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

The way I think about time each day is heavily influenced by my ties to secular standards of time: a dental appointment at 2:30 on Tuesday; get to the bank before it closes at 5:00; the sale price at the grocery ends on Wednesday; a conference call on Friday at 11 a.m. with a friend in Denver means 1 p.m. EDT.  If I oversleep, I wake up in secular time, and when I schedule my day, glance at my watch, consult my electronic calendar, and go about my business I am thinking and acting in secular time. Secular time is my default programming, my auto-pilot mode.

When I practice what I preach, however ~ when I embody my spiritual practice, I operate in Jewish time. When I relax into a reflective mode whether to journal, or meditate, or study Torah, or pray, or dream, I do so in Jewish time. When I speak about spiritual growth, I think in Jewish time. When I create prayer-centered spiritual experiences, I open to the expanse of Jewish time. When I teach about the merit and meaning of our Jewish wisdom tradition, I often reference the cadence of Jewish time. And when people ask me what I liked most about living in Israel, I talk of how secular time, though very present in Israeli life, takes a backseat to Jewish rhythms of time, allowing Jews to live in harmony with societal meter rather than having to chose which beat to emphasize each Shabbat and on holy days as they fall on random secular weekdays.

Marking time Jewishly has a cadence that emphasizes the sacred. The downbeat is on gratitude and the tempo is set by memory – memory of the history of a People guided by relationship and law and story. Each day of the week is noted by its relationship to Shabbat – the holy day of rest and renewal (Shabbat ends and then, Yom Rishon, Sheini, Shlishi … First day, second, third … and after sixth day, Shabbat once again). Each week is distinguished in relationship to Torah which relates the passage of time to agrarian cycles of planting, growth, and harvest, and the ancient pilgrimage festivals when we brought the “first fruits” of our harvest to the Temple to honor the Sacred with gratitude and praise for Creation’s bounty. Each month is marked according to the cycles of the moon, each holy day in relation to the moon’s fullness or darkness. Each season is celebrated in relationship to the way the Earth responds to rainfall and other atmospheric conditions. And each year is counted in relationship to the history of our People and mythology of our creation story.

Jewish time is circular ~ much like the wire slinky toy I had as a child, it moves forward in a spiraling pattern, returning again and again to the same and, simultaneously, very different place. The markers/sign posts are the same, but the constant forward motion of time ensures that the vista is different with each rotation. At times, the difference is barely perceptible, and, on occasion, the changes are so vast that one must strain to locate familiarity.

Although the markers remain constant, the passage of time alters our perception of the world around us as well as our view of the inner terrain of our being. Sometimes this is a direct result of our efforts to effect change in the world around us, or transformative work we do to improved our mental, spiritual, or physical well-being. At other times, the agents of change are ones over which we little or have no control. In these times, Jewish time becomes an old friend who helps us find our bearings, a safety net to catch us from falling, a walking stick that helps us maintain our balance, a bench or boulder along life’s path upon which to rest and reflect until we regain the strength to continue.  

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in the prologue of his famous book The Sabbath, Its Meaning for Modern Man, distinguishes between civilizations focus on “things” – man’s conquest of space, and Torah’s construction of an “architecture of time:”

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. 

As we enter the last Sabbath of the year 5777, may we deeply enjoy this sanctuary in time of which Heschel wrote so eloquently. And may we seek out ways in the coming year (5778) to dance and sing in the rhythms of Jewish time, to find beauty in the cyclical patterns of Jewish time, and to notice and observe more opportunities to appreciate the sacred and sanctify it.

  • This post was inspired by the first (5776), second (5777) and third (5778) editions of MISAVIV Hebrew Circular Calendar by deuteronomy press. These beautiful calendars can be purchased from the Little Minyan Kehilla by contacting us at littleminyan@littleminyan.org or pick yours up at activities throughout the months of Elul and Tishrei.
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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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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

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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,
Jessi

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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See you at Sinai …

On Shavuot (beginning, this year, Tuesday evening, May 30th and continuing through Thursday), we celebrate what the rabbis called z’man matan Torateinu ~ the time our Torah was gifted. However, the roots of Shavuot in Torah relate to agriculture, not the receiving of Torah. A holy celebration on Yom HaBikurim ~ the day of first-fruits is to occur at the time of the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot*), the completion of counting the seven weeks of the Omer (barley harvest)**. The express purpose of this celebration is gratitude for the abundance of the season’s wheat harvest.

As an agricultural people, the Israelites experienced Shavuot as an opportunity to honor the connection between earth, God and human labor. With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., our land-based People became dispersed among nations. Over time, Shavuot was “reconstructed” by our great sages to serve as a celebration of the revelation of Torah at Sinai rather than a land-based, Temple ritual that must have Jordana Klein mount sinai - receiving the Torah (1)seemed less relevant to a land-less People.

A great gift of our tradition is the permission we are given to read and reread and interpret and reinterpret Torah, finding the relevance within the wisdom held both in the black letters and the white open space that surrounds them. In this expanse, we receive permission to once again reconstruct this Festival of celebration and gratitude with enough room for BOTH agrarian appreciation and Divine revelation.

In our kehilla and in our neighborhoods and surrounding lands, many of us garden or connect to the earth in a significant way. If we don’t have our own plot to till, we attend a farmers’ market or belong to a CSA (community supported agriculture) and connect with someone who directly sows, grows, and harvests the food we eat or the flowers that beautiful our homes. We are in tune with the rhythms of the environment as we learn, once again, to pay attention, care for, and appreciate the Earth. This is the Torah of the Earth.

In this spirit, you are invited to bring a dairy snack and any variety of your “first fruits” to share with the gathered community at rabbi Jessica’s home (see calendar for details) on the evening of the first day of Shavuot (7:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 31st). This could be a poem, a song, a story, a piece of artwork, or a treasured gift that has inspired the way you receive Torah.

See you at Sinai!

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In Hebrew, the root שבע (shin-bet-ayin) is in the word sheva (seven), shavua (week) and shavuot (weeks).

**Bamidbar/Numbers 28:26, and first described in Shmot/Exodus 23:16

Artwork: Receiving Torah at Sinai, Jordana Klein

Posted in Eco-Judaism, Hagim/Holidays, Holiday Celebrations, Israel, Spiritual Seeking, Torah | Leave a comment

Lag b’Omer ~ What Is It?

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Lag b’Omer … What is it? This is a question frequently asked, even by Jews, when mentioning the Jewish holiday of Lag b’Omer. To the English speaker, the first word sounds like “log” – the wood you place on a campfire. This auditory cue … Continue reading

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