At the Confluence of Rosh Chodesh Tevet and Winter Solstice

Each year, we begin the celebration of Chanukah, our “Festival of Light,” late in the Hebrew month of Kislev. Despite the fact that Chanukah hops anywhere from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar (resulting in “Thanksgivukah” several years ago, and ensuring that many years see the overlapping of the 8 nights of Chanukah and the 12 days of Christmas), Chanukah always commences on כה׳ כסלו ~ the 25th of Kislev. Since our Hebrew months follow lunar cycles and are never more than 30 days, this means that Chanukah straddles two Hebrew months each year (the only Jewish holiday to do so). Rosh Chodesh Tevet always occurs during one of the final days of Chanukah. 

Tevet also includes the winter solstice for the Northern Hemisphere, this year on December 21st, when the sun will pass directly over theTropic of Capricorn, or 23.5° south latitude.  As we learn as children, the tilt of the Earth on its axis means less exposure to direct sunlight over the course of the days between September and March. This gives us our seasons and also allows many of us to understand, deep in our bodies and consciousness why bears hibernate in the cold, dark months of winter.

Our Jewish teachings gives many explanations for kindling light on Chanukah. We sing about bringing light to the darkness. Our wisdom tradition often uses darkness as a metaphor for ignorance and evil, fear and faithlessness, despair and anguish as do many others (Christianity, Islam, Taoism, to name only a few). And, we also know that we live in a world that is too complex and nuances to utilize dualistic thinking. Thespiritual guidance of the ages and today encourages us to consider positive attributes of darkness as well. 

As we conclude the celebration of Chanukah (which means dedication), transitioning from nights of bright chanukah candles illuminating our windows to the darkness of the new moon and winter solstice, consider dedicating some time to appreciating the darkness. For we know that the darkness of the womb gives life protection, sustenance, and time to grow. And it is the cold darkness of the ground that allows bulbs, tubers, and other plant matter to rest and restore the energy needed to burst forth again each Spring. It is in the darkness that we see the glorious array of stars. And it is beneath our soft, warm winter blankets, and even beneath the metaphorical blanket of sadness or depression, that we find within ourselves the permission to rest and renew ourselves so we can once again bring our unique energy to the world. 

Artwork of Susan Seddon-Boulet

The month of Tevet is followed by Sh’vat, the month when we celebrate the new year of the trees. This month, the seeds are resting; we will celebrate the initiation of their energy rising again on Tu b’Sh’vat (the 15th of Sh’vat). Inside each one of us is potential, resting in darkness; we nurture there the creativity and imagination and instincts that arise within us and are birthed into the world.

Take a few moments in these nights just after Chanukah, to gaze at the night sky. May you find, in the darkness of the sky, the distant stars, and the sliver of waxing moon, something that connects you to that which is beyond the daily tsuris (Yiddish word meaning troubles, worries, aggravation, woes, suffering, grief or heartache, and which comes from the Hebrew word tzara (צרה)- trouble, tragedy, calamity). May you find nourishment in the cold, dark nights of early Tevet, inspiration that transports you beyond the ugliness of politics and greed and incivility. May you find there a connection to that which is beyond our knowing, beyond our finitude, beyond … and may that darkness bring you hope, peace, and cultivation of potential.

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Human Rights Shabbat – Holy Chutzpah

This Shabbat (Dec. 8-9) precedes both International Human Rights Day (Dec. 10) and Chanukah (beginning Tuesday, Dec. 12). To honor this global holiday, Jewishly, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb offers this d’var Torah on the week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayeshev, by viewing the familiar sacred stories of B’reishit, through a human rights lens.

Join our Little Minyan Kehillah this Erev Shabbat, Friday, December 8th, 7:30 p.m., in the sanctuary of our friends at Columbus Mennonite Church (a sanctuary congregation), for a music- and light-filled  Human Rights Shabbat service.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document of great foresight and significance. T’ruah first encouraged the celebration of Human Rights Shabbat a decade ago, inspiring a key annual tradition in synagogues like ours. We feel both deeply Jewish and eminently human when we place the modern UDHR and ancient Torah side-by-side, and redouble our commitment to those globally-acknowledged inalienable rights.

