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1102 East Lasalle Avenue
South Bend, IN, 46617
United States

(574) 234-8584

Sinai Synagogue – an integral part of the South Bend community since 1932.

Sinai Synagogue is a proud part of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, a dynamic blend of our inclusive, egalitarian approach and a commitment to Jewish tradition.

Sermons

Uplifting that which is intangible

Steve Lotter

Rabbi Michael Friedland

The New York Times reported the sale of the artist Jean Michel Basquiat’s Untitled for $110 million dollars. Now to be fair, I know that art aficionados might very well be able to explain why this is an important and valuable piece of contemporary art. But for it to sell for $110 million dollars means someone has way too much money for their own good.

But in this world we venerate ‘things’. When we can put a monetary value on something, the level of veneration grows exponentially.

Judaism has always had an uneasy alliance with art. The Torah’s command “Thou shalt not make any graven images” was considered by some to be a general prohibition not a specific rule against concretizing images of God. And yet the Temple and Tabernacle had artistic components to them. Rabbi David Wolpe points out that “art is the means by which we are visibly reminded of the intangible; great art points beyond itself. But great art is, in its iconic power, uncomfortably close to idolatry. The difference between an idol and a sculpture resides in the mind of the observer and boundaries of the mind are notoriously porous.”

We Jews uplift that which is intangible. Art that leads us beyond the physical and material can enhance devotion. But even more, it is holiness in time and space that we are encouraged to honor.

You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or
place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God. You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Lord’s.

These verses conclude the Torah portion Behar. But they also act as a coda to the final verses of the Book of Leviticus. A coda is a concluding section of a text that serves as a summation of certain preceding themes.

Jacob Milgrom shows how these 2 verses, which include two positive mitzvot and three negative mitzvot line up closely with the three of the first 5 of the Ten Commandments and with the opening verses and closing verses of Leviticus 19, the Holiness code.

The first two of the Ten Commandments are: "You shall have no other gods before Me” and “You shall make no graven images” which parallel You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God. The term here for idol – elilim – sounds very much like elokim aherim found in the 10 Commandments. The second verse: You shall keep My Sabbaths is of course the fourth commandment.

This continuous refrain warning against idolatry in the context of promoting Shabbat and the holiness of the sanctuary is of profound significance because it is a message the Torah very much wants to instill. Rabbi Wolpe writes, “Ultimacy takes precedence and ultimacy is intangible. Value that which you cannot see, and hold aloof from a world that is too much with you, a world of getting and spending, “I am the Lord your God”. Idolatry is forbidden because ultimacy cannot be made into a commodity . An idol is forbidden because you can see it, and that which you can see you will want to own or to control.”

This is why idolatry is contrasted to Shabbat and the Divine Sanctuary in several locations in the Torah. Placing these mitzvot in opposition to one another expresses this central teaching of Torah.

Shimshon Raphael Hirsh , the great 19th century German leader of Orthodoxy, wrote, “Not by means of statue and pillar, not by means of likeness and memorial stones have we to keep ourselves conscious of God and His rule; the Sabbaths of God, the Sabbath of Creation and the Sabbath of the Land, the Sabbatical year and Jubilee, which regulate the whole of our private and public lives with the thought “God,” … these are our sign and covenant… from these do we draw the inspiration which makes us find ourselves at one with God.” It is from the intangible, the ineffable that we link ourselves to God and raise ourselves up to a higher order of being.

Abraham Joshua Heschel who used puns effectively referred to the world as an allusion – not illusion. “What we encounter in our perception of the sublime, in our radical amazement, is a spiritual suggestiveness of reality, an allusiveness to transcendent meaning.”(Man is Not Alone, p.22)

Experiences that we share in this world can allude to something beyond that we may not be able to express in concrete language or symbols.

As Rabbi Wolpe said, art or sculpture may allude to something beyond or they may be worshipped as an object to own and control. But Shabbat is sacred time, there is nothing of Shabbat which we can control or own. On Shabbat we simply exist. One must prepare for Shabbat, must learn to refrain and to breathe, to limit oneself and one’s reach in order to find that sanctity. Otherwise the hours of that day will slip away like sand in an hourglass. But if we make Shabbat properly, it alludes to something greater, and holier, beyond; this is the meaning of the rabbinic teaching that Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come, a day when we receive, not take; a day spent in harmony with the world not attempting to be in control of it.

Likewise is the space within the sanctuary – mikdashi. The desert sanctuary had places within for cultic rituals but what made it sacred was that God had determined this space be set aside from all others. Most of Parashat Behar concerns land issues. The reference to a portion of that land as a Mikdash, a holy space, reminds us that while the whole earth is the Lord’s, parts of this world are infused with greater concentrations of the Transcendent. What creates that concentration of transcendence is the gathering of God’s people for the purpose of engaging the Divine.

As we close the book of Leviticus a book which has focused so much on the sensual – sacrifices, incense, skin disorders, physical abnormalities, dietary rules – the author brings us back to the essential lesson of Judaism which is that the most real is that which is ineffable and that which we can see and feel and sense is significant when it alludes to the transcendent source of all being.

Or in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson “The first and last lesson of religion: the things that are seen are temporal, the things that are unseen are eternal.”

May we all be blessed with the gift of recognizing that which is truly eternal. 

Taking responsibility for the sins of the few

Steve Lotter

Rabbi Michael Friedland

A recent USA Today insert for in the South Bend Tribune acknowledged the 50th anniversary of what the paper called “three extraordinary acts of courage” – the opposition of Martin Luther King, Jr, Muhammad Ali and Eugene McCarthy to the Vietnam war. These were acts of courage because they each put their prestige in jeopardy for criticizing a war which many Americans supported. They were criticized and lost standing but they have all been vindicated by history.

In the USA Today article, Martin Luther King called for a permanent end to bombing and immediate ceasefire, not only to to protect the Vietnamese people but “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read, ‘Vietnam.’

What struck me in this quote was the focus on the American collective soul being at risk due to an unjust war. I think there is no doubt that his concern was proven correct. The Vietnam War was the next greatest military effort after World War II, much more extensive and damaging than the Korean War. Unlike World War II, America was not seen as fighting the great fight against tyranny but rather fighting to support a tyranny. Doubt and a lack of trust in government reached deep into the collective psyche and I think the vestiges of that mistrust continue to this day on both the left and the right.

King’s lesson compares to a teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel that “Some are guilty, but all are responsible”. In a collective, not everyone may be guilty of wrongdoing, but ultimately it affects everyone unless means are made to stop it. Thus all are responsible to make amends in some way for the sins of the few.

In the opening of Leviticus there is a valuable lesson about the dangers to the community by the sins of a few. We are introduced to the ritual and cultic practices in the Tabernacle, mishkan. The opening chapters describe different sacrificial offerings made by the priests and by individuals. One of the offerings is called a Chattat. In older translations, the chattat sacrifice is translated ‘sin offering’, because a chet is a sin and the offering was made in response to an inadvertent sin. But our Chumash follows the studies of Jacob Milgrom who insisted that the chattat should be translated ‘purification offering’ because the offering by the sinner brought purification. Milgrom clarified that chattat was a purification rite brought for sins committed by people which generated impurity in society; these sins “attacked” the sanctuary, where they accumulated. The chattat purified the sanctuary. Milgrom refers to the blood of the offering which was sprinkled on the curtains of the Ark, the altar of incense in inner court, and the sacrificial altar in the outer court in different situations as a ritual detergent. The inadvertent offender did not need for himself to be purged by the chattat blood because his sin was washed away by his acknowledgement that he made a mistake and his remorse. What he needed to do was receive forgiveness for the consequence of his actions. His offense caused the sanctuary itself to become polluted.

The theology behind such a system argued Milgrom was that the God of Israel will not abide in a polluted sanctuary. The merciful God will tolerate a modicum of pollution but there is a point of no return. “More grievous than all the other transgressions in the Torah is the imparting pollution to the sanctuary and its sancta, taught Rabbi Shimon. When that point is reached the community is in great danger.

Milgrom shares a number of examples from comparable ancient texts that Israel was in full accord with its neighbors’ obsessive compulsion to purify its shrines. The key difference between Israel and pagan nations was that the pagan world was suffused with fear that impurity was caused by and would lead to demonic possession of its sancta; Israel had removed demonic power from its concern with impurity. “Malefic impurity does not inhere in nature; it is the creation of man. Only man, even by inadvertence, can generate the impurity that will evict God from his earthly abode”.

Milgrom’s description of ancient Israel’s cultic theology resonates with a Jewish theology that would develop 1500 years after the destruction of the Temple.

Among the medieval kabbalists there developed a theology that human sin not only was detrimental to the sinner and not only caused punishment due to the breaking of covenantal bonds, but impacted on God and on the cosmic realms. Sins impact negatively on the Godhead and gum up the sefirotic structure, the process by which the Divine enters into this world. What effect does sin have on God?

Elijah deVidas in his Kabbalistic Mussar work Reshit Hochmah uses a metaphor about a spring of water that flows down and irrigates beautiful fields and orchards. If someone comes along and diverts the pipes such that the water flows instead into a garbage heap, the landowner will become angry that the valuable water is being used for this purpose, and that the fields are being neglected while the resources are flowing into the trash-heap.

Teshuvah is the reparation of those broken irrigation pipes and restoring them to their original position so that the Divine flow can return.

Among the Kabbalists in an even more profound way than the Priestly authors in the Torah, each of us by our actions impacts on the community as a whole, each action we take has cosmic ramifications.

We know this to be true in our world today. When we act in ways that treat our environment poorly –from small acts like littering, or idling our cars when we are waiting somewhere instead of turning the car off, to more serious acts of environmental harm by unsafe corporate practices, the entire community is affected, and even the entire universal eco system. Accepted scientific evidence shows us that global climate changes over the last century have been caused by human actions. Our unwillingness to, as it were, purge our sins of wanton destruction of the environment and exploitation of natural resources are polluting our sacred space – the earth.

We live in a closed universe. Our actions have consequences, not only on ourselves but on our community and on the Divine. Sinful behavior, exploitive behavior, hateful acts give off ripples that impact our collective psyche for generations. But just as such actions cause harm, so we have the ability to rectify such negative acts. Observing the mitzvot, demanding an end to harmful policies, defending the vulnerable, insisting that all are equal before the law, these are
some of the ways that we too like our ancestors can purge the ethical, and literal, pollution from our society.

Shabbat Va'eira - Amazing Feats at Any Age

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 28, 2017

Judith Falzon

When Rabbi put out the offer to us members of the congregation to share d'var Torah, I was intrigued. But as a relative newcomer--and as someone not even sure what a d'var Torah is--I was hesitant. I had no idea what I could possibly say to you, my friends and mentors.

What I can say to you is: thank you. I've come to appreciate so much over the last two years the incredible richness of Jewish tradition. In the simultaneous simplicity and complexity that is Jewish life and thought. It's all there--just waiting to be uncovered. With a little digging or a lot of digging there are beautiful pieces to tickle mind, heart and soul.

In the Pirke Avot 5:21:
“Yehudah ben Teima used to say: Five years [is the age] for [the study of] Scripture, Ten [is the age] for [the study of] Mishnah, Thirteen [is the age] for [observing] commandments, Fifteen [is the age] for [the study of] Talmud. ..”

Okay, well here I am well past the age of five, ten, thirteen and fifteen and I am still a beginner at Scripture.

During our first year of study I remember being at Fiddler’s Hearth along with some of my classmates one evening and. With Rabbi’s guidance,we were puzzling over the story of Abraham and Isaac. After a beer I told Rabbi that I'd never understand how Abraham could actually intend to kill his son. I have since learned that there are many layers to that story, many lessons that can be drawn from it.

Also during our first year of study came the intoxicating and sublime discovery of the life and writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Thank you Rabbi for that.

After conversion I had the opportunity to study chant. It was an amazing moment when I was privileged to chant Torah for the first time. Even now, just thinking about it makes me smile It took a lot of practice. As an adult learner I had to become much more open to experiencing frustration and failure. But when the Hebrew words and the tropes finally came together
there was nothing like it! It was another connection between our community and the generations that came before and that will follow us.

So far this Jewish journey has been one very fun, wild ride. The minute one challenge is finished I want another. And another…and another. It’s never too late to learn new skills: if I could do it, anyone can.

In today's parsha we hear about Moses acquiring some new skills. He speaks with his new mentor, Adonoi. You just can't do better than that for a mentor. But, even so, Moses is daunted. Finally Adonoi gets tired of Moses' overthinking and tells him to just go out and do it.

I can in some small sense have an idea what it might have been like for Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam to roll with the tide of events. At this point in time, we are reminded that Moses is 80, Aaron is 83 and Miriam is at least 87 years old. I try to imagine them getting up in the mornings (without benefit of coffee--and then up each day for the next 40 years!)

We hear that our guys, Moses and Aaron, try to rally their dispirited and disheartened community. Then they are off to speak to Pharaoh; then, they're back to persuade the community to trek off from home base, and lose three days of work for a spiritual retreat in the wilderness.

The story continues with twists and turns and plagues--and the parsha ends (to be continued next week) with the Israelites still enslaved, Pharaoh still uncooperative, and the boys (who are 80 and 83) still with so much more to do.

Medieval commentator Ovadia Seforno (Spain 1500s) commented on Exodus 7:7 verse: In spite of their advanced age they rose up with enthusiasm to fulfill the will of their Creator Indeed he who had reached the age of 80, even in those days, had already passed the age of elder status and reached those of strength, as Moses attests to in the psalm ascribed to him, Psalm 90: The days of our years are 70, or even by reason of strength, eighty years. (P 90:10)

The cool thing about these three, Moses, Aaron and Miriam, is that they rose up and did all those remarkable things. These octogenarians, the ultimate poster children for AARP.

As Jews we are called upon to do amazing feats--at any age. I watched a documentary last week about a 91 year old Holocaust survivor who speaks to prisoners and to schoolchildren AND runs a her own small business 6 days a week. Why does she do it? Because she feels called to speak on behalf of all those who cannot speak. And what she has to say resonates 70 years later, to convicts, to trauma survivors, to schoolchildren. They all know she understands what it is like to be imprisoned and powerless--and yet to emerge with and to effect a different life script--one of service and compassion.

We all can say we are too young, too old, too busy, too sad, too frustrated. But regardless what we say, and what we sometimes feel, we as Jews are nevertheless called to act. That inner drive to better the world is neverending. The drive to learn new things and to keep learning at any age is strong. That is what I love about this community and about the Jewish people.

Thank you all again for the honor to be part of this community, and a part our Jewish journey.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shabbat Shemot - President Barack Hussein Obama: the Great Zionist

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 21, 2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

It is quite amazing that this Shabbat of the Inauguration of a new President coincides with the opening of the book of Exodus.  For as we know Exodus opens with the ominous line: VaYakom Melekh hadash al Mitzrayim asher lo yada et Yosef : “A new King arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph”.  Let’s hope the subsequent history of the new President turns out better than that of the new King.

But if the new King knew not Joseph, that is, a new Egyptian King who did not recognize the positive attributes and contributions of Joseph and the Jewish people, well, there must have been an old King who did know and recognize the contributions of the Israelite immigrants to Egypt.  And for the last eight years we in the United States, and especially the Jewish community, have been blessed to have had a President who did know the Jewish community.  Obama considered Jews among his mentors and closest friends and advisors; the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg referred to him as the first Jewish President.  Whether or not it makes sense to claim him as the first Jewish President, I suggest that he is probably the first President to be a true Zionist.

