been forced to live on the margins of her society. What does she owe her people, what does she owe her country – nothing!
            Is it any wonder that she helps those who would undo that world?
            The new society, to which she gave herself over, was to be the very opposite. The spies represented something new on the face of the earth--
            They stood for a society in which the well-to do were responsible for the security of those at risk-- A society which sought to instill new values, such as the values of the dignity of woman, not as an object to be used and discarded, to be placed on the wall, but as honored citizen, as center of the family and with it the establishing of the family as the centerpiece of society.( Deborah, in her famous Song, rains disdain upon the Canaanite mother of General Sisera who imagines her son capturing women, referred to as only “wombs”, to be divided as spoil, likes pieces of cloth.)
            It was also a new society that said that the poor may not be allowed to remain poor, that those who have help those who do not have. It was not a free for all society, it was not a society of winner take all, nor was the bottom line the rule of thumb. Torah spoke of rights of property combined with obligations and responsibilities that come with  property. It was not a  hand-out society, but a hands-up society.
            Of course, one can ask, of what interest is this to me? The walls of Jericho came tumbling down some 3000 years ago; the ruins are visible for tourists to see even today.
            The implications for contemporary society are obvious. We have one of the most successful societies in history, and we have probably lifted more people out of poverty, not only here, but world-wide, as a result of American energy and innovation.
            Nevertheless, much remains to be done, but to be done effectively.
            We know that much money has been pumped into projects that have gone no where. We also know, that much money, given out thoughtlessly, has supported an education system that thought more to protect incompetent teachers and not to protect the children who need solid education( Certainly that is what the courts have just determined in California!).We know government systems designed to protect our veterans have failed despite the money pumped in. We know that foreign aid has gone to line the pockets of dictators.
            Our problem is not wishing to do good. Our problem is not working out the system to do good so it works, so it is effective, so it uplifts instead of enables!The wish to do good needs to be matched by the achieving of good results. It must be effective, or it is all just an eye-wash to make us feel righteous about ourselves.
            One last thought-- if a Rahab, despite all that she has gone through, becomes the great heroine of our story, then what can we make of young people who have all the breaks, have all the material benefits, and despite that, get into trouble. After all, if a Rahab was a destitute prostitute gone straight, there is also the rich girl, born in comfort, who becomes the madame to the stars, like a Heidi Fleiss, a “good Jewish girl”. Children of the well-to-do become drug-addicts. Income is no guarantee of well-being.
            Moral preachings belong to the well-off. Success and wealth and good education are not enough. Those who have success and wealth and all the breaks in life, those who have it,  need  the moral preachings the most. As for the one’s stuck in the outer walls of the citadel, they need our help out of the walls.
Amen

            

Monday, June 16, 2014

AdvocacyHealsU: Courage of the Spirit









  • Jun 15, 2014 | 51 min
    As we celebrate Father's Day, we honor the true courage of a father whose struggles were timeless and whose spirit was breathtaking! In Courage of the Spirit, Rabbi Norbert Weinberg honors his father, Rabbi Dr. William Weinberg, who was imprisoned by the Nazis, escaped to the Soviet Union, and survived to become the first Chief Rabbi of the German State of Hesse. Along with his brother, their survival through the Holocaust was creative, courageous and a moment-to-moment struggle to stay alive! We can learn volumes about survival from Courage of the Spirit. A fascinating interview, detailing much of the books rich history! Joni live M-F at 2:00 p.m. ET on www.W4CS.com. www.JoniAldrich.com
Joni Aldrich on iHeartRADIO
<iframe width="398" height="224" src="https://www.iheart.com/widget/?showId=22958786&episodeId=26932481" frameborder="0"></iframe>

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Prophecy and other themes in the Portion of Behaalotecha

