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Beshalach: On Leadership

The Torah reading this week is BeShalach ("Letting Go"). In the context of the verse, Pharaoh is finally letting the people go. The people are then sent on a longer journey than the fastest way to their goal. Why? To build them as a community and as a nation. The Sea of Reeds would quite literally (albeit a great miracle) give birth to the Nation of Israel. 

Before that could happen, a great lesson on leadership needed to be taught to the people. Moses was doing his best as a leader. The rest of the nation were very rational and sane in their complaints against him and the Lord. Afterall, they were stuck facing the sea and quickly approaching was the entire Egyptian Army coming to enslave the people and destroy whatever hopes they had of the future.

"And Moses said to the people, fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will show you today. For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again any more forever. The Lord shall fight for you and you shall hold your peace. And the Lord said to Moses: Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward."   (Exodus 14:13-15)

The people of Israel must have thought Moses delusional. The Egyptian troops were coming toward them... the sea was in front of them. Being trapped, they blamed Moses for bringing them out of Egypt only to die here. Moses offered words of reassurance. The Lord will fight for you, all will be well.

Now let's think from Moses' perspective. He himself would have had huge doubts. Afterall, he too could see the reality. Whatever theological hope he had in the Lord was theory based on miracles that ended up being curses to the Egyptians who were fast approaching to end this attempt to free his people. Moses could not conceive that the sea would open and save the people.

The Eternal chastises Moses and says: "Why do you cry out to me?" Now, the Lord could have told Moses: "You are the leader, set the example, walk into the sea as an act of faith and courage." But instead, the Eternal told Moses to instruct the Israelites to go forward. Whereas Moses had told the people to hold their peace and wait for the Lord’s salvation, the Eternal instructed otherwise. The Israelites first had to take initiative on their own. They had been passive throughout the period of plagues in Egypt, but now that they were on the road to freedom they had to take on responsibility.

Rabbi Meir Simha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1875-1926) suggested that the Eternal wanted the people of Israel to demonstrate faith by plunging into the water first. Moses was to follow the Israelites rather than lead them. Our legends tell us that Nachshon ben Aminadav was the first to understand what needed to be done and enter the water. Once he took the initiative, the Lord split the waters of the sea and the Israelites were miraculously saved.

And we are left with questions: why did Moses cry out to the Lord in a seeming panic? Why didn’t Moses himself march into the sea to set an example of faith and leadership? Why was it Nachshon, according to the Legend, who took the initiative?

Perhaps the Torah is indicating that even Moses, the greatest of all prophets, had a moment of doubt. At a critical time, he froze. He could not understand why the Eternal had brought the Israelites into such an impossible trap and he could not muster the courage to lead the people into the sea. But while Moses hesitated, Nachshon took the lead.  Sometimes even the best of leaders falls short. It takes the courage and initiative of others to save the situation. Once Nachshon took the lead, the Israelites themselves realized that it was time for them to move forward. Moses and the people learned that at a time of national crisis, courageous action is required. The price of freedom is: increased responsibility.

I would like to thank the Nachsons of our community who have provided leadership and guidance during our time of transition at JCM. May you and your descendants be as strong willed as Nachshon to inspire us forward.

Getting Ready for Tu BiShvat: Why we plant

Rabbi Abraham I. Kook was known for his teaching that, "the desire to plant trees arises from the desire to benefit the ensuing generations, a desire represented by the carob tree." This alludes to the following story recorded in the Talmud:

"One day Choni HaMe'agel was walking along the road. He saw a person planting a carob tree and asked him in how many years it would bear fruit. He replied, 'In seventy years.' He asked, 'Do you think you will live another seventy years?' The person answered, 'I found this world with carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted them for me, I am planting them for my descendants'" (Taanit 23a).

A cute illustrated video on this story can be found here or by clicking on the image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRfV7XrGfBo&ab_channel=BimBam

Bo: Hardening our Hearts like Pharoah

Then the Eternal said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount to your children and your grandchildren how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the Eternal. -Exodus 10:1-2

The classic question is that if Pharaoh's heart was hardened by the Lord then his free choice was taken away and he should not have been punished. And we must remember that this was the same Pharaoh who chose to murder the Israelite boys and enslave our people.

I can imagine Pharaoh's lawyer saying, "But he was trapped in the injustice of the Egyptian system. The system needed slaves and the Israelite slaves needed to be controlled. Pharaoh was simply responding to the needs of his nation."

Are we personalizing evil or even worse, justifying it? After all, Pharaoh was a human being and thus also made in the image of the Creator. What lesson can we gain from engaging in such an intellectual exercise? 

I remember once being told that every character in the Torah represents a part of our psyche, even Pharaoh himself. All human beings have good and evil inclinations. These inclinations are known as the Divine life-force within us. We all struggle with our evil inclination (Yetzer haRa) and so there is an imperative for us to shine a light on the darkness within all of us. 

This is consistent with the psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of the psyche’s shadow side: "The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance." (Carl Jung, "Aion: Phenomenology of the Self", in: The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell (Penguin Books, 1976), p. 145.)

The Maharal of Prague taught that suffering can instigate repentance helping us to change. Our will is broken and we therefore seek change out of desire to end our pain. We are woken up and break through denial to see a deeper truth concealed in the recesses of the heart. After the splitting of the Reed Sea, Pharaoh was transformed. Even he ended up leaving Egypt or Mitzrayim, the phase of constriction, so that the pain of labor contractions could give birth to a more spacious awareness. Our tradition says that Pharaoh sat on the beach of the Reed Sea and repented.

When the Pharaoh in all of us, the unrestricted ego, is able to transform and repent, the soul can open up and become all that it is meant to be. May we be transformed in our soul and spirit so that we too can be free.

Shabbat Shalom 

Va'era: Rising Above the Spiritual Malaise 

"And Moses spoke so to the children of Israel; but they listened not to Moses for anguish of spirit and for cruel bondage."  (Exodus 4:9)

When the going gets tough it is sometimes difficult to listen to our leaders. We seek to blame someone for the difficulties that we are experiencing and it is easiest to point a finger at our leaders. After all, if they were better leaders, then we would not be in this situation in the first place. It is important to remember that vision does not manifest overnight. That is the main message of what we experienced in last week's Torah portion: that yes, life can seem absolutely hopeless and we are still called to believe that change is possible.

Moses' message is one of freedom, ending slavery and leaving for a legendary promised land. No matter how great his message may have been, it has to reach the intended audience successfully. If it does not, it becomes a soundbite that goes in one ear and out the other. There is so much noise and promise, especially in our modern era. "Buy this and your life will be better." Many great ideas have fizzled out of our collective consciousness because they were not able to convince a critical mass of people.

When our souls are full of anguish and cruel bondage, we are unable to be receptive. Slavery strains and exhausts us beyond measure. No words can resonate, no matter how great they may be as everything seems impossible. Our people's spirit was so anguished that they were psychologically unprepared to listen to Moses’ pipe dream.

Dr. Nahum Sarna translates this phenomenon of shortness of spirit to mean “that the Israelites’ spirits were crushed.” Sarna writes that, “ruach is the spiritual and psychic energy that motivates action. Its absence or attenuation signifies atrophy of the will” (JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, page 32). The Israelites could not absorb Moses’s message because the physical and mental toll of slavery plunged them into a state of depression and hopelessness. 

Personally these days I resonate deeply with the interpretation of Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, also known as the Ralbag who lived from 1288-1344 in Provence. He applies this idea to Moses! Moses did not get his message across because he did not prepare properly, he did not relate meaningfully to the people. He was a loner, a prophet, a spiritual personality who did not grasp how best to win over his audience. He was not eloquent enough, not engaging enough. In his own words, he was unable to formulate his words clearly enough.

What we need to learn is the vital conditions for a great message to be successful: the messenger must be effective, the audience must be receptive and external obstacles must be overcome. Moses had to relate effectively with the people; the Israelites had to be open to the message in spite of their slavery; and Pharaoh’s opposition had to be overcome. These are the themes that pervade the Torah’s narratives of the Exodus. It took Moses much patience to hone his own effectiveness in reaching the hearts of his people. And it took the Israelites a full generation to internalize freedom and ready themselves to enter the Promised Land.

The lack of spirit in our times may be referring to a diminished spiritual sense. Vibrant spiritual life needs a vibrant spirit. It needs us to be open to challenges. It needs us to hear the message, to overcome obstacles, and to structure a sophisticated spiritual framework for our lives. We can not settle for the status quo without envisioning a grander framework for their lives. We need to dream bigger.