This is a very important claim because of the many atrocious attacks thrown at this President, the most malignant canard was that President Obama was an enemy of the Jewish people and hated Israel. It seems that this canard pained him very much.  Not only because it was not true – all Presidents weather harsh attacks on their character and personalities – but because more than any previous President his support for Israel stemmed from his deep belief in the power and meaning of Zionism.

Every president of the United States has supported Israel.  Some like Bill Clinton had a deep affinity for Jews.  But for most, the support for Israel was strategic - serving American interests in the Middle East.  Even known anti-Semites like Richard Nixon saved Israel when Israel was in danger of losing the Yom Kippur War.  President Obama’s administration was no different in this regard.  Before President Obama left office he agreed to a $38 billion military aid package over the next 10 years, making it the largest bilateral military aid package ever, which includes $5 billion for missile defense, additional F-35 joint strike fighters and increased mobility for its ground forces.  President Obama, unlike President Bush, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the development and production of the Iron Dome project, so crucial to Israel’s defense.

But that is what all Presidents do even if they don’t get along with their Israeli counterparts.  Obama is different because Obama is a Zionist.

Before I make my case, it is important to define our terms. 

What is Zionism?  Unfortunately most people assume that Zionism is what the government of Benjamin Netanyahu says is right for Israel.  But considering that the current Israeli government is not allowing Conservative Jewish converts from South America or Africa to enter the country – that is, not allowing them to enter the country, not questioning their right to make aliyah, just not allowing them to receive visas to enter– it is hard to argue that this current government embodies the highest values of Zionism. (*note – this sermon was written before the Israeli government under internal and world pressure allowed these converts to enter Israel, thank God)

Zionism has many schools of thought.  Developing from our age old Jewish dream of returning to the Land of Israel, modern Zionism grew out of nationalist and neo-messianic movements in the mid-19th century. Look, Zionism is a Jewish ideology, so, of course, there are multiple opinions.  But at its core Zionism was a movement that insisted the Jewish people had a right to self-determination and sovereignty in its ancient homeland. The ideals of justice and morality were seen as essential to many Zionist thinkers.  According to the picture drawn by Zionists such as the historian Ben Zion Dinur, it was Messianism, a secular Messianism, that was the primary element of modern Zionism.  The movement evoked the dream of an end of days, a release from Exile, and the consummation of Jewish history. (Hertzberg, “Introduction”, The Zionist Idea, p. 18) The creation of Israel was a modern Hanukah story with Zionists playing the role of the Maccabees.

Cultural Zionists such as Ahad HaAm saw in Zionism a path to the transformation of Judaism. “Of all the great aims to which Zionism aspires for the time being, it is within our powers to draw near…to only one…the moral aim.  We must liberate ourselves from inner slavery, from the degradation of the spirit caused by assimilation, and we must strengthen our national unity until we become capable and worthy of a future life of honor and freedom. (from “The First Zionist Congress”, in The Jew in the Modern World)  Ahad HaAm’s Judaism was a vision of the prophetic ideal updated for modern consciousness.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine, saw the growing Zionist movement, led by secularists as a sign of the advent of traditional Mashiachtzeit: “All the civilizations of the world will be renewed by the renaissance of our spirit… The active power of Abraham's blessing to all the peoples of the world will become manifest, and it will serve as the basis of our renewed creativity and Eretz Israel.( from Abraham Isaac Kook:”The War”, The Zionist Idea, p.22)

Louis Brandeis writing at about the same time in the United States, praised his coreligionists overcoming horrific hardships to rebuilding the Holy Land, comparing it to the creation of the United States, and referred to the Zionists as the “Jewish Pilgrim Fathers”.

It is clear that Barack Obama sees that affinity as well. In his comments at Adas Israel synagogue in 2015 he shared, “To a young man like me, grappling with his own identity, recognizing the scars of race here in this nation, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the idea that you could be grounded in your history, as Israel was, but not be trapped by it, to be able to repair the world -- that idea was liberating.” 

Ari Shavit, the Israeli journalist, noted that the greatest expositor of Liberal Zionist ideals in recent memory was Barack Obama.

In 2013 addressing an audience in Israel, Obama linked the achievements of modern Israel to its past.  It was the history of Biblical slavery and wandering in the desert to ultimately being redeemed in the return to the land;  in the common era it was years of oppression and wandering in Exile that led to the ultimate expression of redemption – the Creation of a State with its goal of making the desert bloom.  He cautioned his audience that for the Zionist goal to sustain itself peace would be necessary because without peace Israel cannot endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state. And eventually that would require the creation of a Palestinian state not because the world deserves another Arab state but because justice requires that Palestinians also be allowed self determination.  And he connected the Zionist project to tikun olam, the reparation of the world. Linking Jewish history to the Jewish present to the messianic future is in line with the best of Zionist thought.

At Shimon Peres’ funeral he reiterated that “[J]ustice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea.” And “Israel’s exceptionalism”, that is our status as the chosen people, is “rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision” of the Jewish faith.  He also offered, “The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people.”  Now one may say that this is a naïve liberal view and hutzpadik for Obama, who is not Jewish, to suggest that.  Except that he was quoting Shimon Peres, the last of the founding fathers of the Zionist state.

And to those who think that the recent abstention by the US of the United Nations resolution on settlements was proof of Obama’s hatred of Israel?  Well, you must think that Ronald Reagan was a raving anti Semite.  For Obama’s abstention was the only time the US abstained on a resolution critical of Israel in 8 years, in every other instance they voted against criticizing Israel.  But Ronald Reagan’s government abstained or voted to censure Israel 21 times during his presidency (Lara Friedman, NY Times op-ed, April 10, 2016 research by Americans for Peace Now).

In one of his many interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg Obama expressed his concern, like many of us who are liberal Zionists, that Israel must act to maintain a majority Jewish democracy.  Holding on to the West Bank risks that possibility – either Israel remains a true democracy in which case the growing number of Palestinians in Greater Israel will outnumber and outvote the Jewish state or more likely, Israel will be forced to rule over a majority population only a portion of which will be allowed to vote, destroying Israel as a democracy. 

And if you think that concern is overblown, I would recommend to you the words of Zev Jabotinsky, father of Revisionist movement to which Benjamin Netanyahu is heir: “The precondition for the attainment of these noble aims (the solution to the question of Jewish suffering and the creation of a new Jewish culture) is a country in which the Jews constitute a majority. It is only after this majority is attained that Palestine can undergo a normal political development on the basis of democratic, parliamentary principles without thereby endangering the Jewish national character of the country.” (“What Zionist Revisionists Want” in The Zionist Idea)

Jabotinsky understood as does Barack Obama that for Israel to succeed as a democratic Jewish state it must have a majority of Jews in it.  And today, that is only possible if Palestinians are allowed sovereignty over themselves.

But even before he became President, Barack Obama had a deep understanding and appreciation for the true meaning of Zionism.  In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in 2008 he offered this explanation of his affinity to Zionism: “You know, when I think about the Zionist idea, I think about how my feelings about Israel were shaped as a young man -- as a child, in fact. I had a camp counselor when I was in sixth grade who was Jewish-American but who had spent time in Israel, … he shared with me the idea of returning to a homeland and what that meant for people who had suffered from the Holocaust, and he talked about the idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home. That was something so powerful and compelling for me, maybe because I was a kid who never entirely felt like he was rooted. That was part of my upbringing, to be traveling and always having a sense of values and culture but wanting a place. So that is my first memory of thinking about Israel.

And then that mixed with a great affinity for the idea of social justice that was embodied in the early Zionist movement and the kibbutz, and the notion that not only do you find a place but you also have this opportunity to start over and to repair the breaches of the past.” (interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic Monthly May 12, 2008)

I think America is going to profoundly miss the sagacity and nobility of President Barack Hussein Obama. But we Jews will also miss a President whose affinity with our people runs so deep that he represents the best ideals of Zionism.

 

Shabbat VaYeshev - Chrismanukah: What’s the difference?

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 24, 2016

Rabbi Michael Friedland

Today is Erev Hanukah and amazingly Erev Christmas as well.  Every December we Jews deal with the phenomenon known as the December Dilemma – Christmas programs are held in schools, everyone (despite the alleged war on Christmas) wishes you a Merry Christmas, you can’t walk five feet without hearing a Christmas song, Christmas trees and wreaths are everywhere.  This may be nice for Christians but for us Jews it feels sometimes like it is being rammed down our throats.  But it needn’t be.  Some people including many Christians bemoan the commercialism of Christmas but that is our culture - it affects Hanukah and every other sacred event in our nation – don’t look now but 9/11 sales events and 9/11 cards will be coming soon to a town near you.  Christmas has a powerful religious message for its adherents that we can appreciate just as Hanukah has a powerful message for us Jews.

Some people link the two holidays.  They are both in the winter, they both fall on the 25th of their respective months, they both include lights and candle lighting as part of the experience.  But beyond these elements there is little to connect the two.  Not everyone is aware of that.  As when the radio show producer called me for an on air interview about Hanukah when I was just starting as a rabbi in Appleton WI.  “So rabbi,” he asked, “what can you tell our listeners about how Hanukah is the Jewish celebration of the birth of Jesus?” Huh?! Radio silence as I tried to figure out how not to start a pogrom against the Appleton Jewish community. 

But there is another very interesting connection between the two holidays and that has to do with Sukkot.  We are all familiar with the classic rabbinic explanation of why we celebrate Hanukah:  When the Maccabees under Judah took back control of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount from the Hellenist Syrians they found only one kosher cruse of olive oil to light the menorah in the Temple.  They lit it and instead of lasting only one day it lasted 8 until new oil could be procured. 

The problem with this explanation is that we happen to have a number of historical sources which refute the story of the miracle of oil.  The story of the oil is found in the Babylonian Talmud, redacted in the late 5th century of the common era.  But there are two historical chronicles from a few generations after  the events related to the Hanukah story which occurred in 164 BCE which know of no miracle oil story.  According to these sources the victory and restoration – rededication of the Templewas celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev because: (The purification) happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners…They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths (Sukkot), remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. 2 Maccabees 10:1-9.

At the Kallah I taught the important connection between sacred space dedications and 8 day periods throughout the Bible.  But the connection with Sukkot is significant.  Sukkot is the most joyous of holiday festivals.  It is the season of ingathering, when the cupboards are most full.  As a Biblical festival it is also a Temple-centric observance.  Every Jew was supposed to show up and present himself on the festival. 

It so happens that Sukkot is also connected to Christmas.  According to the Gospel of Luke (2:8) when Jesus was born, shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks in the fields.  Sheep do not go roaming around the fields in December, even in Israel. Luke also records that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel to inform her that she was pregnant in the 6th month of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother.  Elizabeth became pregnant when Zechariah, her husband, who was a priest returned home from serving in the Temple.  This was in Sivan, the summer.  John the Baptist was born 9 months later in Nisan, the spring, and the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was 6months younger.  Thus Jesus was born in Tishrei – the month of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.  From other gospels and Luke we can guesstimate that the reason Joseph and Mary were stuck in a manger in Bethlehem was because the Roman empire had declared a census be taken and each family was to return to the city of his ancestors, to be registered and taxed. Joseph went to Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.  Given that it was Sukkot, and Bethlehem is near Jerusalem.  You couldn’t find a vacancy and they were stuck in the barn.  Most likely Jesus was born on Sukkot. 

So everyone is asking why do Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th?  The historical answer is because Christianity under the leadership of Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, set out to convert the Pagans. December 23th , as the winter solstice ended , was a Roman holiday of Saturnalia.   By making December 25th a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christians could take an already popular holiday and instead of eliminating it coopt itmaking the Christianizing of the population easier.

Jon Sorenson, a writer for Catholic Answers website, states that “Although the date of Jesus’ birth is not given to us in Scripture, there is documented evidence that December 25 was already of some significance to Christians prior to A.D. 354. One example can be found in the writings of Hyppolytus of Rome, who writes that

“For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years.”

What is the connection to Adam?  In order to relate the birth of Jesus to the Creation story.  For Jesus would have been conceived in Spring which as we know according to Rabbi Yehoshua the world was created in Nisan, Spring time.

OK got it?  Jesus was born during Sukkot according to the gospels but his birth was celebrated on December 25 to link his conception to the conception of the world.  Hanukah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev to make up for the absence of the celebration of Sukkot that year when the Maccabees were fighting a guerilla war.  The Sages of the Talmud, ignored the Sukkot/military victory explanation in order to emphasize a more pacifistic miracle story. 

Both religious communities chose to offer different spiritualized mythic versions of history.  According to Jon Sorenson quoting Pope Benedict 16, it was to connect Jesus to Adam.  Jesus would be the new Adam, creating a new world order.  But it also coopted holidays that celebrated the births of gods in other cultures.  The idea in Christianity is that without Jesus, you have nothing.  You cannot be saved or liberated without going through Jesus.  God is made human, and that human’s sacrifice offers atonement for the world.  Adam sins, and the world begins, for his expulsion from Eden is the beginning of world history.  Jesus dies and the spiritual world for his followers begins.  Jesus is heroic in that his death gives life.  But only his death.  Without it, there is no life.  And his story, not so unlike the god birth stories of pagans exhibits a common human desire for a miracle man. Someone to do it for you when you become tired and sick, when you become fatigue and frightened.

Judaism also has a hero story.  The Maccabees were victorious and God is involved, but the message is if you want salvation, it is up to us Jews to work together to achieve it.  We are responsible for our own salvation.  The rabbis de-emphasize the role of the Maccabees in their miracle story but not the role of the victory.  In the daily addition to the Amidah during Hanukah, there is no mention of the miracle of the oil that lasts 8 days, only the victory of the minority against the majority, the weak over the strong, the righteous over the wicked.  The Maccabees are deemphasized because eventually their descendants become corrupt, just like the Hellenist rulers.  They recognize that while we human beings can achieve salvation, we are ultimately fallible and so each generation has to work for its own salvation, fight the same battles against evil and not rely on past victories or on a few heroic individuals. 

Rabbi Harold Schulweis in commenting on the differences between Christianity and Judaism, remarked, “You have no excuse in Judaism… you are not born a sinner. You have not inherited any sin in Judaism and you have not transmitted sin. You are the sons and daughters of God, each of you, each of us. No one stands higher than another. Nobody is closer to God than you. And if someone says to you, “that man has closer contact to God”, know that that violates the very essence of Judaism.”

The actual Christmas should be during sukkot.  Hanukkah was an actualized Sukkot.  Both religious cultures transformed the historical into myth.  But how and what motivated the transformations tell us much about the different religious cultures.  For us Hanukkah was transformed from a holiday that could have venerated military heroism into an appreciation for the human effort in achieving salvation and the role God plays in that effort. 

Hanukah teaches us to oppose the apotheosis, or divinization of any human being.  IN 164 BCE we refused to accept Antiochus IV as Epiphanies - Epiphanies means God manifest.  And we have continued to refuse to accept the idea that any human should be considered God, just as much as we resist the concept that God needs to become human to truly understand God’s creations.

Yohanan ben Zakai says, if you hold in your hand a seedling, a sapling and people cry out, “Behold! The messiah has come! Look, the messiah is coming!” Get down on your knees and plant the sapling in the earth first before you investigate whether or not the Messiah has come, because that's the way the world is going to be saved.  One tree, one planting, one candlelight in the darkness, one act of salvation at a time

 

Shabbat Toldot - Staying True to Our Values

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 3, 2016

Rabbi Michael Friedland

We are a couple of months out from national elections and the one thing we can say about the impact of the elections is – Not so good for the Jews.

