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Joy: It's What You Do

02/22/2024 04:01:08 PM

Feb22

The rabbis teach that we must increase our joy for Adar. And this year the month of Adar repeats, with the holiday of Purim (a pinnacle of rejoicing) held off until second Adar. So our calendar this year has served us a full extra month to be increasing joy. And it could come at no harder time. It this time in the life of our people, joy may feel hard, disingenuous, or disloyal. But Adar is here. And Purim is coming. And Purim Katan, or “Little Purim”, which we celebrate by having a festive meal or doing something joyous, is tomorrow. So what do you do?

Our parsha this week, Tetzaveh, deals with another tall order, given to Aaron — transforming ones self from slave into the holiest priest of the one God. You could only imagine Aaron turning to God and saying, “This comes at a hard time. I was a slave my whole life. I’ve never been a priest. How do I suddenly become, powerful, resplendent, and holy?” How do we create such revelry and joy when for so many months we have in some part been in near constant mourning?

Our parsha’s solution is to give instruction not about why Aaron should be holy or to wax poetic about what holiness is. It is not about It is the nitty-gritty how. The gorgeous details unfurl verse by verse, dictating the wrap and hem of his clothing, coat, and headdress — the pomegranates, the gold, the bells. The little bells on the hem of his robe are meant to protect him, ringing as he moves from room to room into the holy of holies. We are told detail by detail of the precious stones, braids, and fine twisted linen that should be made into his clothes.

We are given objects to make and actions to do. These objects and actions — sacrificing an animal, anointing himself in blood — make him safe and make him holy. So when we too are not sure how to feel joy, and maybe we've lost track of what joy even is or feels like, maybe we can start back at the fundamentals, the objects and the actions. Maybe you make a fabulous fringed costume (80s themed!) for the megillah reading. Maybe you create a beautiful shabbat meal in honor of Purim Katan. Maybe you bake hamantaschen for yourself and for your family. Maybe you give to the needy. Maybe you send presents to your friends and spend a day decorating the bags and filling them with beautiful fruits, gold, or precious stones. 

Pick an object. Pick an action. This Shabbat, practice joy. Shabbat shalom.

Never Going Back Again

01/25/2024 04:50:32 PM

Jan25

Today, along with dozens of other B'nai Torah members, I watched the Georgia State Senate pass HB30, a bill to define antisemitism for the purposes of assessing antisemitic intent behind perpetrated crimes -- ie assault or harassment -- that would qualify them as hate crimes.

It was an incredible moment of Jewish unity, as rabbis and congregations and supporters of the Jewish people across Georgia gathered in the Capitol. It was a reminder that we are not alone. It was a reminder that antisemitism cannot be explained away as politics, resistance, or truth-telling. We will never again mistakenly believe that we deserve the crimes committed against us.

Critics of the bill argued that the definition of antisemitism used, which covers hatred of Jewish peoplehood such as crass caricatures of the people and nation of Israel, would chill free speech or punish people who disagree with Israeli state policies. Others argued that it is unfair to pass a bill that helps defend Jews against antisemitism when other bigotries are not as thoroughly contested, with a couple State Senators claiming that defining what is antisemitic intent should be left up to each case’s prosecutor. One claimed that offering a “road map” to a court to understand how antisemitism manifests in our modern world would be unfair to other communities who don’t have their own road map yet written.

These objections ring hollow. There is no punishment for criticizing the state of Israel. But, if you equate the existence of Israel to the Nazi takeover of Europe and then go beat up a Jewish person, this act is now much more easily tried as a hate crime. And if there is any lack of clarity what Islamophobic, misogynist, racist, etc. intent looks like in a hate crime, then there is space to pass bills addressing those legislative gaps.

There are some Jewish people who are unhappy with this bill. As a people we prize debate and disagreement and need not all agree. There will always be Jewish people who are not happy with the path other Jewish people are taking. We see this famously demonstrated in this week’s parsha, B'shalach, with some Jews’ bitter discontent over leaving Egypt. When they camp by the sea and turn and see Pharaoh pursuing them with chariots they are terrified and they cry, “Why did we leave?!! … It would have better for us to worship Mitzrayim than die in the wilderness!”

That the people argue with Moses against their liberation is not a surprise. They’ll keep doing it for all of Exodus. What we need to understand is the meaning of what Moses replies. He says, “Don’t be afraid … you have seen Mitzrayim this day; you will never see them again any more ever” (Exodus 14:13).

What does this mean? You'll never see an Egyptian person again? Some say it means Jews can never go back to Egypt. Some say it means that every Egyptian they see who rode into battle against them, Pharaoh’s army, will be killed. But still others ask this: what are the children of Israel afraid of in the first place? There are 600,000 of them, some armed, and they’re protected by God. Some rabbis say they were afraid because they still felt subservient to the Egyptians. They saw themselves as rogue slaves and these people of Mitzrayim as their masters, no matter how powerful, free, and capable they had in fact become.

Moses, then, was telling the people: you will never again see yourself this way. You will never see yourself as deserving your enslavement. You will never look on might and violence in the world and say, it’s safer to serve them than to anger them.

And so we learn this: we may never all agree on which direction to march through the desert. But we may never again see ourselves as deserving hatred, abuse, and persecution. Shabbat shalom.

Humility in Powerful Leadership

01/04/2024 02:56:37 PM

Jan4

This Shabbat we begin the book of Exodus. We read the story of the children of Israel’s slavery in Egypt, freedom from Pharaoh, and long journey towards the land of Israel. Our communal memory brings up vivid scenes of plagues and a parting sea, maybe with a soundtrack of Paul Robeson chanting in spine-tingling baritone, “Let my people go!” But that’s not what Moses says to Pharaoh. He asks for three days off.

Moses asks for three days of freedom for the people to be given a break to go worship God in the desert. He does not ask for much, only a brief respite from their suffering and a chance to worship God. Pharaoh refuses this reasonable request. Then he slanders their character and crushes their spirit by doubling their workload.