Our parshah this week, Vayeshev, offers many opportunities to lay these two grounding texts side-by-side. We’ll focus on Tamar, in Genesis 38, just after Joseph is sold into slavery.

In the generation of Jacob’s twelve sons, Tamar and Dinah are the only women given narrative roles. Women’s exclusion from society or history is itself a human rights issue, from Torah to today. Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney notes that the names of other daughters of Jacob “are never called, nor are their numbers verified, but they are acknowledged in Genesis 37:35; 46:7; and 46:15.” Exodus opens with “these are the names,” but no: “These are not all the names” (Womanist Midrash, 2017, p. 87). Compare that exclusion with the Declaration’s Article 2 – “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms” herein, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex…” We must work together to enfranchise women, and everyone.

In Vayeshev, Tamar enfranchises herself, with ‘holy chutzpah.’ She marries Judah’s oldest son, Er, who later dies; so does his brother, Onan, who “spilled his seed.” Though the Bible seems to censure Onan’s unwillingness to father a child in the name of his deceased older brother, too many people derive a broader lesson and associate divine displeasure with contraception—making access to family planning a human rights issue of our own day.

Reluctant to let Tamar couple with his youngest son Shelach, Judah keeps her as an agunah, ‘chained woman,’ neither married nor free to remarry (contra UDHR Article 16: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation…have the right to marry and to found a family”). Seeing this, she dons a prostitute’s clothing and sleeps with her father-in-law Judah, keeping as pledge his staff and seal.“

About three months later, Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result is now pregnant.’ Judah said, ‘Bring her out and have her burned to death’” (Gen. 38:24; compare UDHR Article 25, “Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance”). Judgmental male control over female sexuality, too, remains a challenge today—not just in developing nations or isolated places, but with politicians, celebrities, and ‘ordinary’ men who objectify and abuse the women around them.

Tamar asserts her own agency by sending Judah a message—haker na, “acknowledge, please, whose seal, cord and staff these are?” Judah and his brothers had just deceived Jacob with the same formula (37:32): “acknowledge please, is this your son [Joseph’s technicolor] coat, or not?” This time Judah admits, “tzadkah mimeni, she’s more righteous than me.” Tamar gives birth to Peretz, ancestor of Boaz, who with Ruth becomes ancestor of David (and the messianic line).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (with outsize contributions from Jewish human rights lawyer and Nuremburg adviser Raphael Lemkin) came about just after the Holocaust, which underscored our need to always be upstanders, not bystanders. The same goes today, as necessary memes like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter remind us. Society’s enduring toxicity for women requires men to step up. Those who enjoy White privilege are duty-bound to dismantle racism. Straight, cis-gendered people must advocate on behalf of all LGBTQ people. This is the ongoing call of both Torah and human rights.

Truah’s Human Rights Shabbat text for this year, recalling how the rabbis of old turned Chanukah’s martial struggles into religious ones, cites the Sefat Emet (Shemini, 5641): “through hallowing ourselves in this world, and standing strong against wicked [individual] people and [social-political-macro] forces of evil, we can extend the flow of holiness in this world.”

T’ruah urges us to bring that “intersection of activism and holiness” into our day, as well, by sharing that synthesis with those around us, and with our communities. As a ten-time Human Rights Shabbat participant, I assure you, that intersection is always meaningful.

This Shabbat, this Chanukah, and always, let’s unite holiness and activism.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb serves Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD. He is chairperson of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and on the board of Interfaith Power and Light. 

In collaboration with T’ruah (of which rabbi Jessica has long been an active member) and other congregations around North America, the Little Minyan Kehillah annually host this meaningful service and actively engages with local and national human rights and social justice issues daily as intrinsic to what it means to be a vibrant Jewish community.

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Marking the Sacred and the Ordinary ~ The Cyclical Nature of Jewish Time

This gallery contains 6 photos.