Prophecy and other themes in the Portion of  Behaalotecha   


There is a story told of a great preacher who comes to the middle of the town square, sets up his pulpit and begins preaching to the passersby.
            “ This is the word of the lord and I am his prophet.” He concludes after all his preaching is over.
            Most of the crowd has by now dispersed, except for a youngster staring at him. He turns to him and asks,” Please tell me, young man, what is the way to the train station.?”
            The kid looks at him and says, “ Mister, you ain’t no prophet. You don’t even know your way to the train station!”
There are several intriguing themes in this weeks reading, and , following on the heels of Shavuot, and the central theme of revelation, prophecy appears in a very unusual format in this reading.
            This reading starts out very dramatically and on a high note, or on a loud trumpet blast.
There is the final act of preparation of the portable Sanctuary and the last acts of dedication of Kohanim.  We are then given the orders to march and the trumpets blast to give orders to start. We are ready to march on to the Promised land.
And for the next several chapters, it is all downhill from this point!
The people complain and plague breaks out, They complain again  about food and they get too much food until they are sick. Moses appoints Seventy leaders, but two are left in camp, who begin to prophecy and Joshua now thinks it is a rebellion. Finally even Miriam and Aaron give Moses their share of complaining about his new wife, an Ethiopian. That is all only in this portion. We still have to deal with the spies and with the rebellion of Korach. Oh My!
            Up to the middle of this portion,at the end of Chapter 10. the Book of Numbers is all sweetness and light up to this point; from this moment on, it is 38 years of turmoil in the desert.
            Why the drastic  change?
            The verse that describes the start of the march mentions that the children of Israel march away from Sinai for three days before they take a rest. Three days—no stop.Why so fast? Why so far?
            What are they leaving? Mt Sinai. After two years, they want to get away as fast as possible. As they move away from Sinai, what do they recall ? The fish and leeks of Egypt.
            What does Egypt mean? Indulgence. Egypt is also, in Biblical imagery, a land of sexual indulgence--all is permitted. True, we were slaves, but we could do anything we wanted in our spare time.
            What do the children of Israel say of Egypt," We could eat Hinam--free of charge. " Could they mean literally “for free”? Afterall, they were slaves—they worked hard for their living. Rather, they meant, free of paying the price of  Torah, free of obligations, free to live without any bounds or rules.
            Mt Sinai is obligation, it is self-discipline. Is it any wonder that the children of Israel marched three days running without a break to get away?
            That is what a child does, when he is afraid of being caught by his parents.
            Now, a little aside. What marks this break. Just as the march begins, we are introduced to the words recited as the ark is moved forward in travel and then , as it is returned to the ark at the halt.
            “Vayehi binsoa haron”- when the ark moved forward read it and " Uvnucho yomar"-- when it comes to rest.
            These is a call to arms, and clearly, in ancient times, when the children of Israel went to war, they took the ark into battle with them- hence- vayafutzu oyvecha--may your enemies be scattered. In common practice, this is universal--that a model or representation of the gods is taken into battle.
            In antiquity, these were words of war. From antiquity onward, however, it has been used to accompany the Torah around the congregation. The battle is no longer one of swords, but one of spirit, the word of the Lord against the idolatry of society.
            Now, I want to draw your attention to one unusual note.
            To mark the text, we have 2 inverted nuns—נ נ  .  It is like a " parenthesis" . The Talmud informs us that these letters ( parasimana)  were placed here to indicate that this is not the original position of this verse. It is there to divide the two halves of the book of numbers, which are so different in tone.
            The Rabbis long ago suggested that our Sefer Torah did not include all of the wisdom of ancient Israel, that perhaps , instead of the Five Books of the Torah, we should speak of the Seven Books of the Torah. The book of Numbers and other books make reference to books lost to us--" Book of the wars of the Lord": or the Book of Yashar. This phrase, like several others recorded in the Bible , is a remnant of lost works of the children of Israel.