Much has been said about Steve Bannon, the choice for Chief Political Strategist. That he himself is anti-Semitic, that his cyber magazine Breitbart, encourages and foments racism, misogyny and anti Semitism, and misinformation. Michael Flynn the National Security appointee likes to retweet neo-Nazi, white supremacist views. And the pick for Defense secretary, James Mattis, has been quoted as suggesting Israel is headed for Apartheid and the pro Israel bias of the US harms America’s interests in the Middle East.

On the Democratic side, a leading contender for the post of chair of the Democratic National Committee is Keith Ellison, congressman from Minnesota. In the past Ellison has been a supporter of Louis Farrakhan. Despite his insistence that he now disavows such views and supports a two state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, he regularly votes against support for Israel. Now all of these individuals have apologists who insist that they really are not anti– Semitic or anti-Israel. And that may be fair and correct. For we are now in the midst of a very popular parlor game played by Jewish partisans of the left and the right called “Find the Anti-Semitic statement”. In this game everyone attempts to undermine the other sides’ argument and political views by parsing comments, tweets, sentences to show that “Your side is represented by an anti-Semite, but my side, which you accused of being anti-Semitic, is actually unfairly represented.”

In the meantime, the Jewish in-fighting allows politicians to ignore Jewish communal concerns.

Here in South Bend, a growing number of Jewish community members need assistance from Jewish Family services and the Food pantry. But the current Congressional leadership have proposed making changes in Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and Healthcare that will severely hurt members in our community and many other Americans.

Israel is going to need American support more than ever as the Middle East and the world as a whole becomes more unstable. The incoming administration has promised to continue American support for Israel but it also promises closer ties to Russia, which supports Iran and Assad in Syria, whose goal is the destruction of Israel. 

And the choice for Secretary of State is from the oil industry which has always been supportive of a more Arab friendly foreign policy. Donald Trump has said that America needs to focus on itself and recede from the world stage. Who will be there to assist Israel if the U.S. is pulling back?

We have to train ourselves not to get exercised over every obnoxious comment or foolish statement that political leaders make and focus on policies that make a difference in our society. Gutting the safety net will destroy lives. An ugly swastika can be painted over. Sympathizing with Palestinian hardship, does not an anti-Semite or anti-Zionist make, but ignoring the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement and allowing it to link arms with legitimate human rights causes will endanger Israel and intimidate many Jews from speaking out in support of Israel.

Our patriarch Isaac showed us an approach that we might learn from. “Isaac sowed in the land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. The Lord blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth.”

Water means life for all living creatures. Especially in the desert. Why were the Philistines destroying the wells –so that they too could not benefit from them? Was it simply out of spite?

The Biblical commentator Rabbi Jacob Tzvi Mecklenberg from Germany in the 19th century offered this explanation: “ ‘Isaac called their names after the names by which his father had called them’ – Isaac named the wells – ‘The Lord is my sign’, or ‘The well of Him that Lives’ just as his father did. For Abraham would call the well by a name that would drive home the lesson of the true existence of the One God. Wells were a necessity and by using the nomenclature of the well to promote the knowledge of the one true God, Abraham was able to initiate people into the true faith. Abraham strove to turn the hearts of those who denied God. While he was alive he was greatly respected by the people of the land. When he died though they reverted to idolatry. Stopping up the wells was a way for them to erase belief in God and return to false
opinions. The Torah teaches us that Isaac followed in his father’s footsteps and endeavored to dig out these same wells and resurrect their names in order to restore the crown of the true faith to its former glory.” 

According to Rabbi Mecklenberg, we are not really talking about wells. The Torah’s language indicates that destruction of wells were a mask to the true intention of the Philistines of the day – they wanted to destroy the development of ideas and policies that would undermine idolatrous practices. If Isaac was focused exclusively on repairing the wells, he would have lost the bigger picture – promoting the flow of monotheistic revolution and its values.

Isaac was able to see the big picture. He was following in his father’s footsteps in promoting values that enhanced human life – belief in One God which leads to a consistent moral vision, treating all human beings with respect – and he was successful in working and negotiating with those who seemed to be enemies to continue to promote his vision.

The conclusion of this passage illustrates that Isaac was successful. The Philistines come to him for support and make new agreements, feast together and “they exchanged oaths. Isaac then bade them farewell, and they departed from him in peace.”

If we as a Jewish community on a local and national scale can focus on our values and policies that promote those values and try hard, and it will be hard, not to get side tracked on ad hominem attacks, or alleged anti-Semitic statements from one side or the other, we like our ancestors can be successful in digging deep wells of righteousness and justice in our society. 

Shabbat VaYayrah - Reflections on the Election

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, November 19, 2016

Rabbi Michael Friedland

When I was in rabbinical school there was a joke that I believe was borrowed from medical students.  It went like this:  What do you call a rabbinical student with a C average? Answer: Rabbi. The cynical idea behind it was the same for rabbis or doctors.  The title of rabbi accorded its bearer with respect and honor no matter how poor a student he or she may have been.  The rabbi was the symbolic exemplar, as the late Rabbi Jack Bloom called the rabbinic role, and at least initially, the quality of the person was secondary; the title was a mantle by which whoever wielded it was acknowledged as harboring wisdom and moral authority and owed deference.

In my own life I have seen this played out especially among Gentiles.  I noticed immediately when I first became active in the United Religious Community that though some board members were Christian clergy, non clergy would refer to them by their first name.  I was always Rabbi Michael.

But as our South Bend community knows all too well, the title means little if the person who holds it engages in unbecoming behavior.  To deserve the respect that comes automatically with the title, one must constantly be vigilant to act in ways that are just and righteous and thoughtful.  One must be committed to promoting Judaism and its values and to living those values.  Then the title of rav, rabbi, fits.  

America has just elected to the Presidency a man whose behavior during the campaign was completely unbecoming of a President, let alone a mensch.  A man who mocked a disabled journalist; who made the accusation that Mexico intentionally sends criminals to the United States who sell drugs and rape Americans; who suggested that black people are thugs and destroy the cities they live in; made innumerable misogynist statements; refused to apologize and made light of his admittance of sexually violating women;  approved anti – semitic advertisements for his campaign; promised to halt Muslim immigration to America and lied that he saw Muslims celebrating on 9/11; threatened to put his political opponent in jail; and has vowed vengeance against journalists and publishers of newspapers that were critical of him.  

And now we are being told in the interest of unity we must let go of all the bluster during the campaign, accept the results of the election and respect the office.  

Well of course it is our duty as part of our brit, our covenant, as Americans to accept the results of the election.  Our ancestors wisely created the Electoral College as the vehicle for electing Presidents – wisely because such a process rather than popular vote gives minorities in each state a greater weight in the outcome of the election.  Jews are barely 3% of the electorate but our votes carry tremendous weight in key states.  So while supporters of Hillary Clinton may be disappointed that her majority in the popular vote did not achieve political victory, the fact remains that Donald Trump will be the President.

But Donald Trump will have to earn his respect.  You can’t say the grotesque and horrible things he said and then in one election night victory speech wipe it all way.  He certainly said the right things in the speech.  He spoke of how he intended to be President of all Americans and how he wishes to reach out to those who voted against him for guidance and help “in order to work together and unify our great country.”

And yet he continues to tweet against the New York Times coverage about him.  His initial appointments give pause.  He chose Steve Bannon, whose internet site traffics in conspiracy theories, anti-semitic, anti-islamic, and misogynistic attacks as his White house chief strategist.  His choice for National Security advisor, Michael Flynn, does not accept that Islam is a religion, rather it is a political philosophy.  His choice for Attorney General is Senator Jeff Sessions.  Senator Sessions was denied a federal judgeship because of statements he made that were deemed racist.  In Alabama.  If Alabamians consider you too racist, that is a very bad sign.  We will need to monitor President elect Trump and demand that he uphold the hopeful rhetoric of his election night speech and not the persistent mocking and hateful comments of his campaign.  That is, we want to see if President Trump can do teshuvah for candidate Trump.  Because we are Jews we believe in the power to change and transform bad behavior.  Let’s hold out hope that Donald Trump can change.  But we will need to see it to believe it and shame on us if he can’t and we become complacent.

Now having said that I think it is also important to acknowledge that many of us who are liberal in our political views, and this was pointedly true of the media, were so titillated by his racist, islamophobic and misogynistic statements that we missed the bigger issues that Donald Trump convey to listeners.  Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times wrote that, “Experience told (journalists) that Mr. Trump’s misstatements, flaws and gaffes would prove disqualifying, which at times led them to present their journalism with a knowingness that only served to convince a large subset of voters that reporters… didn’t get them.”   We misunderstood the deeper connection that Donald Trump was making with voters.  A teacher in Hillel’s school who supported Trump referred to his insensitive and hurtful statements as “pottymouth” but did not take them seriously.  Rather what she saw as valuable was his sympathy for the losses that many middle income and blue color workers had suffered and her trust that a billionaire businessman had a clue about how to restore that economy.  

Joan Williams, professor of law at the University of California, in an article for Harvard Business Review, wrote, “One little-known element of (the class culture gap) is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” … Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.”

There were understandable reasons for the many people who voted for Donald Trump.  And those opposed to him have to have an open mind about that.  It is too easy and unfair to dismiss Trump voters as racists.  

But here is the concern for us as Jews. Steven Bayme, a scholar on American Jewish life, noted that for the last 60 years, openly anti-Semitic rhetoric has been taboo in American politics.  That taboo was breached repeatedly by Trump’s supporters and he never reprimanded supporters for doing so.  And as Joan Williams pointed out, working class Whites despised professionals – doctors, lawyers, teachers, academics.  That is what we Jews do.  We are heavily ensconced in positions in the economy that many who supported Trump despise.  So there is no doubt that fear is warranted.  

What mitigates that fear and what makes the comparisons to Germany in the 1930s over the top is that America not only has a long tradition of democracy, 240 years of developing democracy to give greater and greater numbers of citizens a voice, we are also a nation of immigrants.  Our nation is diverse. We acknowledge that our identities are not only hyphenated but they are complex.  People who voted for Obama twice, voted for Trump in this election.  Superficially, that seems impossible but our identities multifaceted.  

So where do we go from here? 

First and foremost we need to have faith in our country and its values.  They will prove stronger than the authoritarianism and third world populism that Trump expressed during the campaign.

We need to monitor behaviors and make sure that the hateful rhetoric expressed against any vulnerable group – women, Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans and Latinos, Jews, Blacks, LGBTQ – does not turn into action and that the rhetoric itself must not be allowed to become acceptable discourse.  That means we have to watch our mouths too.  No off hand comments or jokes about any “other”.  And when we hear prejudice we have to be courageous enough to tell the speaker that such words are unacceptable.

Creating coalitions with other minority groups is important too.  One way that cynical politicians maintain power is to exploit divisions among various minority groups.  Building coalitions with other slighted groups keeps a united front against those who would exploit such divisions.

And finally we have to remain united amongst ourselves.  In the letter to Sinai this week, I mentioned that what just five years ago used to be a strength of this community – our weekly Shabbat gathering for worship, fellowship and lunch has diminished considerably.  If we are not connecting on a consistent basis with each other, it will be very hard for us to link as the Jewish community with other groups to maintain American values of respect, tolerance, and pluralism.  

Finally we have to renew our faith in God.  For us having faith in God does not mean praying really hard that God makes everything ok in America.  To have faith means to have faith in the values that God inspires us to live by and to act on those values. 

In our Torah portion, Abraham makes a great effort to welcome strangers into his tent despite his personal distress after circumcision.  He insists that God follow God’s own rules about justice, defending the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah. He makes treaties with other chieftains and reprimands them when they break his trust.  Abraham is our model of faithfulness. Like him we trust that if we abide by mitzvot that demand we protect the most vulnerable, welcome those who are different from us, work to make sure that justice is done in our communities, America will continue to develop in a positive progressive direction that will make her again a light to the nations of the earth.

Shabbat Lekh Lekha - In Our Own Image

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, November 12, 2016

Rabbi Meira Chmiel

Smart phones. Smart computers. Machines that seem to have a mind of their own and take you where you don’t want to go, strong-arm you into a major upgrade that can take hours, and you can’t prevent it. Who’s in charge here? Apparently not you.

Now we’re creating autonomous cars to go with our smart streets. Our son has been recently shopping for an autonomous car. Thus, a recent South Bend Tribune article [“In Autonomous Cars, Lax Motorists A Danger”, Oct. 15, 2016, South Bend Tribune, reprint Los Angeles Times, by Russ Mitchell] caught my eye. There was a photo of a couple in the front seat of their car enjoying their smart phones while cruising along. Russ Mitchell of San Francisco had this to say:

Until recently, there was no question about who’s responsible for an automobile’s operation: the driver. One-hundred percent.
When driverless cars without a steering wheel or brake pedal start hitting the highway, your only role will be ordering the car where to go. 
Between now and then…the relationship between drivers and their cars will enter uncharted and potentially hazardous territory. Robot-like features will take over an increasing share of the driving duties—but not all of them.
Humans and robots will share the wheel, and it’s uncertain how well people will adapt to this in-between state—whether they will remain appropriately vigilant or leave everything to the machine, possibly at their own peril. ..A recent State Farm survey [of drivers found] that if a semiautonomous car took over part of the driving duties, they’d eat, read, text, take pictures, and access the internet while driving. That would not be safe.
“There’s something we used to call split responsibility,” said.. the director of Columbia University’s Creative Machines Lab. “If you give the same responsibility to two people, they each feel safe to drop the ball. Nobody has to be 100%, and that’s a dangerous thing.”….
The in-between period could last awhile… In car-maker lingo, there are six levels that generally describe a vehicle’s driverless capability, from zero to five…. “From a technical perspective, there are really only two levels,” said.. an autonomous-driving executive at Volvo Car Group, “Whether the driver is responsible or not.”

This raised red flags for me—a lot of them. What kind of American future do I want for my children and grandchildren? Our rambunctious, do-it-your-own way society becoming highly programmed and self-contained, designed to keep everyone comfortable and safe in a uniform sort of way—like in the book “The Giver” or like in a nursing home. Cars with speed monitor chips inserted to keep people like me from creatively navigating the morning commute across town. Speaking for myself, if you turn me into a passenger again with a bossy robot for a chauffer who won’t even listen to a back-seat driver, I’ll just turn into a bowl of gelatin. I need to drive the vehicle myself to stay actively engaged. Responsible.

As these autonomous cars become increasingly smart, what will these human passengers become? Increasingly dumb? Or—zoom just slightly ahead—imagine we create robots to drive our buses, our taxies, fly our airplanes, work our assembly lines, police our streets, fight our wars, create and design new robots not just for us but for themselves too—giving rise to a whole new form of reproduction—capable of learning and becoming smarter, and, by sophisticated design, increasingly sentient and sensitive—what? Will we, their creator, become irrelevant to their ability to operate and autocorrect? Will we even become a hindrance to their efficient functioning and therefore a kind of “carbon-based contaminant” in their self-designed world, especially as they become more self-aware?

We have seen movies and read a number of science fiction scripts created in the last 200 years about robot-machines and drones and mutant super-beings that threaten to take over the world, even a whole star sector, doing their job too efficiently, perhaps recreating the world in their own image. Will they also acquire a soul? Will God’s Spirit be breathed into them? We don’t have very far to look for such plots: the opening chapters of our own Torah contain a few scenarios.