This is the time that we need to rise above the spiritual malaise that has taken hold. If our people could have been liberated from the Land of Narrow-mindedness (the accurate Hebrew translation of Egypt / Mitzrayim), so can we. After all, in every generation we need to see ourselves as though we were liberated from Narrow-mindedness. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Exodus: Learning how to SOAR

I am very thankful to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation for their sponsorship of the Nitzavim Hawai'i program that brought Rabbis and other Jewish leaders to Oahu to continue important conversations that you can read about HERE. This was after they supported a visit to Maui by their main speaker, Rabbi David Freidenreich of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life.

One of my central take-aways that is of special relevance to where we are as a congregation is learning how to move from SWOT to SOAR. SWOT analysis is a strategic planning technique used to help an organization identify Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats related to future planning. This technique is designed for use in the preliminary stages of decision-making processes and can be used as a tool for evaluation of the strategic position of organizations like JCM. SOAR, on the other hand, looks at Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results and is an alternative technique inspired by appreciative inquiry. A clear difference between SWOT and SOAR is that SOAR takes out the negativity that even when recognized can inhibit the healing of an organization.

 Elaboration on the four parts of SOAR leads us to ask specific questions:

Strengths: What can we build on?

Opportunities: What do our stakeholders want?

Aspirations: What do we care deeply about?

Results: How do we know when we succeed?

Over the next few weeks, JCM will continue to answer these questions and find positive ways forward. We encourage you to be engaged in the process by speaking or emailing Rabbi Raanan Mallek or our board of directors. 

I was reminded of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook's song "Kanfei Ruach" or the Wings of the Wind:

Human Being, rise, rise up
You have tremendous strength
You have the wings of spirit
The strength of noble wings of eagles.
Don’t deny them
Lest they deny you.
Seek them
Seek them, human being
And they will reveal themselves immediately.

May we be blessed as a congregation to learn how to soar above and beyond the challenges before us. After all, we are experts in struggling. If we can soar on eagles wings out of Egypt, we can enter into the process of SOARing to find a positive way forward for our community here on Maui.

Shabbat Shalom

VaYechi: "There is nothing so whole as a broken heart." -Kotzker Rebbe

"And Jacob lived in the Land of Narrow-mindedness (which is the literal translation of 'Egypt' into Hebrew)." -Genesis 47:28

Our Torah portion this weeks opens with Jacob on his deathbed. He is an old man who has lived a full life and is surrounded by his loved ones during the last moments of his life. Before he dies, he blesses each one of them.

Our people are named after Jacob's other name, Israel: "Those who struggle with the Eternal and with human beings and persevere." There is also a Land of Israel. And our forefather whom we are named after has to spend the last part of his life in a foreign land. How is it that the grandson of Abraham, to whom the Holy Land was promised, ends his life in exile? Could it be that this fact means that the journey of our foremothers and forefathers ended in a huge failure? 

After such struggle, Jacob can finally live his life in Egypt, the most powerful kingdom of the day, run by none other than his own son, Joseph. Everywhere else that Jacob was, he suffered horribly. Finally, in the Land of Narrow-mindedness, Jacob could rest his weary head.

The Zohar gives a mystical way for us to understand what has happened:

"He was rewarded to be able to bless his sons only in Egypt... (he could not have done it in the Holy Land) as it is written, 'And Jacob saw that one can break (bread) in Egypt (Genesis 42:1).' Indeed, prophecy is given only to the heartbroken, as it is written, (Jacob said to his sons) 'Go down there and break bread for us there, so that we may live and not die."

According to the Zohar, the entire point of the descent of the Nation of Israel into Egypt was to break. Not to break bread - that was just a metaphor according to the Zohar - but to break their hearts.

Heartbreak has to purposes: To live ("So that we may live and not die"), and to connect to prophecy, through which we will he will be able to bless his children before he dies (as we said, prophecy is only given to the heartbroken).

If we look back on Joseph's life, he had a tragic childhood, the cruelty of his brothers canceling him, the tremendous pain that they caused Jacob, and the great rift that broke up the family, all had a purpose, which was... heartbreak. And the purpose of heartbreak is to show us how to live AND how to bless.

Why is it necessary to experience heartbreak in order to live?

The Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 7b) records our Sages saying, "If a simple person uses a broken vessel, it is shameful, but for the Holy One, this is not the case. Rather, He created only broken vessels, because 'The Eternal is close to the heartbroken' (Psalms 34:19); and, 'He heals the heartbroken' (Psalms 147:3)."

In our lives we try to use the most perfect vessels, because to us, a broken vessel, a torn shirt, and the wrinkles on our face are considered a source of shame. We feel broken as we observe the process of our aging, deteriorating health, and performance.

And for the Eternal, all the vessels She created (you and me) are, by design, broken and cracked. For the Creator, a broken vessel is perfect. Why? Because that which is not broken and cracked is not truly alive. Where nothing is broken, there is no life. Where there is no crisis and brokenness, nothing can be born and there is no blessing. 

The family of Israel came to Egypt to live. To live, to grow and to evolve, one's heart must be broken repeatedly. Only there, in the brokenness of the Land of Narrow-mindedness, in the midst of slavery could the womb grow us from a family into a Nation. Through struggle we are born, and blessed.

The Kotzker Rebbe once said, "There is nothing so whole as a broken heart," which should remind us of the words of Leonard Cohen, "Ring the bless that can still ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in."

There is no development, no new creation and no life if there are no cracks in our aging hearts, in our seemingly perfectly structured lives and in the fixed narrative of our heart. Only through the cracks can light and the blessing of regeneration get through.

From the brokenness, something new is waiting to be born. Birth is painful and what comes after is a whole new life, a whole new reality.

And now a blessing to all of the broken-hearted: May we embrace our broken-hearts and the broken hearts of others so that we may be blessed with a renewed life.   

Shabbat Shalom

VaYigash: Looking Within A Tale of Reconciliation

In honor of the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers
"We are not mad. We are human. We want to love, and someone must forgive us for the paths we take to love, for the paths are many and dark, and we are ardent and cruel in our journey." -Leonard Cohen

Looking Within
Then Judah went up to Joseph and said, "בי אדני - It's within me my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh." -Genesis 44:18

The beginning of the reconciliation between Judah and Joseph occurs when Judah approaches Joseph directly, not through arbitrators, messengers, or other indirect routes. Although he doesn't know that it is his brother Joseph he is standing in front of, nonetheless, he lifts his gaze and speaks directly to him. He points a finger at himself and says, "it is within me" - I will take responsibility for what has happened.

Joseph is seeing Judah take responsibility and it clearly plays on his heart strings. We may not be able to change the past, but we can let the past guide us to make better decisions in the future, and this is what Judah has accomplished, by looking within.

Judah is finally able to confront the 'chaotic self' - that part of himself that caused him to act in a way that tore Joseph from the life of his beloved father and the rest of the family. By revealing his true self, and repenting, so too can Joseph reveal who he is to his brothers.

As long as we are focused on the external and an accusing finger is pointed outwards, towards the other, there is no chance of reconciliation. This is why there is an imperative to look within to heal that which is without.

With these two words, "within me," Judah initiates a process of movement from the external inwards, and from his heart to Joseph's heart. That which comes from the heart also enters the heart. The movement inwards involves the recognition that the responsibility is fully mine - it's within me. Judah makes no attempt to blame others. He takes it all on, the full responsibility for what happened to his brother Joseph.

The idea of turning inwards, towards ourselves, is a difficult movement for people to make. It completely negates our nature, because our vision by nature turns outwards, towards the world we experience. The idea of looking inwards is a radical call to pay attention to what is happening inside of us.

Just like how it takes two to tango, it takes two to reconcile. However, it is enough for one side to turn inwards. The other side cannot remain indifferent when one side truly turns inwards and accepts responsibility for their actions. Once someone takes responsibility for the conflict the dance of reconciliation can begin.

We are emerging into a new political reality in the State of Israel that is conducive for conflict. And yet we must seek reconciliation between religious and secular, Right and Left, pluralists and Orthodox. May we have the strength to turn inwards and take responsibility for the future of our people. 

Shabbat Shalom

Festivus: The Jewish Way to Spend Christmas

Join us this Festivus (which is also the last day of Hanukkah) on Sunday, December 25 at JCM - 5pm for Chinese food and a movie. nt.

VaYeshev: Canceling Joseph

This week’s Torah portion marks 30 years since my Bar Mitzvah and 4 years since I was ordained as a Rabbi in Jerusalem. Three decades ago, I had just moved from Oahu to San Diego and realized that I would need more time to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah and had to delay it from April to December. Only when I started studying with the Rabbi did I understand how much I felt like Joseph.

My earliest memories are sitting underneath trees and looking at the shapes of the clouds, sure that they had meaning. I would share this with my young friends who would look at me strangely. Until I learned about Joseph, I felt alone with the lonely understandings that no one else shares.