            So it is clear that we have here the true start of the book” Bamidbar”-in the Wilderness, the accounts of the actual; trek across the Sinai whereas up till now, it has been the Book of Numbers—counting and accounting , positioning and preparation. The inverted nuns served to highlight the break of the themes.
            Now as to my preacher in the very opening comments. Where does a prophet come in to this portion? 
             Moses sets aside 70 elders to held in leading the people. While he is with them, they are in a state of prophetic trance, which then ends as abruptly as it starts. Two others had not gotten to join with Moses at that time, yet they simultaneously begin to prophecy.   Joshua would have them arrested--they are potential rebels--but Moses declares, would that all the children of Israel were prophets so that the spirit of God rests on them.
            The 70 elders are prophets, but there are prophets, and then there are Prophets.
            The Bible describes different types of prophets.
            There is an ancient kind of prophet,  similar to the Shaman in other societies, or like an Oracle at Delphi, that enter into a trance and mumble strange predictions. They are often called “ Ecstatic” prophets, like these seventy, or like King Saul-- mumbling and dancing in a trance. They are in a state of ecstacy, but we have no content, no teaching , no moral or mystical message for the people. Very often, the word used in this regard is " Hitnabey" to put oneself into a state, in order to receive a prophecy.  These prophets appear in the very early periods of ancient Israel. That is what we had with the 70 elders, including the two outside. Moses wishes the people could all be like them ,but we see that Moses is very different—For them , the spirit of God appears and then, disappears. Moses is different.
            In the early years of the Kings of Israel, we have  Action-prophets-- types like Elijah, or Elisha. They are movers and shakers, they are involved with intrigue in the court, they make and break kings and priests, they engage in active battle against idolatry, they advise the  kings. However we know little of their message. There are short quotations of belief and faith, but their main stay is action. In this sense, Moses is the prophet of action, but he is more so.
            In none of these cases, however, is the prophet a fortune-teller. There is a different word used for what we think of as prophet, on who foretells the future or the unknown—that is  a “ Roeh”, one who sees.
            Finally, the prophets that we call our “Neviim” , come to replace the prophets of action. As the kingdoms mature and decline, we have the prophets as the teachers and thinkers of Israel, the prophets we call the “Literary prophets”. True, they feel a spirit resting on the them, true, they take action, but they are now, first and foremost, the teachers of Israel. They put down in writing their visions  and concepts. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the 12 , the lesser prophets, not because they were inferior, but  because their writings were much shorter. Each one is very different from the other and each one preaches according to his background and personality.
            Now, the last section comes to clarify why Moses is Moses.
            Miriam and Aaron complain to Moses about “a Kushite Woman”. It is unclear what it means and Moses is unnerved by the complaint. He has been bearing the burden of a nation of “kvetches” and now his own brother and sister let him have it  Moses is too modest and God must intervene.
            It is hear that we have a definition of Prophet in its highest format. To others, God may speak in a vision or a dream. Moses is “God’s faithful servant.: “ I speak to him person to person, not in visions, not in riddles. "We have a definition now, of the ultimate prophet who is in direct communion with God. We are now defining the teachings of Moses as the foundation of all the prophets and teachers to come.
            Now, I would like to ask, what has happened to the spirit of prophecy? The Rabbis defined it as ended with the Bible. In their day, the only prophets left were fools and children. Authority is now given to the teacher of wisdom and no one is to speak for God, not even if a voice calls out from heaven.
            However, there is a statement by Hillel, that now gives us the insight in to the idea of prophecy. He is asked a difficult question, and he answers, "Let us see what the people do. For if they are not themselves prophets, they are themselves  the descendants of the prophets."
               Being attuned to the will of God Is not something reserved for one or two, but an inheritance of the entire community of Israel.
            Our challenge for ourselves, as Jews today, is to ask ourselves, are we still the children of Prophets, are we still the community of vision that we at one time hoped to be?