This post was inspired by the first (5776), second (5777) and third (5778) editions of MISAVIV Hebrew Circular Calendar by deuteronomy press. You can purchase this beautiful 5778 calendar from the Little Minyan Kehillah; contact littleminyan@ for more information.  The … Continue reading

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Biennial S’lichot Coffeehouse with Bill Cohen and Many Jewish Songwriters/Musicians you also know and love …

On Sunday, September 10th (the 19th of Elul), we began the last full week of the waning year of 5777. As Shabbat ends this week, we will celebrate Havdalah and bring in Leil S’lichot – a Night of Penitent Prayers that … Continue reading

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Preparing for a New Year ~ 5778 ~ with the Little Minyan Kehilla

You don’t need a ticket, an invitation, or even clarity of purpose … just an open heart and mind … join us and see. Click HERE for more information.

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Psalm 27 ~ a Bridge Between Confidence and Despair

During the Hebrew month of Elul ~ the last cycle of the moon before we enter a new year through the gates of the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) ~ Jewish practice is to do cheshbon ha’nefesh (a soul accounting). This opportunity is accompanied by twin kavannot (intentions) of loving self-compassion and exacting self-review. We are to carefully consider how we have spent the past year and determine which things we wish to change about our behavior, ways we intend to seek forgiveness from people we have wronged, how we will recalibrate and chart our course in life so as to align with the Sacred within and around us.

It is also a part of our mystical tradition that the Source of Blessing is very close at this time of year, as we prepare for these Days of Awe with critical analysis of who we have become and who we wish to be. “The King is in the Field,” according to tradition, a reference to ancient custom when a monarch approached a city and was greeted with pomp and ceremony once within the city walls, but when “in the field” was accessible and approachable by the common folk.

Each day of the month of Elul, our ancient wisdom tradition instructs us to sound the shofar ~ the piercing ancient sound of the ram’s horn that calls to a primal and soul-deep part of our being. And each day of Elul and through the Yamim Nora’im, we read Psalm 27. Rabbi Edward Feld, in his book, Joy, Despair, and Hope Reading Psalms describes Psalm 27 as “a bridge, forming an arc between confidence and despair.”

Recently I was asked by Faith In Public Life, a strategy center for the faith community advancing faith in the public square as a powerful force for justice, compassion and the common good, to share words of inspiration and and encouragement for people “doing the work” and feeling weary. FPL has been a wonderful convener of clergy here in central Ohio ~ bringing us together for monthly breakfasts to learn and strategize about important local and national issues like better cultural awareness and sensitivity and other training for law enforcement and sanctuary for long-time residents who face deportation.  

This has been a difficult year, as an American, to remain positive and energized in the face of anger, apathy, antipathy, and repeated assaults on the human bodies of the most vulnerable among us and on the ideologies of social and environmental justice. How do we keep doing the long hard work when it feels that strong forces are trying to bend back that arc of the moral universe we trust bends toward justice? We dig deep into our faith and wisdom traditions and those of our neighbors, colleagues, friends. We hold each other’s backs and stand beside the stranger to offer encouragement. And we pursue justice with courage and determination.

Below is an interpretive English translation of Psalm 27 by my rebbe (spiritual teacher), Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l (of blessed memory):

YaH, you are my Light, my Savior,
whom need I dread?
YaH, with You as my strong Protector
who can make me panic?
When hateful bullies gang up on me,
wanting to harass me,
to oppress and terrorize me —
they are the ones who stumble and fall.

Even if a gang surrounds me,
my heart is not weakened;
if a battle is joined around me
my trust in You is firm.
Only one thing do I ask of You, YaH,
just this alone do I seek:
I want to be at home with You, YaH,
All the days of my life;
I want to delight in seeing You,
when I come to visit You
in Your Temple.

You hide me in Your succah*
on a foul day;
You conceal me unseen in Your tent
and also raise me beyond
anyone’s reach.
And now, as You have held my head high,
despite the presence
of my powerful foes,
I prepare to celebrate and thrill,
singing and making music
to You, YaH!