Sadly for Joseph, his dreams would cause such extreme tension and jealousy among his brothers that they sought to excommunicate him from their family. In modern day terms, to “cancel” him. Who was to blame for Jacob giving Joseph an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? Did the coat of many colors cause Joseph to have the dreams that would one day allow him to save his whole family from famine? And oy, how much suffering did he and his father have to endure!

When his brothers made the unspeakable decision to cancel their brother, they were sure that this was for the best of their family. Who wants a dreamer around who has delusions of grandeur? And yet, every struggle that Joseph had strengthened him to become the leader that his family and the world needed.

Could Joseph have acted differently so that he would not have been canceled? How would that have affected his life path of needing the experience in prison and elsewhere to become the advisor to Pharoah? 

It is said that there is a great question that emerges from the story of when a potential convert asked Shammai to tell him the whole Torah while standing on one foot and Shammai chased him away with a stick. The convert then went to Hillel who said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your Fellow! That is the whole Torah; the rest is interpretation" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). The potential convert then converted. The great question is whether or not the potential convert could have properly heard Shammai had he not been chased away (and canceled) with a stick by Shammai?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah

Vayishlach: Turning the Struggle into a Blessing

Why do the Jewish people seemingly struggle endlessly? To answer this question, we need to turn to what we call ourselves in prayer and what we call our modern nation-state: Israel. The meaning of the word Israel comes from this week's Torah portion (Genesis 32:29) when a mysterious figure is wrestling and then renaming Jacob:

“And [the mysterious figure said] you will no longer say that your name is Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with people and you have prevailed.”

   Were the story of the Jewish people summarized into one verse, this very well could be it. The blessing received by being renamed Israel, or the God Wrestler, is that although Jacob’s descendants would struggle, they would prevail in the end. Although struggle and antagonism are seemingly inevitable, the blessing of the Israelites emerges through creative and inventive approaches in responding to their challenges, followed by acting in such a way as to preserve their culture and religion. Throughout the ages mighty empires have tried to destroy Judaism as a religion and the Jews as a people. Against the Roman Empire, the Jews were able to transform their religion from one of sacrifice, that was tied to a specific location (the Temple Mount), to a religion centered on prayer and a synagogue which could be constructed anywhere Jews happened to live. When faced with centuries of exile, the Jews responded with a comprehensive halachic way of looking at the world which kept them separated from the nations among whom they lived. And upon the destruction of European Jewish civilization after World War 2, the Jewish people rallied to come together in the Holy Land and build a State to secure the remnant which remained. Now that we have a Jewish State, there is a responsibility which falls upon our nation to helping resolve the identity based conflict we have been in with the Palestinian people for the past century and especially since the War of Independence/Nakba in 1948.

Theoretical and Methodological Background
   Breaking conflict resolution into stages is a logical methodology for researching those processes that are helpful for reducing conflict and those that instead contribute to its perpetuation. The Realistic-Conflict Theory was named by American social scientist Donald T. Campbell.  It was demonstrated in an experiment run by a group of researchers led by Muzafer Sherif (1906-1988) and published in a 1961 study called Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment.   The study was carried out over a period of three weeks in a summer camp located at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma.  The study was focused on intergroup behavior between 22 eleven and twelve year old boys who had never met but had similar backgrounds.  The researchers posed as camp personnel.  There were three stages to the experiment.  The first stage was called “in-group formation” and split the boys into two equal groups arbitrarily.  One group was called the Rattlers and the other was the Eagles.  At the beginning, the groups were pleasant towards one another.  During the next stage, called the “friction phase”, the researchers introduced deliberate competition between the two groups.  In the contest, scarcity was created via resources that the children wanted.  The researchers observed that as the competition progressed there emerged prejudice and hatred toward one another.  Sherif and his colleagues came to the conclusion that competition over scarce resources preceded the hatred for the “other”.  
    In an attempt to reduce the prejudice, the researches attempted to preach to the children about the importance of brotherly love and the dangers of intolerance and violence.  This did not work and the hatred continued.  It was only when the researchers created superordinate goals that they were able to reduce the hatred.  Superordinate goals is part of the the third and final stage called the “integration stage”.  During this stage, tensions between the groups were reduced through teamwork-driven tasks that required intergroup cooperation.  The focus was changed from competing over the coveted resource and instead there was focus placed on the need to cooperate between the two groups in order to achieve it.  The researchers created situations that would bring the two groups together so that they could join forces in order to secure a goal of importance to them both.  “The telling point is that after only six successive days the atmosphere had changed completely.  Animosity decreased, expressions of prejudice disappeared, intolerant behavior vanished and cross-group friendships developed.”
This summer I learned about another identity based conflict resolution technique called ARIA from its founder Professor Jay Rothman at Bar Ilan University.  Instead of believing that conflicts are resource based, ARIA suggests that they are based in identity.   The ARIA framework is named for the four phases that Rothman suggests many identity based conflicts go through: Antagonism, Resonance, Invention and Action.  ARIA describes a dialogue and reconciliation process which can “foster harmony and resonance from adversaries’ full and honest expression of the deeply felt human motivations that lie beneath their conflict.”  To understand the historically based antagonism between both sides it is important to analyze the sources of each party’s animosity.  I will explore how both sides of the conflict need a safe space to express their animosity so that reframing can occur and the conflict then be reframed in more productive terms.  The next phase is resonance whose definition is the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a vibrating object.  This can be best be described by how a guitar is naturally tuned.  When a string is properly tuned, and then struck, the string next to it will vibrate.  If each side in a conflict is represented by a string, this becomes a superb metaphor for how a relationship needs to emerge between two sides so as to move away from antagonism.  Each side needs to be able to hear and resonate with the “other”.  In the ARIA framework which also uses musical metaphors, there is a process which moves the parties from antagonism to cooperation.  In this phase, the sides move away from the “Us vs. Them” of the antagonism stage to a “We” attitude.  
    After resonance, the identity based conflict is ready for inventive solutions.  In this phase, the two sides will work together based on common interests to generate solutions that will meet their needs.  This is similar to the third stage of the Robber’s Cave Experiment described above.  Rothman explains that opposed demands may be based on different, but ultimately compatible interests.  Only via conversation, after developing relationship, can these inventive ideas be discovered.  In other words, differentiating the parties’ underlying interests can lead to cooperative solutions.  The implementation of the solution is the final action phase.  Each part of this phase needs to be carefully planned by both sides so that it does not revert back into the antagonism stage.  This is done by specifying the project’s goals and intended outcomes while making explicit the motivations of both sides for why they plan to undertake the mutually agreed upon action.  Ideally, an action plan in an identity based conflict will lead to more formal political negotiations so as to expand the process to the masses.       