Moses hadn’t even wanted to ask for anything to start with. He didn’t think he could manage it, that the people or Pharaoh would listen. He didn’t want the confrontation and he didn’t want the leadership. He refuses this assignment four times until God really can’t take it anymore and gives him Aaron as support. But finally he agrees, knowing he has the position and the resources to serve his people and his God. And so he musters his courage and accepts his responsibility and the risk and challenges that come alongside it.

When Moses returns home to the children of Israel and tells them God’s plan, the people believe in him. They trust him. And they bow low to the ground. At once, he becomes a leader whether he wanted to be one or not; the people need him and he has been sent to plead their cause.

And so when Pharaoh refuses and his slave drivers come down hard on the people, Moses doesn’t throw up his hands and return to Midian. He doesn't defend himself to his people against their criticisms. He doesn't turn their blame on Pharoah saying something like, "Why are you angry with me? It's Pharoah's fault he's a tyrant!" But he turns his face directly to God. Moses says, “Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Why did You send me? Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and You have not rescued Your people at all.” (Ex. 5:22-23). He holds God to God's own promises and moral standard. This is extraordinary language to use with God. For a man known for his humility, here he is sparking with chutzpah. 

And yet that is just the sort of leadership we need -- an insistence on our own moral standards, a core conviction and knowledge what it is their mission is. Our leaders must be someone who will fight for what they believe in, never too proud to fail, to keep trying again and again, and with little interest in their own status or defending their reputation.

Be humble in who you are and what you think you deserve, but argue without shame or self-effacement when you know your principles have been violated. Shabbat shalom.

A Tale of Two Babies

12/14/2023 03:16:25 PM

Dec14

Our Haftorah this week is the famous story of King Solomon and the baby. Two women each birth a son. One of the infants dies. Each woman claims the remaining living infant as her own. They come to Solomon locked in argument. Solomon sits in judgment of their dispute and decides to cut the baby in half; half will go to each. One mother cries, “Give her both babies! Just don’t kill the child!” The other says, "If I can't have him, neither will you!" And so Solomon decrees that the first is the real mother.

This passage in the book of Kings demonstrates Solomon’s immense wisdom. And it has been used an age-old litmus test for whether someone cares more about winning a fight than the survival of whatever it is they are fighting over. This message reverberates deeply in our world, where polarized sides of zero-sum conflicts fight tooth and nail over who should be vindicated and who should be demonized, both sides abandoning the issue or people they love in the process. And this desire to win, or not to lose, translates from public to private sphere. We see a painful struggle in relationships when one or both partners wants to be right more than they want to save their family.

It can be easy from the outside, smug with our knowledge of Solomon’s decree to cut the baby in half, looking at a foreign conflict or someone else’s marriage, to read the haftorah in didactic simplicity. We might feel that the conflict we are outside of has an obvious, tidy, easy solution. We see ourselves wise judges like King Solomon. But Solomon’s wisdom is described as exceptional. The people of Israel stood in awe of the “wisdom of God” that guided him to make a ruling.

Too often we look from the outside at our friends’ relationships, or at our own loved ones' behavior, and we think we see the issue with the clarity of distance:  oh, he or she just wants to win this argument, how petty! Too often people look at conflicts and think, “Well if only x would do y the whole thing would be solved!” But nothing is so simple to solve. But wisdom is not obvious. And in some cases even the inverse of Solomon's ruling, destroying whatever the conflict is over, can be the solution; many parents are familiar with resolving two kids bickering over a prized object by proclaiming, “FINE THEN — NOBODY GETS IT!” We shouldn’t be tempted to play King Solomon with our friends and neighbors. True wisdom, the divine capacity to find an elegant solution to conflict, is exceedingly rare.

So what can we learn from this story of Solomon? The first verse of the haftorah reads: “Then Solomon awoke: it was a dream!” (3:15) We know context of Solomon's ruling. The two mothers approached him right after he woke from a dream. In his dream, God had offered him any gift he should choose. And rather than choose long life, wealth, power, or vengeance, Solomon asked God for wisdom. It is this humility alongside the desire to seek God’s wisdom to care for and to rule his people justly that is the lesson display in our haftorah. We are not naturally wise. Wisdom is not intuitive. Before appointing ourselves judge over anyone else, we must first give up on the rewards of riches or glory and ask God for the wisdom to do right.

This Shabbat, as we find ourselves craving rulings, looking for severe decrees or maybe Solomonic solutions, may we remember first to ask for wisdom and good judgment — to have the humility not to seek riches or fame in our judgments, but the wisdom to see and to protect what is at stake.

Notes of Prayer, Vayishlach

12/04/2023 12:27:06 PM

Dec4

My sermon this past Shabbat went through the ways parshat Vayishlach can teach us about grief and prayer. We watch Jacob stand terrified at precipice of grief and danger -- having possibly lost his mother, at risk to lose his wives and children, ready to be annihilated by his estranged brother. There Jacob recites the words: "I am too small for all the lovingkindness and faithfulness that you have shown me, your servant. I crossed this Jordan with only my shepherd's staff, now my family has been split into two camps. Save me" (Genesis 32:11-12).

These words were set to beautiful music by Yonatan Razel, and I said I'd share them after Shabbat. Here is a version of the song sung by Ofir ben Shitrit - https://youtu.be/RYyHpRDqIWg?si=w1ovjo6OSet86kaQ 

One Mission Per Person

11/02/2023 04:07:16 PM

Nov2

Three men stop outside Abraham’s tent Abraham as he sits in the doorway on a hot day. These men are angels, or messengers of God, and they are integral to the story that unfolds — from the birth of Isaac to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The rabbis ask: why three angels? Shouldn’t one celestial being be enough? And their answer is: because an angel can only have on mission at a time.

Michael, in Hebrew: who is like God?, comes to announce Sarah’s pregnancy with Isaac. Gabriel, strength of God, comes destroy Sodom. And Raphael, God heals, comes to save Lot and his family from destruction. None of them could do the other’s task. They can only do one mission at a time.

If even angels can’t manage it, then certainly one humans can’t fix every thing at once. An activist is rarely a good governor. A radical can not be brought to mediate. A social media influencer is not going to present measured and well-researched complex information. As we seek help from others, as we seek teachers to follow and leaders to guide us, remember the role of each person you listen to. Are they by vocation a preacher, a warrior, or a doctor? Are you coming to them for spirituality, fight, or care?

