Rosh Hashanah 5776 – Hineini: Here I AM

(As an introduction to this sermon, we began with a simple chant of one word – Hineini/Here I am. The chant was also used at the conclusion as well. I learned this chant from Rabbi Simcha Zevit)

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test, saying to him, “Abraham.” He answered, “Hineini. Here I am.”

“Then a messenger of the Eternal called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And he answered, ‘Hineini. Here I am.’”

Try this for a moment.

Imagine a compassionate teacher or a still, small voice inside you or an ever-flowing Creative Source that you can connect with were to ask “Where are you?” silently and supportively, what would be your honest response?

You might describe where you are spatially – where you are located at that moment, the sights, sounds, smells and feeling of the space where you are currently located.

You might notice your breath. Is it flowing calmly, or is there some pressure or stress causing your breathing to be shallow, uneven, or constricted? What are the thoughts in your mind that are causing you to feel rushed, anxious, discouraged, agitated, or unfocused?

You might have answered the question with sarcasm: What’s it to you? Leave me alone. I’m not listening. I’m not paying attention. I’m hiding.

Yesterday, I spoke about three questions that lay at the heart of Musaf: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?

When you heard: “Where are you?” you might come back to these three questions, to those stories that comprise our lives.

When Adam and Even heard this question for the first time, after they ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil, they hid in the Garden. Our teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that:

“When Adam and Eve hid from His presence, the Lord called: Where art Thou (Genesis 3:9). It is a call that goes out again and again. It is a still small echo of a still small voice, not uttered in words, not conveyed in categories of the mind, but ineffable and mysterious, as ineffable and mysterious as the glory that fills whole world. It is wrapped in silence; concealed and subdued; yet it is as if all things were the frozen echo of the question: Where art thou?” (God in Search of Man p. 137)

As Adam and Eve did, we continue to hear the question “Where are you?” And, also like Adam and Eve, we have the free will to to avoid or answer the question.

Today, I want to explore one possible answer to the question “Where are you?”, which is Hineini. Here I Am.

Many of our ancestors have responded to God with this answer: As we heard in this morning’s Torah reading, Abraham responds Hineini when God calls on him. Jacob responds to God’s call twice with Hineini. Joseph says it in response to his father’s call to check up on his brothers. Moses, at the burning bush, responds to God’s summons with Hineini. Samuel begins his career as a prophet with the response Hineini.

What do these have in common? Why is this the response that each of these people have in their unique situations?

Author of the book Here I Am Leonard Felder comments that:

…this three-syllable Hebrew word is one of the most interesting spiritual tools I’ve ever encountered. When you respond to life’s challenges, to God, or to your inner turmoil by saying, “Hineini. Here I am,” something positive stirs up inside you. Some specific parts of your brain, your body, and your soul come alive and feel energized with new clarity from announcing these words silently to yourself.

Felder is on to something here. Each of those individuals who answered Hineini was in a vulnerable place, facing a time of uncertainty and turmoil. Abraham says it at the beginning and at the end of the Binding of Isaac, the most challenging test of his life. Jacob utters Hineni during his trials with his brother Esav and deceitful uncle Lavan. Joseph, his father’s favorite among brothers who despise him, unwittingly says Hineini as he leaves his family for over two decades. Moses, the former royal prince living in a foreign land, responds with Hineini as he is about to begin the most important part of his life. Samuel, who is about the become the prophet of a stubborn and passionate people, says Hineini to God’s call in the Mishkan in Shilo.

Hineini. Here I am. Hineini is a courageous response to offer in the face of terrifying challenges and life-changing obstacles. As Felder suggests, it awakens these people – mind, body, and soul – with a life energy that enables them to endure the most difficult of times.

Let’s look at Abraham again from this morning’s Torah reading. “After these things…” At the very beginning of the Torah portion, Abraham is blessed with everything. He is married to Sarah, a passionate, strong woman, and they have a son, Isaac, a miracle child of their old age. They are living in the land that God promised to them. This is the fulfillment of the vision that God shared with Abraham in the land of Haran:

And the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.

In a departure that completely severs Abraham from his past, Abraham leaves behind his extended family and his birthplace for the promise of a starting a whole new family (and ultimately a people) living in a new land. He sets off for the land with Sarah and his nephew Lot sight unseen and without a child. In fact, not even without a child, but with a wife who we are told is unable to bear children. This radical break from Abraham’s past is framed by a story that God shares with them, a story in which he and Sarah are in a covenant with God, a promise, a vision of a people living in their own land. And just when everything seems to be set for the future, God comes to Abraham with this test:

And God said, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.”

In this one verse, with a huge emotional build up, God demands that Abraham, who has given us his past, must now give up his future, Isaac. Terrifying. Unthinkable. As Soren Kierkegaard calls it: the suspension of the ethical. Devastating. How can God ask this of him? What is God thinking?

But Abraham does not say Hineini to this command. Abraham already said Hineini before God even revealed the test. When God called out to Abraham, Abraham, without hesitation, said: Hineini. Here I am. Ready and willing to do whatever comes next. And after the command comes, there is nothing but immediate action on Abraham’s part. This is how strong Abraham’s faith is. This is a person whose identity, whose vision of the future, is not shaken even in this moment of absolute terror and this paradoxical command.

Three days later, they arrive at the mountain. Abraham and Isaac leave their two servants and the donkey at the foot of the mountain, and they head up the mountain, Abraham holding the knife and the tools for making the fire, and Isaac carrying the wood. All in agonizing silence.

At some point while going up the mountain, Isaac asks his father the a haunting question:

“Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?”

Abraham, without missing a beat, replies:

“God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.”

There are many ways to read this verse. Some understand that Abraham is lying to Isaac to keep him calm. Another reading that the Rabbis suggest is that Abraham subtly reveals to his son that he is going to be the offering. “God will see to the sheep for the offering: my son.” A third way to read it is that Abraham is neither lying nor hinting at a horrible possibility, but rather expressing his faith that God is simply not going to go through with this test. There is going to be a sheep up there. God will see to it. That is the strength of Abraham’s faith. Abraham’s commitment to the vision expressed in the covenant cannot not be shaken by God’s command in the moment.

Given the faith that Abraham expresses, and what looks like Isaac’s cooperation in this test, what does God see on that mountain top in those next few moments?

In an essay about the Binding of Isaac, Rabbi Brad Artson teaches that: God sees Abraham and Isaac together up on that mountain – mind, body and soul. Isaac bound on the altar and Abraham preparing for an unthinkable act. When God calls to them a second time, no matter how paradoxical the call may be, they respond together: Hineni. Here we are.

Rabbi Artson continues:

“Abraham has not denied the terror of this situation, neither to himself, nor to his son. He does not ignore the pain and the uncertainty of what he is ordered to do. At the same time, he demonstrates his trust. Abraham even said to the two servants that he and the boy would be back down the mountain later on. It was not a lie. It was a demonstration of faith.”

“What Abraham does not do is surrender to the pain and the fear of the situation. He refuses to allow the situation to undermine his identity as a Jew, as a member of the covenant with God.”

Abraham’s test is whether he will retain his confidence in God’s promised covenant, which has become his own core identity, or not.

Rabbi Artson:

“By refusing to abandon hope in the face of a bleak reality, by refusing to wish away a challenging reality in favor of simplistic beliefs and wishful stories, Abraham remains true to the brit, to the covenant.”

Everyday, we face this same test. In our abundant and sumptuous Western part of the world, in a world assaulted by terror, economic and political instability, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives, poverty – including our city of Syracuse which is one of the most impoverished in our nation –  illness, hatred of all sorts, and violence, we are called to apprehend the reality of the threats facing us. We are called to confront the improbability of survival, of overcoming even one of these threats. We are called then to do the hard work necessary to transcend those odds.

We are tested with the same paradox as Abraham, as individuals, as families, as a community, as a people, and as human beings made in God’s image.

We are heirs to the a covenant of vision, that carries with it the promise of hope, equality, justice, love, and compassion. We are the transmitters of that promise. God has no hands but yours. God needs us to supply hands to do the work, the hearts to bear the love and the compassion, and the mouths to give voice to the promise, to articulate the vision, to voice the primal utterance of what the future should be.

Like Abraham and Isaac, we can say – we must say Hineini. Here we are.

With faith and commitment to Judaism, to its spiritual treasures, to its goals and aspirations, and to each other, and at the same time, recognizing the reality of our lives and of the demands that will take our combined effort, we can pass the test.

Imagine that your compassionate teacher or that still, small voice inside you or that ever-flowing Creative Source that you connect asking: “Where are you?” silently and supportively, in the face of challenges and obstacles, together we can say Hineini.

Rosh Hashanah 5776 – We Are Our Stories: A Framework for Musaf

My summer after third grade, my parents sent me to a Jewish summer camp called Olin Sang Ruby. That summer at camp was…mediocre. But there was one particular moment that summer that I will never forget. Late one night, I hopped down from my top-bunk to go to the bathroom. The bathroom building was in the middle of a semi-circle of bunks. As I came back to my bunk, it seemed that my bunk mate had taken my blanket. Leaning in to whisper so I would not wake anyone else, I said, “Hey, give me back my blanket.” My bunk mate stirred, but was still asleep. I tried to take it back gently while whispering again, “Hey, you took my blanket. Give it back.” Now partially wakened, he groggily said, “Who are you? It’s my blanket.” It is as that moment I realized…I was in the wrong bunk. I went back to my bunk, which was, of course, just one building over. At the end of that camp session, there was a campfire with campers sharing camp stories. After a few people shared their stories, one particular kid began his story: “It was the strangest thing. Late one night, this kid comes into my bunk and demands that I give him my blanket. Then he just left.” I said nothing. But I was aware that my small act of forgetting where I was helped to create a story for that other camper and for me.

Stories are what I want to focus on today. The imaginative capacity to tell stories is one of the most human things that we do. Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, writes that:

“At any given moment, all over the world, hundreds of millions of people will be engaged in what is one of the most familiar of all forms of human activity. In one way or another they will have their attention focused on one of those strange sequences of mental images which we call a story. We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories: telling them; listening to them; reading them; watching them being acted out on the television screen or in films or on a stage. They are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence.