In Parashiot Bereshit and Noach, we can find four stories of the creation of the first humans, even a fifth story, not to mention land animals and birds, all of which become a living soul or nefesh. The version in chapter 1 opens with “In the Beginning” and tells us near the end, “And God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness..”. Chapter 2, verse 4 begins a second version with: “These are the ‘Toldot’—the generations or begettings—of the heaven and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven… then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the nishmat hayyim—breath of life; and man became a living soul—nefesh hayah.” Later in this version God clones a companion for Adam by severing a part of his body and redesigning it to be a living complement, able to stand opposite. By chapter 5, a third version, combining aspects of the first two, begins: “This is the book of the ‘Toldot’—the generations or begettings—of Adam. In the day that God created man—or Adam—in the likeness of God created He them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam in the day when they were created. And Adam.. begot a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth.” The begettings of Seth and his descendants that follow do not refer any more to the image and likeness theme.

By chapter six, a different kind of generating emerges, a fourth version, that seems to take place after man has already reproduced a large population of his own kind and multiplied across the landscape, generating daughters as well as sons. Remember, the first female was a clone of the first Adam. These begotten daughters are attractive to certain unspecified beings called “the sons of God”, who select wives from the progeny of Adam according to their own personal inclination—choice. 

At this point it seems that God has a conundrum. God says, “My spirit shall not abide in man forever, since he also is flesh; therefore his days are to be [limited to] a hundred and twenty years.” We begin to hear of Nephilim, a new breed, when the sons of God beget children with the daughters of Adam’s descendents, who grow up to become unusual men of physical stature and superior quality, powerful creative men—famous. But God also sees the corruption that develops and proliferates among these teeming human populations, generated by the unbridled, ever creative imagination and inventiveness of the human mind, supercharged with power and self-centeredness. And God wishes He had never created any of these living-soul creatures, and He exterminates all of them—almost.

By chapter 11, a final creation scenario emerges after the flood, once human begetting is underway again. One of the family clans of Noach, led by his great-grandson Nimrod, a famed “mighty hunter before the Lord” and possibly embodying the qualities of a Nephilim, collectively journeys east to the valley of Shinar. United by one language and idiom, they decide to stick together and avoid dispersion, avoid becoming scattered like so many of their relatives across a very vast earth. They propose to erect a city, later called Bavel. They undertake the building of not just the city but also a sky-scraper reaching far up into the very heavens, a feat that will make their name famous. This work of their hands will endure despite the limited life-span God has imposed upon each one of them.

We have here our first Biblical example of national unity with a unifying aspiration: so what could be wrong with that? Let’s examine that aspiration. How unifying is it? 

Up to now, God’s emanation of his own progeny, Adam and his progeny have been designed by one means or another according to God’s own image and likeness. Now, the human collective seeks to override its human limitations by manufacturing its very first selfie—a towering tower reflecting the image and likeness not of God, but of man’s daydream about himself, his ego as a god. (Next thing on the agenda will be a robot—a man in man’s super-image!) God visits their construction site and tests the builders’ team cohesiveness by giving them the gift of diversity in spoken languages—the gift of tongues. In short time they find they cannot work together. They realize they only can function in fixed uniformity, not in pluralistic cooperation. And so they reject each other and abandon the team and go their separate ways, baffled.

Regarding these works of our hands, seriously!—are you sure you really want a robot driven world where you can tune out and just kill time? Given we could simulate the seven or so criteria that define life in designing and building a robot, what would make a human superior to such a robot? Does our conscious awareness, which we call mind or soul, and our intuitive conscience factor, which we call heart or spirit, and which in synergy alert us to be morally sensitive and responsible, set us apart from anything and everything we could construct? When we do check out mentally, leave our bodies on auto-pilot, unsupervised, what happens? The body continues to operate based on the habits we have programmed into its operation. Peculiar things can happen, like a tin can cast into the soup, its contents poured out into the trash. Similarly, an army unit, trained like a machine to follow orders unquestioningly, may commit an atrocity. What’s to prevent it? 

Yes, it is useful to us that we invent and use computer brains as tools which speed up our data processing while we mastermind a bigger project. As long as our processors don’t invade our desk top. For if we abdicate our responsibility, these helpers whom we have created may someday strong-arm us into a massive societal upgrade designed to keep all of us collectively safe and well-monitored, running smooth as clocks, highly supervised, prevent us from speeding faster than the speed limits of our smart streets or from making split-second, off-the-wall decisions, like with our bank accounts and wall-street investments. 

The acts of abdication of responsibility can be very gradual and deceptive and not seem to be making any difference until it’s too late. Like giving over too much authority to the Feds, so you can blame them. Be vigilant and wary, and remember: it might be necessary for us to activate our emergency override—sof l’kha—drop our fascinating, addictive smart phones and these other technological works of our hands and take our leave of Ur, of Bavel, of Haran and other high-tech life-styles as Avram did, and to lekh l’kha ourselves to a simpler place—an unknown place—that God will show each of us, a place where we can find time alone in our intimate connections and become a blessing there. Give up trying to magnify what we are in this world and find out instead how God, our prime director, chooses to use our name and our talented hands and far seeing imaginations. Be prepared for surprises along the way.

Lekh L’kha and Shabbat Shalom 

 

      

 

Remarks from Rabbi Friedland after a divisive election season

Steve Lotter

Rabbi Michael Friedland

This is a time for looking inward in order to focus outward. Perhaps we have become so comfortable with the concept of identifying America as a place where democracy is safe, where rule of law is the norm, and where persecution of minorities for being in the minority is a process that is receding into the past, that we have forgotten just how precious these values are and how vigilant we must be to protect them.

We must vow:

not to give in to hatred of the other. When we hear negative comments about Muslims or Latinos or African Americans or Jews or LGBTQ or women or any other minority that has been vilified by the future administration, we cannot be silent. We must also make efforts to engage these communities and create personal relationships with each other.

to strive to assure that voting in this country is made safe and accessible

to support immigrants to the country especially those who are not white, make sure to protect them against any verbal or physical attacks and not to forget about the numerous undocumented workers in this country who will now be more vulnerable than ever

to do whatever we can to protect the environment and our planet by demonstrating actively against the status quo on climate change

to support a free and unfettered press by subscribing to newspapers that do real investigative journalism

And finally to put our faith in God that kindness and compassion and goodness will eventually be drawn out. Never have the words of the Psalmist wrung more true for me: " Put not your trust in princes, nor in mortal man who cannot save". (Psalm 146)

Might be time to also put our trust in women!

Rosh HaShanah Day 1: That Which is Hateful to You, Do Not Do to Others

Steve Lotter

Rosh HaShanah, Monday AM, October 3, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland

One Yom Kippur, a simple tailor came to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev to ask forgiveness for having been disrespectful to God.  “Disrespectful?  What did you say?” asked the rebbe.  “I said, God you wish for me to repent of my sins but I have committed only minor offenses.  I may have kept a little left-over cloth from a sale, or maybe once I ate bread without saying a bracha before eating.  But you O Lord have committed far more grievous sins.  You have taken innocent children from their mothers, and mothers from their children.  I will make with you a bargain – if you forgive me, I will forgive you.”

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Rosh HaShanah Day 2: What is God's Agenda for us during the Election Season?

Steve Lotter

Rosh HaShanah, Tuesday AM, October 4, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland

What is God’s Agenda for us during the Election Season?

We stand at the precipice of the Yamim Noraim, which we translate literally as Awe-filled days.  But we also stand on the verge of an election that many termed just plain awful.  Many people are asking at this critical time in our nation’s history, in this great nation of 300 million people, really, these are the two best choices we have to lead our nation at this vital junction?  Now, part of me feels this critique is too facile – one cannot get to this point in politics without significant ability.  Nevertheless our country heaves a great sigh as we weigh the choices before us.

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Shabbat Parashat Shoftim - Listening to All Sides

Steve Lotter

Shabbat AM, September 10, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland

Over the summer I shared the comments of African American Sports talk radio host, Jason Goff, who spoke from the heart about the fears he has for his unborn child, raising him in a society in which black men have to be taught how to how to behave when accosted by the police lest one wrong move or comment end in tragedy. But on Thursday I heard from the other side. A neighborhood pastors group of black and white pastors is forming to discuss ways in which our communities can improve our neighborhood together and know each other better. Our first invite to the group was to officers who patrol our neighborhood. The police responded to the request eagerly. Four officers, one a Captain – Captain Boykins, two lieutenants and one patrolman, joined the three pastors who made the meeting. For the next hour and a half the police answered questions and shared their frustrations. Our police department is short staffed at this time – not for budgetary reasons but because so few are interested in joining police forces. The force is also depleted due to a new protocol that now sends two squad cars automatically in response to every call, instead of one, due to concerns about recent controversies at police stops. Police are very defensive knowing that every action they take is being filmed by a cell phone. The skills required of policemen has increased greatly – not only must they serve and protect, they are called upon to be computer technicians, social workers and truancy officers. In thanks for putting their lives on the line on a daily basis, not only is there rarely an expression of gratitude, people have developed a negative attitude towards them. One officer said he recently visited Stanley Clark, not a school where most families have negative experiences with the police, and a child in the class he visited told him that “police are bad people”.

We know, of course, that most police are good people. The number of activities and programs that the South Bend police organize to help children in our community is terrific. Much of this is volunteer time by police. We pastors were surprised to find out about these wonderful programs and encouraged the police to promote them more successfully.

The Torah in Deuteronomy calls for “Shoftim and shoterim to be placed in your gates”. Rashi explains this means in every city. Shoftim are judges but what are shoterim? According to biblical scholar Moshe Weinfeld, the ancient shoter filled three job descriptions that sounds not so different from modern police : [A] secretary for recording, a constable for executive-punitive measures, and a messenger or attendant for rendering service to the court. Most biblical commentators also understood the shoter to serve as law enforcement – making sure that the pronouncements by the judge were carried out.

And such a function was necessary of course. The Sefer Ha Hinukh, notes that while most people wish to do good, people are also impelled to break rules, and a society cannot stand that does not have a mechanism to insist people follow its rules.

And perhaps this is why the verse “tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “Justice justice shalt thou pursue” follows the command to set up judges and law enforcement. Why is the word ‘tzedek’ doubled in the verse? Most likely it simply means an intense commitment to pursuing justice. But Abraham Ibn Ezra suggests that it means the judge must speak to both parties in the dispute. That is, to judge fairly we must be open to both sides, to not see such disputes as one-sided. Listening to the frustrations of local police whose sincere goal is to improve and protect the lives of South Bend residents, I realized how much my perceptions have been shaped by the barrage of news about those cases of actual injustice, magnifying them as if that was the norm.

True justice requires that we listen to all sides in a dispute. Not just out of practicality but because justice according to Torah is an eternal religious obligation, at the very core of what it means to be a Jew.

The rabbinic sages who lived during a period when the return of the Temple and the sacrificial service was their greatest hope nevertheless taught in a midrash that God loves justice even more than sacrifice (Devarim Rabbah). This bears out what a verse in the book of proverbs says: "To do what is right and just is more desired by the Lord than sacrifice." Not as much as sacrifice, but "more than sacrifice."

Pursuing justice in our social circles, our communities, in our nation and in our world is a demand of whom we are as Jews. But it has to begin with ourselves. Opening ourselves up to hearing all sides in a dispute is a necessary requirement in the process of determining justice. That does not mean we follow a path of moral relativism or an ethic of ‘everybody is right and no one is in the wrong’. But it does mean we have to try not to prejudge and to acknowledge what sources influence us.

The Talmud tells of the judge, Rabbi Hanina ben Eliezer who had a tree in his field, the branches of which spread out into someone else's field. One day, a man came to Rabbi Hanina's court requesting his neighbor to remove the branches of a tree that reached into his field. Rabbi Hanina told the claimant to return the following day. This was highly unusual as Rabbi Hanina rendered his judgments immediately. But Rabbi Hanina did not respond to questions.

As soon as the man left, Rabbi Hanina sent workers to cut down the branches from his own tree that were falling into the field of his neighbor.

The next day, when the complainant came back and his neighbor was ordered by Rabbi Hanina to cut off the branches of his tree, the neighbor protested: "Why, you yourself have a tree with branches falling into someone else's area!"

Rabbi Hanina calmly answered, "Please go out to my field and check - make sure to keep yours the same way mine is kept."

Before a person can serve as a judge of others, one must first stand in judgment of oneself. This is why the Torah states, “Shoftim v’Shoterim titen l’kha” Usually translated as “Judges and magistrates you shall provide for yourselves”, but it can be read as “Judges you shall make yourselves”. A judge, like a parent or a teacher, is called to both stand in judgment of others and model for them. A judge's effectiveness, as is a parent or teacher, is dependent as much upon who he/she is as what he/she says.

As we enter the month of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, let us consider how we judge others, and make sure that we judge ourselves first.

Shabbat Mevarchim - How is our Siddur like a Sadhana? Part 2

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, August 27, 2016

Rabbi Meira Chmiel

Click here to read Part 1

Words of the Baal Shem Tov, as told by Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, in Likutim Yekarim:

“If you wish to ascend on high, you must go from one step to the next. 

“First, you should have in mind that you are ascending only to the first Firmament… In your mind, expand this firmament on all sides. It should not appear small and narrow in your mind, but broad, filling the entire mind.

“Once you stand there, you must strengthen your mind to go higher, and then still higher. You must go step by step, however, since you cannot ascend through all Seven Firmaments at once.

“The only time that it is possible to do this is in the middle of prayer… Since in your mind you are literally in the First Firmament [in Assiyah], you can then ascend to the next Firmament. [You can climb from one Firmament to the next] until you reach [Yetzirah], the world of Angels. You can then climb to [B’riyah], the world of the Throne. 

“Finally all that remains is the Universe of Atzilut. When you reach this level, you bind your thoughts to God…” [from Meditation and Kabbalah by Aryeh Kaplan, pp. 294-5] 


We have dimensions to our soul we are largely unconscious of, which require that we train our consciousness to ascend and expand into these farther reaches. The primary hazard in such an undertaking is ego—inflating that mental mirror-image of ourselves into a massive narcissism. Which is a complete distraction that sends us crashing. How do we avoid it? Study Musar and what Moshe is saying in Deuteronomy and don’t flatter yourself. Walk with your Holy Guide. Long for the Source of your spirit and keep your mind focused on that. When you get directives, obey them. Don’t lose your focus.

Two words describing states of consciousness: gadlut [gadol] and katnut [katan]. In the state of katnut, contracted consciousness, you are on the ground floor looking up at God on high. In the state of gadlut, expanded consciousness, you are on the top floor gazing out at the universe through God’s eyes, like a child riding on his father’s shoulder. But if you forget your father, the king, who has raised you up so high and instead start complimenting yourself on all your supposed power and achievement, you will be put back down. 

But we are not always in katnut for rebuke. We are fragile in our material existence and need to rest and be refreshed. Moreover, it is our task to bring the gifts we experience in gadlut down into our earthly garden to plant. Which is why there always is a descent from the high place of our soul’s origin, as Jacob’s ladder teaches us. Because we are here as pioneers planting fresh seed.

The siddur is our Jewish map into our divine soul and up its many narrow and twisting flights of stairs and sudden escalators to the spindle-top and down again via that panoramic glass elevator that displays our vast world to us. Last week I briefly listed the four worlds or levels of expanded consciousness and defined them. Now we will walk them, following our map. 