Friday, June 6, 2014

Shavuot Your people is My people

Shavuot   Your people is My people

            Thirty-eight centuries ago, one pagan discovered the one God of the universe. He became the first Hebrew, and, we could call it the first convert to Judaism, before there were any Jews.
            Thirty- five centuries ago, his descendants, a rabble of slaves, fresh out of the idolatrous society of Egypt, stood at Sinai at this season, and as a group, entered the covenant with God. It was the first recorded case of a mass conversion to Judaism.
            Thirty centuries ago, an adventurous Jewish family man moved from Israel to seek his fortune in the neighboring country. His two sons married local women, and then disaster struck. Only his wife, with her two non-Jewish daughters-in-law survived the disaster. All was lost. One local woman stayed in her native country, but the other pagan widow decided to find a new home among her in-laws people. She made the first formal declaration of conversion of an individual:
            El asher teylchi aylech uvasher talini alin
     "Wherever you go, I go; wherever you live, I will live; your people are my people, and your God is my God. Wherever you die, I shall die, and there will I be buried. May God do so to me and more so, for only death will part me from you."
            Here, a non-Jewish woman had intermarried with a Jew, and, after her husband’s death, had made the choice to become a part of the Jewish people and teachings.
            This event is read, at this season, when we associate the choice of the entire children of Israel to accept Torah with the choice of the individual, the non-Jew, to accept the Torah.
            But that was then, and this is now. What do we have in our day? Who is making choices for Torah, for the teachings of Judaism.
What happens today, when a Jew and a non-Jew marry. Who says',Wherever you go, I will go.? Who even goes anywhere in a marriage today?
            Many years ago, my father was a Rabbi in a small town in West Virginia. Years before a young Jewish man  had come to the town and opened a jewelry shop on Yom Kippur day,
Le’hachis--to spite the rest of the Jewish community. He was liberal, he was independent, he had no obligations to an outmoded tradition.
            On top of that, he married a Catholic, a devout Catholic to boot.
            Could anyone guess how the story should end?
            The devout Catholic decided that since her husband was Jewish, her children should be Jewish, and not just Jewish, but as deeply Jewish as she could make them, no matter what her husband, the born Jew, might think. The two sons born to them were officially converted to Judaism by going to the mikveh, she saw to it that studied in Hebrew school and celebrated their Bar Mitzvah properly, and sent them to Israel for a summer while they were in high school.
            I lost track of them since then, but I have the feeling that today they have become very involved and committed Jews, despite a Jewish father, and thanks to a Catholic mother.
            I mention this, because our attention as Jews in America has been riveted in the last months to a survey on the exceptionally high rate of intermarriage that has struck the community. The rate has been around 50%, but among non-Orthodox Jews, that rate is close to three out of 4, which means that of 5 non-Orthodox Jews, 2 marry each other, while three go outside.
            What am I getting at? Do  I want to suggest, by my story, that the solution is for Jewish young men to meet devout Catholic women, who will see to it that the children are raised as Jews? Hardly.
            However, while the flood may be coming, it is not necessarily the end of the Jewish people. Nothing ever is, and we needn't and dare not throw our hands up in despair.
            Some time ago, a gentleman called me, very distraught about the results of this survey. He had just discovered that it was against Jewish law for a Jew to marry a non-Jew, and he had the ideal solution--if only we could announce to our children that it is against Jewish law, then none-of them would intermarry.
            I wish it were such an easy solution.
            If only I could go to a young Jewish man or woman and say, "Darling, what you are doing is against Jewish law," and thereby guarantee that they marry a Jew, I would be the very first. Unfortunately, I am afraid that the young man or woman in question would look back at me, and say, quizzically," What Jewish law?! I don't observe the law of Shabbat, of kashrut, of observance of festivals. I don't read Hebrew; I don't go to the synagogue, not on Shabbat, not on weekday, not even for a social event. What do I know about Jewish law, or life, or history, or belief, or tradition?!"