There’s an old joke that if you need a rabbinic ruling you should make sure to go to the rabbi who will give you the answer you want. As we seek guidance and moral exemplars in this time, we must be thoughtful in who we go to for what.

And more importantly, we can’t each of us be expected to play all the roles. Maybe you are an excellent listener and what the world needs from you now is compassion and patience and a loving ear. Maybe you are a great advocate and your mission is to make phone calls or posters or social media content to rally people together. Maybe you are a giver, a writer, a warrior, a fixer, a problem solver. Maybe you make beautiful jewelry or maybe you give excellent hugs. In a time like this, a time of fear and war and change and sadness, we must each find our way of helping.

As our elected officials, locally and in Washington, set about on their missions, their decisions impact how our government helps Israel and whether our Jewish community gets the security support we need. They are under intense pressure from anti-Israel and antisemitic organizations and individuals. We strongly encourage you to reach out to representatives on these issues whether or not you agree with them on any other issue.  It is important that we communicate our thanks for their support and ask that it continue. You can call, send an email, or send a message through their website.

You can find contact info for your elected officials here: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials

Our GA Senators are: https://www.ossoff.senate.gov/contact-us/message/ and https://www.warnock.senate.gov/contact/contact-form/

And if you are comfortable using a pre-written message from AIPAC you can click the following: https://www.aipac.org/israel-at-war/takeaction

Shabbat shalom

To Pray When You Are Grieving

10/12/2023 11:56:59 AM

Oct12

I’ve never connected so deeply to our liturgy as I did this past Sunday. In part it was the ruach of Simchat Torah as we whirled in circles and shouted and sang. In part it was the joy of kindergartners visibly delighting in huggable plushie torahs. But mostly it was the feeling of breaking. A part of me had broken apart. Our people have been attacked and our family thrust into war and the sense of safety, bubbly enthusiasm, and joviality I usually live by was gone. But in that space I felt our liturgy move through me more powerfully than ever.

We begin each day with birkot hashachar, the morning blessings. On that morning, wrapped in my tallis, I blessed our God sh’asani yisrael, who made me a Jew. We blessed our God who releases the bound, who strengthens Israel with courage, and crowns Israel with glory. In unison we said “amen” to bless God who has compassion for his people Israel.

We have the power to remind God who God has promised to be. It is how Abraham argues with God. It is how Moses secures us God’s forgiveness. When we bless God, we remind God who God is. You are the one who crowns Israel with glory. As we stood in our sanctuary on Sunday morning, I felt electrified by our communal demand of blessing that God have compassion for Israel.

There are still more prayers of communal grief. On Yom Kippur we read the list of thousands of years of martyrs. On Shemini Atzeret we sing for rain, reminding God of our blood spilled like water. As we stomped and spun around the social hall crying “aneinu, aneinu, b’yom qoreinu”, hear us, hear us, on the day we cry out, I felt less alone in my grief in singing together.

There are prayers that remind us of hope. When we sing “ozi v’zimrat ya vayhi li li’shua” in the Song of the Sea, we remember that God gives us the power of song, and of strength, to save.

There are prayers for channeling our anger. We call out to God in psukei d’zimra, the opening morning prayers, “el neqamot adonai, el neqamot hofiya”, God of vengeance, Adonai, God of vengeance, reveal yourself. My anger is not enough. My anger is not a solution. Please God, let our anger be yours. I do not trust my anger, but I do trust yours.

It is not often that our whole foundation is rattled. Thank God. But what shakes you to your core reveals what is beneath, a bedrock of strength and of purpose. It connects each of us to one another. May it keep us brave, compassionate, and safe.

This Shabbat, when we stand up to pray, before we turn silently to God in the Amidah, give yourself a moment to sing out — sing loudly, with anger or with grief, with hope, with fear, to remind God who God is, and to remind us who we are:

tzur yisrael, quma b’ezrat yisrael
uf’deih khinumekha y’hudah v’yisrael
go’aleinu adonai tzva’ot sh’mo, k’dosh yisrael
barukh atah adonai, ga’al yisrael

Stronghold of the people Israel, arise and help Israel.
Redeem, as You promise, Judah and Israel.
Our redeemer is named God of Armies, the Holy One of Israel.
Blessed are you Adonai, who liberates Israel. Amen.

A Carrot or a Stick

08/31/2023 04:31:57 PM

Aug31

Moses says to the people: after you have crossed the Jordan river, half of you will stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people, and half of you will stand for the curse on Mount Ebal. So half the tribes go up one mountain, and half up the other, and the Levites, from Mountain Gerizim, will shout a series of blessings and curses to all. To each curse the people respond “Amen”. Presumably the pronouncement is something like an Alpine yodel.

As someone who frequently hikes around mountains, I have no realistic idea of how you could possibly hear someone on the next mountain over. Are there no trees? Where are all the people standing? Are they lined up on a cliff edge somewhere?

I find this passage hard to understand and the staging isn’t even the most confusing part. Why are half the tribes on a whole different mountain? Are they being cursed? Are they warning against a curse? Is this all for the sake of antiphony?

And before Moses tells the people to split between the mountains, Moses and the Elders tell all of Israel to plaster stones with words of Torah and put them all around Mount Ebal and build an altar there. I imagine it’s meant to look like a sort of stela of the law, but the image I get from this passage is a delightful summer camp with verses of Torah hand painted on smooth stones nestled among the trees. Why would we built an altar on, and festoon with Torah, a mountain that is associated with a cruse?

So I have a theory. Different people need different instruction. Some of us are very highly praise motivated. We want blessings so we know we’re on the right path, so we feel assured of our relationship with others and with God. We are reward motivated. But for some of us, maybe praise rings hollow. We don’t hear any blessings anymore, but the words of criticism lodge in our gut. Or maybe the solid structure of a world of consequences and rules gives us a sense of purpose and integrity.

I’m not particularly curse motivated myself, but maybe the lesson is this: the people are equally divided. There is no “better” way of receiving Torah. Some of us need more rigid structure, and some of us need to feel appreciation and reward.