Not only do fictional stories play such a significant role in our lives, as novels or plays, films or operas, comic strips or TV…. Through newspapers or television [or the internet], our news is presented to us in the form of ‘stories’. Our history books are largely made up of stories. Even much of our conversation is taken up with recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. These structured sequences of imagery are in fact the most natural way we know to describe almost everything which happens in our lives.”

Human beings are story-tellers. From our fragments of memory, we seek patterns, look for meaning, and create stories. We do this to help us remember who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Booker and others have made claims there are only a small handful of basic stories, some say that there are five core stories, some say seven core, and they may be right, but there is also a uniquely Jewish set of core stories.

Several years ago, at a Jewish education conference, I learned about the centrality of stories in Jewish life from master Jewish story teller Joel Lurie Grishaver. If you have ever used the religious school book “The Shema is for Real” you have seen his groundbreaking work. He taught us that looking at the Hebrew Bible as THE Jewish framework, there are really only three types of stories: Creation stories. Redemption stories. And Revelation stories. Each core story is based on these three classic expressions of God’s actions in the world: The Creation of the Universe, our Redemption from Egyptian Slavery, and the Revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

These three core stories do capture so much of a person’s life. Everyone’s life has a beginning. Everyone’s life has moments of moving from narrowness to expansiveness. And everyone’s life contains moments of deep learning.

The Tanakh presents the three core stories, both on the cosmic scale, and on the human scale; on the family scale and the personal. Stories within stories within stories, like a huge fractal of narratives, where at every level you see the same pattern over and over again.

But the Tanakh continues with other stories. A Return to our ancestral land. Catastrophe and Exile when the Babylonians destroyed our sacred center. Exile and Return are the fourth and fifth Jewish core stories.

I was thinking this through with Cantor Pepperstone, and she thought of a sixth story. This past summer, while she was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva (with thanks to Harold and Joan Burstyn for providing a scholarship so that she could spend three weeks learning there this summer), in a class about Hasidut, they discussed the idea of Deveikut, which is a feeling of Oneness or deep harmony with God’s presence, particularly when doing mitzvot. Now, the list of Jewish core stories has reached six: Creation, Redemption, Revelation, Exile, Return, and Oneness.

Today, as we take this time to reflect on our lives over the past year and what they might be like in the coming year, I invite you to begin to think about where how these core stories fit into your life, or rather, how your life fits into these six core stories.

Creation Stories. Birth. Beginnings. New Starts. Radical breaks from the past. Each of us has a story about our first moments, our early years, the formative events that make us who we are. There are moments, events that set up the first legs of our journeys through life.

In the Torah’s first chapter, God took primordial stuff and shaped it into a universe, an amazing cosmos of tremendous magnitude and microcosms of powerful forces at the smallest levels of existence. Creation is the movement from chaos to order, of new light, of creating separations and structures.

In the siddur, we say on Shabbat morning that God is Mechadesh b’kohl yom tamid Ma’asei Breisheet – that God is the One who renews Creation on every day and at every moment.

Redemption Stories. Going out. Freedom. In the Torah, God sends Moses to take us out of Mitzrayim, which means the Narrow Place, into the Wilderness of Sinai. These are stories the movement from slavery to freedom, stories about overcoming oppression, about fighting injustice. Redemption stories are about moving from sweat shops to independent businesses, leaving bad situations; about leaving unhealthy workplaces, dysfunctional relationships, oppressive countries, about moving from any narrow confining place into a place of expansiveness.

We chant that verse from the psalm: Min ha-meitzar karati Yah. Anani va-merchav Yah! From the narrow-places I call out to Yah! Yah answered with spaciousness.

Revelation Stories. In the Torah, this is our standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and receiving the Revelation of the Torah, of God’s Oneness. These are stories about learning, the movement from ignorance to knowledge, of wisdom learned, of new understanding, of common sense. From whom do we learn? These are stories of mentors, teachers, parents, grandparents – who gave us knowledge, skills, ways of looking at the world, of understanding how the world works, who gave us vision, the ability to see not only what it, but what ought to be. These are stories about lighting up paths of darkness, to see where we ought to be headed.

We learn in the classic compilation of rabbinic wisdom Pirkei Avot : Who is wise/Eizehu chacham? Ha-melamed mikol adam. The one who learns from every human being. As it is written: From all of my teachers, I have learned.

Exile Stories. In the Tanakh, this is represented by the destruction of the Temple, the sacking of Jerusalem and the exile of our people to foreign rule on foreign soil. These are stories of disconnect, of the movement from success to failure, of destruction, of loss. Stories of betrayal and rupture. These are about losing what is most sacred, what is most holy in our lives. Those moments of separation, endings, tears in our relationships, either past of present.

The book of Lamentations, chanted with the haunting melodies of trope for that book, opens with in image of Jerusalem in isolation: Eichah yashvah badad! How she sits alone!

Return Stories. In the Tanakh, there is an end to Exile, when under the new leadership of Ezra and Nechemia, we as a people returned to our land, to rebuild, to reconnect, to embrace again that which was lost for a time. Return stories are about homecoming, the movement from disconnect to connection, stories of making amends, repairing damage, of families reunited, reconnecting with people, places, words, ideas.

In the psalm sung before the Blessing after Meals on Shabbat, we sing: Be’shuv Adonai et shivat Tzion, hayinu ke’cholmim. When the Eternal brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.

Oneness Stories. In the Tanakh, in-between other kinds of moments that are changes from one state into another, there are also moments of oneness and stillness. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Jacob’s family gathered around his deathbed. In moments of solidarity in the forty years in the Wilderness – in particular the building of the Mishkan, or when we stood on Mount Eval and Mount Gerizim and reaffirmed the Sinai covenant. These are stories of connection, of feeling part of something larger than one’s self. Stories about intense belonging, finding one’s place in the larger whole, of one’s personal purpose in alignment with a larger purpose, being part of the dynamic flow of life and the universe.

When the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary we had with us in the wilderness of Sinai, was complete, the Torah says that the Mishkan became Echad, One. All of the components had come together to form something greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Our lives are a matrix of stories, a combination of all six kinds of these stories, stories within stories, some stories woven into larger ones, intersecting and diverging with the stories of others, friends, family, fellow human beings all over the world. At any given moment in time, we are beginning some stories, in the middle of others, and ending yet others.

On Rosh Hashanah, we can take time to look at our stories from a remote vantage point. In Psalm 27, the psalm recited from the beginning of Elul through Sukkot, we come across the phrase: “And now, God will raise up my head.” Rosh Hashanah raises us up out of our normal routine. God in love has given us the gift of time to look at our lives, to see what stories in our lives we are currently writing. During our Selichot event, when we watched the film Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, one character paraphrased a quote from Soren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.”

Why am I telling you all of this? Today, we have the opportunity to look at our lives backward in order to live forward, and that opportunity is Musaf. One way to understand Musaf is as a structured meditation on the stories of our lives. Once this D’var Torah is done, we will have the following tools at our disposal: The mahzor in our hands, with its rich tapestry of Hebrew, translations, commentary and thematic readings. Cantor Pepperstone’s davening guiding us through the mahzor. This framework for understanding Musaf. Our hearts and minds to help us examine our lives, our stories that make up our self-understanding. The gift of time this holiday to do this sacred work.

Musaf asks us three questions:

Malkhuyot – Kingship: Who am I?

Zichronot – Remembrances: Where do I come from?

Shofarot – Shofar Blasts: Where am I going?

Malkhuyot. Kingship. The essential question of Maklkhuyot is: Who am I? The idea of God as King presents many of us, myself included, with a challenge. However, this is a poetic metaphor that begs to be unpacked. If so, what does the metaphor of God as King mean? My teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager suggests that King/Melekh conveys the idea of the Source of all being and power. When we hear the language of “king” and “kingship,” we are invited to consider the Source of all that is, and our place in relation to that Source.

In the Garden of Eden, right after Eve and Adam eat from that fruit that gives them expansed human consciousness, a radical awareness of their place in the universe, God asks them a simple but profound question: Ayeka? Where are you? This is one way to focus during Malkhuyot – on our individual and communal present.

  • Who am I?
  • Where am I?
  • What is my relationship to myself, my family, my community, my people, Israel, the larger world, and to God?
  • Where am I in this web of relationships today?
  • What is the context of my life where I find myself today?

We never stand here isolated, completely independent. We might deny some or all of this complex web of relationships, but it is there all the same.

Who are you?

Zikhronot. Remembrances. The essential question of Zikhronot is: Where do I come from? During Zichronot, the mahzor includes verses that touch on some key moments in the life of our people that bring us to this moment. Zikhronot invites us to look back at our personal stories that brought each of us to this moment. What memories or fragments do we select to create our inner stories, and the stories of our families? What stories have we heard about ourselves? What stories do we tell about ourselves? How do those stories shape our self-understanding? Are they negative stories or positive stories? Should we keep them or abandon them?

Our Creation stories shape our earliest days. Our Redemption stories illuminate moments of leaving, upheaval and development. Our Revelation stories take us back to our parents, our teachers and our mentors – to moments of wisdom and insight. Our Exile stories take us back to moments of rupture and loss. Our Return stories remind us of those moments of homecoming and healing. Our Oneness stories highlight moments of connection and harmony.

  • What are the stories that have brought us to this moment?
  • Where do we come from?

Shofarot. Blasts of the Ram’s Horn. If Malkhuyot invites an examination of the present, and Zikhronot invites an examination of the past, then Shofarot takes us in two directions at once – the past and to the future.

We are taken back to our people’s core moment of Revelation – Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. At the same time, that same Revelation gives us a glimpse of the future, of a distant messianic horizon that shows us where should be heading and where we ought to be heading. On the horizon, we see new beginnings or new endings, future redemption or future enslavement, moments of insight or moments of forgetting, moments of harmony and connection or moments of rupture and disconnect, and moments of distance or moments of return.

The past and future are combined here because it is in those moments of Revelation from our past that we see the path forward. Those moments of divine insight take us from “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?” to “Where am I going? How will we get there?”

The blast of the shofar wakes us from the heads-down burden of the present AND from the mesmerizing reveries of the past and says, “Hey! Where are you going with this life?”

We are both the characters and the co-authors of our stories that we create and inhabit.

  • Some of our stories are all in the past. We must learn from them.
  • Some of our stories are just starting. We can either embrace or reject our role in them.
  • Some stories we find ourselves in the middle of. We must remember that the choices we make shape the narrative as it is lived out day by day.