Project which Reinforced ARIA
  After learning about the ARIA method, I was privileged to be able to join the Palestine-Israel Emerging Leaders Program which is operated by the Outward Bound Peacebuilders and Search for Common Ground - Jerusalem.  The program began in the mountains of western Croatia with seven Palestinian and seven Israeli educators who did not know one another.  We all arrived with our opposing narratives which emerged from the identity based conflict in the Holy Land and ended the program wanting to cooperate together to help each other rise above our intractable quagmire.  It was fascinating to observe how the group dynamics, when guided by the challenge of nature, allowed for us to transform conflict into cooperation.  
   The mission statement of the Outward Bound Peacebuilders is to, “challenge and inspire emerging leaders in divided societies to work together to build peace.”  Using the ARIA model, I am going to theorize how the goals of the Outward Bound program address identity based conflict.  First there are participants chosen from divided societies who have displayed leadership traits.  They are then challenged and inspired to work together so that they can build peace.  This long term methodology is not instinctual in an age where immediate gratification is sought out mindlessly by the masses.  We live in an age of memes where soundbites are communicated which in turn form the opinions of each respective side.  Among other factors, nationalism fuels this phenomenon as it creates a paradigm of “us vs. them”.  Either one is part of the nation or isn’t.  This is made much more complicated in the State of Israel which declares itself a state for the Jewish people to rebuild its national home.  Its national origin story is founded in the belief that the Jewish people are a nation which deserves a nation-state like all other nations.  Another deeper level is that the Jewish people believe themselves to be the descendants of the ancient Israelites and Judeans who lived in the land from the end of the second millennium B.C.E. continuously until today.  The central question to be asked is how Gentiles living in Israel are to relate to a state whose raison d'être excludes them.  
Historical Sources of Antagonism
   The historical sources of antagonism weighed heavily on the participants in the program, so it is important to give some context to what each side believes.  For over a century, the Palestinian and Jewish national movements have been adversaries in claiming the Holy Land for their cause.  The failure of the Two State Solution over the past twenty years to divide material land based resources is one of the factors which show that the conflict is identity based at its core instead of being resource based.  The impulse to return to the Land of Israel has been part of the Jewish people’s collective consciousness for the past two thousand years.  The idea is firmly built into the Jewish religion where Jews will pray up to three times a day to be reinstated in their land.  Few times in history was this idea actualized and translated into practical political action until Theodor Herzl, a Viennese journalist, took a stand in 1896 after seeing the deterioration of universal emancipation promised by the French Revolution a century prior.  At the time, the Holy Land was a derelict sub-province of the Ottoman Empire called Palestine.  It must have seemed clear to the 36 year old reporter that all that was needed was a clear modernized vision for the national aspirations of the Jewish people for them to be able to return to their ancestral lands.  
   The Palestinian population believed in their local leadership when they were promised national independence from the Ottoman Empire by the British Empire.  Their feelings of betrayal intensified to the point where the British felt that they had no option but to restrict Jewish immigration via a series of white papers issued from 1922 and 1939.  The Nazis arose during this time and by 1945 had destroyed one third of the Jewish people and a majority of its intelligentsia.  International sympathy for Zionism grew after the Shoah and by 1947, the United Nations declared that the Holy Land was to be partitioned between the Jews and the Arabs.  Although the Jews accepted this arrangement, the Arabs were incited by their local leadership and the surrounding Arab nations to continue fighting against the Jews.  These efforts were amplified by the high status given to Nazis in the newly independent Arab states who were fleeing the Allies that were pursuing them for their war crimes.  
  The War of Independence, as it is known to the Israelis, or the Nakba (Catastrophe), as it is known to the Palestinians, resulted in the State of Israel gaining much more territory than originally mandated by the United Nations and the creation of 700,000 to 800,000 Palestinian refugees who fled the Holy Land willingly and unwillingly.  The same number of Jews had to flee Arab countries throughout the Middle East and found safe haven primarily in the new State of Israel.  For close to 70 years the conflict has raged with high death tolls on both sides.  Endless wars combined with the occupation of the Palestinian populace since 1967, whose leadership are determined to destroy the Jewish State, has led to the intractable conflict we are faced with today.  Generations of Palestinians and Israelis have known nothing else aside from being in the status of occupied or occupier whose effects on the soul are detrimental to both.  Many psychologists even speak of national post-traumatic stress disorder being experienced by both sides as a result.  Both cry for a way out and feel stuck in the current status quo.       The guiding question is how we can work with the conflict so that it produces exploration, perspective taking, imagination and new discovery.
   The conflicting narratives of both sides polarize and blame the “other” for problems being faced daily in the occupation.  Israel attempts to patronize and claim that the occupation of the Palestinian people is benevolent while the Palestinians suffer a reality that distorts the minds of youth to commit violence.  Breaking such antagonism requires a new way of relating to the “other” in our midst.  During most of the State of Israel’s history, the government’s relationship with non-Jews has been characterized by reacting to behavior as it emerges in daily life.  Such a reactive model has kept society divided and stagnant.  Most non-Jews do not feel part of the state being built around them.  Instead of reacting, the ARIA model suggests that both communities be reflexive.  

Resonance
   How can leaders of Palestinian and Israeli society resonate with one another so that they can invent ways to transform a protracted social conflict into a vehicle for jointly building a common future for the good of both peoples?  The Outward Bound Peacebuilding Palestinian-Israeli Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) seeks to answer this question by contributing to a sustained shift in the way Israeli and Palestinian leaders, in a wide variety of sectors including political, private, and civil society, relate to each other, their own communities, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Political scientists believe that there are three tracks in diplomacy which span the totality of societies in conflict.  The first track is made up of the policy makers and political actors.  The second is made up of professionals such as lawyers, advisors, peacemakers and clergy.  The final track is the masses.  For conflict resolution to be successful all three tracks need to be engaged systematically.  Typically, dialogue projects select civil society opinion leaders which informally represent the parties (second track process) especially when official (first track) leaders have become entrenched in their positions and resistant to negotiation.  The ELP program does this as well by creating a shared experiential learning and leadership development initiative for recognized leaders from both sides of the conflict.  This summer, our group of Israeli and Palestinian educators went to the Velebit Mountains in western Croatia and spent ten intense days together in a wilderness expedition.  Although each of the participants came from the region that was immersed in conflict, the point of this initial expedition was to connect personally with one another.  When we spoke of the conflict, it was done in an unorganized format whereas the regular activities were devoted to developing our leadership styles, group formation and learning about nature.  The experience built a foundation for trust which allowed for us to communicate our reality much more effectively.  Resonance was developed by virtue of the harmony that emerged via the ‘relationship building’ with the “other” which became a clear goal of the program post facto.  This was done by helping the participants to become reflexively self-aware which is an “empowering process and a philosophy for both teaching and learning about peace and conflict.”  We developed deep self-awareness about our thinking process by collectively writing in a journal that was passed around the group.  The participants and the instructors together engaged in experiential learning activities which developed community by decentralizing the authority figure.  What transpired was a highly participatory and empowering educational process in which participants gained a better understanding of their own conflict situation.  The design and the training process are formulated by the participants, rather than dictated beforehand by the instructor.  

Inventing and Taking Action
   Near the end of the expedition, half a day was dedicated to inventing.  We brainstormed ways to creatively integrate options for addressing central and underlying aspects of the conflict.  I focused on the need for an Outdoor Leadership School in the Galilee which would bring together Jewish and Arab teens and young adults to develop leadership skills within the context of a comprehensive conflict resolution curriculum.  The school would be immersed in the thinking of critical pedagogues like Paulo Freire whose magnum opus, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), advocates for teaching and learning to be collaborative activities of discovery and liberation so that the next generation can exit from the current status quo paradigm where both sides feel trapped in an intractable conflict.  Empowering the next generation is about creating a culture of purpose “guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action.”  These values are relevant for conflict resolution education since it, “aims to empower students to exercise their own self-determination and respect and support the self-determination of others, crucial elements for any democracy.”  In other words, a program which reinforces empathy is essential for conflict resolution education which would be a central part of the curriculum for the outdoor leadership school.  

   “Learning to see yourself seeing and understand how to filter information through your own cognitive, experiential, and cultural lenses is a powerful tool in life, learning, and conflict analysis and intervention.  Consciousness of one’s consciousness is both challenging and liberating.  Deep insight about self and context provides a basis for empathy with others, in which one’s own self-awareness can become a tool for deep insight into another’s life and situation.”  Conflict resolution education focuses on the process rather than outcome.  Being in nature teaches that life is much more about the journey than the destination.  The mediation process is the same and is primarily about ensuring that participants’ voices and concerns are recognized and their personhood is relationally empowered in the process of dialogue.  Another participant, a Palestinian from Nablus, spoke of the need for a joint Israeli-Palestinian initiative to bring alternative energy to outlying Palestinian villages.  All of the participants immediately began reflecting with our Palestinian colleague how we could help him with the project.  

Conclusion
   All four stages of ARIA can be seen in the process that developed in the program.  The group began with members of an identity based conflict in a state of antagonism.  Resonance was developed via the relationships each of the members developed by virtue of the reflexive process of being together in nature.  Deep dialogue occurred out of the experience taking place which then allowed for discussions dedicated to the needs of each of our sides.  The group then spent time in creative seclusion to inspire each other towards inventive solutions in the hope that they would result in action.  A challenge with this program has been to keep the momentum going so that the proposed action does not revert back to antagonism in the face of the challenges experienced when we return to our respective environments.  Rothman recognizes that the action phase may lead cyclically back to antagonism.  Encouraging this momentum to turn into action was built into the structure of the program where three months after the first experience, our cohort joined the rest of the participants from all six years of the program in Slovakia at a workshop called Connecting the Hub.  Sadly, violence erupted throughout the Holy Land and most of the Palestinians from the West Bank declined to attend.  The political reality threatened to reignite the antagonism we had tried so hard to move beyond.  What stood out among our group and the previous groups was a sense that the individual relationships we developed could transcend the reality we were faced with.  “Early indications demonstrate that the model can create positive and sustained intergroup relations and provide incentives for working together for change.” Participants attribute their recent personal and professional growth to the program.  Personal conversations with a founder of the program revealed that there is hope among the leadership that the relationships among the alumni would bear fruit many years down the road when some of us attain positions of influence or become members of the first diplomatic track mentioned above.  He reinforced how there was a need to expand the reach of the program which led many of the participants to advocate the organization basing itself in the Holy Land and engaging the Alumni throughout the year.  I proposed to the whole group a continuation program which would take representatives from each of the cohorts and train them to be conflict resolution experts as well as Outward Bound wilderness instructors.  These instructors would then lead groups along William Ury’s Abraham Path while performing conflict resolution activities to help both sides transcend antagonism. This would be a natural outlet for those seeking to create action instead of letting stagnation take hold.    
   Perhaps the blessing of persisting can be seen from the fact that the deepest learning takes place out of adversity.  The Outward Bound Peacebuilding Palestine-Israel Emerging Leaders Program would not take place were it not for the conflict transpiring in the Holy Land.  Jay Rothman explains that when conflict is reflexively engaged it can be transformed into the best engine for learning.  When this is done in a group, the cohesion which forms between the members allows for deep empathy and bridge building.  By virtue of being in nature, participants find themselves thinking critically and exploring the core assumptions they take for granted when living in a world that pushes for us to understand each other in an adversarial framework.  Creativity thus emerges out of conflict and the argument can be made that both are interdependent.  All of creation comes about via friction.  Just as gravity is an invisible force that guides the other three fundamental forces to form the different celestial bodies, so too can conflict resolution techniques form empathetic relationships to reflexively empower both sides to emerge together out of the chaos of conflict.  But like the rest of creation, this is a long term process which must be cultivated and taught generation after generation.  