Yet we might each assume that our own preferred method ought to be someone else’s. Maybe you thrive in a world of consequences and curses, so you’ll remind the people around you of the threat. But maybe your sibling, spouse, or friend, is a Mount Gerizim kind of person. Maybe he or she wants blessings, not threats. So this shabbat, when we try to motivate, inspire, and connect with those we love, remember that not everyone responds to the same Torah. Can you, like the Levites, say what you need to say in words that everyone can hear? Shabbat shalom!

God of Contracts and Kindness

08/03/2023 08:58:35 AM

Aug3

I don’t know much about crypto currency. I’m not a banker or in tech and I don’t have any interest in bitcoin (though I do have a dear friend who wrote a Modern Love column on it once, which clearly I recommend and is the closest I’ve gotten to the subject). To be honest, I thought crypto was “over” — like bell bottoms or Furbies, a fad we hope not to return again. But then I was informed that crypto companies do other things, like making Smart Contracts (don’t worry, this wont be about computers all the way through).

A Smart Contract is a contract that executes itself. Meaning, if you agree to pay x in exchange for y, the contract itself automatically transfers the money when its conditions are met and that’s the end of that. It eliminates doubt, middlemen, and wiggle room. I imagine some sort of computer animated contract that when signed lights up into golden autonomous magic turning gears a la Harry Potter.

Now I think in general we value the idea of efficiency. And we assume if you agreed to something, you ought to carry it out. I can’t say anything is necessarily wrong with a Smart Contract as long as it isn’t a predatory one. But something about this gave me pause. I think I like the idea of wiggle room. I want a contract, but one of obligation and of compassion, the sort of contract that God made with us.

In Parshat Eikev, Moses reminds the peopleויָ֣דַעְתָּ֔ כִּֽי־ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹקים הָאֵל֙ הַֽנֶּאֱמָ֔ן שֹׁמֵ֧ר הַבְּרִ֣ית וְהַחֶ֗סֶד” , “ “Know that Hashem your God, the God, the trustworthy God, keeps the brit and the chesed”, the covenant and the lovingkindness, with us.

What does this mean? Maimonedes explains chesed as the kindness you didn’t earn and to which you can never be entitled, but that you receive as a gift. God makes a brit with us: if you keep these rules you will get these benefits, if you don’t keep up your end, you will be kicked out. But there is this extra bit, this chesed, where maybe God also says: but that’s not the end of it. You can break it and you can repair it, as you do every year. I will forgive you and I will forgive your debts to me. You can try over and over again. You may not get these blessings, but you will get others. And most of all, I will help you keep the contract; I will teach you and I will guide you and I will send people to help you. It is not a Smart Contract, auto-enforced.

Our relationship with God is governed by rules but also by compassion. We must strive to bring such wisdom to our own relationships with other people — perhaps for a partner, or a child, or a student, or a friend. We might say to ourselves, “OK, if they don’t do x, then they can’t have y,” ie: If you don’t do your homework, you can’t have dessert. If you don’t call me on my birthday, I wont call you on yours. If you talk in class, you miss recess. We value such rules for the sense of structure and consistency that they give and that we crave. These contracts can help the world feel safe, fair, predictable, and navigable. But rules without compassion, without give, drag us down. What if instead I help you redirect your bubbling classroom energy? Or I call you as an act of chesed? What if dessert is something you get because its delicious, not because you earned it?

Writing relational contracts without compassion builds a life of rigidity that makes us brittle, inflexible, and distracts us from the purpose of any relational bond — to love. The first word of our brit is v’ahavta, and you shall love. To do so, we need more than consistent and predictable rules. We also need compassion. So while we may hold fast to our earnestly set expectations, rules, boundaries, and contracts with others, let’s not forget the chesed, the other half of God’s relationship with us, the sense of compassion that holds our contracts in service of love.

 

Words with Friends

07/13/2023 09:26:29 AM

Jul13

My favorite thing about Judaism is the arguing. Now I don’t mean screaming or insulting or winning or losing. I mean the arguing, when one person says to another, “Here’s a really interesting question!” And the other replies, “Oh yeah that is interesting!” And then someone says, “I think the answer is this”; and another says, “It is the opposite.” And off we go.

I love it because in this process we have a purpose and we have companions. We are trying to learn and to understand and we’re not doing it alone. There is a sense of belonging in thinking out loud with friends. And trying to figure things out together is one of the best ways I’ve ever felt that sense of being seen, supported, and understood.

Our parsha this week lays out some challenges for a modern woman. A woman’s vows can be absolved by her father or by her husband; a man’s vows have no such codicil. The Midianite women seduced Israelites into sin. Only a male child inherits his ancestral property. But also, a husband has 24 hours to annul a vow. Of all the Midianites, only the young girls are allowed to survive. And the daughters of Tzelophchad petition successfully to inherit their father’s property.

What am I to learn here? I don’t relate these laws in my own life. If I make a vow, I can’t imagine a man in my life annulling it. Tzelophchad’s daughters’ win is also confusing. The women are allowed to inherit their father’s property, but then they must also marry within their tribe lest another tribe get that property (because tribal identity is patrilineal). In the Torah it all works out for the daughters. We close out the book of Numbers with the information that they married their cousins. But does that mean if a daughter marries outside her tribe while her father is alive, if he dies without sons she cannot inherit?

I have a Whatsapp chat of some of my closest female friends from rabbinical school we put together when we lived in Jerusalem. I texted the chat this question. Debate ensued! Talmud, Torah, precedent, logic — the chat lit up with citations and argument.

It was one’s friend very first day at her pulpit. In any new role, especially such an overwhelming one as a congregational rabbi, you can feel lost and a bit out of touch with your own abilities and needs. Our debate, she wrote, restored to her a sense of “groundedness and normalcy” on this first day.

I imagine in some way the familiarity of the practice of arguing about Torah, something we did often in school, was reassuring. But I also believe that arguing together is empowering. It gives us a sense of being seen and appreciated. And the willingness and safety to be frequently or spectacularly wrong, combined with the faith that you can figure things out — that you can make meaning together even in disagreement, is the greatest generator of the feeling of belonging that I have ever known.