Shofarot points to the future, reminding that we should move into the future with our path lit by moments of revelation. What will this year bring us? What stories will begin, develop and end this year? At every turn, what choices will we make? What will illuminate our path?

Who are we?

Where do we come from?

Where are we going?

Shanah Tovah.

Parshat Re’eh with Guest Darshan Tiferent Zimmern-Kahn

My grandfather’s first yahretziet was the 25th of Av—5 days ago. He lived fully and healthfully to the age of 92 and died after only a handful of days in the hospital.

Grandpa was from Czechoslovakia, and met my grandmother at a dance in London on furlough from the Czech army in 1942. They were separated for a number of years and wrote letters back and forth as my grandfather learned English. My grandparents saved these letters, and my grandmother recently reported deriving much joy from reading them through again, reliving the kindling of their love so long ago. In 1947 they were married—him Ashkenazi, my grandmother from a Sephardic family, and remained married for 67 and a half years. They eventually made aliyah, and he passed away and is buried in Israel.

Grandpa was a kohen, and took his duties as a kohen to his community seriously. Living in Israel, he duchenned (performed the priestly blessing) every Shabbat, would often lead shacharit or musaf and was lauded for his lyrical voice. He was proud of this position in the community. My grandfather had a few jokes he liked to tell. One of them, recounted at my brother’s wedding, goes as follows: Why is a kohen so short tempered? They wash their hands, get nothing to eat, and besides, they have to worry about someone stealing their shoes! (If you don’t get it, don’t worry about it, I’m not sure I do either…)

My grandfather believed firmly in upholding Jewish tradition from keeping kosher and Shabbat, to supporting others in his community who needed assistance, be it financially or otherwise. He had a strong moral character amongst family, friends, and business partners. As his grandchildren, we were told about how Grandpa would always sincerely thank Grandma for a meal, even if all it was was a boiled egg. He recognized his place in the family. He would say: “I am the head of the family, but your grandmother is the neck. The head goes wherever the neck turns.”

All of his grandchildren flew in from abroad to put him to rest. My father and uncle both took leadership roles in the congregation, as mourners are encouraged to do. Parshat Re’eh, this week’s parsha, was read the first Shabbat after my grandfather’s funeral. My father recited the haftarah after a hiatus of many years from layning. His death was unexpected in some ways, coming so suddenly, but also expected, seeing as he was an old man. We came together as a family to do what we could to follow in his footsteps and do it right. My cousins who got married this past year both formed their chuppot from Grandpa’s talit. Our actions remember him and will continue to do so.

I was asked to speak today especially about Jewish environmental concepts, so I’ll leave my memories of Grandpa for the time being, and oblige.

I grew up in a traditional family outside of Boston, and I loved nature—oxymoronic? Maybe… However, it was difficult to find a suitable outlet for this interest. There weren’t many organized hiking trips or environmental programs I could comfortably participate in as an observant Jew. So I was interested to learn of the growing Jewish environmental movement as I was getting ready to finish college. Since graduating, I’ve worked as a Jewish environmental educator at Surprise Lake Camp, the Teva Learning Alliance, and the Pearlstone Center’s educational farm outside Baltimore, MD. I continue to be connected to this community through attending conferences, visiting friends and reading blog posts. My training in these communities serves as a backbone for my teaching today: I focus on hands-on experiential lessons, and getting my students outside whenever possible.

To this end, in 2013, a friend (Ris Golden-Sieradski) and I co-founded the Syracuse Jewish Community Garden. It’s meant to provide a space for hands-on Jewish environmental and agricultural education for Jewish students (both adult and youth) in Syracuse. Most of the food we grow is donated to local family shelters, emphasizing our tradition’s commitment to social justice and caring for those in need.

A garden is a space where children and adults can come into contact with many different pieces of nature, and heighten our awareness of the kinds of relationships humans have had with plants and animals over the centuries. Adding a Jewish element to the programming connects us even more deeply to an identity we’ve held dear throughout our lives. To confine one’s Jewish identity to the synagogue is a disservice (no offense). By relating to nature as Jews, we deepen our relationship to both elements: Judaism and nature.

Since first identifying as a Jewish environmental educator eight years ago, the basics of how Judaism asks us to cultivate a meaningful and deep relationship with nature feel seamlessly integrated into my own personal practices.

The first couple of chapters of Genesis tell the story of creation, positioning the human “L’ovdah u’leshomrah” to work and to serve creation. We are here not to dominate, not to control and not to take advantage, but to care for and to tend.

The rabbis’ recommendation of saying one hundred blessings a day brings us into a relationship of awareness with creation that cultivates awe and gratitude.

The concept of “Bal Tashchit,” which has come to mean, “don’t wantonly destroy or waste” reminds us to be mindful of the resources we use and not to needlessly waste.

There are certainly other concepts that have shaped my Jewish practice to embody environmental values (for example, the agricultural connection of the holidays, celebrating Tu Bishvat, and Shmita, the implications of which I’m still striving to understand). However, these days, I’m feeling more interested in something a little deeper and a little broader.

Aside from being a Jewish environmental educator, I also teach science in the secular world. One of the goals that motivate me in this work is to heal the divide between “humanity” and “nature.” Much of the destruction we witness in and enact on the natural world originates with the false dichotomy between “us–humans” and “it—nature.” I’ve been guilty of reinforcing that dichotomy through the language I’ve used thus far in this drash. It’s taken me a while to find new language to express my ideas.

Rabbi David Seidenberg, in his recent book, Kabbalah & Ecology asks: can we make the claim that other (non-human) life is made in God’s image? Answering this question propels us toward finding the Jewish foundation for seeing ourselves as PART of creation, rather than APART FROM it. Seidenberg consistently uses the phrase “more-than human world,” explained in a footnote to “uproot the culture/Nature dichotomy…[It] includes the human—conceptualizing the environment that surrounds us as inclusive of humanity. It not only embraces a world that is both immanent and intimately related to us, but also acknowledges that this world transcends our needs, purposes, and knowledge.” This subtle redefining of terms can create a powerful paradigm shift.

Seidenberg presents a reading of traditional texts that reveals the Jewish teachings of how to live with the earth, offering us a way of relating to the More-Than Human World in order to sustain life. If we follow God’s commandments we will be able to live harmoniously, sustaining life on the planet in general. Parshat Re’eh details the ways the Israelites should live when they finally enter the land of Israel. We are instructed to live a spiritually sustaining life, close to God’s commandments and guidance, keep Kosher, and observe shmita every seventh year to release each other from debts and the land from our labor. Doing so, we will be rewarded with abundant sustenance, both physically and spiritually. However, the parsha also lays out the alternative: if we choose to commit adultery, follow false prophets, or ignore God’s commandments, we will be punished with a life of scarcity and struggle.

Traditional views of this parsha present God as a supernatural force that will cause it to rain when we’ve brought enough sacrifices or when we keep Kosher properly. The same force will deny us rain if we worship idols. This isn’t really the way I like to think about God—as a possessive and jealous force that I’m able to anger or please based on my actions and choices.

However, Seidenberg (and others) brings a different reading to this text. Not following God’s commandments about how to live well on the land will bring about a natural consequence of struggling. By ignoring the guidelines, we will be living a life alienated from the land, from ourselves, and ultimately from God. It’s a subtle twist, but to me, makes these ideas more palatable.

To tease this out a little more, let’s look to the laws of Kashrut as an example. In Re’eh, God outlines the animals we are allowed to eat and are not allowed to eat. We may only eat animals that have split hooves, as well as chew their cud. All animals that only possess one or the other or neither are “unclean” for us. How can we understand that following these laws has a natural consequence of living harmoniously with the land, and is not just obeying God’s seemingly random whim?

Seidenberg gives a fascinating explanation. An animal that chews its cud: what does this imply? It derives its sustenance from grasses, something that we as humans are not designed to do. What does cloven feet imply? These are animals that thrive on rocky slopes—land that is near impossible to cultivate. By limiting our domesticated flocks to animals who both chew their cud and have cloven hooves, we are ensuring that they are neither competing with us for a food source, nor with our crops for space. This choice will make it easier for us to sustain ourselves on the land, leading to more abundance than if we were to raise pigs, for example. As a student of ecology and a farmer, this makes sense to me.

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Dr. Robin Kimmerer (of SUNY-ESF) asks similar questions of how to heal our relationship with the more-than human world. As an ecologist and a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, she draws out answers from her own native traditions as well as western scientific knowledge and methodology. Her writing is exquisite and many of her essays have moved me to the brink of tears. In one essay, Kimmerer describes her realization that as much as she loves the earth, the earth must love her back. She writes, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”

There is so much that needs to happen to shift the course of environmentally destructive policies and practices toward more sustainable ones. However, I am not one to advocate for social change on Shabbat. Today is a day to stop, and enjoy Creation without trying to change it or make improvements. It’s an exercise in awareness of all the “Tov Me’od—very good” that God beheld at the culmination of the creation of the world.

But, perhaps we can craft an appropriate Shabbat practice toward healing our relationship with the more than human world. How can we better see ourselves as part OF creation, instead of apart FROM? What might it be like to interact with a tree the same way you would interact with a friend? After coming home from a long day at work, running to embrace the first friend in your path, a maple tree that’s always stood tall and strong in your front yard right near the drive way. Or, to give the same attention to a hawk flying overhead as you would to receiving a new email or text message.

The last conversation I had with my grandfather was an argument. I left his car crying and feeling hurt, and he angrily drove away. That was the last time I saw him and the last time I heard his voice. We did exchange a few emails. He apologized, I forgave him, and I apologized too. Then about four months later, my cousin told me of his sudden decline.

Noticing mistakes and claiming them goes a long way in strengthening relationships, which are not always easy. In fact, the most intimate ones usually withstand the most hardship and challenge. It is this willingness to engage and get through the difficult times, which builds the intimacy that comes to be so ultimately rewarding. Healing our relationship with the more than human world will certainly challenge our culture and our way of life. But, hopefully, in so doing, it will strengthen our relationship to what we call nature, to what we call God and ultimately to ourselves, and in the process making our lives more whole.

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Va’etchanan: Guest Darshan Tony Kennison-Adams

Sometimes one has to really dig into a parsha to get a few thoughts on which to write a d’var. This week’s parsha, Va’etchanan, does not need such digging; this parsha is an abundance of riches. It contains Moses’ narrative covering the freedom from slavery, the journey through the wilderness the provision of God and the pleading of Moses to God for God to change Gods decision stopping him from entering the promised land. It recaps the Decalogue and contains the shema.