Listen, YaH, to the sound of my cry
and, being kind, answer me.
My heart has said:
I turn to You,
Your Presence is what I beg for;
don’t hide Your Face from me.
Don’t just put me down,
You, who have been my Helper,
don’t abandon me, don’t forsake me,
God, my support.
Though father and mother have left me
You, YaH, will hold me securely.

Please teach me Your way
And guide me on the straight path;
discourage those who defame me,
False witnesses stood up against me,
belching out violence.
don’t let me become
the victim of my foes.

[I would not have survived]
If I had not hoped that I would yet see
YaH’s goodness fully alive on Earth.
So, friend, you too, hope to YaH.
Be sturdy!
And make strong your heart!
And most of all — keep hoping to YaH.
* harvest booth

Posted in ALEPH, Calendar, Hagim/Holidays, Human Rights, Liturgy, Reb Zalman, Spiritual Seeking, Tikkun Olam, Torah | Leave a comment

Wake Up. And Stay Awake.

These are the words of Hazzan Jessi Roemer, dear friend of LMKehilla’s Spiritual Leader Jessica Shimberg and are shared with the author’s express permission and blessings for a Sweet Shabbes. The photo is also that of the author who spent time this year in New Zealand with Bob the Rooster. She is also an amazing songwriter and her work can be heard and purchased (after Shabbat) here.

Wake up. And stay awake.

This is the unified command in both this week’s texts.

Since Tisha B’Av, our prophets in the Haftarah have been comforting us – “nahamu, nahamu, ami” (“comfort, comfort my people”) – as we remember the destruction of our ancient Temple and re-mourn the long-ago exile of our leaders. The prophets have been singing to us of a redemptive future, gently promising our shattered people that we will gain a new foundation covered in precious gems, and assuring us that our grandchildren will know peace.

And while there are still two more weeks of consolation coming in the Haftarah, this week is different from those previous: We are encouraged to rise from our mourning, to wake up and shake off the stupor of despair. It is from this week’s Haftarah that the Kabbalist poet Elazar ben Moshe Azikri borrowed the most rousing phrases for his Shabbat poem, “Lecha Dodi”: “Hitoreri, hitoreri” – “Wake up, wake up!” – “Uri Uri” – “Awake, awake” – “Livshi bigdei tifartech” – “Put on your robes of majesty” – “Hitna’ari Me’afar Kumi” – “Shake off the dust and get up!”

The message? Five weeks out from Tisha B’Av, it is time to rise from mourning and exile, to re-join the world of moral responsibility. Isaiah exhorts us: “Sovevu, sovevu, tzu mi sham” (“Turn around, turn around; depart from there”); “Do not touch impurity. Keep pure as you depart from there.” A second Exodus is imminent, he implies, and if we can get with the program, this time we will not leave the land of our oppressors in haste or in flight, but rather with God marching in front of us and guarding our back. It is time to wake up and re-join the living.

This week’s partner Torah portion, Shoftim, also heralds a new coming into consciousness for the People Israel. While the Haftarah has us emerging from a period of mourning and spiritual slumber after the Temple’s destruction, Shoftim telescopes us backward in time to a moment toward the end of our wandering in the desert, just before we are about to enter the land where the Temple will eventually be built. From his deathbed outside the land of Canaan, Moshe is instructing the people how to go about building a civil society once they are settled in one place.

The theme in this portion? Wake up. Act right. Don’t let anyone fall morally asleep — individuals (including, it is specified, non-male individuals), judges, priests, towns, nations, and especially kings. Don’t fall prey to greed, don’t take bribes, don’t worship other gods, respect the authority of civil and spiritual servants. Public servants must not overreach: Priests may not acquire land; kings may not amass riches in excess or lose physical sight of this teaching.

In the first few verses, we hear the command: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice pursue.” This is one of our richest slogans, often used as a source text for the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, our obligation to repair the world and fight for justice.