I don’t know how the laws of Mattot-Masei unfold in the modern court of egalitarian opinion. But there’s a group chat of women rabbis out there having a ball arguing about it together. We know that studying and arguing about Torah is a place where we all belong.

The Things We Carry

06/01/2023 04:59:39 PM

Jun1

The Israelites donated vehicles (carts and oxen) to the Levites to transport the elements of the mishkan, the tabernacle. Moses then divided the carts and oxen up among the three Levite families. But to the Kohathites he gave none “because theirs was the service of the [most] sacred objects, their porterage was by shoulder” (Numbers 7:9).

And so the Israelites moved the miskhan, our most holy structure and God’s home, from place to place. Some things they moved by cart, and some were carried by hand. Why? It seems so much easier, so much more efficient, to toss the items in the cart. Why didn't Moses give any carts to the Sons of Kohath?

We love to complain about schlepping. But carrying things by hand can give you a visceral sense of what matters. Anyone going on a car trip knows they over-pack. Did you need that extra set of just-in-case pants and shoes? Who cares — in the car it goes! Now try to get that in an airplane carry on, and all of a sudden requirements for what is important enough to take with us shoot up. If you carry by hand, you have a real sense that these are your essentials.

What if you had to carry it all in backpack through the woods? Our idea of what is important and valuable shifts dramatically. Everything you bring must matter. If you’re in the midbar, the wildnerness, you want to save your hands for food, water, shelter — the essentials. You’ll starve if you can’t carry food but have your hands full of shiny and frivolous objects. Deep in the desert, you only carry objects that contribute to your survival.

And cars (or carts) also enable us to do a sort of ‘aspirational packing’, I’ll call it, where we might think, “Well I might not play tennis often … but I might on this trip! I could be a star! Pack the whites and sneakers!” We don’t have to really think about where we’re going or what we want to do when we get there. With a big bag, planning is ancillary. But when you’re carrying by hand, you really have to know what you plan to do there so you can bring what you need.

I just went to an Atlanta United game (it was fabulous) and I’m told this is ubiquitous for sports, but I had to put all my items in a “clear bag”. This adds a whole other level of awareness. If everyone can see what you’re bringing — they see what condition it’s in, how you treat it, what you’ve packed it with — you consider your accessories with much greater scrutiny. There were no old candy wrappers and half-working pens packed alongside the essentials on the Kohathite's shoulders.

So imagine your job is to carry your holy objects by hand. Moses wont give you a cart. Everyone sees everything that you carry. They see the condition it is in and how you treat it. What you carry must be essential; it is the thing that is most important to who you are and where you plan to go, the life you build and re-build over and over again. And what you carry is necessary for your survival.

In this springtime many of you are moving -- maybe going on vacation or your child is going to camp or to college. As you pack, in this modern life of cars and schlepping all our possessions around, what do you have that you would still carry by hand? What is important to you? Is it a ritual object? Is it a nostalgic object? Is it a multi-tool? We say things are just things, they don't matter. But we are all attached to what we have. Have you noticed what you do carry around? Is it what is most important to you?

Doing Everything All At Once

05/18/2023 03:47:36 PM

May18

What is the danger in discombobulation? Discombobulation is a modern word of fanciful mock Latin origin that roughly means  “confusion”. But it also implies to me a sense that all your parts are out of order, as if you woke up one morning assembled backwards or, as my grandfather used to joke, “Your feet smell and your nose runs.” If I am feeling discombobulated, I can’t make heads or tails of a situation, everything is haphazard or in disarray. And usually I feel it when I am trying to do too many things at once.

When many important things need to happen, and we want to get them all done ourselves, we lose track of our priorities. Different demands pull us in different directions — friends, family, work, health — but if you have six or seven things that are all equally important to do or to consider, it is near impossible to prioritize or then do any of them. So we start to fall behind or forget things, juggling less and less successfully with each new ball in the air. It might lead to forgetting what is really important to us and start us out on these tasks in the first place.

In our parsha this week, Bamidbar, we are given very precise instructions for our most important task: building, maintaining, and moving the mishkan, the tabernacle, God’s home on earth. And to each family clan there is given a very precise assignment. One family carries the oil, one the poles and sockets, one the linen cloth. There is no assumption that they will just figure it out or divvy up the load. This  task is broken into discrete parts that have each been delegated out and put in a fixed order.

But after one family group, the Kohathites, receives an assignment we get this surprising verse: “אַל־תַּכְרִ֕יתוּ אֶת־שֵׁ֖בֶט מִשְׁפְּחֹ֣ת הַקְּהָתִ֑י מִתּ֖וֹךְ הַלְוִיִּֽם׃” or “Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off  (takhreitu) from the Levites.” (Numbers 4:18)  What is happening here? The Kohathite assignment is to carry things from the Ohel Moed. They have to wait until Aaron and his sons have disassembled all the items there. So maybe their job is extra dangerous and God is warning against their doing it improperly less they be punished with karet, being cut off from the community. Some rabbis say it is a warning against this family in particular because they are the clan of Korach, who rebels against Moses and cuts himself off from the other Levites. Maybe God is aware of division looming in the ranks.

But Sforno, a 16th century rabbi, interprets it differently; he writes that what this verse means is, “Do not allow the procedure of carrying parts of the Tabernacle to be a free for all, the one first on the spot carrying the part he chooses to, for if you do this the resulting chaos will lead to destruction, to death. Such chaotic conditions will inevitably lead to desecration of holy things, holy objects, with tragic results.”

In trying to do too many things at once, with no proper delegation or prioritization, we forget the essence of what we were doing in the first place. And here in our parsha it is creating holy spaces. It doesn’t seem to matter that one temple object be carried by the wrong person, or that some other object be mislaid, per se, but that in the melee, this free-for-all, the Israelites forget the sacredness of their task. They forget that their real purpose is not to get the clean up done, but to sanctify this place for God. This is the cause of desecration, chaos, and maybe even death.

If you have been feeling discombobulated this week, may you find again the purpose at the heart of your assignments. May a deeper sense of purpose pull you through the chaos and may you find a way to delegate the some of those many tasks out again so that you are no juggling to many tasks alone, but pursuing whatever goal you are trying to do in the first place. Shabbat shalom!