At the beginning of a morning service we visualize ourselves at ground level: Assiyah. The world of making and building and planting and harvesting, acts of using matter. We have seven Firmaments to ascend in Assiyah, according to the Baal Shem Tov; the Ariz”l counts eight, including Keter, the final height. The Ariz”l refers to each Firmament as a Heikhal, a bimah, like we have surrounding the Holy Aron at the front of the sanctuary, because it involves making an aliyah to open the Ark. In our old Birnbaum siddur, pp. 37-41 of the Korbanot section, these Heikhalot are symbolized by the “Places of sacrifice in the Temple”. By this point of the service, we will have already read through the Birkhat HaShachar, the early morning blessings and some Talmudic writings to contemplate, which help us focus and settle our minds to ascend even to that first Firmament or Heikhal.

The first Firmament is called the Star Sapphire or, in the Ariz”l siddur, Heikhal Livnat HaSaphir Yesod [v’Malchut] d’Assiyah, the sanctuary Star Sapphire of emanated aspects of God called Yesod [joined with Malkhut] that is on the level of Assiyah. Gaze around you. The ceiling, so high and far above you, even down here, is like translucent glass, through which you can see into a corresponding chamber of the next higher universe, its radiance shining as if through a filter. Keep traveling through Assiyah and you step up into the next adjacent sanctuary, slightly higher, entering a new dimension within. And keep going, gradually ascending upwards through each of these sanctuaries of sacrifice, atonement, and thanksgiving, till you reach the eighth sanctuary, Keter, the Crown, expressed by the offering of the first-born of kosher animals, the tithed cattle, and the Pesach lamb. Both the first-born and the Pesach offerings reflect Litziat Mitzraim: when Israel came forth out of bondage and was trapped by the Red Sea, and God’s supreme power was activated to disrupt natural law as Redeemer and Savior of Israel. Through this Keter in Assiyah ceiling you can glimpse coming down from the Keter sanctuary of the next higher universe that same redemptive light we are experiencing here in this more down to earth universe.

This, so far, is our practice model: each of the four universes or Olamot is like a different floor inside an infinitely immense glass tower, and on each floor there is a series of glass chambers or sanctuaries, each linked, floor to ceiling, with corresponding chamber above it in the next higher universe, each sharing the same name, each embodying the same dimensional quality emanating from the Godhead.  As you ascend the four universes, or building levels, the light or energy from each of these emanations of God becomes increasingly intense. The universes serve as filters so that the unveiled high pitched energies above won’t destroy the creation that is becoming more manifest and revealed in physical form below. 

Here below in Olam Assiyah, our first level, these sanctuaries ascend one to the other in an orderly, down to earth way. They are: 1) Star Sapphire, the sanctuary for Yesod 2) Center of Heaven, the sanctuary for Hod, 3) The Glowing, the sanctuary for Netzach, 4) Will, the sanctuary for Tiferet, 5) Merit, the sanctuary for Gevurah, 6) Love, the sanctuary for Hesed, 7) the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary for Hokhmah and Binah, also Da’at, and 8) Keter, the sanctuary for Keter the Crown, from which emanates everything else below it.

How do we ascend to the next Universe? Gradually, step by step through the first seven or eight sanctuary rooms stepping up into each other in sequence, then, arriving at Keter, making a rapid ascent up an escalator that, in our prayer guide, is called a kaddish. Suddenly we have arrived at Barukh Sh’Amar, our entry door into the P’sukei D’Zimra, which symbolizes the Universe of Yetzirah. We are in a new kind of universe, where creation is done through formation, manifesting as vocalized sound, utterance. In the universe of angels and souls we ascend sanctuaries that are symbolized in our siddur by psalms and songs. The Ashrei, psalm 145, expresses very high crown and kingship energies, orienting us to proceed. 

From here we move on to psalm 146, entering the sanctuary of the Presence of God among us, Shekhinah as Malkhut, kingdom. Psalm 147 takes you through the Star Sapphire sanctuary, then half-way through the psalm brings you over into two higher sanctuaries that have become merged in this universe: The Center of Heaven and The Glowing. Thus, psalm 147 shows us a merging of the emanations of the lower limbs or qualities expressed in a King portrait we are beginning to catch the vision of. Downstairs these qualities were distinct, but now they are synchronized, like two legs working in synchrony. The next sanctuary is psalm 148—called Ratzon, the sanctuary of God’s Will, housing the emanated Torso of an emerging Kingly visualization, called Tiferet—Beauty.  Psalm 149 brings us to the upper pair of sanctuaries, Merit and Love, also synchronized, housing the emanated “arms” or “hands” of the King, which are Gevurah and Hesed. Love, the King’s right arm, dominates this psalm.

Psalm 150 takes us up into the Sanctuary of the Holy of Holies, housing the emanation of the head of the King, the unified qualities of Hokhmah, Binah, and Da’at: Divine Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge. The remainder of the P’sukei D’Zimra belongs in the sanctuary of Keter, the King’s crown. The theme of God’s redemptive salvation culminates here in the Song of the Sea and the overcoming of enemies.

After the Yishtebach hymn of praise we are carried up a second escalator by the Hatzi Kaddish into the third Universe, B’riyah. The Barchu and the opening of the Yotzer Or blessing bring us over its threshold into the exalted atmosphere of Thought. Creative thought. Over the length of the Yotzer Or blessing we flow through the three lower sanctuaries: Star Sapphire, the Center of Heaven, the Glowing, and we end in Merit, the sanctuary of Gevurah, the King’s left arm, and its repeated theme of renewal. But what has become of the sanctuary of Tiferet, called Will? Instead, beginning with the Ahavah Rabbah, we enter the sanctuary of Love that houses Hesed, the King’s right arm, and Ahavah continues through the Sh’ma and the three paragraphs that go with the Sh’ma. 

Emet at the end of the Sh’ma section brings us at last into the sanctuary of Ratzon, Will, which houses Tiferet, the Torso. And here Tiferet, in this Universe of B’riyah, has become unified with the head emanations of the Holy of Holies sanctuary, joining together as one to direct the work of the arms and legs and creative center emanating from it. Our entry into the final sanctuary, the Crown, begins before the Mi Kamokha section at the words, MiMizraim. It concludes with the blessing for Gaal Yisrael, and suddenly, without even a Hatzi Kaddish, we are transported in the Universe of Atzilut, the universe of Emanation, the Nothingness before manifestation, standing on nothing, a cosmic spindle-top above a tower we can no longer see or touch or comprehend, deep in the S’phirot of God’s Glory.

In Atzilut, your only method of orientation is to stand and pray the Amidah Prayer. This provides your only foothold. There are details to this, yes. And also to fall on your face when you pray Tachanun. And to rise and stand before the open ark to receive your King and hear God’s utterances, whispered as well as inscribed in the Torah of Heaven and Earth.

Yes, there is a glass elevator that takes you swiftly down afterwards, like we said earlier, but now today we must end here. The details for those who seek them will be made available to you on request. 

The Handout for the Ekev talk is available at the office in Rabbi Chmiel’s mail slot. Ask Judy for help.

Shabbat Shalom  

 

 

Shabbat Nachamu - How is our Siddur like a Sadhana? Part 1

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, August 20, 2016

Rabbi Meira Chmiel

Over the last few weeks I have advertised the question: “How is our siddur like a sadhana?” Well, you might answer the question with a question, “What is a Sadhana?” and I could ask right back, “What is a Siddur?”

We usually just think of our Siddur as a prayer book that helps us coordinate our prayer. We have been taught that the prayer service replaced the Temple sacrifices, and so we have fixed times of day and night to pray our services, usually with a minyan of ten who are obligated by covenant. And yes, that is true. So, what have we in this well-organized prayer book? A morning seder. An afternoon seder. And a night seder. 

What is a seder? We know that word as a ritual symbolic dinner on Pesach—the Seder. Seder is the same root as Siddur. It is a Hebrew term meaning organized, in order, arrangement. A sadhana is a type of prayer book seder and has similar schematics and objectives. Except the word is a Sanskrit word and is used by Hindus and Buddhists referring to their own liturgical meditative practice. It is especially a Tantric or Vajrayana practice that incorporates visualizations with the aid of an icon, veneration for one’s teacher lineage, a liturgical invocation and description that evokes the visualizations, often accompanied by various postures and movements, for example, full body prostrations, not to mention mudra and yoga. Also there are mantras and malas—strings of beads for keeping count of ritual repetitions. Catholics also have a liturgical seder or sadhana, which they call a mass, and they too use a rosary to count prayers in a cycle.

These are all practices. A seder is the keva or fixed format of a practice. It is a tool like a ladder, so that you can climb up somewhere. Or journey inward with increasing concentration. We use the same seder or sadhana over and over—why? Yes, doing so can become boring. It’s not meant to entertain us, captivate our attention to it, because that will distract us. When you drive a good car, you don’t want to be ogling all those strange looking aps and icons on your radio dial. You keep your attention on the destination, the objective before you; the car or the liturgical formula just helps you move in the right direction.

About twenty years ago I was a Vajrayana Buddhist tantrika. I practiced daily with a sadhana, and was part of a well structured and established branch of Tibetan Buddhism headed by a highly esteemed Tibetan master. I was also an iconographer, a painter and scribe of thangkas and illuminated Tibetan liturgical texts. I had graduated from the Naropa Institute with a master’s degree in Buddhist Studies. 

I was finishing the final chapter of the first draft of my second novel just two weeks after my fiftieth birthday, when I was interrupted. It started with a police detective show on TV where a Jewish lady had been murdered and the men were chanting kaddish at the shiva. I heard the Kaddish for the very first time that night and became very emotional. The chapter I was working on was about the death of my longago Jewish husband, but I knew nothing about Jewish practices. Since my conversion nearly thirty years previous, I had been an agnostic secular Jew, turned off by my husband’s warning that the men didn’t want women at their prayer services. So I knew nothing. But I needed to know what this kaddish was, so I got books and more books from the library. 

That’s how I found this book [holding it up], Rodger Kamenetz’ The Jew In The Lotus.  [brief summary] It was through this book in particular that I got my call. It introduced me to Reb Zalman, who, it turned out, lived just across town and was now teaching at my college, Naropa. Another book revealed Shabbat to me, triggering my complete t’shuvah. And a PBS program on TV astonished me even further—women were now becoming rabbis.

These three things added up to one thing for me. Kamenetz had made a strong point about young, Jewishly educated Jews, uninspired by their American Jewish upbringing, especially the traditional images and theistic language, had been turning in droves to Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, for their spiritual development. He urged his readers, “the issue today is different. The job for Judaism is to make sure that the very powerful esoteric language of Judaism does become more widely available—so that when the next strong wave of spirituality occurs among Jews, it takes place within Judaism. This, in essence, is what the Dalai Lama told us when he advised us to open the doors of our esoteric teachings.” [Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew In The Lotus, p. 241]. I realized that I was to engage in the reversal of that trend, become a Buddhist who turns to Judaism in quest of that hidden, nearly lost esoteric tradition, learn Jewish meditation and Kabbalah, and practice the practices of divine unification and synthesis. The dissolving of Yesh (ego) into the Ain Sof. I also knew I was to become a rabbi. But the first step was to start going to shul. Also, learn Hebrew—from scratch.

One of the core principles in meditative training, also called “taming the mind” is cultivating mindfulness. Jewish practice has the essence of mindfulness built into it. Time—of day for prayer, of calendar, navigating in and out of Shabbat, Festivals, and Fasts. Kashrut—in the kitchen, in the grocery bag, wherever you eat, whatever you handle. Mindfulness, not asleep at the wheel. God—major mindfulness of the Presence everywhere around us in whatever we do, whatever we touch, to raise up a blessing and maintain an attitude of gratitude instead of grumble, and see the world, even during the morning commute, with a good eye. Remembering to give thanks after you eat, and bless the Holy One for your food before it goes in your mouth. Being here now with what your body reaches to do—yoga at your fingertips, mind-body synchrony. Halachah?—Ram Das said to himself: “If I were an Orthodox Jew who loved God, how would I understand my religion? Then the halakhic laws fell into place, not as an authoritarian patriarchal or paternalistic law giving, but rather these incredible guides [practices], for how to remember God from moment to moment.” [Ibid, p.267-8] 

Cosmic Emptiness, which to Buddhists is True Reality, for many of us evokes loss, absence, abandonment. The shock of our Temple in ruins, and what has become of that Holy Presence which resided there? That very shattering of the tangible reveals what the tangible had kept hidden and forgotten for so long. We need to make an Ascent. Move out of the tangible, and climb up out of our-selves, lekh l’kha, draw close to God’s holy level, and come into the Emptiness or Nothingness that finally reveals its Fullness, Absolute Presence with no separation into I and Thou. Spinoza called it Blessedness. Our parashah today teaches us it is God Who is the totality of our being, all that is, Ain Od, there is nothing else. Our temporary, separate ego is the Yesh, there it is, having. Absolute Reality—God’s nature in its unmanifest quality, Ayin, the Nothingness (or no-thing-ness), which is beyond comprehension or description of any sort, is called Ain Sof, without end. The Buddhist Tantrika enters that Emptiness of no separation and calls that Immaculate Space the Dharmadhatu. That Space is pregnant with an emerging Dharmakaya, a supernal seed that becomes a teaching, on another level an utterance, and in our world manifests through the vehicle of a holy teacher who channels the utterance. Thus we have the heavenly Torah and the Torah of this world.

We enter the practice, using the holy mandala or blueprint laid out in our siddur for a guide, and we proceed via a prayer cycle to follow the stepping stones that show us the way up. That is our purpose. We are ascending Jacob’s ladder. Using our esoteric super-senses—which we all have, perhaps like little muscles never before used—we learn to navigate four cosmic worlds or levels by means of the ten palaces within each level. The higher you get, the more rarified these palaces, the more transparent our stepping stones become, until we arrive at the very throne room itself, a Holy of Holies you can’t see or touch. Because you aren’t you anymore. Only a memory in the deep heart of that Vastness we call God.

Afterwards, the descent is made, like in a glass elevator in the side of a building carrying us swiftly down as we gaze out through the transparencies over a panorama of many rooftops until we descend to the rock-bottom streets once more. Moses coming down from Sinai carrying something—a Word from God—into the world.

Today I will give you the names of these four worlds or levels and next Shabbat we’ll go through our somewhat modified and abridged Conservative siddur together to locate the sign posts of this Ascent and Descent. 

The first world is the World of Assiyah: the world of workmanship and building structures with physical matter; also called the World of Firmaments. We living beings, nefesh souls, dwell on earth, encircled by the lowest of Assiyah’s seven firmaments of the heavens. 

The second world is the World of Yezirah: the world of formation, a place of spirit beings and angels. We are in a dimension of creative energies and spiritual emotions, ruach. It is called the World of Souls, who are at rest, some in Gan Eden, some preparing for rebirth into the material world of the firmaments. 

The third world is the World of B’riah: the world of creation through thought and intellect and the spoken word, the utterance which creates the world; also the very breath of Life itself. It is the place of the higher soul, neshama, and is called the World of Thrones and is the place of the Throne of Glory.

The fourth world is the World of Atzilut: the World of Emanation. This is the Holy of Holies of God’s creation, the Divine Source, the place where the unmanifest gives rise to the seeds of manifestation, something from nothing. From here emanate God’s 13 attributes of mercy as well as the 10 qualities of God or the 10 s’phirot (depicted in this model as palaces or sanctuaries).  