Ethics of the Fathers 2:16
[Rabbi Tarfon would also say:] It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.

Toldot: How to Respond to the Inevitable

רַבּוֹת מַחֲשָׁבוֹת בְּלֶב־אִישׁ וַעֲצַת ה' הִיא תָקוּם׃
Many designs are in a person’s mind,
But it is the Eternal's plan that is accomplished.

Our foremother Rebecca was not able to have children. Isaac pleaded with the Eternal on her behalf and she was able to conceive twins. Even in the womb, Rome (who the Rabbis associate with Esau) and the Jews (Jacob) would struggle. Rebecca could not bear the experience within her so she went to inquire of the Eternal and questioned why she existed. The Eternal answered her and said (Gen. 25:23): 

“Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”

This was part of Rebecca's existence as a mother and as a follower of the Eternal One. So when the opportunity arose for her to ensure that Jacob would receive the blessing of the firstborn, she did exactly that.

And of course, there is more to the story. There is an incident where Creation itself allowed for Jacob to obtain the blessing. The story comes when his brother is hungry and asks for some Red Soup. Jacob understood to say, "First sell me your birthright." How did Jacob know to think this? Did his mother tell him or did he understand to do this on his own?

And the fact of the matter remains that for some soup, Esau sold his birthright to Jacob. And thus the prophecy of Rebecca was fulfilled. Esau responded in anger when this happened and intended to even kill his brother as Cain killed Abel:

"Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him, and Esau said to himself, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob" (Gen. 27:42).

So Jacob had to leave his home and begin the journey that would result in the destiny of starting the Nation of Israel. Had Esau's anger not been a factor, Jacob would never have become who he was meant to be.

During Talmud Torah (our school here at JCM), one of our wise young students said that Esau should have responded with taking a breath before letting his anger get the better of him. Anger and antagonism are inevitable. The question is what we do with our anger? Do we let it separate us or do we begin a conversation that allows us to come back together?

After Jacob fled his uncle's house due to interpersonal challenges, he returned home and had to confront a brother who he was sure was going to cause him harm. Instead of the battle that Jacob foresaw, Esau embraced him and they were able to repair that which was broken.

May we be blessed with engaging in repair when confronted with the inevitable.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Chayei Sarah - The Danger of Rumors

There is a legend (Midrash Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer) among our people that tells that when Abraham returned from Mount Moriah, after he nearly sacrificed Isaac, and was stopped by an angel, Satan became furious as he had wanted Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

So, Satan found Sarah, Abraham’s wife, Isaac’s mother, and asked her, “Did you hear what happened?”

“No,” she replied.

Satan lied: “Abraham took Isaac and sacrificed him, offering him on the altar as a sacrifice.”

Sarah wailed and moaned. She died. 

Let us attempt to empathize with Sarah. She was completely alone, with no one except Satan, who was manipulating her emotions and lying to her, pushing her beyond the point where she could handle being alive. With no one to comfort her, with no sense of how she could move on without the child she longed a century for, with a husband she would never be able to bear to be around, she felt there was nothing to live for. And so, she died before learning that her son was still alive.

How dangerous are rumors, especially false ones. We must commit to never spreading rumors that can damage the very fabric that holds us together by tearing us apart. 

In a small town in Eastern Europe there was a simple Jew who had a problem: he talked too much about other people. He could not help himself. Whenever he heard a story about somebody he knew, and sometimes about somebody he did not know, he just had to tell it to his friends. Since he was in business, he heard quite a lot of rumors and stories. He loved the attention he got, and was delighted when they laughed because of the way he told the stories which he sometimes embellished with little details he invented to make them funnier and juicier. Other than that, he was really a goodhearted man.

One day he found out something really weird (but true) about another Jew in town. Of course he felt compelled to share what he knew, who told it to their friends, who told it to people they knew, who told it to their wives, who spoke with their friends and their neighbors. It went around town, till the unhappy person who was the main character in the story heard it. He went to the rabbi of the town, and complained that he was ruined! Nobody would like to deal with him after this. His good name and his reputation were gone with the wind.

The rabbi decided to summon the man who loved to tell stories. When the nice man with the nasty problem heard from the rabbi how devastated his colleague was, he felt truly sorry. He honestly had not considered it such a big deal to tell this story, because it was true; the rabbi could check it out if he wanted. The rabbi sighed.

“True, not true, that really makes no difference! You just cannot tell stories about people. This is all lashon hara, slander, and it’s like murder — you kill a person’s reputation.” He said a lot more, and the man who started the rumor now felt really bad and sorry. “What can I do to make it undone?” he sobbed. “I will do anything you say!”

The rabbi looked at him. “Do you have any feather pillows in your house?” “Rabbi, I am not poor; I have a whole bunch of them. But what do you want me to do, sell them?”

“No, just bring me one.”

The man was mystified, but he returned a bit later to the rabbi’s study with a nice fluffy pillow under his arm. The rabbi opened the window and handed him a knife. “Cut it open!”

“But Rabbi, here in your study? It will make a mess!”

“Do as I say!”

And the man cut the pillow. A cloud of feathers came out. They landed on the chairs and on the bookcase, on the clock, on the cat which jumped after them. They floated over the table and into the teacups, on the rabbi and on the man with the knife, and a lot of them flew out of the window in a big swirling, whirling trail.

The rabbi waited ten minutes. Then he ordered the man: “Now bring me back all the feathers, and stuff them back in your pillow. All of them, mind you. Not one may be missing!”

The man stared at the rabbi in disbelief. “That is impossible, Rabbi. The ones here is the room I might get, most of them, but the ones that flew out of the window are gone. Rabbi, I can’t do that, you know it!”

“Yes,” said the rabbi and nodded gravely, “that is how it is: once a rumor, a gossipy story, a ‘secret,’ leaves your mouth, you do not know where it ends up. It flies on the wings of the wind, and you can never get it back!”

He ordered the man to deeply apologize to the person about whom he had spread the rumor; that is difficult and painful, but it was the least he could do. He ordered him to apologize to the people to whom he had told the story, making them accomplices in the nasty rumor game, and he ordered him to diligently study the laws concerning lashon hara (evil tongue) every day for a year, and then come back to him.

That is what the man did. And not only did he study about lashon hara, he talked about the importance of guarding your tongue to all his friends and colleagues. And in the end he became a nice man who overcame a nasty problem.

Shabbat Shalom

A Prayer to be Seen and to See

"The Eternal appeared to him (Abraham)" (Genesis 18:1).

What does it mean to be seen? We seek to be seen in the eyes of loved ones and those who we perceive to be significant to the structure of our lives. Although our eyes take in the light, it is our brains that process that light into a coherent image. The brain is actually our organ of sight.

This is in accordance with Maimonides who explains in Guide for the Perplexed 1:4 that generally, sight in the Torah is not physical, but a metaphor for the depth of human perception of reality. Because our understanding and grasp is limited, we will always see only that which our understanding and grasp enable us to see.

Our Torah portion this week tells us that better sight is possible, as is our ability to grasp reality at a higher level and with better quality. If we seek to improve our sight and deepen our understanding, the Torah tells us to turn to the Eternal to help us see better.

One of the best examples is from our current Torah portion when Hagar, the mother of Abraham's first born son is sent away from her home by Sarah. A moment before Hagar sees the well that will save her life, the Torah tells us, "Then the Eternal opened her eyes and she saw a well of water" (Genesis 21:19).

If we seek a significant breakthrough in understanding and vision, it will always be by the Eternal's grace. This grace can be requested, and it is a very worthy thing to pray for. One such prayers was written by an esteemed teacher of mine and goes as follows:

“O Lord, I am experiencing great difficulty (about X), and I understand that my experience is a direct result of the quality of my vision, and that it, in turn, is the result of my grasp of reality at the moment. As Jacob prayed, "I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant" (Genesis 32:11). I am unable to see beyond my own experience at the moment. I am unable to see the great wisdom that is concealed behind the facade of the visible. Please, open my eyes. Open my heart so that I can see a deeper level and understand Your world more completely!” 