Here, You Do It

04/20/2023 01:33:17 PM

Apr20

This Shabbat is Earth Day, so here is a lesson from my twenties spent exploring earth.

When I led cycling trips around the globe we had a number of pre-trip tasks to do that I did not particularly like: calling the posh French hotels to confirm our particular American reservations; adjusting and cleaning all the derailleurs so the bikes shifted just right; filling mysterious fluids in the huge boxy Fiat’s engine.

Like most, dare I say all, humans I felt compelled to avoid those tasks. You see, I had coworkers. They could do them. Now let’s be clear, I did do them, but once the trip started, it got harder to find that time. We were all pressed, doing a million tasks a minute — chatting with curious teens about Pointe du Hoc while slicing oranges and directing traffic in a busy roundabout. Passing a flat bike tire on a wheel we’d swapped off a guest’s bike and tossed in the van, we might have each thought to ourselves, “Oh, yeah... I’ll do that later I’m busy now. Or maybe by the time I’m done prepping this picnic lunch my co-leader will have done it!” That would be understandable.

But this was nipped in the bud in our training. Our training leader looked at us and said, “Every task you skip, who do you think will do it? It’s just the two of you out there. Skipping that task is like looking your co-leader in the eye, handing them the flat tire and saying, 'Here. You do it.'"

That stuck with me. Leaving your dirty dishes in the sink for just one more day with housemates? Here, you wash these. Never collapsing those darned Amazon cardboard boxes? Here, you do this. Leaving garbage on the floor? Yeah, that task is for you darling. And it’s even easier to pass tasks to an invisible “other” than someone you know and love. Maybe someone else will pick up that garbage on the trail.

Now you might have some established deals with your loved ones — who is the garbage taker outer and who is the one who makes sure you write down appointments — but with no bargain struck, we just wait for someone else to come and do those things for us.

There’s a beautiful teaching based off Ecclesiastes, from Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, that God took the first human to the Garden and said, “Admire my creation! It is beautiful. All that I have created I have made for you. But be careful that you do not ruin my world, for if you do, there is no one else to put right what you have destroyed.” When it comes to the task we were assigned in Genesis, "לעבדה ולשמרה" to work the land and to protect it, there is no one else coming by to fix it.

We are very lucky to rely on each other; I believe our interdependence and our adaptability are our greatest human strengths. You don't need to do every thing. It is probably a good idea to let the garbageman collect garbage and the arborist trim the trees. But if we all work together to harm nature, there is no other coworker who will sweep in and fix it after us. When there is work to be done and you say "Oh I can't do it" or "I cannot do it today", understand you're looking someone in the eye and saying, “Here, you do this.”

This Shabbat is not only Shabbat but also Rosh Chodesh Iyar. Iyar is also called “the Month of Radiance” (Chodesh Ziv) in the book of Kings because it is when the trees are radiant with blossoms. May we all take a moment to delight in that radiance this Shabbat and then pick up the tasks required to preserve them on Sunday.

Shabbat shalom!

 

This and Next Year in Jerusalem

03/30/2023 02:49:51 PM

Mar30

The first matzahs just hit the shelves in Tel Aviv as I was packing up to leave Israel this past Wednesday. My Passover preparation this year was to spend the past two weeks as the rabbi for a group of 20 young couples from Atlanta on a trip with Honeymoon Israel. They traveled to Israel to build Jewish community in Atlanta and to strengthen their relationship to each other, to Judaism, and to the Jewish people. 
 
Our people are no strangers to the power of a long journey to open us up to revelation and to connect us to one another. This trip to Israel was a powerful example of that. While I left Jerusalem just in time to be able to pray at my seder to be in Jerusalem next year, a holy reverse commute of sorts, I brought some beautiful lessons and new relationships home to Atlanta with me. 
 
We traveled far and wide in Israel. We met with David, a Kabbalist artist in Tsfat, taking refuge in his home studio from the pouring rain. We made zaatar from fresh herbs with Druze family Snir and Maya in their living room in Maghar. We danced with Ashager, an Ethiopian Israeli in Tel Aviv, and heard how her parents had fled to Israel. And in Jerusalem, over shabbat dinner with Avraham, he wove us into stories of his life and travels and joyfully welcomed us all as part of the Jewish family.
 
We heard stories from people who had come to Israel from all around the world, and in each we were welcomed into their lives. In each moment, it became more and more clear to me that a connection reverberates through your whole body when you recognize yourself in someone else’s stories. We grew closer as a group as the group found its place in Israel. 
 
As this group began to bond and open up, over and over again I heard how relieved, delighted, and grateful these couples were to meet other people like them— people with the same questions, needs, and challenges. They told each other their stories and they were met with friendship. We traveled so far to learn the strength and vibrancy of the community we have at home.
 
Passover centers on the power of telling a story, the story of our enslavement and liberation, the story of building our people, and seeing ourselves as part of that story.  I went as the rabbi on this Honeymoon Israel trip so that these couples might know me, know each other, and feel like they too are building our people. When we pray for next year in Jerusalem, may that prayer be for the unity and connection of the Jewish people. May we all feel that sense of family and belonging this Pesach.
 
Shabbat Shalom!
 

Belonging in a Big Community

02/09/2023 10:49:02 AM

Feb9

There’s a mathematical limit to how many people you can know well. Well, there’s a theory of one anyway. A British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, suggests it’s 150. Beyond that size, any social group starts to lose coherence and splinter. Dunbar’s number is based on our cognitive capacity as understood by human brain size and structure. Our ability to know people well and feel comfortable with them takes brain space and time. We learn about the other person, remember facts and feelings about them, and get a sense of their social connections and role in our community.

These relationships are built on and strengthened by regular contact. We can have a shared sense of identity, or purpose, or task. Getting to know people and feel connected with them takes time. In our modern age, we tend to forget that and feel that thousands of friends exist at our fingertips. And while there’s an amusing footnote to Dunbar’s number that suggests Americans in particular might be capable of 290, not 150, close relationships, for each of us there is some limit.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Yitro says to Moses that his trying to meet the needs of every Israelite in the desert, 1 man with 600,000 relationships, is lo tov, לא טוב, — no good. Moses cannot possibly get to know, connect with, or understand this many people. Yitro warns Moses that he will wear himself out, נבל תבלֹ, he will surely wither. But he also says that the people will be worn out too. Without real connection, there’s nothing holding the group together. We need smaller groups.