In the spirit of pursuing justice, Shoftim contains several specific instructions for how to govern fairly — some revolutionary even today, and some surprisingly decent by the standards of the time:

  • Create an undiscriminating legal system;
  • Establish a meticulous process for inquiry in determining guilt;
  • Never rely on the account of one witness alone;
  • Always protect trees, even on the land of your enemy;
  • Take collective responsibility for an anonymous crime;
  • Offer a neighboring city the option of peaceful surrender before conquering it;
  • Do not deploy soldiers who have ambivalent hearts or who stand to die without ever having harvested their land or married their betrothed;
  • Establish and evenly distribute a proportional number of sanctuary cities to the total amount of land possessed by the nation.
  • I repeat: Establish evenly dispersed sanctuary cities throughout the nation, to where accused innocents from anywhere can flee and be protected from persecution.

There is much here that we today find morally just and imperative. But “tzedek,” like “justice” in English, does not automatically imply compassion; Shoftim also contains harsh, heartless laws and inhumane repercussions:

  • The command to slaughter everyone in the area where the People of Israel will live, lest they be influenced by strangers’ ways;
  • The instruction to loot nearby towns, impose forced labor on human beings and take them as property;
  • The insistence upon public stoning for the transgression of worshipping other gods.

In fact, rather than implying a global, moral justice, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” in the context of ancient society-building, seems more to mean that the people should steadfastly adhere to a strict system of law and order, cause and effect, transgression and punishment. “Justice” here is pretty much a set of laws defined to maintain the order of monotheism and the political dominance of the People of Israel in the land which they are about to conquer.

Fortunately, the more universal applications of justice and governance – those on the first list – shine out at us across centuries, despite the archaic and brutal context in which they arose, a context in which all the things on the second list were still acceptable. But I don’t advocate glossing over that second list, because it is to the danger of this: a narrow definition of justice, or the execution of it without compassion – the underbelly of tzedek, if you will – that we must also stay awake.

For this reason, this Shabbat I plan to chant the part about public stoning in Eicha trop, the melody of Lamentations that we chant on Tisha B’av. This is how, after reminding myself, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” I will lament the cruel behaviors that are also our human inheritance, and that we still haven’t unlearned, thousands of years later. This is how I will assert that:

We must not only be meticulous in determining guilt; we must be judicious in defining transgression to begin with, create humane structures that don’t funnel people toward incarceration, and make room for as much forgiveness and re-integration as humanly possible.

We must not only claim collective responsibility for crimes on our soil that we did not witness; we must take collective responsibility for the crimes we committed when we first came to this soil, and continue to commit, collectively.

We must not only approach other groups in peace; we must try to change the way we see them until we can see ourselves in them. And we must love ourselves. This way we will not be able to objectify, dehumanize, or demonize anyone.

This Shabbat, I will interpret the call from my ancestors through these pages, and from my predecessors through their essays, their activism, their art, their physical work – to wake up, again and again. And when the week begins, I will try, again and again, to convert that “awakeness” into practice.

Shabbat Shalom,

Dedicated to the life and memory of Marguerite Rosenthal, who loved her musical and activist Jewish heritage, and who dedicated her whole life to waking up and pursuing justice in the global, moral sense. And to her son, Ben, daughter-in-law Nancy, and grandchildren Leah and Ezra, who are this week emerging from their first year of mourning her death. May they be comforted – nahamu, nahamu – and may Marguerite’s legacy live on in us: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.

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Shabbat Re’eh ~ What Do We See?

Last Shabbat afternoon, members of our kehilla sat in the sanctuary at JCC Camp Hoover. All around us, wherever we gazed, the bright sunlight danced across strong tree trunks as their green leaves fluttered in the gentle breeze of a “picture perfect” Shabbat afternoon in central Ohio. A full congregation of attentive people populated the benches of this glorious sanctuary, having gathered to celebrate the efforts of a young man ~ a bright light in our kehilla for more than a decade ~ who was affirming his commitment to his inheritance as a link in the chain of Jewish wisdom tradition.