Not wishing to outstay my welcome with a three-hour d’var, I will reserve my comments to a mini-study on the leadership style and behaviors of Moses with a view to understanding if this is a model of leadership that we can emulate as Jewish leaders today.

So why is this important to us sitting here? Primarily because, each one of us has a role in Jewish leadership. Be that in a formal leadership role in the shul, in work, as a parent, a teacher, a partner, or as part of a community raising our children together. Also, we are looked at by those outside of our community as different as a community within a community. People look to us for a lead. I remember some words that Sid gave in the introduction to his Bar Mitzvah Haftarah about our responsibility never to do anything that reflected badly on the Jewish community. Others are looking to us by reputation, as leaders or just as fellow travelers. One of the most import aspects of Moses’ leadership for me was not the grandiose miracles or earth shattering words, but his flawed humanity. This is an important lesson for us to be effective leaders; we do not need to be eternal or omnipotent, just human. We bring whatever we are into our leadership behaviors with us. But knowing that, makes us more effective than those who think they stand head and shoulders above the masses due to power or qualification.

So what human behaviors did Moses bring to his leadership? Moses railed against the people that it was their fault that he would never enter Canaan, when we know it was clearly Moses’ disobedience before God that was the bar to Moses inheriting the land. Was this Moses’ pride, regret, realization of a lack of faith or just a need to transfer his blame to others? Whether we feel sorry for him, believe it was just desserts or that he received his own reward in leadership or the manner of his passing, Moses’ folly is actually a demonstration of his humanity and like him we bring our weaknesses, frustrations, and inadequacies to our leadership rolls. Thus we should not be condemned by our humanity but encouraged by it.

It is often said that the role of leadership is to set the vision and remove the barriers. Moses certainly had the vision from the moment of the burning bush and he went on to remove the barriers of slavery of Pharaoh, the sea of reeds, bread, water, meat and so much more. But what kind of a person carries through such a mission when they know they will not inherit the vision, when they are going to put in thirty-eight years of effort and get no reward for their efforts. How many of us would start a physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual journey if the prize was thirty-eight years of kvetching and then being refused entrance to the winner’s enclosure. But such was the measure of the leader in Moses. He saw the vision and he removed the barriers. Much like the generations of leaders who eventually brought about the modern state of Israel. Their vision took two thousand years and, though there are still barriers to the complete peace and security of Jerusalem, leadership has brought Israel into reality. There is much in common with our wanderings in the wilderness here.

Moses however was not just a leader with a vision, but more importantly he was a follower. A follower of the leader Hashem. All great leaders understand the importance of being followers, of being under authority, because they understand the relationship that they have as a follower to their leader. A great example to this was when Moses acceded to the requests of the elders for him to appoint judges over the mass of Beit Yisrael. He could not be a judge alone. His followers came to him, he acknowledged the need and delegated authority to his followers to in turn be leaders. Followers have great ideas; they can be creative, insightful, and decisive but can only flourish and feel that they can contribute if the leader provides an environment in which they feel safe and valued. As leaders our role is not command and control, but climate control. We do not have to command and control followers, we have to control a climate in which followers will come forward, will risk, will experiment and will safe to do so. As leaders today we must not forget that we are still followers, we follow Torah, we align our lives with Torah precepts, instructions and commands. But we also put ourselves under the authority of others when it is for our good, the good of the community, our families, or even our children when they in turn are in a place where they become leaders. So to be an authentic Jewish Leader, we should first become an authentic follower, then nurture those who choose to follow us. This was what Moses did for Joshua, he gave Joshua the responsibility to spy out the land and in return he nurtured him to maturity and did what all leaders should do and that is to do themselves out of a job.

Moses in pleading with God to put aside God’s previous judgement banning him from entry to Canaan also was putting aside a key lesson that leaders must remember, and stick to, and that is that actions have consequences. In his pleading Moses was asking God to put aside the consequences of Moses’ disobedience to speak to the rock, but God knew that removing the consequence would not help Moses. One of the earliest leadership lessons in Breisheet is when God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden because they had disobeyed God’s simple instruction: don’t touch the fruit of that tree. Eat anything else but not that one.

Having worked a lot with young people, I have seen a trend that many who find themselves getting deeper and deeper into trouble are those who consistently did not have to live with the consequences of there actions. Parents who had turned a blind eye to bad behavior, given a second, third, forth chance without consequence. Paid the fine for speeding, and still not held a son to account. Youth given a third, fourth or fifth caution that then learn to laugh at authority, until a judge eventually sends the kid to jail. As leaders we have to realize that our actions have consequences but that we too must hold those whom we ‘lead’ to account. Not just because of a rule but to promote growth and nurturing which is a key responsibility of leadership. If Hashem had said to Moses, “Ok I give up you can go to Canaan,” what would have been the effect on Israel? They would have thought that they had cart blanche to do whatever they wanted. If that had been so, would we be here today, or worshipping at a temple in front of a huge golden cow?

Actions not only have consequences but those consequences can have a ripple effect through time.

I was once told that if I wanted to know what kind of leader I was, I should turn around and see who is following me. The people followed Moses for forty years, they didn’t turn back, they didn’t go their own way. They followed Moses to the point of his death and then mourned the one whom they had loved. But they quickly got on with their lives and turned to the new leader, Joshua, and followed him into Canaan. Moses knew that the people would have to cope without him. The loss of the leader needs to be like pulling your hand out of a bucket of water, there are a few ripples but soon all is calm again. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said great leadership happens “ when the people say at the end of the task we did this ourselves.” The leader is not there for her glory but for the enrichment of the led, the followers.

As Jews, the Rabbis tell us not to seek leadership roles, but if we are called that, we serve with our whole being. But when the people elect one to leadership, that does not mean that one is in for an easy ride. The very person who casts their lot for the leader becomes the greatest critic when something does not go their way. Yes the people followed Moses out of Egypt but they were very soon were cursing Moses who had ‘led them to die in the dessert.” I often think that, to use animal analogies that a leader needs the courage of a lion, the cunning of a fox, the caring of a kangaroo, and the hide of a rhinoceros. But also they need those around them whom they can trust to keep them grounded. Moses was well grounded by Aaron, Miriam and others of his family. He was loved and even revered by them, but they still criticized him when they thought he was wrong such as with his marriage to “that Cushite woman.”

Having trusted advisors to help through leadership situations is vital, a partner, a friend, a teacher, someone that we can trust and keep us grounded. Moses had the benefit of walking with Hashem in a very physical sense. We have to strive for the same through our relationships with those made in Hashem’s image.

We must also not put on heirs and graces and flaunt our power as leaders, look what happened to Uriah as a result of a leader, King David, when he grew too big for his boots. Golda Mier, was never so grand as Prime Minister not to wash her own dishes. She wrote in her biography about a time when after a very long day she had had a large dinner in her private apartment with leading dignitaries. The hour was late when they left, but because her cleaner was coming in the morning she washed all the dishes and did the hoovering so as not to make the cleaner start off with a mountain of work for her day. This nor only speaks to the fact that Golda remembered where she had come from but even in the grand position of Prime Minister she remembered to look after even the lady who came to clean her bathroom.

We are part of a continuum of followers and leaders. We are just human even as Moses was just human, we are flawed, just as Moses was flawed, but that does not mean we should not step up to the challenge of making a difference as Jewish leadership. We must continue to have vision and remove barriers for ourselves and others as we lead and follow to our own Canaan.

Shabbat shalom

Parshat Devarim: Guest Darshan Jeanette Powell

This week we read Parshat Devarim. This evening we begin the observance of Tisha B’Av. Devarim is always read prior to the observance of Tisha B’Av. Both the Parashah and Tisha B’av call on us to remember our history. Devarim recalls the challenges of the Exodus and our time in the wilderness. Tisha B’Av calls on us to remember the destruction of our temples, our sorrows, tragedies and persecutions suffered through the years.

Both Tisha B’av and Devarim, each in different ways, remind us that we have choices to make when tragedy strikes. It is good to grieve, to give ourselves the time we need to cope and to feel our sorrow. That is when we need our loving community. Our friends provide support and hopefully good listening. They help us process what has happened and help us to give a tragedy some meaning or learning in our lives. At some point however, we face the difficult task of finding ways to put something positive and some action in place of that sorrow. We want our lives to go on without so much pain. We have to do this while we continue to remember and integrate our sorrow in more positive ways. If we are to choose life, we need take action to make that transition. This weekend provides us with a challenge to look at our lives and see if we are carrying too much sorrow that we need to transform in some way. Are we doing this as individuals, or are we contributing to a communal sorrow that has gone on too long?

How can transformation happen?

Often it takes a long time and, just as we need our friends and community to help us do that as individuals, we also need to remember that our community needs us when as a community we are attacked or persecuted in any way. We have read in the national news of different tragedies in the last few weeks and how people of all faiths assembled to help those in sorrow. Although those were not Jewish tragedies, they are a part of our American community. To the people in Charleston and the people in Chattanooga, loving-kindness and support has been abundant and helpful to those who are suffering. It will help them find the peace that they need to transition out of such deep sorrow to build up their lives once again.

How does looking at our world right now relate to our observance of Tisha B’Av and to our reading of Devarim?

We are seeing an abundance of hate of different groups or persons by different religious representatives. The tragedy in Charleston did not provoke the same kind of rebuke to Christians that the tragedy in Chattanooga did for Muslims. The murders were followed by a series of black churches being torched. In spite of being reviled by a Christian preacher because of the Chattanooga shootings, Muslims then came together to raise large amounts of money for the rebuilding of the burned black churches. Why does our hatred and bigotry spill out and paint entire groups for the actions of one person?

Devarim is the first chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. The Parashah contains the beginning of Moses’ first farewell address. Devarim means words. I want to urge us this weekend to focus on our words. Our Rabbi and our community leaders have been concerned that we foster respectful dialogue within our synagogue. It is incredibly important in so many ways that we listen to each other and respect each other without the necessity of having to agree with one another.

Moses words are directed to the immediate people he has led for so many years. In recounting the history of the Exodus, Moses is rebuking the people for their many mistakes and is urging them to accept responsibility and follow God’s law. The people are about to enter the Promised Land and Moses wants them to be ready. He does not want them repeating their mistakes that would have devastating consequences.