When we meet next week, we will navigate this blueprint in its particulars and spot the sign-posts kabbalists have marked for us along the way. And we will learn what unites daily personal meditative practice with solitary walks in the woods and jogging through a crowd across a busy intersection.

Shabbat Pinhas - Give Us Our Inheritance!

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, July 30, 2016

Rabbi Michael Friedland

It is quite appropriate, you might call it bashert,  that Hillary Clinton was nominated this week to become the Democratic party’s candidate for President.  As the first woman nominated by one of the two main political parties, she broke figuratively,  and literally if you watched the graphic on Tuesday evening, the ultimate glass ceiling in America.  It is bashert because this morning’s Torah portion has more women designated by name than any other.  There are nine of them: Yocheved, Moshe and Aaron’s mother, Miriam their sister, Serach a daughter of Asher, the five daughters of a man Tzelophahad, whom we will get to in a moment and one Gentile, Cozbi the daughter the daughter of Tzur. Yocheved, Miriam and Serah are mentioned cursorily in the census of leadership.  

The others play significant roles in the parasha for different reasons. Cozbi bat Tzur was the Midianite princess whom Pinhas kills with her Israelite lover after she and the Midianite women tempt the Israelite men into idolatry and sexual license. For Zimri, the Israelite chieftain, and others these seductions released impulsive desires that were repressed after decades of wandering in the desert.  Her actions lead to plague and destruction.  

Now compare her to the five “daughters of Tzelofhad,”: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah.  Why in a Torah devoid of most women’s stories do these five sisters get mentioned by name? 

Moshe is getting ready to divvy up the Land of Israel as an eternal inheritance, as the people reach the end of their wanderings in the desert and prepare to enter this new stage of their national existence. But in the system being established by Moshe, land will be given only to men and passed on through men. Having no brothers, the sisters realize that there is no one to inherit what would have been the portion allotted to their father; their immediate family will not share in the Land. And so they come forward to petition Moshe for a different outcome.

“The daughters of Tzelofhad…came forward …They stood before Moshe, Elazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of Korah’s faction which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding, an inheritance, among our father’s kinsmen!” (Num. 27:1-4)

Moshe takes their plea to God – Who responds:

“The daughters of Tzelofhad speak correctly; you will surely give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen, transfer their father’s share to them.” (27:6)

God goes on to impart to Moshe a more broad principle that in any case in which a man dies without living male descendants, his daughters then become his heirs.

The daughters of Tzelofhad accomplish something quite significant; a change in the law going forward that gives women a degree of rights that they did not have before.  It is still not an equal system –it is true that they inherit only when there are no sons.  But in a society in which women live in the background, the daughters of Tzelofhad are bold in taking action and asking for what they want, and they most certainly make history in a positive way. 

The system Moshe is trying to establish for the Israelites is a society of God’s people in the Land. One could argue (and certain rabbinic midrashim did) that throughout the Torah, there are examples in which women have better values than the men to whom the land is supposed to go: It was the men who were ready to give up under Egyptian oppression, it was the men who offered the gold to make the Golden calf, it was 10 male spies who discouraged the nation from entering the Land, and now the daughters of Tzelophahad were protesting the Land’s apportionment so that their ancestral family not lose its share.  And as Rabbi Gayle Labovitz, professor of Talmud at American Jewish University points out, they challenge the system from within the system.   Unlike Korah and others who rebel against Moshe and God’s program, they are motivated by a commitment to the system and its ideals.  In so doing the change they advocate for makes a change for the better.

A rabbinic midrash expands on the commitment the sisters have to God’s system: When the daughters of Tzelofhad heard that the Land was being divided among tribes, to males, and not to females, they gathered each with the other to consult. They said: “God’s mercy is not like the mercy of human beings. For human beings have more compassion for males than for females. But the Holy and Blessed One is not like that; God’s compassion extends to both males and females. God’s compassion extends to all, as it is written: ‘The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works.’ (Psalm 145:9)” (Sifre Bamidbar 133)

Professor Labovitz notes that in the midrash the rabbis display recognition of the unfairness in the treatment between men and women in Judaism and Jewish law, and that this unfairness is not in keeping with God’s feelings for God’s creatures, all of whom are equal in Divine eyes. And yet…she adds, “The very rabbis who authored this midrash and placed it into this midrashic collection also authored many other passages that are not so compassionate to women. They made legislation that was and is harmful to women’s material well-being. They did not live up to their own, brief insight into God’s compassion for both genders.

Seeing the problem is not enough. Complaining to yourself or to your family or to a few friends about the problem is not enough. To make history, positive history, means taking responsibility for actively seeking the change that needs to happen. And it means showing the system that its own values are not being fully realized.”

Rabbi Gordon Tucker in a passage in his teshuvah arguing for inclusion of homosexuality, in “Halakhic and Metahalakhic Arguments Concerning Judaism and Homosexuality” describes how positive change came about in the early days of egalitarian communities:

Before there were any legal arguments for the full equalization of women and men in the synagogue and house of study, there were communities that had formed themselves with a vision of such equalization. They were committed to Judaism in a way that included ritual and liturgical traditionalism, but their own narrative, their own understanding of our texts, led them to the conviction that the tradition was wrong in excluding women from any public roles… here were egalitarian communities that were preserving, not dismantling, Jewish tradition. Their commitments were familiar: the texts they venerated were the Jewish sacred texts (though they, of course, had their own interpretations of them), their liturgy was structured traditionally and was recited in Hebrew, they were Zionists, they contributed to Jewish scholarship, they supported the philanthropic institutions of mainstream Jewish society, and so on. Their vision was of a law that was being created by this encounter, this interaction. It was in fact a law “waiting in the wings” that eventually became mainstream. And it did so to our great blessing, and to that of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Labovitz is grateful for the growth of egalitarian communities in the Conservative movement, now clearly the majority, but wonders, “What does that really mean”?

She references a responsum “Women and Mitzvot,” by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, that the CJLS passed 2 years ago. Rabbi Barmash writes at the very outset of her paper, “Egalitarianism, the equality of women in the observance of mitzvot, is not just about the participation of women: it is about fostering the fulfillment of by all Jews” (emphasis added).  Rabbi Labovitz points out that the Jewish legal system differs in an important and fundamental way from that of the United States and most modern, Western countries: One is built on rights, the other on obligation. To be equal in the American system is to have equal rights: To vote, to control one’s own finances, to say what one wants. But the measure of full status as a “citizen” under Jewish law is to have full obligation to the system of commandments, ritual and interpersonal. Rabbi Barmash thus demonstrates at length and with great erudition that women’s tradition exemption from much of public Jewish ritual practice is “… because they had subordinate status. They were exempted from the mitzvot that Jews are obligated to observe in the normal course of the day, week, and year because the essential ritual acts should be performed only by those of the highest social standing, those who were independent, those who were heads of their own households, not subordinate to anyone else. Only males were considered to be fitting candidates to honor God in the most fit way.”

If we believe that women in our communities are of equal worth and ability as men (if they serve as our synagogue presidents and rabbis and school principals – and as lawyers and judges and doctors and professors in the world beyond the Jewish community), then the way that ought to be reflected Jewishly is by equality not just of opportunity, but of actual obligation and participation. And so, the p’sak, the legal conclusion of Rabbi Barmash’s argument is quite straight-forward: “We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of mitzot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.”

Rabbi Labovitz and Rabbi Barmash are calling out the  institutions of our movement, but it is also a call to the individuals in our egalitarian congregations.

It can’t be enough just to declare ourselves egalitarian, just to say that anyone who wants to participate may and leave it at that. Making history, making historic change, demands that we take ownership of the changes we want to see.

We have seen that change in the significant number of women at Sinai who put on tefillin and wear a Tallit – not just when they come up on the bima -  and lead davvening and read Torah.  That is the sign that egalitarianism has truly begun to take root. 

Being an egalitarian community means equal.  The enthusiasm of some of the women in our community to take on these mitzvot is terrific.  The men in our congregation know they have been obligated over the centuries but many are lax in our contemporary age.  Egalitarianism means that men should see the opportunities of participation with the same enthusiasm as women just now learning.  Our congregation has made great strides in this direction. Participation was named in our communal conversations as something very special we encourage and share at Sinai.  We need to continue to move in that direction, encouraging women to continue to take lead in ritual and to make sure that when they do, the men in the congregation don’t recede and leave it to them, as if all of a sudden minyan or Torah reading and learning is a ‘woman’s task’.  We all need to come forward, go to Moshe, and say “Give me my Land; Give me my inheritance!”  Let us all insist that we take our rightful role as heirs to our noble heritage.

Shabbat Hukat - The Olam Hafukh, the Upside-Down World

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, July 16, 2016

Rabbi Michael Friedland

The Talmud tells a story of the son of the sage Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who became deathly ill. “Once, Joseph, son of Yehoshua ben Levi, fell ill and was thought to have died.  Then he suddenly regained consciousness. It was as if he returned from some far away place. As he regained consciousness, his father said to him: "What did you see?" Joseph said: "I saw an Olam Hafuch (a world turned upside down). What is above was below and what is below was above…." His father said to him: "My son, You have seen an Olam Brurah (a clear world), you have seen the world clearly….' [Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 50a]

Many commentators understand Joseph’s vision to have been a glimpse of the World to Come, where those who have suffered in this life will be honored in the world to come and vice versa. But it is also possible to read his vision as a clearer, unmuddied realization of this world. The world we live in is the Olam Hafukh, the upside down world, where, despite the guidance of Torah and God’s gift of discernment, we human beings exploit and abuse and destroy each other and our planet for temporal and selfish motives.  That is what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was telling his son – now you see the Olam Hazeh, this terrestrial and mortal world for what it truly is.

And it seems as if the last two weeks we have been living in an Olam Hafukh.  Policemen, whose function in society is to protect and serve, gunning down two men neither of whom were engaged in dangerous activities, who followed the instructions of the police dutifully and were killed anyway.  Five policemen, doing their duty to serve and protect, protecting protestors who were protesting police!, shot in cold blood by a former soldier who used his training to defend the United States in order to kill law enforcement officials.  And yesterday news of yet another mass murder in France, dozens murdered while celebrating that society’s liberation from tyranny by a follower of a hateful ideology whose goal is to reinstate a tyrannical theology.  And after years of making significant progress in overcoming our nation’s embarrassing past of slavery, discrimination and prejudice, a leading presidential candidate has made prejudice and singling out certain ethnic groups for attack the hallmark of his campaign.

We thought we were past this.

Last week I spoke of how each of us is responsible to be like our patriarch Aaron, to stand in the breach, to stand as he did in the midst of a plague, between life and death and be a force for healing.  This week, the timing is sadly prescient, I am joining with neighborhood pastors, three of us white, three of us black, to begin a conversation about what we can do together to address issues of concern in our East Central neighborhood.  This meeting has long been in the works, it was actually prompted by the murders a year ago at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC, when Susan Blum through a colleague at Notre Dame helped me reach out to Pastor Rick Jackson.  So it took awhile but I guess there’s never a bad time in America for black and white communities to reach out to one another.  You never have to worry that you came too late to that party!  It is a small thing – we are looking to get pastors of different churches in our immediate neighborhood to meet, get to know each other and, we hope, work together on issues facing our neighborhood – the schools, crime, beautification, and the like. You have to start somewhere.  We hope that this act of coming together will be significant when it seems that so much of America is coming apart.

In our tradition this is an attempt to live up to Aaron’s legacy.  For our tradition tells us that Aaron’s main quality was “bakesh shalom v’rodfeyhu”, to seek peace and pursue it.   And midrashim suggest to what extent Aaron would live up to this – it was not enough to be gentle with people, he would seek ways to bring quarreling parties together.  

Thus it is not surprising that in the morning’s Torah portion in which Aaron dies, our Sages noted a distinct difference between the way the people of Israel mourned his loss and the loss of Moses, the greatest of prophets.

When Aaron dies in this morning’s portion, the Torah indicates that “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”  In distinction to this when Moses dies, the text tells us simply that the “the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for thirty days.” Not ALL.  This reading suggests that there was a greater outpouring of grief and affection after Aaron’s death.  The Sages explained the difference:  “ Moses rendered judgment strictly  but Aaron never rebuked the people harshly. [Avot D’Rabbi Natan 12]

This approach had its affect on policy. For after his death, as the people draw ever closer to the promised land they come upon an enemy, the Amorites. Israel sends messengers to work out a peaceful passage through Amorite territory. A midrash explains why this was significant. Using the same verse from Psalms that described Aaron’s character, this midrash states: ‘Seek peace and pursue it’ – The Torah does not insist that we actually go in pursuit of commandments.  Rather you have statements such as Deut. 22:6  ‘If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.’ Or Deut. 24:20 ‘When you knock down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.’ Deut 23:25 ‘When you enter another man’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.’ In each of these situations, you are to observe the mitzvah, but you need not go in pursuit of such a situation. Except in the case of peace, then ‘seek peace’ means ‘seek it where you are’, and ‘pursue peace’ means ‘and pursue peace elsewhere’. This is what Israel did.  For God had given them permission – Deut. 2:24 ‘See, I give into your power Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin the occupation: engage him in battle.’ – nevertheless Israel pursued peace by sending messengers to request peaceful transfer.” [Tanhuma Hukat 51, Numbers Rabbah 19:27]

Cynics might suggest that this approach was a sham since in the end Israel does battle with the aggressive Amorites and wipes them out.  But that’s missing the larger point.  Whatever narrative the Torah is telling, the Sages wanted to interpret that text in a specific direction. Our Sages wanted their people to absorb the message that even at moments of heightened strife and confrontation, the Jewish approach is to reach out in order to create bridges, to strive for peace, to love more.

And that brings us to our celebration this morning.  We are honored to have so many with us this morning to celebrate Tali and AJ’s upcoming wedding.  Tali has grown up in this congregation, truly loved, supported and encouraged by this community.  And we are grateful to share our joy with all of you. There are many joys to being a parent.  The Yiddish word nachas captures that spirit.  Whereas the word means tranquility in the Bible, in Yiddish is the added meaning of pride, joy, satisfaction.  And there is no joy, no pride like seeing one’s child grow into a person worthy of respect.  And second to that is seeing one’s child meet and partner with a person worthy of respect.  That is why Lizzie and I are truly shepping nachas to have AJ join our family and to see AJ and Tali together.  

I am a big proponent of marriage.  Not in the sense of Groucho Marx, who when proposing to both Mrs. Rittenhouse and Mrs. Whitehead in Animal Crackers is questioned, “But isn’t that bigamy”, responded, “Yes, that’s big of me, that’s big of all of us.  Let’s be big for a change”.  I love marriage because it forces the individual to transcend him or herself.  Human beings are basically ego-driven self-preservationists.  Which is necessary most of the time.  We need to focus on our physical and spiritual needs if we are to survive in this Olam Hafukh.  But marriage is a welcome motivation to extend our humanity beyond our limited selfish needs.  In a marriage, to succeed one must transcend the self so that the other, the partner becomes the object of attention and concern.  The other’s needs, the other’s fears, the other’s aspirations, the other’s joys all become part of your constellation of interests and emotions.  And this is what true love is.  Not some ephemeral feeling, a desire spurred by pheromones to respond in a particular way.  True love means acting on a sense of responsibility and obligation towards an Other.  