As a member of b’nei Yisrael (children of Israel), a term used to describe our People repeatedly throughout Torah, I blessed Max to always take seriously his birthright as a “God-wrestler” (the meaning of the name Yisra-El, given to Jacob and his descendants) ~ one who wrestles with what it means to have a connection with the Sacred; one who studies the texts and thoughts of Judaism and all writings and ideas with a curious, imaginative, and discerning intellect and an open heart.

When Max read from Parashat Re’eh (at a Shabbat mincha/afternoon service we get a taste of Torah of the week to come), he began with these words:

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: – Dev. 11:26

At that moment, few, if any, of us had on our minds the unfolding events that were occurring in Charlottesville, Virginia. Some of us (myself included) were so deeply inside of Shabbat that the news had not yet reached us … However, I suspect none of us were prepared for what we would see (re’eh) unfold in our country this week.

It is important to note that the events in Charlottesville, heinous and vile, are not unusual in our country where people of color are more likely to be shot by police, Muslims and Sikhs are targeted in their places of worship and on the streets, Jews in Montana and elsewhere are leafleted by neo-Nazis, trans students are bullied and don’t have a safe place to use the toilet, immigrants are beaten in parking lots, and migrant workers are held in trucks.  Charlottesville is NOT worse or more shocking than the long history of racist, homo- and trans-phobic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim speech and violence that has been the ugly underbelly of our American democracy. Charlottesville IS a manifestation of White Supremacist ideology emboldened by those who hold positions of great power in our government and who were elected as a result of a toxic combination of anger and apathy.

My work as a Jewish spiritual leader with a multi-faith agenda of serving ALL people teaches me that the “Oppression Olympics” has no place in a world where we need to build broad coalitions to bring justice, hope, compassion, civility, and even love to the fore. And, we cannot forget that the oppression in this country includes those we currently see as our enemies – those who join in with the hate-mongering of White Supremacist ideology because they don’t see other ways toward empowerment, voice, and a sense of hope.

This Shabbat, as we really settle into the words of Parshat Re’eh, I encourage us take the opening words of this parsha into our hearts in a bit more creative way than your TaNaKh or Bible might show them. I offer this: 

Behold … there is before us blessing and curse. When we turn away from that which is sacred, from ways that are just, from ways of living in right relationship with one another, we turn away from the Source of Blessing, from that sacredness within us that is our connection to the One. In so doing, we choose curse.

Let us choose blessing.

May we each find the Shalom ~ the peace, and self-care, and nourishment, and light, and love we need to move forward to SEE the blessing and to find the Holy in our lives. May we be blessed, this Shabbat, to find ourselves a sanctuary ~ in our homes, our yards, in a synagogue, church, mosque, park, or in the woods … And from there, may we connect with the Sacred and begin the difficult and important work of turning curses into blessings.

Shabbat Shalom. 

As an affiliate of both the Jewish Renewal and Reconstructionist movements, I am linking to the statements of both as well as a letter I signed as a member of the Aleph Ordination Program.

Working as part of the 8-student chevre (team of friends) that crafted the letter signed by an ever-growing number of our student body was a time-consuming and extremely cathartic process in a week where communal process, thoughtfulness, passion, compassionate disagreement, kindness, and deep caring were the perfect balm to dismay, disgust, deep sadness, and the work of providing spiritual support to those in need. I encourage you to reach out to others in our community and in other communities and find processes that provide your antidote to despair and I remind you that I am available to provide pastoral care and presence as we move forward.

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Balancing Zeal and Vision in a World in Need of Healing

a d’var Torah for Parashat Pinchas by Esther Azar
Zeal — In this day many of us are fired up. It is easy to see the injustice. It shouts at us every time we open our Facebook feeds, it’s red face looks up at us from the newspapers at our feet. We march, we sing, we chant. We scream out in agony demanding change.