So that’s just what Yitro teaches Moses to do — divide up in groups as small as 10 so that each and every Israelite is included and every group has the same weight. Then each group needs an individual functioning as point person and leader. Yitro says the leaders should be anshei chayil, אנשי חיל, to lead each group of 10. And the rabbis work to define this Hebrew term. Some say it means capable, or God fearing, or those with many resources. But in the verse before we learn that these leaders are simply the ones Moses teaches how to lead; Yitro instructs והודעת להמ את הדרך ילכו בה , v’hodata lahem et ha-derekh yelkhu va, and you’ll teach them the way to go forward. 

10 people can do a lot of cool things together. If you want to find a smaller group to strengthen your connections at B’nai Torah, or if you want to learn how to lead a group, find out more about our Yitro-approved small groups here: https://www.bnaitorah.org/smallgroups We’ll be hosting a workshop for those leading or interested in leading on February 26 at 10:30 (sign up here: https://www.bnaitorah.org/form/2/26-smallgroup-workshop).

May you find and grow your circle and feel connection, belonging, and friendship, this week and every week. Shabbat shalom!

There is No Right Way

01/05/2023 01:36:06 PM

Jan5

When it comes to doing things I don’t really know how to do, I like to wait for some sort of “sign” to begin. Maybe that is to find the perfect snack, or most aesthetic room arrangement, or research the task itself over-thoroughly before considering starting. There is something in the mystery of doing things well which can paralyze me. Especially if I don’t really know how I did it well a previous time. I try to ritualize the components to get myself some kind of willpower boost or, equally likely, I don’t do it at all.

Hanging in my hallway is a sketch of two elephants that I made. I love it. I have no idea how I drew it; it was some sort of Bob Ross-inspired happy mistake. I was messing around with some cray-pas and not thinking much of it. I have not sketched since. “I am not an artist!” I tell myself in semi-apology.

There is a pressure in doing things the right way which can destroy our motivation for doing them at all. Maybe you want to start running but you couldn’t do a 5k right now and so you tell yourself: there is no point in jogging a circle around my street! Or you want to try leading services, but convince yourself you couldn’t possible rattle off each and every word of quickly murmured Hebrew for three hours!

So when Jacob sets out to bless each of his twelve sons (plus two grandchildren who become children), you might imagine he'd be stymied by the looming pressure of it. How can you bless one child perfectly, let alone twelve? And after all we learned from Isaac that blessing two sons is hard enough. And Jacob has a not insignificant history with mixing up paternal blessings.

Getting things right relies on a certain belief of the way things should be, who deserves what and how it should look. You only bless one and it’s a winner take all scheme. You can only make one sketch and it must be perfect. You can only run if you’re a ‘runner’. You can only daven if you grew up a rabbi.

So Jacob doesn’t try to do it “right”. Finally, after a lifetime of conflict and strife, siblings fighting siblings for a short supply of love and blessings, he lets go of the belief that blessing one person he loves means taking blessing from another. There is no perfect way to do this right other than to do it.

He switches Ephraim and Menasseh, putting the younger child before the firstborn by crossing his arms.  He seems confused. When he first sees Joseph’s two boys, whom he’s just said he would bless, he asks, “Who are they?” Joseph wonders if maybe his dad has just mixed them up. But he isn’t confused. Jacob says to Joseph, “יָדַ֤עְתִּֽי בְנִי֙ יָדַ֔עְתִּי”, “I know my son, I know”. He meant to change the formula. And because of it, we are all blessed by both sons, even to this day, as we say “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”

May you have the blessing to do the things you don’t yet know how to do, or how to do perfectly, or really are pretty mediocre at doing. You don’t have one chance to do it perfectly, there is space enough for all the steps. Shabbat shalom!

One Hand Clapping

12/15/2022 11:50:39 AM

Dec15

As a child someone gave me a book of zen koans. Yes this is a little strange, but let’s just accept that it happened. A koan is a stumper question, one asked by a teacher of enlightenment to a student. It’s meant to provoke such advanced meditative reflection that one might gain insight into the deepest reality of existence. You might have heard the more popular, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” A koan may or may not have an answer, but that is sort of beside the point. The point is an epiphany.

I didn’t get “one hand clapping”. I was mildly bothered. This question still registers in my mind as hardly interesting. One hand clapping? Ok, bang a shtender with the one hand … that’s a sound. Or maybe the hand kind of folds on itself and makes a little floppy halfhearted clap. Great. Who cares? The question didn’t grab me. It wasn’t difficult. There was nothing to argue about.

Occasionally someone approaches me and apologizes, “Sorry Rabbi, I have a question.” Apologizes! What! I’m delighted by questions. I’ve been waiting all day for some good ones. Please, ask me. I would be delighted to explain, study, or disagree. If I don’t know the answer, you’ve given me something else to learn. And mostly I’d be delighted to disagree; questions to argue about are my favorite. Because in my experience it’s questions, and arguments, that allow for deep understanding.

The prophet Amos in this week’s haftarah asks, “הֲיֵלְכ֥וּ שְׁנַ֖יִם יַחְדָּ֑ו בִּלְתִּ֖י אִם־נוֹעָֽדוּ?” translated, “Can two walk together without having met?” It is in the context of God discussing God’s relationship with the Jewish people. It’s not a clear question. It feels a little bit like a koan. And this question stuck out to me from the text because even though the haftarah seemed to expect a “no” answer (you’re right Amos, they cannot walk together!) I wasn’t so sure. It’s not obviously a question with an answer. It’s a question posed to make you reflect.

The Hebrew of it makes the question even more dynamic. Can you walk together, yelech, from the same root as halacha, living in God’s path, without meeting first? Meeting here comes from the same word as moed, like the ohel moed, the tabernacle that was the temple for the Israelites in the desert, or moadim, gathering or celebrating a holiday. Is Amos’ question can you live a life with God without shul and holidays? Not necessarily! But a good question invites you reflect and think about your life and your assumptions. And I’ll put my working theory out there, and I invite you to disagree.