As we mourn the past and read of Moses concerns, let us examine whether or not we have left God out of our lives. Have we lost the sense of awe and gratitude for what we have? Have we allowed the hate and bigotry that we see each day in the press and in our electronic mail to influence how we feel about others? Can we mourn this bad influence and at the same time resolve to our part to counteract these kinds of hate? What does it take to find the courage to contribute to change? It does take courage when we often find a nasty or sarcastic response to voicing what we believe.

Rabbi Paul Citrin tells us, “Moses does not dwell only upon the people’s shortcomings. He is proud of their enlarged numbers and publicly prays that God increase them a thousand-fold. We are thus reminded that warnings and chastisements can have productive results when those who are to hear are first assured of their innate worth. Even as little as one sentence of affirmation by a parent, a teacher, or a leader can lift a head and strengthen resolve.”

Rabbi Citrin goes on to say, “Devarim, ‘words,’ are our share in the divine power to create or to devastate. With words we shape reality, construct meaning, and frame hope.” Heschel reminds us, “We shall never be able to understand that the spirit is revealed in the form of words unless we discover the vital truth that speech has power, that words are commitments.” (Man’s Quest for God, A.J. Heschel, p. 25) Sefer Devarim calls us to be ever mindful of the words we shape that, in turn, shape our world.

Yesterday, I read the incredible speech of Reuvin Rivlin, President of Israel. He is involved in bringing various religious factions together amidst gross lack of respect between different groups regarding Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in Israel.

Previously, the president’s office stated that the event’s goal was to “bring together the communities of the Jewish people in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and of learning and studying, to discuss the importance of Jewish unity and the need to work together to build understanding and respect.”

“This Talmudic proclamation must be considered fully. Does the Torah in Deuteronomy (16:20) not say, ‘Justice, Justice shall you pursue.’ Did Isaiah (1:27) not prophesy, ‘Zion shall be redeemed with justice’? Are not law and order foundations upon which the world stands? Yes, the world does stand upon justice and the law, though not upon them alone. The judicial system is vitally important to the building of a just society. It enables contracts and agreements to be made. The law enables cooperation and partnership. Trust. It is the vital contract for the building of society. Yet, society cannot exist without moral and ethical accepted norms, components of mutual trust and unity.”

We need to learn, not how to agree with each other but how to disagree with each other. We must disagree with each other with respect, fairness, with firmness, but without foregoing the other persons’ Jewish identity. We cannot predetermine that one opinion or another has no right to exist within contemporary Jewish discourse. Rabbinic Judaism, which was founded in Yavneh following the destruction of the Temple, witnessed firsthand the horrific danger of sectarianism. Thus the Rabbis understood that social and faith-based conflicts, important as they may be, cannot be decided by a total negation of the other. The greatness of the Torah teachings and learning of Yavneh became a major part in our common Judaism through its ability to turn debate itself into part of the core of Jewish law. The Jewish cultural debate does not erase the words of the minority or the opposing side-but gives it a place within the canon itself.

While we cannot always control what others do to us, we can control our reactions. We can learn from whatever mistakes we may have committed. In the midst of our grieving over the many sorrows we have endured we might also look at some great victories. As a people we have established a State. As a percentage of the general population we are high achievers. We have found the courage to act. We often act in spite of our fear. As long as we listen with respect, and see the divine in the other, even if their ideas are opposite to us, we can maintain unity as a Jewish people. Let us make over our mourning into our mitzvah.

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Matot-Masei: Getting our Priorities Straight

I used to think that getting married was the single biggest change to someone’s social life. Once you were married, things would never be the same. You couldn’t make big decisions without consulting your partner-in-life. I used to think that…until I had children. Now I think that having children is a more substantial change to one’s life. Nothing is the same once you have children. Being responsible for the life of a person who is powerless to help themselves is an awesome responsibility, and that responsibility influences one’s priorities and the choices one makes in life. Or at least, they should be which brings us to this week’s double Torah portion.

Parshat Matot-Masei describes the final days at the end of the Israel’s forty years of wandering. The generation of slaves who left Egypt has all died. A people who emerged from Egypt as a ragtag bunch of escaped slaves has transformed into a strong and powerful nation. To illustrate that point, the beginning of Matot (which means “tribes”), describes a war of revenge on the Midianites, who had previously vexed Israel. The tribes quickly muster a military force of 12,000(!) troops, led by Pinchas the  Priest, Aharon’s grandson, and accompanied by the holy vessels from the Mishkan and the silver trumpets. The entire narrative of the war is over in two verses.  Two verses. This is a nation that can handle itself in times of war. (The remainder of the issues about this war center on how compassionate the troops should have been towards their female captives.) But how do they handle life after the war?

After the battle is over, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menasheh notice that the land in which they are encamped is perfect for their needs as cattle farmers. So they ask Moshe a question:

“The land that God has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us, if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (Bamidbar 32:4-5)

At first glance, the request seems reasonable. That piece of land has been conquered, and would be an ideal resource for their livelihood. What is more, this would leave far more land for the remaining tribes to divide among themselves! Is this not a generous offer? Of course it is! It’s a win-win.

But look at the request again, as Moshe does.

Are they suggesting that they would not cross the Jordan ever? What about the conquest of the land that lays ahead of them? What about the Sinai covenant? Will they not come to the Mishkan for national festivals? Are they turning their backs on God? On the people? Moshe lays all of this at their feet, and add one final psychological concern: “[The spies who brought the bad report about the land] turned the minds of the Israelites from invading the land that God had given them.” In other words, if even one tribe does not cross the Jordan, none of the others will either. History has borne this out in the past. This “generous” request has problematic implications for the entire nation.

As it turns out, this is not their actual intention at all! Immediately that tribe steps up and offer themselves as shock troops for the coming conquest of the land. But first they would like to “build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.” (Bamidbar 32:16) Excellent! No problem. They just want to settle down first and then join the Israelite army, coming back home after the war is over. Moshe accepts these terms, and makes them vow to uphold their end of the bargain. But then he concludes with slightly different but crucially different language:

“Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised.” (Bamidbar 32:24)

The tribal leaders mentioned the sheep before the children; Moshe mentions the children before the sheep. Why does Moshe switch the order in which these tribes will settle down?

Moshe understands that these tribes have their priorities in the wrong order. What drove the initial request of this tribe was the allure of land, cattle, what we would call a career. They put their career before their families. At first. we thought that they were only putting career before their national allegiance, which would have been a serious enough issue. The truth was actually far more problematic than that. It was career before families. Their families were going to stay in their temporary tents until they had built the sheepfolds.

Moshe, having regained confidence in their national commitment, gently reminds them that as important, if not more important, than career is their commitment to their families. They must settle their families before they can do anything for their careers, in this case, their animals. These tribes understood Moshe’s message:

“Your servants will do as my Lord commands. Our children, our wives, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind in the towns of Gilead, while your servants, all those recruited for war, cross over…to engage in battle…” (Bamidbar 32:26-27)

So too this is with us! How often do we make decisions that put career before family? Does that promotion mean more money at the expense of being with family? Is less time with family worth money? This week’s Torah portion asks us to consider how we balance work and family. Which do we put first? How do we make those decisions? Each situation being different, Moshe reminds us that we need to put the needs of our family front and center when we make decisions about our work.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone

AS A FAMILY:

  1. Talk about how your work impacts your family, both in positive and negative ways. Discuss the balance between devoting one’s self to work and one’s self to family. How can putting in too much energy affect the other? How can putting in less energy into one affect the other?

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WEEK’S DOUBLE TORAH PORTION MATOT- MASEI, ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS:

  1. If a man makes a vow, can he get out of it or not?
  2. If a woman makes a vow, what are some ways that she is allowed to get out of that vow?
  3. How does Israel assembly its army to go to war against Midian?
  4. What is the connection between the war against Midian and last week’s Torah portion?
  5. What does Israel do with the spoils of war from the campaign against Midian?
  6. Which tribes want to live in the lands east of the Jordan?
  7. What are the problems with those tribes living east of the Jordan?
  8. What do those tribes promise to do for the nation of Israel?
  9. Find all of the locations where Israel camped during their forty years of wandering.
  10. What are the borders of the land of Israel, according to Bamidbar 34?
  11. How will Israel divide up the land among the twelve tribes?
  12. What is a city of refuge? Who can go there to get protection?
  13. Earlier in the Torah, the daughters of Tzelophchad change the laws of inheritance to inherit their father’s property (they have no brothers). What is the new limitation imposed upon on them at the end of Massei?

Parshat Hukkat: The Staff of Moses – A Tale of Connect and Disconnect

[Note: This bibliodramatic monologue is inspired by the work of Peter Pitzele, author of Scripture Windows, and the Torah commentary of Aviva Zornberg, author of Bewilderments, who presents classic and chassidic commentaries to the Torah in stunning and innovative ways. I am grateful for all that they have taught me.]


Introduction

There are a infinite number of stories in the Torah. There are the stories that we see in the written scroll on the surface. There are the stories that dwell just beneath the surface. There are also the silent stories, such as the stories of a object or an animal, but when we give voice to those stories, we reveal another facet of Torah. “What if…” is one of the best questions to help open up the Torah to learn more about ourselves, even in the voice of something a ignored as Moses’ staff. What if Moses’ staff could tell it’s story?


My final act in Moses’ hands was one of anger and violence. Everyone stood and watched as he took me in his hands, hurled angry insults at the people, who were just thirsty and scared. I felt the rough surface of the rock as I smashed into it. The tiny imperfections of the rock made dents in my soft wooden surface; small pieces of me where chipped away. Then a pause. Then a second blow to the rock, harder than the first, even angrier than the first time.

Then the water flowed from the rock, and everyone drank and watered their animals. But I knew that something broke in that moment. I had been abused, misused, and and remained solely as a reminder of destruction.

But I did not begin that way.

Years before, I was part a staff, I was part of something larger than myself, an acacia tree, one branch of strong tree that provided support for leaves, and shade for travelers and shepherds. I don’t recall feeling separate from the tree, just feeling of being ‘tree.’ Day after day, a man came with his flock and sat under my shade. After I don’t know how long, the man came again, but instead of sitting beneath me as he had for all of those days, he brought a small axe and removed me from my tree. I was born through an act of unintended violence and disconnect.