A while back I marched for Black Lives Matter. Walking amongst colleagues and friends, I felt a pain in the pit of my stomach. I wished for silence on those Manhattan streets, the blurred lights of the city mixing with my angst as those around me chanted, “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, these racist cops have got to go!” Standing at the intersection of activists and police officers, I suddenly understood my discomfort. My words rose to the surface as I turned to the person standing next to me. “What are we doing chanting at the men and women tasked with changing in this racist world? Our words of anger will not bring the change we need. Is alienating those that stand in their fear the way to help them see, or are we blinding them further?”At the very end of last week’s parashah [Balak], the bible’s zealous archetype, Pinchas, sees unlawful and unholy behavior dangerous to the community and acts, publicly slaughtering the Israelite man Zimri and the Midianite woman Cosbi as they consort before the Tent of Meeting. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) teaches that the angels ask God to punish Pinchas. Our rabbis also insist on a very narrow application of the zealotry displayed by Pinchas in his vigilante justice-seeking (Sanhedrin 72a). The Ishbitzer Rebbe, Mordechai Yosef Leiner (early 19th Century), explains that Pinchas, as a good student of Torah, knew that Zimri’s actions were so grave they demanded death. What he didn’t know was that Cosbi and Zimri were, in fact, soulmates. Zimri’s actions were in the name of heaven, and that is why Moshe himself did not stop them. Pinchas’ limited vision only allowed him to see one aspect of the situation. God understood that Pinchas’ actions come from a limited human understanding of justice, a binary thinking, and God honored this innocence and chose not to punish him.Our rabbis teach (e.g., Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer ch. 28 & 47) that Pinchas becomes Elijah the Prophet, who was also renowned for his zeal, but we might wonder how one who acted so questionably could bring a messianic age. God recognizes Pinchas’ limitations and his innocent conviction, and rather than punish him, God offers him a Brit Shalom, a covenant of wholeness. The root of shalom/peace, is also shleimut/wholeness. This gift that God bestows upon him doesn’t applaud his action; rather, God becomes the teacher I always dream of, the teacher that opens us up rather than pushing us down. Instead of reprimanding Pinchas, sending him into a spiral of shame, God offers him the missing piece. God enables Pinchas to move from limited sight to seeing wholeness, and in this moment Elijah is born.This vision of the whole, that recognizes the interconnectedness of all actions and sees beyond our limited perspective, is the messianic vision.This is the vision I pray for. I pray that when I stand across from someone who is acting out of fear, I can call them out of the darkness, and not through shame … rather by enabling them to see beyond their limited perspective. In the current climate, we need to lean into that potential to see wholly and use that vision – one of fully seeing and acknowledging all sides – to guide us forward. And we must speak from that expansiveness. It is a difficult journey, and the power intrinsic to zeal is tempting and, oftentimes, influenced by our own limited sense of power or ability to see “the other(s)” in wholeness. Messianic vision is able to see all perspectives and recognize the relationships that web them together. From this understanding (and stretching toward it) that true healing can manifest. In the coming days, I pray that we have the ability to see beyond our limited vision and see the pain of those we call “other” so that, together, we too can receive a Brit Shalom and bring deep healing to the world.

Esther Azar is Director of Family Engagement at Congregation Shaare Zedek in Manhattan. She is also my dear friend and we will, b’ezrat haShem, receive semicha together in January, 2018. This piece was posted in the weekly e-mail, Torah from T’ruah
I also encourage readers interested in exploring the complexity of the Korach story to read the commentary of Steven Greenberg, entitled Pinchas, Zimri, and the Channels of Divine Will in Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, David Shneer.

– Shabbat Shalom (JKS)

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Celebrating the American Ideal through the Lens of Parshat Balak

In 21st Century America, many of us are acutely aware of living at the confluence of multiple identities. We have increasing opportunities to celebrate and proclaim our overlapping identities, due, in large part, to the freedom that has always lived at the core of the American spirit – the America we celebrate each 4th of July with communal activities, parades, and music proclaiming the ideals of liberty and justice for all.  These American ideals, coupled with an awareness that our increasingly global existence is enhanced by diversity, are a recipe for abundance and promise. For example, as a woman and as a Jew, I have witnessed a half century of clear and intentional shifts in societal consciousness, hard-won by generations of American women and Jews, as well as other people at the intersectionality of oppression and discriminatory practices. As a result of when and where I was born, I am a beneficiary of the reduction in gender discrimination. In addition, because I was raised in a community where my “Jewishness” often made me different, and occasionally, viewed as suspect or worse, I am keenly aware of the ways in which my difference is now seen as interesting and appreciated. 