And, in truth, despite my belittlement of the “one hand clapping” question, I’ve remembered it for years. Who remembers something boring for years? Someone who in that moment notices for the first time that questions are paths to wisdom. You don’t need answers. In my koan book, I found official approval of something I already know to be true. Answers may be well and good — but what power there is in sitting and mulling over, and arguing about, and never agreeing on, some really good questions. That feels like enlightenment to me. Shabbat shalom!

All Good Things

10/27/2022 10:08:59 AM

Oct27

My dog does not excel at long term strategizing. I imagine his inner monologue going something like, “Oh here is my favorite toy! I am so very excited. I shall DESTROY IT!” His love language seems to be chewing. And whatever is most beloved shall be torn to shreds. I have no way of knowing if he misses the objects, or if at night, when his little paws are dream-running through fields, the lost toys haunt him as happy ghosts of his past.

When I was a kid, I was incredibly sentimental. I still am I just cope better now. I treated every object as if it deserved humane diffidence. Behold, a cut out card-stock heart with accordion paper arms and legs and a smiley face I made on vacation? Save it forever in a special place! Stuffed animals? So close to sentient that I must make sure each gets enough attention every day. I lived with an urgent need to preserve and protect anything good that crossed my path.

I felt honorable in my quest. I think I came by it honestly. We can see the clear scaffolding of my mindset in the way we usually read Noah: Destroy the bad! Preserve the good! This is what we think God does — with floods, fire and brimstone, war. Thus destruction must be punishment. And it indicates that what was destroyed was bad too. And good things must be made to last forever.

But how many good things have I ruined, trying to save them forever?

Sometimes the destruction is part of the good. The best things can be incredibly fleeting.  A first bite of cake, lavender picked and crushed for its smell, fireworks exploding, laughter, discovering something new -- all of these things do not last by design. Their end is part of their beauty. If you save that cake forever, just looking at it, you will have missed much of its goodness and probably have ants.

Maybe Noah needed to build an ark to bring his family and all these animal species into harmony. Maybe we need many languages from Babel to turn our attention from our own glory to discovery of the world. Maybe sometimes we must destroy things because that is the way they are at their best.

So when is destruction a good thing? I imagine it’s when we feel we have the choice. As we read Noah this Shabbat, may we each face destruction without fear, shame, and resistance. May we instead find the empowerment to know for ourselves when good means finite.


Shabbat shalom!

Never Going Back Again

09/01/2022 10:05:54 AM

Sep1

A dear friend of mine wants to go back to his pre-Covid self. He feels he has lost a part of himself, the part that socialized easily and fluently, charming new friends without effort. “How can I go back to that me?” he asked me in sadness, “Something of me has been lost”. He is not alone. I imagine that each of us has been, at one time or another, caught in such a riptide of wanting to go back, searching for a past situation or a past self that we long for, in need of a richness we once had, and returning to it over and over again in our minds. 

The Israelites were notorious for this throughout the exodus, grumbling against Moses that they missed their food, their homes, even their lives as slaves in Egypt. Though it may have been objectively worse, there is a comfort in what once was. And surprisingly it isn’t only hardship that tempts us to try and go backward. In our parsha we learn that even when the people  flourish in the land of Israel, crowning their own sovereign and living with such prosperity that the king must be warned against amassing too much wealth, they are still explicitly forbidden from going back to Egypt. The kingdom might be thriving, with money to seek riches like a herd of horses imported from Egypt, but in Shoftim we read: “לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד”, “You must not return back that way again” (Deuteronomy 17:16); they should not go back, even from a place of strength. 

The wording of the verse is insistent, literally translated as something like, “you must not again go back this way again”. Not only is Egypt the past, seeking it only causing regression and harm, but also this isn’t the first time you’ve tried to go back. The wording here implies you’ve tried time and time again. There is a fruitless pattern here, one God warns against getting stuck in.

If, even when we are kings of our own castles, blessed with plenty, we fixate on wanting more, on wanting the past, on what is elsewhere, perhaps we can learn from the rules of kingship set forth in Parshat Shoftim, which teach a king how to best lead and to best serve, how we might find ourselves again. What can we learn from these teachings to help us thrive as we are? When something in you has been lost, if you cannot keep going back for it, what can you do?

There is an alternative to iterative longing. We are taught that a king must be set from among his brothers, not have too many riches, horses, or commitments, study daily, and never look down on his fellow, “לְבִלְתִּ֤י רוּם־לְבָבוֹ֙ מֵֽאֶחָ֔יו” (Deut. 17:20), literally: never exalt his heart up over his kin. So dont לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד, lashuv baderekh hazeh od, go back that way again. Instead: put yourself among your people, connect back with your community. Don’t get distracted by amassing a wealth of things, excess will not help you. Commit to learning something every day. You don’t need to read your way through the entire Talmud, but find a practice of reading and learning to focus you and to give you meaning. And, finally, “don’t exalt your own heart from your kin”. Don’t be a snob, or, more broadly, don’t separate yourself from others. Because when we look at our lives and say “I am missing something” and “I want to go back to me”, we remove ourselves from those currently around us. Instead of looking at everyone else, hearing them, connecting with them, we are longing for something lost and those who aren't there. Our moments of greatest loneliness and need can be healed by paying attention to those around us — listening, giving, meeting heart to heart.

Not surprisingly, our parsha aligns beautifully with the season. In Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah that we are in now, we spend a lot of time reflecting on kings and kingship. We say that the “king is in the field” during this month, meaning that our divine sovereign has come to be in the world. The rabbis teach that the shofar, blown every morning in Elul, is the sound of God’s coronation. In this way, every day, hearing the shofar, we choose to make God our king, we coronate God again and again. May this sound be for you a reminder of God's torah on sovereignty, of your choice not to return to Egypt, not to be lost going backward over and over again, but to seek all that makes a king thrive — connection, humility, study, and caring for one another. Shabbat shalom!

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