                        There is no question that most of what we are doing today is closing the gate after the horses have all left the barn. It is the price we are paying in the Jewish community for the style of life we live--we live as American, and even more so than the neighbor next door, and the neighbor next door no longer believes we have horns on our head. It is the price of living in an open society, but I know of no one who would like to go back to the ghettos as a solution.
            So what is it that we are to do? Shall we wring our hands in woe? I know that most of us here are no longer seeking to get married, nor even have children any more of marrying age. Many of us here do deal with children in mixed marriages, and we do seek ways to deal with grandchildren who may or may not be Jewish. What can we do?
            The same studies about the high rate of intermarriage also show us the ways to retain and to strengthen our flock, and see to it that our grandchildren and great grandchildren are Jewish. There are no air-tight solutions, but we can certainly better the odds.
            One way is through the synagogue--
            Every study shows that families that were affiliated with synagogues, families which showed their children that they cared about being Jews, had twice as good a chance to walk their children to the huppah in a Jewish wedding, than did non- affiliated Jews. Hand-in-hand with this goes quality Jewish education, starting from nursery school, through Hebrew school, or Jewish day school. Of exceptional importance, perhaps of even greater importance, is young adult Jewish education, after Bar Mitzvah-- through  continuing Jewish High School programs or private Jewish high schools, through youth activities, through Camps like Ramah or, for young adults, Hillel and Brandeis Bardin institutes, and probably the most intense but with impact, Birthright. trips.
            We know that today, the cost of being Jewish is high. Many of us, as grand-parents, or great-grandparents can, and many do, chip in, by helping the struggling younger generation pay for synagogue and for religious school, or day school, or for any of these programs. Could you imagine the impact it would make if you would give a Bar Mitzvah child a gift of an Israel Bond, and say, when you go to Israel to visit and study, you can cash it in to pay for the trip.
            Even more so, there is the value of home example. To the extent that the home life is warmly Jewish, actively Jewish, in which Shabbat is a special day, in which the festivals are celebrated distinctly--all this sinks in, and places its mark in the decision-making of our younger generation. Those of us who have the opportunity can host our grand-children, nephews, nieces for such special events, to share with them the atmosphere of Jewish life, which will further their decision to establish a Jewish household.
            There is always the reality that a young Jewish man or woman is eager to find a Jewish partner, but is still looking, and looking, and looking, even after all the Jewish singles programs and the online J-Date..
            Still, try as we may, even under the best of circumstances, a Jew finds his hearts choice in a non-Jew. It happens, and we cannot any more, sit shiva, as we once did. The answer is not to rush to perform a wedding at all costs, but to bring in the non-Jewish partner to the fold, with the wedding as a prize.
            I made mention of the conversion of Ruth. The Jewish people are descendants of individuals and nations who chose to be Jews, and we must do all that we can to encourage the outreach to willing and eager non-Jews. We are descendants of blond-haired Cossacks, Turkish Khazars, North African Berbers, Arabian Bedouin, Roman nobility, and just about everybody else in between. We know that there is no such thing as a Jewish race, even if many of us share common genetic markers, and that we are a composite of pagan peoples who chose, individually, or en mass, to embrace the Torah.
            There are exceptional opportunities in this area, for people we know, who are contemplating a marriage to a non- Jew, to say, do yourselves both a favor--learn what Judaism is, then make a mature and adult decision about what kind of household you will create, what kind of atmosphere you will raise your children in.
            Finally, we do recognize that for many, the die is cast, the marriage made, the children born. Do we then close the door? Never. The doors of the synagogue are open always, to all, Jew and gentile. We seek to strengthen the Jewish partner, make the non-Jewish partner take an interest in Judaism, and above all else, hope to bring the children within the fold of Judaism. The doors are never closed.