In his hands, my role changed and expanded. Where once I merely provided shade, now I provided leadership and guidance. Yes, it was just for a flock of goats and sheep, but still it was leadership. I was used to keep the flock together, fend off thieves, wild animals, keep track of our numbers, and to help Moses walk at every step. I supported him.

After sometime, we moved our flock to another remote part of the wilderness. After we sat down at the foot of a small mountain, one of the younger sheep, who had been separated from his mother, wandered off, confused, up the mountain. Naturally, Moses and I immediately trailed after it. Once we caught up to the lamb, we found ourselves about halfway up the mountain in a small resting place.

We sat under the shade of an outcropping of rock, waiting to cool off from the heat of the chase. Moses hand rested gently on me. All of a sudden, without warning, his grip became firm, and he leapt to his feet. Around the corner, a small shrub had been on fire, which happens from time to time in the wilderness. No big deal. Then, without warning, Moses sticks me into the middle of the blazing fire. I felt the heat on me, but it was not like any other fire I had encountered before. I was prepared to burst into flames, but it was a radiant beautiful heat. No fire. No burn. No black marks on me.

What happened next I still cannot fully understand. While Moses seemed to be in conversation with the shrub, I was overcome with this feeling like I was back on my tree but more so, like I was connected to the tree, and the ground, and to everything. It was like being a branch on a tree again, but a tree far larger than anything I had known or ever heard of.

The next thing you know, I have been flung to the ground, and turned into a snake! How did that happen?! I still have no idea. I remember that Moses jumped back from me in fear. His fear was not a new emotion for me. I had felt it before, but never directed at me. I wanted to call out, “Moses, it’s just me!” Slowly, he reached out his hand, grabbed hold of my “tail,” and I became myself again. But now, I felt not only that same sense of connection, but now I felt that I had been noticed, that I had a role to play in something larger than taking care of a flock of sheep. But it was not a role that I necessarily wanted to play.

When Moses confronted Pharaoh, he flung me down again to the ground, and I could feel my dead wooden cells transform into the cells of a snake. The next thing I know it, I am under attack from three other snakes. It’s me or them, and something deep in me knew what to do. I consumed them, each one in one gulp each. I felt excited and scared. Excited that I could be part of such mighty deeds, but scared because of my unknown future. How would I be used next? What harm would I be called upon to perform tomorrow?

Moses took me down to a river. I had only heard of rivers. I had never seen so much water flowing in one place in my life. What an amazing source of life and of abundance! Then, without warning, Moses struck the river with me, and it turned into blood. Why?! Why would I ever do that? How could I have betrayed the source of life of every tree on earth? For every living being on earth! This was not what I was meant for. But what I wanted did not matter. I became a tool of punishment and destruction. Plague after plague was invoked with me as the symbol of that destruction. When anyone caught sight of me in Moses’ hands, let alone come near me, they would cower in fear and trembling. I became ashamed of how I was being used. I vowed never to harm the waters or any living being again.

After we had left Egypt, the nation was camped out on the shore of the Sea of Reeds. My time of redemption had arrived. Moses used me to part the waters, who graciously did so, despite my complex history with the great river. Finally, I had returned to my roots, as a protector and a guide for people and animals.

Then not three days later, I was able to come to the rescue again. Turns out that the people only prepared for a three-day journey, and were out of water. Moses took me in hand, struck a rock with me, and (I have no idea how this happened) water came pouring out of the rock. And everyone saw, especially the elders. In that moment, they began to see me in a new way. I was not only a tool for punishment, death and destruction. I was a tool for life, abundance and prosperity.

The very next day, they tried to abuse me again. Some cowards and brigands attacked the people from behind, where the weakest of the people were walking. The elderly. Young children. The ill. Moses and the others wanted to use me in a time of war to help defeat the enemy. Despite the need, I refused. When Moses came to look for me, to become a symbol of violence again, I managed to hide myself in his tent. I rolled myself under a blanket, just out of sight. Given the urgency of the situation, he did not spend long looking for me, and gave up. Let him become the symbol of victory in battle, but not me.

Then somehow, I got lost in the shuffle. After the battle was over, Moses came back to the tent, exhausted, relieved, but he did not look for me. He had found that he did not need me in his hands all the time. His empty hands alone were enough for the people. However, Moses did find me again later. Most of the time, I was just his walking stick. There were no more plagues to invoke, no more droughts to end. Just a walking stick. I was there to support him in his work. Every know and then, someone who remembered would see me in Moses’ hands, and fall back or run away in terror, a reminder of the role that I had played for so long. Those memories were hard to erase.

Years passed, things became normal in our wanderings in the wilderness and eventually I was given a place of honor in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in the entire camp. I was in the same room as the Ark, which held two pieces of rock from Mount Sinai, which was exactly where I had been thrust into that mysterious fire, and a jar of this foodstuff called manna, which was what the people ate every day. Hardly anyone every came in to see us. We were like a small museum to the past. We kept each other company. You should hear the stories that the ark, the stone tablets and manna could tell you, but that if for another time.

And there I sat until the entire generation that had left Egypt died in the wilderness. It was better that way. Better that those who remembered me a tool of destruction should let those memories fade. Let them die and not tell those stories about me.

Now we come to today. My final act. My last chance to start over. My chance to become a symbol of life for a new generation. Miriam, Moses’ sister, died earlier this week, and, at the same time for some reason, the water supply gave out. As if the past forty years had not happened, the people got thirsty, frustrated and angry again. It was back to square one all over again.

Sitting in the Holy of Holies, I could feel the people’s anger, being drawn to our sacred space like a magnet. But  this time, it was met with a stronger presence. That same feeling from the fire on the mountain came over me, that feeling of intense connection, of that Great Tree. If I had to locate that feeling in space, it would have come from above the cover of the ark, in between the two cherubim. It was a feeling of love, concern and compassion, meant to counteract the anger of the people, to let them know, that even in these moments of death, grief, and fear, that there is a presence in this universe that loves them, sees them in their sorrows and pain, and tries to comfort them, to show everyone that together there is the possibility of compassion and peace.

The sound of footsteps. The curtain to our private museum was quickly moved aside. Moses briskly entered our space, and, for the first time in years, sees me and takes me. In his grip, I can feel the fatigue, the frustration, the feeling that he is slipping, that the frustration is slowly bubbling over into anger.

Why could he not have lingered in my sacred space for more than a moment? Had he stayed there in that space, in that presence, maybe he would have felt that love, and compassion that I felt. What if he had just taken a few minutes in that private place to gather himself, to stand in that presence. What if…?

I was taken out into the light for the first time in a generation, and I saw the people. They were not slaves anymore. They were strong, tall and powerful. Tanned by the sun and born free in the wilderness. They had an air of discipline and focus to them, even in their distress. Moses looked so old compared to the eldest of them.

Moses opened his mouth: “Listen you rebels…” Listen you rebels? Why did he have to call them that? They were not rebelling! Why did he meet their anger and frustration with his own? It’s like he’s talking to someone else, or their parents and grandparents when they wanted water forty years ago.

Then the two blows come. One and then the other. Then the water flowed. And I become a sign of violence again. Yes, there is water, but at what price? I could have become a symbol of that connection to the Great Tree! I could have been a symbol of life, flowing energy and trust! Instead, I am reduced again to a weapon, a threat, a symbol of power to inflict pain, insult; to club a people into submission.

As the people drink, and slake their thirst, I can feel the disconnect. I suddenly felt the distance between Moses and the people. Maybe it was always there and I just became aware of it, or maybe there was a rupture in that moment. I actually don’t know how long it had been absent, whether it was moments or months, but in that moment, I could feel the chasm between them.

Something holy had broken, and nothing could fix it.

What if Moses had thought back to the time when we did this forty years earlier, to the love he felt for the people back then in those first days of literation, and channelled that love for those people to the ones standing before him now. If only I had never been used for punishment, for violence, for threats and death, but only for shade, guidance, splitting the waters, bringing water from the rock, then maybe when he held me in his hand, I could have been the key to unlocking everything that happened before this moment and everything that happened after this moment. Maybe I could have become more than a thing in his hand. I could have become a symbol of trust, connection and love.

Look at your own hands.

What is in your hands?

How will your wield it?

Parshat Korach: Who will stop the plague?

This morning, after the main climax of the Korach rebellion, we read about the plague that to threatened to wipe out the entire nation after:

“Aaron took [the fire pan], as Moses had ordered, and ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made expiation for the people; he stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked.” 

How does such a rebellion start? What are the roots of such a plague?

They often begin with a solitary person. This one begins with Korach. This morning, Ella [Wilson, that morning’s Bat Mitzvah] showed us a way to read Korach as a person ahead of his time, as a man of vision who lacked the understanding that his society was not ready to live according to his ideals. I want to go back to a more traditional way of understanding Korach, which is that of a man who harbors deep jealousy and hatred in his heart, and rallies others to his pain in the guise of a popular revolt.

Who is Korach? The opening verse of this week’s Torah portion tells us exactly who he is. He is a descendant of Levy, the tribe that has been appointed the priestly role in Israel, but more to the point, he is also the next in line after Aaron and his sons to become the prince of the tribe of Levy. However, for some unknown reason (or perhaps this rebellion illustrates the reasons) he is overlooked for the position, which is filled by one of Korach’s younger cousins, from a younger uncle.

The Rabbis imagine Korach sitting alone in his tent, jilted and jealous, plotting his revenge against Moses and Aaron, whom he sees as the responsible parties. His aspirations are nothing less than taking control of the people by appealing to the frustration of the masses.

Korach should have been willing to hear from others who think differently from him, to check out his ideas, to balance out his thoughts with those of others. Instead, he stewing in his feelings of injustice and mistreatment, and refused to see the good in Moses and Aaron, to understand the needs of the people at that time. Korach only saw it as an affront to his honor that he was not chosen to lead his tribe. No more. No less.

Korach’s sin is that he is completely self-absorbed. The size of his ego goes to the horizon of his entire world view, to the exclusion of all others around him. He cannot see anyone else beyond himself. Korach is not merely intolerant, because this is not about tolerance. Korach is filled with the feeling that he is the only one that really counts, born out of his sense that he deserves more because of his birth, because of his place in the tribal family tree, and his festers in to hatred of the other.