And if we can learn that skill, learn to transcend our self and care about our partner, than we can grow that aptitude and learn to love and care for more people.  So like Aaron we not only seek but also pursue concern and care for others.

That’s why we love weddings so much.  It is the hope that in this Olam Hafukh, the upside down world, the possibility of the Ideal world that exists in Olam Haba, the world to come, can be realized here and now.  A world where exploitation and abuse and hatefulness, can be subjugated to concern for the other, kindness, compassion and love.  

It is the symbolism of the shattering of the glass at the end of the wedding.  It seems strange to shout Mazal tov when the groom crushes the glass under foot.  For the glass originally was meant to remind the guests that even at a joyous moment the world was still broken, the glass represented the destruction of the Temple.  But to me, that shattering suggests something powerful and noble.  Despite the brokenness of the world, despite the Olam Hafukh that we live in, a bride and groom who join together and pledge not only to love each other but that their love will reverberate and shake the world around them – creating new life, creating new avenues of compassion and care in the world – this is the beginning of redemption. Breaking the glass is an expression of courage, acknowledging that the world is broken but not conceding that it must be that way. The Huppah is our aspiration that the world can turn right side up through the love and concern of just two people.  That is our prayer for Tali and AJ’s new life together, and that is prayer for all of us.  May it be so.

Shabbat Korah - To Stand in Breach

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, July 8, 2016

Rabbi Michael Friedland

My favorite podcast, that I listen to religiously, is the midday sports show out of Chicago on WSCR.  Matt Spiegel and Jason Goff are the hosts of the show and it is a rare sports talk show that is funny, informative and makes all sorts of cultural references.  So I was a little shocked when I turned on the radio show on Thursday and Jason Goff, who is black, was speaking in very emotional tones about a conversation he had with his fiancée regarding having children as African American citizens.  I thought he might be speaking about the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA.  But he mentioned St. Paul, MN.  My first thought was, “Oh please let me have misheard, not another killing of a black man by police”.  But unfortunately, it was another killing of a black man by police in St. Paul, Philando Castile, killed during a routine traffic stop for attempting to pull his license out of his pocket.  

It was a very compelling half hour of radio, as a very successful, highly skilled radio host broke down to share his fears and anxiety that he and other professional young black men in his social circle feel when they see the police -- the police, who are supposed to, and for many of us do, represent security and protection.  He said that his fear is not born of any animus towards the police, his uncle is a Chicago cop, but it is a fear born of experience and the experience of others, that if you are a young black male you may be stopped at any time for any reason by suspicious officers.  And when one is stopped, one never knows what might happen.  Nothing or tragedy.

Listening to him express his frustrations about the lack of concern he sees in society for these misdeeds, I was most struck by his claim that as long as these tragedies and fears only impact African Americans, other segments of society are too willing to look away and ignore the issue.  And, of course, this unwillingness to deal seriously with the issue causes the problem to grow.

Some of the reactions to these frustrations lead to deaths of other innocent people as we send our heartfelt condolences to the murder of the 5 policemen in Dallas who were doing their job of protecting citizens during a rally against police violence. 

As a Jew, I can imagine what it must be like for black men to fear government authorities and the security apparatus of a state.  For centuries, we Jews did not see the security forces of the nations we lived in as protection, but as dangers to avoid.  In the 20th century Jews in Arab countries were at the mercy of their governments, who fomented pogroms as earlier European governments had, to appease their citizens and to deflect anger from their own corruption.  But the truth is I can only imagine what it is like because Jews in America today, while we are not free of Anti Semitism, do not have to worry about state sponsored hatred.  We see the police for what they are supposed to be – protectors and securers of civil society.

They stand between civility and chaos, between life and death.  Many African Americans find it hard to see that image as clearly as we do.

In this week’s Torah portion the image of standing between life and death is found prominently in an ugly moment following the Korah rebellion.

After Korah has been defeated, the people rebel against Moshe and Aaron.  They believe that Moshe and Aaron have destroyed Korah and his followers because they protested against the pair.

“The whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You two have brought death upon the LORD’s people!”

 At this point, God has had enough and intends to bring punishment on the entire community.

“Remove yourselves from this community, that I may annihilate them in an instant.”  Moses and Aaron fell on their faces.  Fearing what God may do, Moses said to Aaron, “Take the fire pan, and add incense; take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them. For wrath has gone forth from the Lord: the plague has begun!” 

Moses instructs Aaron to protect the people from God’s anger.  Aaron does as Moses had ordered, and runs into the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun. 

The Torah then tells us that Aaron “stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked”.

He stood between the dead and the living.  Aaron became a barrier, a protector of the people, in order to stop the plague.

Rashi in his commentary refers to a midrash in which Aaron literally stands before Death – the Angel of Death.  The incense keeps the Angel from killing the Israelites.  The Angel looks at Aaron, “what are you doing? This is my job.”  Aaron responds, “No, Moses told me to stop you.  “Moses?  God told me to unleash Divine wrath, Moses does not have the permission to countermand that order!”  To which Aaron responds, “Moses speaks to God all the time, and the two of them are on the same page.  You are to be prevented from fulfilling your task.”  And the plague ends.

Ovadia Sforno, 16th Century Italian commentator, notes that Aaron stood in the breach to protect the community, a community who was just about to attack him and Moses.  God had told them to“Separate yourselves from the community”.  But Aaron with his incense pan stood with the community between those who were struck by the plague and those not yet struck to stop the killings -- just as the Dallas police stood to protect those who were protesting the very police entrusted to protect them.  Aaron stood in the breach between life and death.  The Dallas police at the rally stood in the breach between life and death. 

Last week the world lost a champion of that moral code of standing in the breach between life and death when Elie Wiesel Z’L passed away.  Wiesel was fond of saying that the opposite of good is not evil but indifference.  It is the lack of interest in standing up for what is right, not out of fear – that is understandable -  but out of unconcern that perpetuates the worst evils in the world. 

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel expressed what it means to stand in the breach:  "I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe."

He stated that as a Jew he was primarily concerned with the suffering of his own people.  “But,” he continued, “there are others as important to me. Apartheid is, in my view, as abhorrent as anti-Semitism. To me, Andrei Sakharov's isolation is as much of a disgrace as Josef Begun's imprisonment. As is the denial of Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa's right to dissent. And Nelson Mandela's interminable imprisonment."

“There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person – a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death … What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”

One person can make a difference.  And Elie Wiesel was not the only significant loss last week of a person who showed the world how one righteous person could make a differnce.

Nicholas Winton is often referred to as "Britain's Schindler."

He was a young British stockbroker when, in December 1938, he canceled a skiing trip to Switzerland, and instead went to visit a friend in Prague who was helping refugees fleeing from the Nazis.

That visit changed his life — and the lives of many others. Winton went on to save 669 children, most of them Jewish, by arranging their safe passage to England from Czechoslovakia in the lead-up to World War II. Many of the parents they left behind perished in Nazi concentration camps.

It was not until 1988, that his acts of heroism were made known.  Winton had never spoken about it publicly. But his wife found a scrapbook in their attic.  In it were photos, names and records of hundreds of European children for whom Winton had paid train fares, forged travel documents and arranged foster families in England.  It eventually came to light.

John Fieldsend one of the children whom Winton had saved stated, "He could have been imprisoned, he could have been shot — anything could have happened to him. He had no reason to be involved. He was just a good British stockbroker."

Nicholas Winton was certainly a man who stood between life and death.  How many thousands of humans owe their life to his saving of 669 children?  Each a world unto itself.  

We live in a society today that demands that we too stand in the breach.  We can’t remain indifferent to atrocious behavior of those police who are untrained or suffer from endemic racism.  And we must not be unconcerned when vicious racists motivated by anger and hatred shoot police, or anyone for that matter, to express vengeance. And we should not stand idly by as prominent candidates for political office or popular talk show hosts spew their hatefulness towards individuals.  

Aaron stood between life and death.  We, too, must be willing to make that stand.

Shabbat Bamidbar - God's Template

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, June 11, 2016

Rabbi Meira Chmiel

The Zohar introduces in Parashat Bamidbar a newly completed stage in the process of God’s emerging template, the way the Divine continues by way of Utterance to emanate out of the heavens and construct the means by which manifestation of God’s Presence can take place within the square dimensions of our earthy world, our particular sector of the space-time continuum. God needs relationship. Interestingly enough, He starts with creating us. Why? Zohar connects the very opening of Bamidbar with the creation of a God-Man in Genesis, a radically alive spirit-being emanated from God’s very shape into material substance. 

A carbon copy, you could say—almost!  The blueprint used to create us leaves a trace behind that reveals what created us and becomes a blueprint of the Creator as well as of the created, like the tracing etched in the carbon film between two sheets of paper. And so we learn from the Zohar’s Talmudic sources that we humans evolved from a material life form with infinite capacity to transcend space and time.

Dr. Richard Moss, in his book, Black Butterfly—An Invitation to Radical Awareness writes: “Energy is fundamental to existence; everything is energy. In its pure and unobstructed form, it is Consciousness.. pure consciousness without an object and without a subject. Relative to this level of pure unobstructed consciousness, as we enter into more mundane awareness and our experience becomes particularized, energy gradually decreases… Our ordinary levels of consciousness, in which things appear concrete and real, are lower levels of energy..., lower levels of aliveness.” [p.50]

Zohar-Bamidbar opens: “YHVH spoke to Moses in the Desert of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first of the second month in the second year…saying, Count the heads of all the community of the children of Israel…” after which Rabbi Abba in the Zohar narrative quotes the verse in Genesis where Man is created in God’s image, and then adds, “Come and see: When the Holy One created the human being, He made him in the image of those above—[which are the sephirot, the divine attributes, and below]—the lower worlds. He was composed of all, and his light shone from one end of the world to the other, and all [the creatures] feared him.” [The Zohar, translation and commentary by Daniel C. Matt, Pritzker Ed., vol 8, p. 250]

In this succinct quote we have allusions to Adam’s original cosmic height, his radiance extending out across the breadth of the world, his splendor and lordliness. According to the Bavli Talmud Hagigah 12a, [Ibid p. 251, n. 4]: “Rabbi El’azar said, Adam extended from earth to heaven… As soon as he sinned, the Holy One placed His hand upon him and diminished him, as it is said, ‘Behind and in front You formed me, and You set Your palm upon me (Psalms 139:5).’ ” Daniel Matt, in his commentary, [Ibid, n. 4] interprets this from the Zohar perspective, “In his pristine state, Adam pondered supernal wisdom. But when he sinned by eating the fruit of the tree.., the human and divine faces (or configurations) diminished, wisdom abandoned him, and he focused merely on mundane, physical matters.” His consciousness or energy level was diminished to the merely tangible things of life.

Regardless of the reduced situation, God continued His workmanship to establish the world He had begun: Cain and Abel were born. But these two could not “settle with one another in the world”, and after Cain killed Abel and was condemned to wander the world, Cain begot a human race that carried choice to the extreme, becoming chaotic and cruel, leading to its own annihilation—the flood. It was through the third son of Adam and Eve, Seth, that righteousness survived over the many generations before and after the flood. The world afterwards stabilized, societies began developing, and covenants between God and humanity became possible. [Ibid, text and commentary, p.251, n.5]

The Zohar tells us: “Even so, th[is] lower world [our world] was neither perfected nor complete nor fulfilled until Abraham came, after which it became established.” [Ibid p.252] Abraham’s son Isaac and grandson Jacob joined him and these three, each holding a unique covenant with the world’s Creator, enabled the world to “stand firm and not totter.” How? What does it mean—established, stand firm, not totter? Each of these patriarchs served as a pipeline channel with the heavenly template, the source of blessing from above, enabling the nourishing down-flow that Adam had cut off when he broke the channel. The earth now had three radio towers that could receive God’s signal. Three is the beginning of stability. It is for this that God needs humanity.

But the Zohar goes on to point out: “Even so, [the world] did not take root until [Jacob] engendered twelve tribes and seventy souls, and the world was firmly planted. Even so, it was not perfected until the blessed Holy One gave the Torah at Mt. Sinai and the Dwelling, the Mishkan, was erected. Then worlds were established, and those above and below became fragrantly firm.” [Ibid pp.252-3] 

On reflection, we can see how the bringing down of Torah was vital to the continued existence of the world. Just picture what would have evolved without it! In BT Shabbat [88a], Resh Lakish tells the works of Creation: “If Israel accepts the Torah you will endure. If not, [God] will return you to chaos and void…” And Rabbi El’azar says in Pesachim [68b] “Were it not for Torah [which must be studied day and night], heaven and earth would not endure,” and he quotes Jeremiah, “Were it not for My covenant with day and night, I would not have established the laws of heaven and earth [33:25].” [Ibid p.253, n.7]

The Zohar now brings us up to date with the cosmic significance of the event described in Bamidbar. “Once Torah and the Mishkan were established, the blessed Holy One wished to count the forces of Torah—how many troops of the Mishkan. Come and see: Every entity that needs to be settled in its place does not settle until it is mentioned by mouth and enumerated… Therefore their forces are enumerated, to be recognized by them—” [Ibid p.253] And so Israel was told, “Count the heads of all the community of the children of Israel…” [Ibid p.250, n.1] In other words, you have to be given your assignment, your role in the community. What is your post, your squadron, your watch? 

But there’s a hazard point here, our scriptures warn of it, and BT Ta’anit [8b] says: “Blessing is not found in anything weighed, measured, or counted, but only in that which is kept hidden from the eye.” [Ibid p.255, n.17] Exodus 30:12 gives us God’s directive to Moses on Sinai regarding this: “When you take the poll, the census, of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall every man give a ransom for his soul to the Lord, when you count them, that there be no plague among them when you count them.” From this we learn about the half-shekel ransom, an atonement offering for each soul.  The Zohar [Ibid p.255-6] describes: “Come and see: Blessing from above does not settle upon anything counted. Now, you might say, ‘How were the people of Israel counted?’ Well, a ransom was taken from them, as has been established, and no counting took place until the ransom was collected and totaled up. First Israel was blessed, then that ransom was counted, and then Israel was blessed once again. Thus Israel was blessed in the beginning and at the end, and no pestilence touched them. Why does pestilence pertain to counting?.. Blessing does not settle upon anything counted. As soon as the blessing departs, the Other Side can settle there and can inflict harm. Therefore in counting, a redemptive ransom is taken, to avert pestilence.”  

Now God directs Moses to orient the tribes in camps around the now newly erected Mishkan, the Dwelling place of God’s Presence, according to a particular formation. They will march as well as camp always in this formation, forming an array. Numbers 2:2 describes it: “The Children of Israel shall camp according to his father’s house, every man with his own standard, according to the sign or insignia of his father’s house. A good way off shall they pitch their tents around the Tent of Meeting.” And in the midst of the array, the camp of Levites forms an inner circle around the Mishkan, guarding its sanctity. 

God prescribes the specific layout of the twelve tribes camps in the outer array, like a giant four-cornered square around the Levitical camp. Three tribes guard the east: these are Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. They head the whole array when the camp is on the move. The three tribes assigned to the south are Reuven, Shimon and Gad. They form the right arm of the array. To the west are Rachel’s tribal group: the two sons of Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh, and his brother Benjamin. They form the rear guard. And the three tribes to the north are Dan, Asher, and Naftali. They form the left arm of the array. 