            We will do our share. This synagogue must be strengthened; it must enjoy your fullest support, your deepest personal commitment, so that it can create the activities and programming needed. Your children and grandchildren need your encouragement and support to choose to establish a warm and vibrant Jewish household. We can see to it that the next generation of Jews remains Jews. That is our challenge, that is our commitment to the future, And then we will say, to our ancestors, as well as to our descendants: Your people was, is, and will be my people. Your God was, is, and will be my God.

Bamidbar Do you know how a Jew takes a census?

Bamidbar    Do you know how a Jew takes a census? 
            Do you know how a Jew takes a census?     How do we count for a minyan, for example?
            The Torah commanded not to take a head count, except for the Torah readings that we have in this book of Bamidbar, Numbers. So how do we count?
            One was to take a phrase that had ten words in it-as you see the people, you say," Ashre- Yoshvey, Veyetecha, till you hit ten words.
            The other was even better--Nisht eyns, nisht zvey--Not one, not two, not three.
            Could you imagine the American Census bureau having to count--Nisht ztwei hundred und finfzig, million. I ‘rather go by % points= 10% 20% etc.
            In these opening chapters of Bamidbar and next weeks portion of Naso, we do more counting--, we are busy with counting. Literally, we count heads, and there is a lot to do in this portion with heads.
            Throughout the readings, we find a very special wording to describe the act of census taking. Not poked, not moneh not sofer-- none of the words to indicate counting, but" seu et Rosh kol adat bnay Yisrael" or “ Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel.”
            Seu however literally means " Lift up the head" and it truly has the connotation of uplifting and forgiveness.
            Why then, lift up the head. Why not a body count-- how about counting the right arm, or the left foot?
            Why the head?
            I am reminded of a very , very old joke. A sergeant is drilling his recruits, and he asks them," Private--why  never lose your head in combat?."
            " Because you wouldn't have a place to put your helmet."
            There is a comment by the Hasidic teacher, the Maggid of Koznitz--
            Among the children of Israel, its the head that counts. Other nations and civilizations may emphasize other parts of the body-- count the legs, for an athlete, count the waist size, for a model, count the arms, for a warrior- These are the parts that count in a society geared to force, to hedonism, to warfare. But for a Jewish society-- we count heads."
            It is well known that  fashion models have a tremendous impact on young teen age girls. These young people suffer tremendous anxiety and emotional pain, as they try to match the impossible dimensions of these femme fatales. What do we find in magazines about these models-- the dimensions of bust-waist-hips and heights of the models compared to real women, as well as the dollar amounts that these models earn.
            What are we counting? Every part of the body, except the head.
            You realize its a torture. To keep a perfect body, you have to starve it. On the other hand, to keep a perfect head, you feed it. Afterall, feed the body, and it gets overweight, clogged arteries, cholesterol, but if you feed the a brain facts, skills, emotional encouragement, moral values and ideals, esthetic stimulation,-- and lo and behold-- it grows better and better.
            It is the head, pointed in the right direction, that counts, far more than the muscles and physical strength.
            Who now is to be counted first? We start with the head of each clan.
            We are told," Ish rosh lebeyt abvotav hu"--
The man who is the head of his paternal household, he is the one.
            Now, who is a head? Who goes first?
            There is a story of two Jews who enter a synagogue in Jerusalem. Each one wants the honor of leading the services. One is an oleh hadash, a new comer to Israel, the other is a sabra, of the sixth generation.
            The sabra makes his demand:
            " Who are you to officiate! I am a sixth generation sabra, six generations in the land. I go first".
            The oleh Hadash replies:
            Yes, I am a newcomer,but I am the first one of a hundred generations yet to come who will live here. You represent the past, but I represent the future. Therefore, I should officiate."
            Of course, they turn to the Rabbi. The Rabbi then takes out his Bible, opens to the book of numbers, to this very phrase."
            "The man who is the head of his paternal household, he." Said the Rabbi : See here, the word "He" is superfluous. It has no function by itself. So it must mean, that each one of us is to become the founder of a household, each should become the head of a new generation. Therefore, the newcomer, the oleh hadash, who plans to start a new generation in Israel, he takes precedence over the veteran.
            What's the lesson? Each of us has to strive to become a head. We have to found and bequeath, not just receive and inherit. It may be wonderful to have a long list of distinguished ancestors-- to be of the First Families of Virginia, or of the descendants of the Mayflower--but what is important will be the accomplishments of the generations that follow .
            What else does it take to be " Rosh"-- the head.
            Again. looking at that sentence. The word " he"  is superfluous. The Rabbis suggested that it really must mean " He is the One", In other words, to be the ehad of the clan, that person ahs to be a leader through and through, inside, as well as outside.     Some years ago, the Olympic torch came through Los Angeles-- in fact, it ran right by our house- we couldn't miss it.
            It goes back to ancient Greek games, in which the runners raced to get to the finish line, carrying a lit torch. Now, the gimmick was not just to get to the goal at all costs--but to get to the goal with the torch still lit.
            This is just the opposite of that famous quotation, by the coach of the Green Bay Packers." Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing."
            How many people in positions of prominence do we know of, who are so eager to win, that they forget why they need to win. How many cases do we know for example, of reporters, exemplars of the truth, who invent news out of thin air. Report it as fact to get recognition—until eventuallythe truth let’s out.
            Therefore, the Rabbis reminded us," Who ever wishes to be first, to be the head, has to be the head all the way, tocho kevoro-- the inside as well as the outside--the internal qualities--as well as the superficials.
            What else does it it take to be a head, to be a leader.?
            We always talk of being" Forward looking". There were elections in Israel, we will have elections here soon, and always, always, the campaign is for someone" Forward Looking." But forward looking doesn't mean you'll end up getting to where you want to go.
            The Torah portion also describes the order of march of the children of Israel.  In the center of the camp is the Holy Ark,To the North Is Dan, to the south is Reuben, to the West is Ephraim, and to the East is Judah. East is the direction of March, from Egypt to Israel--you travel East. But Judah is described as
" Kedmah-mizraha" Camped on the east side, facing the sunrise". However, there are commentaries that suggest that it means==on the east side, facing backwards." There is a tradition that the children of Judah, and the neighboring tribes, Issachar and Zebulun, camped on the east side, and walked backwards as they went forwards.
             Afterall, they were in front of the Holy Ark--How could they turn their backs to God's word. So they marched forwards by walking backwards, never loosing sight of the reason they were marching.
            It sounds awkward, but have you ever watched a row-boat competition?. How do the rowers sit? Facing backwards in order to go forwards. You have to look back to remember why you go forwards.
            How do you drive a car-- Its is true, you sit facing forwards-but what do you do all the time--you look in the rear view mirror, because what's behind you, in the past--may suddenly be crashing into your future -- .
            That is why, as much as we need to be forward-marching, we need to do it with one eye on the past, so that we know why we are going forward. We need to know where we've been, in order to get where we are going.

            May we always keep our heads, use them well, be heads of new generations to come, and always keep one eye on the past while we move forwards. Amen.