May we recognize that our vision is limited, and, rather than praying for "things", let us ask for deeper vision and a higher understanding. With the Eternal's help, our eyes too will open.

Shabbat Shalom

All Jews are Descendants of an Iraqi Refugee: Lech Lecha

The Jewish people are the descendants of an Iraqi refugree, Abram (who later became Abraham). Abram was 48 years old when the people were dispersed from the Tower of Babylon. He was sent to a Land already populated by the Canaanite nations (Genesis 12:6). He was promised that he would become a great nation and would be blessed. 

We are faced with many questions. How is it that someone can resettle to a new place claiming that it was the Creator of Heaven and Earth sent him and lay claim to a land already inhabited by others? This is of political importance for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel today who also lay claim to a Land that was already inhabited. The Jewish people also made up a minority of the inhabitants of the Land as they have never left the Holy Land throughout its history. 

Let's discuss the challenge of how Rashi opens his commentary of the Torah so as to present how Judaism traditionally answers this question:

Rabbi Isaac (Rashi) said: The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2) “This month shall be unto you the first of the months” which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to His people the strength of His works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.” For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us” (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187).

Laying a theological claim to the Land is challenging. A Jewish nation requires a Jewish majority. The partition of the Holy Land in 1948 created a political reality where the Jews were a majority in a portion of the Land and in the West Bank and Gaza, ruled by Jordan and Egypt respectively until 1967, there was an Arab majority. When the Six Day War of 1967 took place, the Israeli government understood that it could not enfranchise the Arabs of those lands as that would lead to a demographic reality of there being more Arab citizens of the State of Israel than Jewish citizens. It would no longer be a Jewish majority.

It would take 25 years to launch a political process where the Palestinian people would be enfranchised in the West Bank and Gaza. And that did not happen. It failed and the Palestinian people are still struggling with inequality. Blaming one side or the other will not get us anywhere. 

And now we return to Abraham. Abraham is traditionally the forefather of all monotheists in the Holy Land. His first born son, Ishmael is the forefather of the Muslims and his second son, Isaac became the forefather of Rome (Esau) and the Jews (Jacob/Israel). 

For 1300 years, the Muslims had control of the Holy Land. They took over the Land from the Byzantines and were greeted as the Messianic deliverers by the Jews at the time. Why is that the case? The location of the Holy Temple had been turned into a garbage dump by the Byzantine Empire so as to purposefully denigrate Judaism as a religion. In 638 CE, Byzantine Jerusalem was conquered by the Arab armies of Umar ibn al-Khattab, second Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate. Umar was advised by Ka'b al-Ahbar, a Jewish rabbi who converted to Islam, that the site is identical with the site of the former Jewish Temples in Jerusalem. Umar was so distressed by what he heard that he personally cleaned the area, picking up the trash and even scrubbing the stones clean. 

The political reality that emerged when the Ottomon Empire was defeated was one where both Palestinian and Zionist nationalist claims were being simultaneously supported by the British Empire. This has created a war for legitimacy over the past 105 years that has still not been resolved. The State of Israel has voted to bring to power a right wing government. If Israel wants stability, it must be vitally important for us to remember that once we were refugees. Once we were refugees from the Tower of Babylon and many years later we were refugees from the Egyptian Empire. 

The Torah (Exodus 22:20) tells us: "And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The Palestinians are not Canaanites (see Mishnah Yadaiim 4:4) they are also descendants of Abraham and must be treated with equality. Israel must work towards equality between all the inhabitants of the Holy Land as difficult as it may be. I am hopeful that over time we will be able to figure out this seemingly impossible conundrum. 

Confronting Injustice: Noah

Our Torah portion this week opens with indicating that "Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God" (Genesis 6:9). The classical commentator Rashi quotes the Talmud and says that one opinion explains this to the discredit of Noah. In comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance. 

The controversy in the Talmud boils down to asking why it is that whereas Abraham stood up for the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah did not stand up for the rest of humanity. He had his moment and did not say anything. Perhaps his interference would have saved others. Some of us may have heard the saying attributed to Edmund Burke (but most likely a derivation of John Stuart Mill's words): "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Confronting injustice is necessary for Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. So-called “celebrities” spout their malicious lies about Jews, about Israel, about any group they wish to slander.

The German social psychologist, Erich Fromm (1900 - 1980) wrote of the syndrome of decay that “prompts men to destroy for the sake of destruction and to hate for the sake of hate.” Because of their frustrations, feelings of inferiority and malignant narcissism, many people poison themselves with hatred. Indeed, some only feel truly alive and validated when they express hatred of others.

Martin Buber diagnosed a serious problem within modern society. “That people can no longer carry on authentic dialogue with one another is not only the most acute symptom of the pathology of our time, it is also that which most urgently makes a demand of us.” His observation relates to the breakdown of honest communication among people, especially among people outside one’s immediate circle of family and friends.

To fix this phenomenon we must raise our voices against the darkness and raise awareness of how dangerous words can turn into violent action. Once we have done that the important stage of conducting authentic dialogue with one another must begin. I am always touched by the meaningful stories of perpetrators being transformed into positive activists for change. This is possible after we make sure that the world knows that we will no longer be silent.

Shabbat Shalom

Genesis and the Big Bang

This week I would like to begin with a book recommendation: Genesis and the Big Bang by MIT Prof. Gerald Schroeder who worked seven years on the staff of the MIT physics department and was a member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

From a young age I was committed to finding a way to bridge between science and religion. I remember always thinking that there was no need for one to contradict the other and if they did we were misunderstanding both. When I first came to Israel, I had the privilege of learning from Prof. Schroeder and his vast works on the topic. 

Schroeder attempts to reconcile a six-day creation as described in Genesis with the scientific evidence that the world is billions of years old using the idea that the perceived flow of time for a given event in an expanding universe varies with the observer's perspective of that event.

I encourage you all to explore this growing genre of literature so that we can learn how to reconcile those categories in our life that we perceive as being irreconcilable. 

Shabbat Shalom

Hol HaMoed Sukkot: Being Seen All Together by the Eternal One

In sukkot you shall dwell for seven days; all citizens of Israel shall dwell in sukkot."        -Leviticus 23:42

"It is fitting that all of Israel should dwell in a single sukkah" -Talmud, Sukkah 27b

During this Shabbat we have a special circumstance where we are suspended between Torah portions. Last week we read Haazinu (“Listen”) and during Simchat Torah we will read Zot HaBracha (“This is the Blessing”). This Shabbat we read from Parashat Ki Tissah, which takes us back forty years, to the powerful dialogue between the Eternal and Moses on Mount Sinai, following the sin of the Golden Calf.

The Torah portion begins with the Eternal agreeing to Moses' request that His presence dwell amongst the people of Israel. Moses requests to be shown the Eternal’s glory. The Eternal agrees, but informs Moses that he will only be shown the Eternal’s "back," not the Eternal’s "face."

In a way, the Eternal and Moses are getting to know each other anew in light of what transpired during the incident of the Golden Calf. Moses is instructed to carve new tablets which he will take up Mt. Sinai. It is at this point that the formula for forgiveness, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are revealed. It is as if the act of Moses persevering for the people encourages the mercy of the Eternal One.

The covenant is then sealed between the Eternal and Moses ensuring him that the presence will dwell among our people. We are instructed to keep loyal to the covenant and not let ourselves be distracted by the idolatry that surrounds us.

In the final part of the Torah portion that we read there is finally a clear reference to the three festival that we are commanded to observe which include the holiday of Sukkot, "the festival of the ingathering, at the turn of the year." Our people are commanded to make a pilgrimage to be seen by the Eternal during these three festivals.

Being seen by the Eternal in the place that He chooses (i.e. the Temple in Jerusalem) kept us together as a people throughout the generations. When we gathered together from the four corners of the Holy Land, community became a physical fact that could resonate deeply in our collective soul. May we soon come together in Jerusalem to observe the pilgrimages and be seen fully for who we are by our Creator.

Mo’adim Lesimcha and Shabbat Shalom

Sukkot as Clouds of Glory

"You shall live in Sukkot (booths) seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in Sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt—I, your Force, the Eternal One."

-Leviticus 23:42-43

Why are we to live in Sukkot (booths) during this time? The Talmud (Sukkah 12b) come up with the interesting idea that this verse, "in order that future generations may know that I placed the Israelite people in booths when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt" doesn't relate to actual Succot, but to something else entirely? The Sages suggest that perhaps the Succot were actually "clouds of glory"! The Eternal placed the people of Israel under the wings of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence). 