I see in Darryl Roof, the man who entered a church Wednesday evening, say through a bible study session, and then spewed hate-filled utterances, and opened fire, killing nine people, the same kind of hate. It’s not just tolerance we need to teach. We need to teach our children, and many adults as well, how to make room for the other in our lives, for people who are different than we are, who look, act and think differently than we do. In order to do that, we need to turn our focus away from ourselves and to refocus outward, so that our ego gets put into it’s proper place – not at the center of the world, but as a servant serving what is sacred, by being one of God’s servant.

What happened in Charlotte was not about many things.

  • This was not a boy behaving badly.
  • This is not about mental illness.
  • This is not about gun control.
  • This was not an attack on Christianity, or religion in general, even though this happened in a church.

A church! Houses of worship are the last safe haven. I have learned from the news in recent weeks that for so many:

  • Home is not safe.
  • Cars are not safe.
  • Pools are not safe.
  • Being on the street is not safe.

The doors of the church, the mosque, the synagogue are supposed to be open.

They welcomed Darryl Roof into their church to study a sacred text with them.

We come into a sanctuary to let our selves be vulnerable, to open ourselves up to the possibilities that our world can become a better place for everyone. When we walk through those doors, we let our guards down, and put our worries aside for a time.

The doors were open.

This was an act of violent racial terrorism, and an assassination of a publicly elected official.

In an article in the Washington Post, I read these four poignant paragraphs:

  • A 21-year-old millennial, in 2015, is alleged to have taken a page from the 1960s and assassinated a black political leader: South Carolina State Senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney was among the dead.
  • A 21-year-old millennial, by allegedly saying “You rape our women,” invoked the centuries-old defense of protecting white women as a justification for the slaughter of black people.
  • A 21-year-old donned early-20th-century symbols of apartheid and racist colonial regimes in Africa on his Facebook page.
  • A 21-year-old allegedly copied from the age-old playbook of racial terror, adding another bloody chapter to the long history of assaults on black people at churches in America.

This is about the plague of racism that exists in our country that we need to address.

The roots of this plague have deep roots in cultural, social, economic, and political history, more than I can delve into or even fully understand myself.

Moses and Aaron first respond to Korach’s challenge by falling on their faces. We white people could use a little falling on our faces and admitting how little we understand.

I will share one short story about race in Syracuse. Currently, I am the co-chair of the ACTS Clergy Caucus. ACTS is a grass roots organization that works on various issues of social justice in larger Syracuse. At the last Clergy Caucus, our guest speaker was Emmanuel Flower, from the Brady Faith Center and chair of the Youth and Violence Task Force. He shared with the group that day about the gang structures of Syracuse, both male and female gangs, what streets they each saw as their territory, and I realized that my life is a complete disconnect from anything happening beyond my predominantly white suburb.

Disconnect can lead to one human being to dehumanize another.

Yet, Aaron, the high priest, stood between the people and the plague.

We are called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We must be among those who stop this plague. And we have been among those who have tried to stop this plague. Fifty-one years ago today, seventeen American Rabbis were arrested in St. Augustine, Florida for protesting segregation in solidarity with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They were arrested in part for protesting a whites only pool.

From their jailhouse cell, the Rabbis penned a letter which beautifully captured why they could not be silent in the face of racism. Their words still ring true today:

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We need to stop this plague. And it begins with us. To help us, I want to look at a familiar biblical text that contains the seeds of moving beyond race, and towards seeing every human being as made in the Image of God. This teaching comes to me from Rabbi Shai Held. [Note: This is a paraphrase of his teaching from his Facebook post.] When God creates biological life, whether it is plant or animal, there is always of acknowledgement of the diversity of that kind of life. Fruit trees of every kind. Seed-bearing plants of every kind. Living creature of every kind. Winged birds of every kind. Will beasts of every kind.

But when it comes for creating human beings, this phrase is subtly omitted:

And God said, “Let us make the human in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” And God created the human in God’s image, in the image of God, God created it; male and female God created them.”

There are no kinds of human beings. There is only one kind of human being, and that kind is made in God’s image. The Hebrew Bible will go on to explain, defend and celebrate human diversity later on, but that diversity is secondary to the unity of Genesis 1. Every human being is part of the same family, the same people. The Rabbis teach that this is to tell us that “no one can to anyone else that their ancestors is better than anyone else’s.” We all share one common human parent, not to mention the same one Heavenly Parent as well.

For some reason, this fundamental biblical lesson, in a country that prides itself on its religious foundations, has completely missed the meaning and the power of this verse. The founding fathers missed this, not seeing people with brown skin as fully human, and this dehumanization led to this nation’s near collapse under the bloody banner of Civil War. Why do Confederate flags still fly over southern American cities? It is a brazen disregard for our all people who suffered in the country because of the color of their skin.

Rabbi Held concluded: “Two of this great nation’s most unforgivable forms of madness met [on Wednesday]: our obsession with guns and our dehumanization of African-Americans. There are entire industries dedicated to denying that either of these problems is real– and to attacking those willing to speak the unvarnished, unwelcome truth. Let us find the courage to defy them, once and for all. At a certain point we lose any credibility in declaring (feigning?) shock; we have long past that point. If not now, then for the love of God when?”

Given all of this, I think that there is something that we can do. Call someone who is of a different skin color, and invite them to a cup of coffee. There is no better way to connect to someone than to sit down over a hot cup of something and have a conversation with them. Some basic questions can get the conversation going: What keeps you up a night? What gets you up in the morning? They talk. You listen. You talk. They listen. In my mind I call it: One Humanity. One Cup. If every person of one color did this with someone of another skin color in Syracuse, that would go a long way towards creating connections, understanding and humanizing each other.

Parshat Hukkat: Water – It’s for Life

There are some days when the synchronicity between isolated events cannot be ignored. A few years back I spent two days  at a workshop whose aim was to begin development of a “Judaism and the Environment” curriculum. When it came to deciding which natural resource we would focus on for this project, water was obvious choice. Almost the next day, I stumbled across an edition of National Geographic devoted exclusively to water and its use around the world. Finally, this week’s Torah portion is Hukkat, which mentions water no fewer than 22 times!

In Parshat Hukkat, water plays a central role. In the ritual of the Red Heifer, the ashes of which are the only way that one can overcome the ritual impurity that comes from contact with the dead, water both purifies the impure and paradoxically makes impure the ritually pure.

Three days after Miriam dies, the people complain about the lack of water. This connection between Miriam’s death and lack water is the source for Miriam’s well, which was one of the items created at the end of the Sixth Day of Creation. God created the well at the beginning of time. It was lost for generations, but later restored to B’nai Israel through the righteous actions of Miriam.

Later on, in Parshat Hukkat, the people’s complaining about the lack of water lead to Moses losing his temper and striking the rock to get the water to flow. This incident resulted in God not allowing Moses to enter the land of Canaan.

Before Israel gets to Canaan, they must pass through the lands of the Edomites and Amorites. Showing an early sensitivity to managing water as a resource, they promise to the Edomites and Amorites, among other things, that they “will not drink the water of a well.”

Lastly, we find a song that Israel would sing to make the well arise:\

“Come up, O well, call out to it! The well that the ministers dug; nobles of the people hewed it, through a lawgiver, with their walking sticks. And from the wilderness, a gift.” (Bamidbar 21:17-18)

One could go back to any Torah portion and find connections to water, wells, or rain. In Breisheet, one of the few things that precede Creation is the primordial water, called tehom, or the Abyss. Avraham digs wells. Jacob crosses rivers and uncovers a well. Joseph saves Egypt from a lack of water. B’nai Israel are enslaved to make mud-based bricks, and pass through the Sea of Reeds when their enslavement comes to an end. During the years of wandering, water is a major issue, since it is a scarce and precious resource in a desert. One could read the entire Torah as a narrative centered on water.

So what is the Torah telling us about water? The Torah reminds us that water is essential for life, that we must appreciate it is as a gift from God, and that we have an obligation to make sure that the water supply is healthy and accessible. Too often, we take water for granted. We can just turn on the faucet and feel confident that clean water will come gushing out. In most of the world, this is not the case. Most of the world lives like B’nai Israel did during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. Water was scarce, sometimes brackish, and when there was not enough, panic would ensue. We are blessed to have clean water every day, but with that blessing comes the ability to lose appreciation for God’s gift of water. And with lack of appreciation comes abuse. The abuse of our planet’s water happens in every community, large and small, through over-consumption and pollution.

According to the American Water Works Association, the average American uses 69.3 gallons of water per day. We can reduce that amount by 30% through the installation of water conserving faucets and fixtures. This is not just a nice civic thing to do. The Torah is telling us that concern with water is a physical need that should be at the center of our spiritual lives.

Jonathan Neril, from Canfei Nesharim, compiled a list of action items that can help us with both the spiritual and physical dimensions of water:

1) Easy: Connect to the physical source of the water you drink. Go to that source and sit by it, like Jacob and Moses did. Listen to the water. Think about how most of your body is comprised of water. Try this every year or every month and see what happens.

2) Still not demanding a lot: Contemplate your monthly water bill, remembering that each drop is given to you as a gift. If you use close to 70 gallons a day, like the average person in the United States does, think about key areas where you could reduce the amount you use.

3) More involved: Connect this physical substance to its spiritual source, which is the Creator of the Universe. Before and after you drink water or any liquid, say the blessing on it. The blessing begins with the word ‘baruch,’ which is related to ‘bereicha,’ pool, since God is like an infinite pool.

4) Still more involved: Another gateway to water awareness is the Jewish ritual Netilat Yadayim, washing hands with water for purity. By using a vessel to pour water over our hands when arising in the morning and before eating bread, we can connect to the purifying potential of water.

5) For the truly committed: Take a few concrete steps toward water conservation. Install low-flow faucets and toilets. Hook up a grey water system to water your lawn with sink water. For more information and how-to, click here.