In this week’s parsha, Balak (Bamidbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9), we read another in a series of stories of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert. Along their journey from slavery in Egypt to the homeland which God promised to show them, the inhabitants of each kingdom through which they travel have varying reactions to the presence of this migrant People. In last week’s Torah reading, Israel sent messengers to the king of the Amorites asking to pass through their land, promising not to “turn off into fields or vineyards,” or to “drink water from wells,” but to cross through the territory along the king’s highway. (Numbers 21:27)  However, the Amorites greet the Israelites with animosity, and in the ensuing battle, the Israelites defeat them.

Balak and the Moabites, knowing what happened to the Amorites, begin to make assumptions about the characteristics and motivations of the Israelites out of a posture of fear and ignorance: 

וַיָּ֨גָר מוֹאָ֜ב מִפְּנֵ֥י הָעָ֛ם מְאֹ֖ד כִּ֣י רַב־ה֑וּא וַיָּ֣קָץ מוֹאָ֔ב מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מוֹאָ֜ב אֶל־זִקְנֵ֣י מִדְיָ֗ן עַתָּ֞ה יְלַחֲכ֤וּ הַקָּהָל֙ אֶת־כָּל־סְבִ֣יבֹתֵ֔ינוּ כִּלְחֹ֣ךְ הַשּׁ֔וֹר אֵ֖ת יֶ֣רֶק הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה וּבָלָ֧ק בֶּן־צִפּ֛וֹר מֶ֥לֶךְ לְמוֹאָ֖ב בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִֽוא׃   

Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean everything that is around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (22:3-4)

This posture of fear and ignorance sounds disturbingly familiar today, so strikingly similar to the latest American policies ~ travel bans on Muslims, dramatic reductions in refugee resettlement, treatment of undocumented students, and marginalization and abuse of migrant farmworkers. The country we celebrate this week for her ideals has begun to turn in fear from the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” whom we once welcomed, and, before that, whom we once were. Our government seeks to silence Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles, who calls to other nations to send “[t]he wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”* Refugees, our world’s modern-day “Israelites,” fleeing oppression and yearning to breathe free, are now being restricted from entering the United States. Despite the fact that we have far more information about refugees vetted to be resettled in America than the Moabites had about the Israelites, our government leads us in actions that grow like a cancer from the same unfounded fears. We have resources to share and ways in which to ensure abundance, just as they have gifts to share, and yet we are practicing the same narrow-minded ignorance as Balak and the Moabites display in this week’s Torah portion.

In our story of the fearful Moabites, Balak “hires” a sorcerer, Bil’am, to curse the Israelites. However, there is a difference between Bil’am and the modern day “sorcerers” who are being employed to do the bidding of a xenophobic demagogue. Bil’am was clear that he was only able to say the words that the Divine placed into his mouth ~ words of blessing rather than words of curse. Balak offered to pay Bil’am enormous amounts of gold and silver; he tried approaching the matter from various angles; he tried different strategies. And when he didn’t like it that things weren’t going his way, Balak yelled at Bil’am, “tweeting” bullying statements … 

It did not end well for Balak and the Moabites, but our American story is still unfolding and our ability to live into our American ideals is not in the hands of a king or a sorcerer. Our potential for compassion, kindness, generosity, and welcome is resident within us and is our heritage as Americans. Our ability to channel blessing from the Sacred Source is far stronger than the fear of those who come to curse. On this 4th of July, may we celebrate the America we aspire to be so that tomorrow and for as long as it takes, we actualize the blessings of liberty and justice for all.

*Words from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty

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