During this holiday of Sukkoth, may we cultivate the consciousness needed to sit under the clouds of glory in the Sukkahs that we traditionally build.

Hag Sameach, Happy Holiday!   

Honey from the Cliff - Parshat Haazinu

The Eternal set them atop the highlands,
To feast on the yield of the earth;
Nursing them with honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty rock.
-Deuteronomy 32:13

We learn in the previous Torah portion that Moses will leave a powerful song for us before he finishes his leadership over the people. This week we receive that song. It is powerful and full of many layers. Layers that can be understood from the simple meaning, hints, tradition and the secret level (also known as Kabbalah).

What is most special is that if we truly understand this song, it will help us to find our way home, like a spiritual compass. The path home is not an easy one. It existentially challenges us and pushes us to spiritually advance ourselves forward. If you spend the time delving into the song, the spiritual rewards are great.

Moses has grown from the days when he described himself as “heavy of mouth and of tongue.” Now, on his 120th birthday, there is a wondrous synchronicity between all his various parts that coalesce into the truth as he sees it. 

Moses is not seeking for everyone to fully understand the song. Those who are meant to understand will understand. In Moses’ last hours he says what he needs to say before he leaves this world. 

The Eternal that is coming through this song is one that is deep and internal. The all flowing Energy of Life is unfolding in this song. 

Let us look at the verse from our Torah portion this week that we started with: 

“The Eternal set them atop the highlands,
To feast on the yield of the earth;
Nursing them with honey from the steep cliff,
And oil from the flinty rock.”

The simple meaning of understanding that we can expect honey from a steep cliff is beyond us. This is obviously meant to be a metaphor for the Eternal’s presence that upholds all, and from which everything springs and to which everything returns. 

In every thing there is the infinite Divine presence. The greatest philosophers and mystics in every nation throughout history spoke in various ways about the single essence that upholds everything. And those who know and understand that everything is composed of that essence, regardless of religion, gender and identity. This is the Spirit Honey that is contained within every rock. 

The Divine presence - or the honey within the rock - is the primal “stuff” of our universe. Like atoms, the Eternal’s presence in the universe dons an infinite number of garments, becoming all of the shapes we are familiar with, from a planet to an ant, from a tree to the tiniest virus that can paralyze the entire world.

In order to access this spiritual honey, we must listen to the song that demands spiritual maturity from us. We must stop having a superficial view of the Eternal as a pithy god who hands out gifts to anyone who is loyal to Him and does what He demands. It demands, too, that we see all of Creation as God’s infinite presence.

This Shabbat comes between Yom Kippur and Succot. May our succah be a testimony to the Divine within everything - in every one of the four species and all of the nature that produced it. 

May this year be a year of invisible imbibing of Divine honey, from the Rock of our existence! May the taste of this honey help lead us on our way home to the Source from which we came and which we all long for. 

Shabbat Shalom

As Long as the Candle is Lit, Repair is Possible: Yom Kippur 5783 Sermon by Rabbi Raanan Mallek

In the last couple weeks I have been debating with myself what the essential experience is supposed to be for our community during the High Holidays. There are those among us who are very attached to tradition and draw spirituality from it, and there are others, for whom tradition and spirituality are two different things. What is clear to me is the feeling of despair. Talk talk talk, and nothing changes. I want to argue that as long as the candle is lit, it is possible to fix it. And our candle is always lit here at JCM… always. [Point to Ner Tamid]

This fundamental lesson was taught to us by Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement. It was when Rabbi Israel was walking late at night, and saw that a cobbler was still busy with his work. The late hour made Rabbi Israel conclude that it would have been appropriate to close the shop and go to sleep. Upon entering the store, he saw that there was not much left of the candle. Enough already, another day is over.

He asked the cobbler about it, since the candle is almost done and it's late... shouldn't it be better to fold up and go home?

The cobbler answered him, in the same sentence that will remain etched forever, which is both innocent, deep and meaningful at the same time: "Rabbi, as long as the candle is lit, it can be repaired."

Rabbi Israel took the idea as a life lesson. And the teaching is very practical. Because despair often overcomes a person so much they imagine that their hope is already lost and their dreams are dashed. They feel that their life is so distorted and everything is so broken that it can no longer be fixed.

Oh, what a heavy feeling this is - despair! It symbolizes the end of the road, the entrance to negativity without a way out, without any possibility of access to the good. It's the feeling that there isn't even a faint point in making an effort to fix the situation, because the existing meager possibility of creating light won't change anything, so why make an effort and invest the energy?

As long as the candle is lit, says Rabbi Israel, there is no room for despair! There is still a chance to fix it. Can it always be fixed? Aren't there hopeless situations? Isn't that pessimist right who claims that there are situations in which the damage caused is irreversible?

Indeed. But Rabbi Israel's innovation is that one must distinguish between physical matters and spiritual matters. The pessimist is sometimes right, but not when it comes to matters of the soul, because the human soul always strives for correction, and the correction is to take the next step in a better way - beyond that, the Eternal does not require of us. Because it is completely in everyone's ability.

The "candle" that is lit is the soul of a person, and the "correction" is to do another good deed. Proverbs 2:27 says that, “The soul of a human is the lamp of the Eternal, revealing all his innermost parts.”

Do not despair of yourself, do not even for a moment think that what is required of you is beyond your practical and real ability (a thought that is unfortunately so common). Because the "correction" required of you may not be as difficult as you think. You may not be aware of your own deep spiritual powers, and keep in mind - there is only a little time left, so you must fix what is in front of you - and it is: the next good thing that you can take on.

The ability to repair is ​​at hand. Not the whole situation as a whole needs to be corrected, but only the next act that can be done correctly.

In Ethics of the Fathers 2:16, Rabbi Tarfon said: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

Not only can we always fix, but it is our duty to fix what we can. Because the Eternal only requires from people the correction that they are able to make.

And what are the full implications of such thinking in the philosophy of discourse? It is the interaction with the other that builds the person as a spiritual personality. It is not the individual person who is the fundamental fact of human existence, but the person who is in relationship with others. The main thing is therefore not the physical existence but the formation of the individual consciousness while in contact and dialogue with someone else.

How far should we take this idea? I would like to suggest that if there are not among us those who do the deep work of self-correction to atone for past sins, we are unable to have an authentic Yom Kippur. This idea comes from the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Keritot 6b -

Rav Ḥana bar Bizna says that Rabbi Shimon Ḥasida says: Any fast that does not include the participation of some of the sinners of the Jewish people is not a fast, as the smell of galbanum is foul and yet the verse lists it with the ingredients of the incense. Abaye says that this is derived from here: “It is He Who builds His upper chambers in the heavens and has established His bundle on the earth” (Amos 9:6), i.e., when the people are united as a bundle, including their sinners, they are established upon the earth.

Just as galbanum, despite its bad smell, was necessary to give the other components of the incense just the right fragrance and just as you need a little salt in every cake, a community cannot improve if it does not also contain those who have fallen and must pick themselves up again through repentance.

When a heavy punishment is imposed on Israel because of some evil deed, this evil must be taken and elevated. The idea of ​​neutralizing evil by returning it to its source in holiness is implied in incense. For this reason, the fast must include the "sinners of Israel". That's why before praying Kol Nidre we say:
                                               אנו מתירים להתפלל עם העבריינים
                                         We allow praying with the criminals.

As we emerge from the COVID epidemic, it is incumbent upon us to see how we can take something positive from the overall experience. 

The prophet Amos (9:6) says:

Who built His chambers in heaven
And has founded His bundle on the earth,
Who summons the waters of the sea
And pours pours it out on the face of the earth—
His name is the Eternal

Babylonian Talmud Menachot 27a
And so too, when the Jewish people fast and pray for acceptance of their repentance, this is not accomplished until they are all bound together in a single bundle, as it is stated: “It is He that builds His upper chambers in the Heaven, and has established His bundle upon the earth” (Amos 9:6), which is interpreted as stating that only when the Jewish people are bound together are they established upon the earth. This baraita contradicts Rav Ḥanan bar Rava’s statement, since it teaches that the four species of the lulav must be taken together in order for one to fulfill his obligation of taking the lulav.

In order for us to feel the presence of the Eternal in the world, we must be united. The unity of the people is a stage in their moral development that allows us to feel the Eternal’s presence.

We live in a reality calling for us to unite. Without mutual guarantee and concessions by the individual for the sake of the community, we will not be able to overcome the current paradigm. How can unity and inclusion be expressed in a practical way, in the Tikkun (repair) of each person? How can we keep on fixing even when we feel all our energy is spent?

Maybe next year we'll invite someone to a gathering of friends that we wouldn't normally think to include. We will turn to someone who did not meet our expectations and help them feel worthy in our world. Inclusion in the community is a change in our perception of how things should be.