Water is one of the few substances that we need each and every day in order to live. By focusing on water as one of the ways that God gives us life each day, we can find opportunities to come closer to God, our fellow human beings and our planet each day.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone

AS A FAMILY:

  • Use the above action list to raise your family’s awareness of the role of water in our lives, how we use water, and what we can do to make sure that there is enough water for everyone.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION HUKKAT, ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS:

  1. The animal whose sacrifice is described in this week’s parashah has four main characteristics. What are they?
  2. Someone who touches a dead body becomes ritually impure. For how long? On which days does he or she purify himself?
  3. Where did Miriam die?
  4. When the people complained that there was no water, and that they would have been better off had they remained in Egypt, God gave Moses specific instructions on how to satisfy the peoples’ complaint. What did God tell Moses to do and what did he do?
  5. Because Moses showed a lack of faith in God and failed to follow God’s instructions, he was severely punished. What was the punishment?
  6. Where was Aaron buried, and what action of the people showed that they revered him?
  7. The people had to go around Edom because the King would not allow them to pass through. Once again they began to complain because of their hardships. How did God punish the people this time for their disobedience, and how was the punishment lightened?
  8. When Moses sent messengers to the King of Edom, how did he describe the relationship of Israel to Edom and on what basis?
  9. The people had to fight their way through three peoples to get to the Land. Who were they?

Parshat Nasso: Sacred Service or Mere Avoidance?

People serve God in many ways. And when I say “serve God” I am not talking about isolated people performing arcane rituals or the like. I am talking about  how individuals live their lives, how they do what they do in the world in the service of others outside of themselves, whether those others are people, animals, creation itself, or for lack of a better term, God.

In the beginning of Parshat Nasso, we read that the individual clans of Levitical and Priestly families each have their own avodah, their own work to perform. Some are in charge of packing up and carrying the most sacred items in the Israelite camp: the lamp stand, the showbread table, the incense altar and the Ark of the Covenant. Some are in charge of breaking down and setting the outer structures of the mishkan, and so on. But each type of work is still called avodah, service, and is still part of the larger sacred service that the Levite tribe performs.

Few of us are Kohanim or Levites, and for those of us who are still or trace our families back to those clans and that tribe no longer have those sacred items or sacred structure to be the focus of our service in the world.

How do we serve God today?

Another way to ask the question is this: Which of these two options is better? Is it better to shake off all this-worldly affairs and concerns, to separate completely from all matters of the world, and take no pleasure in the world. Or is it better to immerse oneself in the benefits of this world and to raise them up to a higher level? Which of these two options is preferable? Which one is easier than the other?

From what I know of the Torah and the rabbinic interpretation of it, there is a strain of the monastic or ascetic within the Jewish world that values a more complete separation from the material and the physical. There were the Essenes, who lived near the Dead Sea in the late Second Temple Period. There were some rabbis who fasted regularly and engaged in various types of purification or mortifications of the body, and there sages here and there in the middle ages who practiced asceticism. But by no means were these groups or movements ever considered mainstream or normative Judaism.

For the most part, Jewish life is set firmly in the world, and does not shy away from material pleasure or from satisfying our appetites, but within reason. One often hears that Judaism is a very this-worldly religion, without much focus on the afterlife. The system of Jewish living creates structures, within which one may enjoy many of the pleasures of the world, food, drink, sex, physical activities within limits. Kashrut defines foods that are on or off the menu, and what and when we eat. A clear vision of committed relationships creates boundaries for sexual activity. Concern for one’s physical well-being impose limits on the level of risk one can knowingly engage in.

Then we come across an institution in this week’s Torah portion that seems to fly in the face of this normative approach to Jewish life, the Nazir.

What is a nazir?

In the beginning chapter six of Numbers, we learn the following:

  1. Either an adult man or a woman can, through some kind of speech act such as a verbal declaration, enter into a series of temporary limitations, which are:
    1. they may not drink wine or any other intoxicating drink;
    2. they may not even eat any part of a grape or anything made from grapes;
    3. they may not shave off any hair from their bodies;
    4. they may not have any contact with a corpse, even if it a close member of the family who has died;
    5. the traditional minimum for a nazarite vow was thirty-days, which is the shortest amount of time it takes to grow out one’s hair;
    6. they must bring a complex set of offerings at the end of their nazarite term, including a burnt offering, a well-being offering, and a sin offering;
    7. they must also shave off all of the hair on their head and burn them along with the offerings.

What is going on here? Why would someone undertake this set of extra restrictions?

According to Rashi, someone does this to separate themselves apart from others for the sake of heaven.

For Ramban, it is done to become like a priest, and to serve God more fully for a set period of time.

Don Isaac Abarbanel suggests that the Nazir is even holier than the priests, perhaps because these stringencies take them above and beyond what the priests’ own limits are. A priest can handle a corpse for a member of the family, but not a nazir. A priest can shave their hair, but not a nazir, and so on.

Coming back to the two ways to serve God, the nazir seems to exist in-between the two poles of complete separation and immersion. There is distance from some ordinary pleasures, but not extreme ones. No alcohol. No grape products. No haircuts. No funerals. At the end, get a severe hair cut, and bring a set of offerings. There is no mortification of the body through fasting, flagellation, or other harsh treatments. This is a relatively gentle set of restrictions.

That said, this does take one away from the normative approach to life, which is to fully engage in the delights of the world, but within limits. The nazir does not move completely towards an ascetic, monastic life, but move towards that direction.

Why would someone take on this nazarite state and move towards the ascetic or monastic?

The Netivot Shalom suggests that some might take this one to silence one’s own inner turmoil, a turmoil of an unhealthy kind, or to deal with one’s perceived physical desires. It might be a way to turn one’s back on something that is permitted, but that one has developed an unhealthy relationship with. The structure of the nazarite vow could be a way to take some small steps away from normal society to work on yourself.

Maimonides also takes this view of the Nazir. He writes that “one who takes a nazarite vow in order to set right their inner qualities and to adjust their deeds, this one is enthusiastic and praiseworthy. All of this is in the service of God.” This vow and the like are fences that help one from going out of control.

The word Nazir is from the same root as “nezer,” which is term for a small crown, not unlike what the Kohen Gadol wears. One could understand that the one who takes on a Nazarite vow  so praiseworthy as to be compared to a crown on God’s head. Everyone is subject to worldly appetites and desires, and those who refrain from them to a larger extent are God’s crown.

But there is one salient characteristic of the offerings that a Nazir brings at the end of their term that could shift one’s view of the whole institution, and that is the sin offering. One only brings a sin offering when there has been some error or mistake.

What is the nature of the Nazir’s sin? Was it something that they did in the before they took on the vow? Something at the beginning of their time? Perhaps it was something at the end their term?

For the Netivot Shalom and many others, the sin is taking on the nazarite vow in the first place. For them, the purpose of Jewish life is to live fully in the world. It means to take the mundane and elevate it to a higher level. This is done through increasing one’s level of intentionality and awareness of God as the source of all things. This is what he refers to a joining the lower world with the upper world. In general, abstention from the world is the easier of those two paths of serving God. It is far easier to avoid engaging in the world, and far more challenging to life fully in the physical world, to see beyond the surface, and to connect what is apparent to the eye to that which often escaped notice or awareness. The Nazir leans towards this easy path, and escapes some of this world’s temptations. From this point of view, the sin is having taken the easy path. The offering of well-being is then a celebration of return to normal life.

For Ramban, it is the opposite. It is not a sin to begin a Nazarite vow. Quite the contrary! To push one’s self to a higher level of holiness is commendable. The limitation of the Nazir are tame compared to what some other group’s ascetic practice might be. For Ramban, the sin lies in the completion of the term. S/he has put themselves on a higher level (a higher level even than the High Priest), and they are serving God in the world in this way, and they should stay there. But instead, they come back down to their lower level and return to a normal life. The sin offering here acknowledges this return to a lower state, and the well-being offering comes here as a celebration of having completed their term as a Nazir.

So which is it? Is it a sin to begin a nazarite vow or to complete a nazarite vow? In classic rabbinic style, I offer the possibility of “well, it depends.”

The Nazarite vow is a tool, as a spiritual technology to help the individual challenge the self, to take one’s self to a higher spiritual level without leaving the world behind completely. I find the Rambam view persuasive when he says that the Nazarite vow is for the person who needs to step away from some aspects of normal life to get their own affairs in order, a form of self-care that can be used as a tool for personal growth and transformation. This is not a selfish act, but rather an act that is looking out for the self in the service of God. If one does not take care of one’s self, then one cannot be there to serve the needs of others. Rambam views sleep and food in much the same way. If one does not take care of the whole person, than one cannot serve God by serving others.

In addition, the Netivot Shalom distinguishes between two kinds of nazir, the holy nazir and the errant nazir. The errant nazir is the one who, in the middle of the crisis, takes on a nazarite vow as an escape, as a last resort when normal attempts at self-control have failed.

The holy nazir is the one who undertakes this state well in advance of the crisis, before it becomes an emergency. This is the proactive decision to take time to work on one’s inner qualities and issues that need attention before the crisis hits. The only differences between the errant nazir and the holy nazir are the level of self-awareness and the timing. The rest of the work is the same.

They also share something else in common, which is the third offering they all make, which is an olah.

The olah is a burnt offering, which all goes up in smoke, offered as a gesture that says even though the time as a nazir has come to an end, the work done during this time will endure beyond this moment. The olah is a gesture of dedication, showing determination to remain on this higher level of holiness even after the nazarite vow is over.

For us today, this is a moot point. We no longer have a Temple in which to make the offerings, so those who make a Nazarite vow would find themselves stuck in it until there is a Third Temple in Jerusalem, and for that, I would not hold my breath too long.

What can we learn from the nazir? My takeaways from the nazir are:

  1. Each of us should identify a thirty-day period of time every year or every couple of years to do some serious personal work. In some sense, this is what the month of Elul before the high holidays could be.
  2. Setting aside a fixed amount of time to do this work is effective. The time frame gives borders to our work. Deadlines are useful things.
  3. Thirty days is the shortest amount of time that one needs to make real changes in how one lives one’s life.
  4. Even when we are working on ourselves, we should never completely absent ourselves from life.
  5. When we come to the end of such a period of time, we should treat that moment as one of reflection, celebration and dedication.

Think about your year coming up. When do you see a thirty-day or longer period of time where you can set aside some worldly things, temporarily set aside certain responsibilities, and use that freed up time to take care of your self, whether it is your physical, spiritual, emotional, or psychological self, or any other numbers of selves you might have. A period of time for you to reflect on some aspects of your inner landscape, your body, your life, and so on. Spend a set time each day doing that work. And at the end of that time, celebrate with a good meal. Burn something that want to leave behind as you complete that period of time. And dedicate to take all that you have learned in that period of time with you in the future.

This is another dimension of become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This is one of the ways in which you can serve God, and become a jewel in the crown of the Creator.