This array of the twelve tribes reflects, mirrors a heavenly array, says the Zohar, the chambers or sephirot of the upper worlds, all reflecting the image and likeness, the exalted qualities of God. God has now brought forth in the lower worlds a society in the image of God. Jewish mysticism of the earliest centuries of the Talmudic period, especially in Palestine, reflects these scriptural influences. Especially midrashic writings on the Song of Songs, as well as the Shiur Komah and the Heichelot hymns and the Descent into the Merkavah, Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot. Later, an emerging Kabbalah incorporates these same themes and associations, giving rise to the Zohar during the late 1200’s and influencing numerous versions of the siddur that come down to us today. Especially those of the Sephardic and Eastern congregations. 

Ceremonies like shaking the lulav and etrog according to the minhag of the Ariz”l, Rabbi Isaac Luria from the late 1500s, reflect that array of 12 tribes in the wilderness. The four letters of God’s Name are expressed in the heavenly array, mirrored by the priestly choreography of the sacrifices. The Zohar [3:118b, see Matt, Ibid, p.261-2] describes four archangels that accompany the tribal array on its journey, guardians of the traveling Mishkan, leading the troops of each quadrant of the four directions. 

A song about that journey with the four archangels comes down to us in our bedtime prayer as we deposit our soul with our Creator and prepare ourselves for its nightly ascent. It goes like this, and you can sing along….

(See the words on p.784 of the Birnbaum Siddur.)

Shabbat shalom!

Shabbat Behukotai - The Existential Angst of Violence

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, June 4, 2016

It was heartening to see so many members of our congregation and the Jewish community at the South Bend Moms Demand Action Wear Orange Walk to mark National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Unfortunately the approximately 100 people who came to the event were still too feeble a response for the immensity of the task.  Over 30,000 Americans are killed each year do to gun violence.  That is 20% more than people who die of Leukemia.  A year ago the Ebola virus struck such fear into the populace that the US. Congress set aside a billion dollars to fight Ebola.  In that year 2 Americans died from Ebola.  Yet Congress has passed a law prohibiting the Center for Disease Control from studying gun violence. 

Civic leaders and religious leaders, including yours truly, had the opportunity to participate in the rally but the most effective speakers were two African American women who have organized groups in different parts of town to take back local parks for the children, demanding accountability for those who carry or shoot guns in the local parks.  

One of the very important elements lost in all the talk about 2nd amendment rights of gun ownership, community safety, the loss of life, is the psychological and emotional toll of gun violence in our communities.  Gun violence is a very large category.  Many who die from gun violence are suicides.  In some cases, impulsive violence – such as the tragic murder of a young man at a bar downtown last week.  Gun violence may be gang related or retaliatory violence.  Mental illness plays a hand in too many mass murders. 

But in addition to the devastated lives of those who survive lost loved ones, what about the toll on the community where violence is prevalent? 

The Urban Institute, a social and economic policy research institute produced a study which looked at the impact of gun violence in communities where such violence is common.

In one study of urban youth, 42 percent reported having seen someone shot or knifed and 22 percent reported having seen someone killed. Exposure to gun violence has been linked to a variety of psychological challenges like anger and dissociation, anxiety and depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also affect youth in the classroom, making it difficult for them to concentrate in class and damaging their academic performance and educational or career aspirations.

Retaliatory violence is another consequence of some neighborhood violence which leads a vicious cycle. “I got the concept,” one survivor explained. “You know, I’d rather get caught with [a gun] than without it . . . I was willing to hurt somebody if they tried to hurt me. Nobody was going to do that to me again.” In this way, the urban league report compares gun violence which spreads far beyond one original incident, sometimes targeting innocent family members,  to a blood-borne disease like HIV which unfolds through social networks.

Also, gun injuries and exposure to gun violence are often triggers for PTSD, and it’s not uncommon for sufferers to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. This coping strategy imposes a variety of new health risks including, most tragically, increased risk of suicide.  And the increased likelihood of loss of impulse control leading to more indiscriminate violence.

Nancy Scales-Simon, who lost a brother to gun violence, spoke to the concerns of the wider impact of gun violence at the rally on Thursday.  She told the crowd that her family narrowly averted another gun-related tragedy when her children and grandchildren were among the kids caught in the crossfire of a shootout at the city’s Ravina Park.  She said her granddaughter is afraid to return to the park and has trouble sleeping.  When violence disturbs daily life and normative activities; when residents see no visible achievements in curbing the violence, not only frustration and anger are the results. Existential angst develops and grows.  Recently a South Bend Tribune article described a couple on the Northwest side who have been victims of gun violence.  They want to move but can’t sell their home because it has lost 50% of its value as the neighborhood deteriorated.  After no success in positive change, the wife expressed her true feelings: "We are trapped.  We are prisoners."

How much the more so for children who grow up in such common quotidian violence, who sense that this is normal.  How different, really, is their life, with the constant fear of guns and brutality, from children in war zones?

Our Torah portion this morning graphically describes a society that is suffering from violence and massive upheaval.  Of course the Torah’s description of this terrifying situation is due to the people’s intransigence and rebellion against God.  The end of the book of Leviticus lays out the conclusion to the list of rules and statutes that began with the Holiness Code in Chapter 19.  “If you follow My rules, a communal life of blessing and goodness will be achieved.  But if you defy the mitzvot that I place before you, a litany of tragedies will visit you.”  We could say that the depictions of violence we live with in our society are also a response to not following the path that a healthy society should follow:  The lack of economic opportunity for so many, the terrible state of our public education system, and of course the ease with which mentally unstable and unqualified individuals can acquire guns.  The comfort for the member of the Jewish people is that after we read this frightening list of tragedies that may occur, we are reminded in the end that ultimately “Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God.”  But for us Americans, who will bring salvation and redemption to communities devastated by 30,000 annual murders and violent deaths if not we ourselves?

The Tochecha brings conclusion to the Book of Leviticus but it does not end the book.  Leviticus and our Torah portion end with a chapter on the voluntary vows of tzedakah a person may make to the Temple.  A person could vow their value to the Temple and offer it as a gift.  Distinct categories of people carry with them specific values.  This has caused some controversy to our modern sensibilities since men have a higher valuation than women.  In the reality of the Biblical world, men did have a more practical value.  A male slave could do more work and cost efficient work than a woman. Or you could look at it as a bargain, women could vow their value to the Temple and it would cost them less.

In any case it is an odd juxtaposition.  Blessings and curses, God’s promise of eternal support and then immediately this dry list of valuations.  Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin (late 18th C), explains the proximity.  One listening to the Tochacha might despair.  Not just out of fear but also an existential dread could creep over him – if such is possible what is the point?  He might begin to doubt “What am I worth? Does my life have meaning or value?”.  And then Chapter 27 follows the Tochecha which comes to remind us that, despite everything, every Jew has does have value.  

We need such reminders in our civic life as well.  While I hope that all of us will support efforts to make gun safety a premium in our community and work to stop the insidious violence that destroys so many lives, we also need to insure that those who are most affected by violence, all of us really, though some more than others, recognize that their lives do have intrinsic value and significance and this is why despair and acting out of desperation should cease.

The oldest living man in the world today is Israel Kristal who lives in Haifa.  Kristal is a survivor of Auschwitz and lost all his family in the Holocaust.  In Israel he remarried and today is a great grandfather.  Our job in life says Kristal,  “All that is left for us to do is to keep on working as hard as we can and rebuild what is lost.”  

As we think about the warnings in this week’s Torah portion, and the Moms Demand Action Orange Walk this week to fight against Gun Violence, let us keep Mr. Kristal’s words before us – Let us work hard and rebuild what is in danger of being lost – our integrity, our security, our trust, our communities.
 

Shabbat Emor - Is the Torah’s Discrimination Against the Physically Disabled Priest Cruel or Appropriate?

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 21, 2016

The Torah is a book that we do not access with ease.  There are passages which inspire and challenge us.  Last week we read Parashat Kedoshim with its inspiring demands of generosity, both financial – leaving the corner of one’s field and the gleanings of crops for the poor in addition to a series of tithes – and also emotional generosity – Love the stranger, the outsider.  We are forbidden from hating in our hearts and responsible not only for our behavior but the behavior of those around us.   However, at the same time there are passages which rightly disturb our modern sensibilities – proscriptions against homosexuality, calls for genocide against certain enemies and a rule regarding priests with physical disabilities in this week’s Torah portion.  

The greatness of our tradition is that it is an interpretive tradition.  We begin with the confidence that the great pre-war Lithuanian commentator, R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his Meshech Chochma, expressed about Torah that “the entire Torah and all its commandments teach compassion, mercy, and chesed.”  Based with that deep belief, each generation reads and rereads the verses in order to make sense of these passages that do not seem to uphold this foundation.

Regarding the passages in this morning’s Torah portion about restrictions on the Kohen with a physical disability from offering up sacrifices are difficult in our day to understand.  True, these individuals were permitted to function in priestly roles outside the Sanctuary, and to partake in the priestly gifts.  Attempting to make sense of this discrimination, Rabbi Ephraim of Lunshitz, in 16th century Prague, distinguished between a ‘mum’, the deformity which befell a person later in life and that with which one was born.  Acknowledging that in either case such a disability disqualified the Kohen from serving in the Temple, he focused on the Kohen who acquired the disability later in life.  For him, the physical malady was an outward manifestation of a spiritual corruption.  Thus the restrictions were really teaching that moral turpitude and sinfulness was what kept the priest, the holiest person in the community, from serving.  Our modern scientifically supported view that biology is not linked to morality or ethics has difficulty welcoming such a view, but it’s a nice try.

Rabbi Bradley Artson explains this rule as a reminder to us that none of us but God is perfect, and therefore that we must come before our God with the shleimut, the completeness, that comes from admitting our imperfections.  This is a very appropriate lesson, but does not explain why some kohanim do get to serve in the Temple.  It’s a little too close to a paraphrase of the infamous commandment in Animal Farm, “None of us is perfect, but some of us are a little less imperfect than others”.

Rabbi Judith Abrams, a well known feminist theologian, noted that the sanctuary was a special place where heaven and earth met, and so it was dangerous. The kohen stood at the nexus between two worlds -- between life and death, between supreme purity and imperfection, between order and chaos -- and therefore he had to be healthy and strong and pure in order to serve there.  Again we are accepting a notion of purity and strength that is based on prejudices about physical perfection and imperfection implies.

But William Herlands, a lay person writing a davar Torah for the Bronfman Fellowship website, offers a very different way of approaching this question.  He begins by wondering what is it that kohanim did in their daily role as community leaders?  He noted that for the average Israelite the Temple existed on the fringe of society. People in ancient Israel rarely entered its domain and when pilgrims did show up they were only permitted in the peripheries of the sanctuary. The building’s regular denizens – the kohanim and Levi’im – often worked behind the veil of holiness, invisible to all but God, briefly interacting with pilgrims on the holidays or when sacrifices of thanksgiving and sin were brought. The Talmud in Masechet Eiduyot describes how even the priestly dormitories and passageways were sealed off from the outside world in an ongoing battle to keep tumah, ritual impurity, outside.

Instead, lay people would most often interact with kohanim in their respective towns where local kohanim received regular tithes of fruit and bread. They may have functioned as religious authorities much like local rabbis today, teaching lessons and educating children.

So why the rule about no Kohanim with physical defects or disabilities serving in the sanctuary?  Mr. Herland compares this with another rule we read this week.  No offerings were permitted that had physical defects.  Offerings had to be in perfect condition.  The Torah fears that people will view sacrifice as a means of ridding themselves of a burdensome beast. Left to market forces alone, people would bring sacrifices from old cows that cannot produce milk or injured goats that cannot be sold at market.

Mr. Herland draws a parallel in the case of kohanim with a disability.  He writes, “ Baalei mumim were an unsettling enigma to ancient (and even modern) eyes. We can imagine the desire to remove them from the community and hide them away in the mikdash, assuaging our lingering guilt with the thought that their tasks are sanctified.  There is a sinister comfort in a society without visible disability…the Torah requires us to embrace the disabled into society. By specifically permitting a kohen baal mum to partake of the tithes and other offerings made in Jewish towns across Israel, the Torah indicates that these kohanim must dwell in the heart of the community. They are to serve the everyday religious needs of the people, instead of being shunned to the obscure recesses of the mikdash.”

It’s a creative reading that turns our initial understanding on its head.  The Torah by restricting the physically disabled and physically deformed from the Temple, forced Israelite society to welcome these individuals into the normative life of its social order.  Is Mr. Herland’s interpretation correct?  I don’t know, you would have to decide yourself.  But I think it is less overtly apologetic than telling us the sanctuary was a spiritually dangerous place and therefore only the physically whole were safe enough to serve.

And it fits an element of the role of priest.  The priest was ritual afficianado, teacher, upholder of law and also pastor.  Last week I noted a book by rabbis Nancy Weiner and Jo Hirshman, two pastoral counselors, Maps and Meaning, in which they discuss the role of the priest as pastor.  One of the important functions of the priest was to care and connect with the metzora, the individual struck with the terrible and terrifying skin condition called tzara’at.  This affliction would cause the person to be banished from the camp.  The priest was his or her contact from the unaffected community.  Hopefully the priest would be able to declare the illness as passed and allow them back into the community with holy rituals.  But if not, at least his visits offered compassion to individuals with an unsightly and most likely painful skin disease.  The ability to offer words of comfort to one who is under such distress is priceless.  How much the more so if the priest offering such comfort can do so through empathy, sharing with the sufferer his own disability or imperfection.

In a Jewish ethical text called Maalot HaMidot, translated as On the Improvement of Moral Virtues, by Rabbi Yehiel ben Yekutiel of Rome, the author in his section on Tzedakah writes, “The sages said, Greater are comforting words to a poor person then one who gives charity. For one who gives a pruta to a poor person is a blessed with six blessings, But one who comforts another with words is blessed with 11 blessings.  Rabbi Yehiel derives this lesson from a passage in the Talmud.  There the rabbis suggest that the value of comforting words are rewarded with even greater blessing than a monetary gift from an interpretation of the verse found in Isaiah 58: 

"you should offer to the hungry, your soul, nefesh; You shall satisfy the afflicted soul, nefesh" 

Reading the verse carefully one sees that more than just words, one is to offer one’s very self, one’s presence.  The word nefesh is used twice in the verse.  Initially it refers to the comforter, in the second half to the sufferer.  They are both referred to as nefashot.   This indicates to us that for Isaiah both are in many ways the same.  The caregiver may be comforting or satisfying the needs of the other nefesh, but the caregiver is a nefesh too.  In their interaction there will be transference of benefits and significance from both sides.  

In my study the last two years of Clinical Pastoral Education I have learned that pastoral work is valuable in a concrete way in the healing process, just as doctors and nurses concretely assist in the healing process.   The Maalot HaMidot is pointing to a direction in which the pastoral presence can see his or her value in this healing transaction.  The mutuality that connects healer to sufferer brings s’viah, satisfaction and gratification, to the afflicted soul and also to the one who is willing to offer his or her soul, or presence, to the one in need.

In this way, Mr. Herland’s understanding of the priestly restrictions which have the consequence of inducing the physically disabled Kohanim out into the community gives even greater healing power to such kohanim.  Shutting them up inside the sanctuary would have been comparable to putting the victims of Tzara’at skin disease outside the camp. But having teachers and pastors with their imperfections working in the community normalized these conditions and taught the powerful lesson that disabilities do not impair one emotionally, intellectually or spiritually.  We would do well to learn that lesson today for ourselves.  And to learn the value that each of us, dealing with our own imperfections, can serve as pastors, comforters and sacred vessels to others in need of support and solace.