When we are willing to have a discussion for heaven's sake, we can reach a place that not only accepts others but also that gives them the feeling that they are an integral part of the community.

May it be a year of health and inclusion. 

גמר חתימה טובה
May you be signed and sealed in the book of life.

Shabbat Shuvah - The Shabbat of Return

שׁוּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
Return, O Israel, to the Eternal your G!d. (Hosea 14:2)

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return (שבת שובה) and refers to the Shabbat that occurs during the Ten Days of Repentance, and is between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The name Shabbat Shuvah comes from the first word of the Haftarah from the verse above that comes from the prophet Hosea 14:2–10.

We are currently in the very auspicious days called "The Ten Days of Teshuva (repentance/return)." Most people associate Teshuva with a melancholy and even sad process. In truth, Teshuva is the most joyous process since it represents the essential connection our soul has with the Infinite Divine. 

This is the time to prepare for Yom Kippur and explore Teshuva (Returning through Repentance) and how it is possible to return to the Eternal and higher selves with confidence and joy. 

Some of the best advice is that which Moses gives to Joshua as he passes on the mantle of leadership: "Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people..." The return to ourselves and our Creator takes great inner strength. May we be blessed with this strength as we ready ourselves for Yom Kippur next week.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Raanan Mallek’s Rosh HaShanah Sermon for 5783

Happy New Year from the Jewish Congregation of Maui. In thinking about what to speak about for Rosh HaShannah, I thought about our name: the Jewish Congregation of Maui. What does it mean to be a Congregation? My research on the subject led me to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s essay Fate and Destiny, which delineates two aspects of Jewish peoplehood: the camp and the congregation. 

Soloveitchik explains that “the camp is created as a result of the desire for self-defense and is nurtured by a sense of fear; the congregation is created as a result of the longing for the realization of an exalted ethical idea and is nurtured by the sentiment of love. Fate reigns in unbounded fashion in the camp; destiny reigns in the congregation….”

JCM’s building, also known as Beit Shalom, is our camp. It is a physical manifestation of our desire to congregate as a community. We are building a new kitchen and outside patio, upgrading our security and helping to advance ecological goals such as solar panels so that we can provide an example to the wider community. In ancient times, the camp’s primary concern was with our physical survival. We joined together to fight against our common enemies. We mobilized our resources to defend ourselves from attack. The camp was our means of maintaining our existence in a hostile world.

And then there is the congregation. The congregation is concerned with our spiritual survival. Although we need the camp to protect us from danger; we also need to know the purpose and meaning of our community. What are our overall goals as a community? Survival in and of itself is not enough; we survive in order to fulfill our role as a congregation. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes: “The congregation is a group of individuals possessing a common past, a common future, common goals and desires, a common aspiration for a world which is wholly good and beautiful and a common unique and unified destiny.”

Israelite history is full of stories of our wanderings, how we were slaves in Egypt; we overcame many obstacles and much suffering. We were endangered; we were afraid; we were victims of a negative fate. But then the Torah in Deuteronomy continues by expressing gratitude to the Almighty for bringing us to the land of milk and honey. It puts life in context of the Divine promises to Israel, and the many blessings enjoyed by the people of Israel. The Torah then makes it clear that we are a congregation with a destiny, not merely a camp forced to defend itself. 

“This day the Lord your God commands you to do these statutes and ordinances; you shall therefore observe and do them with all your heart and with all your soul. You have affirmed the Lord this day to be your God and that you would walk in His ways, and keep His statutes, and His commandments, and His ordinances, and hearken unto His voice.” (Deut. 26: 17-18)

Throughout our history, the people of Israel have had to view itself and act as a camp. This continues in our own time. Synagogues around the world and the State of Israel itself are constantly under physical and political attack. Our survival is threatened regularly.

First and foremost, we need to strengthen ourselves as a camp, as strong and determined people dedicated to defending ourselves. Not one of us is safe unless we ensure the safety and security of all. Thanks to the hard work of our executive director, Ellyn Mortimer, we received a federal security grant dedicated to increasing and upgrading the security of our building and our property. 

Yet, throughout our history, the people of Israel have understood its nature as a holy congregation. We have stood tall and strong in promoting the great vision of the Torah; the messianic idea that teaches peace for all human beings; the dedication to the Eternal and kindness to our fellow human beings. We have known “why” we survive; we have been a people with a revolutionary and powerful devotion to righteousness, compassion, and respect for all human beings.

Just as we need to devote tremendous energy and strength to maintaining our camp, so we need to devote tremendous energy and strength to maintaining ourselves as a congregation. Our physical survival is a primary responsibility; our spiritual flowering is equally important.

Some Jews are Jewish mainly in response to anti-Semitism or anti-Israel attacks. They are “camp” Jews. Some Jews are Jewish only (or mainly) in their fulfillment of the rituals of our religious tradition. They are “congregation” Jews. In fact, though, we each need to play our role in both domains. We need to fortify our camp and activate our congregation.

Our building is a reminder of our need to be a camp, and all of you here are a reminder of our need to be a congregation, a spiritually vibrant, compassionate and idealistic Torah community. Although my position as Rabbi is covered by JCM as an institution, my primary obligation is to be here for the congregation. What does this entail? First I must seek to plant seeds, like the papaya seeds I planted outside this Tu Bishvat. These seeds are characterized by Torah and modern values that will guide us forward. Second, is facilitating our community through a process where we discover how to continuously invest in each other’s growth?

Like the rest of nature, we are all growing. We must remember that people are not bad. Making such a declaration is שינת חינם or ‘baseless hatred.’ Once you get so used to a broken way of doing things, it is hard to remember how to be any other way. In other words we should be asking ourselves when does our memory not serve us and cause us to repeat destructive patterns?

Our days are characterized by anger at the perceived “other.” Some have the right to be angry, others… just get off on it; they draw energy from the chaotic abyss of anger, the destroyer of worlds. In such a shadow, can we build a congregation that is a utopia for everyone? To have different people working side by side in “perfect” harmony?

We can advance when we become better people. Once we learn to work together, to really live with each other and develop a genuine investment in each other’s growth, that is when we attain harmony. Step one is learning not to sweat the small stuff, and focus on the big goals so that we can make a leap of commonality. And this is the commonality that is at the core of a thriving congregation. A congregation that invests in the life of its members spiritually as the members invest financially, and with their time as volunteers.

These volunteers, such as Dorothy, Stephanie, Josh, Hanah, Simon, Sheri, Marge and so many more, have planted a vibrant non-profit known as the Jewish Congregation of Maui. The word congregation is meaningful to this community and should be preserved, in all the power contained within its meaning.

Shannah Tova

Going Out of OurselvesTorah Portion: Ki Titze

When you go out to war against your enemies, 
and the Eternal delivers them into your power 
and you take some of them captive… 
-Deuteronomy 21:10

Our Torah portion opens with the words that guide us how we are to behave during the chaotic darkness that characterizes warfare. Throughout our lives we find ourselves “going out” of things: we leave the womb, we get out of bed, the house, our workplace… we leave our comfort zone - the known and the familiar.

The most well known “going out of” is when Adam and Eve had to go out of the Garden of Eden. The movement of leaving was initiated by the interaction with the serpent. The movement of the serpent is motivated by a mechanism built into the very structure of Creation and is planted within everything. The snake is telling us to “get out, leave, become and emerge into your full potential.”

We can see the struggle of becoming in nature: the seed struggles to sprout, a baby struggles to leave its mother’s womb and a butterfly struggles to hatch from its cocoon. It would be easier to remain in the previous state of being as a seed, in the cocoon or in the womb. And yet, nature pushes to emerge into life and realize its potential. 

“Becoming” is one of the names of the Eternal One. When the Creator introduces His essence to Moses at the Burning Bush, he says: “Tell the Israelites that ‘I Will Become’ has sent you.” The ultimate going out became the Exodus and was initiated by the Force of Becoming. 

As we approach the High Holy Days, may we be blessed with actualizing our potential by going out and becoming forces for good in the world. May we become our higher selves as we manifest our full potential to repair the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Walking before the Eternal Whole-heartedly: Parshat Shoftim

“You must be wholehearted with the Eternal One.”
-Deuteronomy 18:13

I have a profound love of the root of the word for peace in Hebrew, שלום - Shalom. The root, ש-ל-מ - shalem means complete, safe and at peace. It also means to be complete or sound and to make restitution. Understanding this root, which is shared with the word for peace in Arabic, explains the cultural differences between the Semitic idea of peace and that of the western world. Whereas peace in the western world has the connotation of compromising, in Hebrew and Arabic it requires for both peoples to be in relationship and together attempt to understand what wholeness can mean to one another.

Sometimes our understanding of wholeness contradicts one another and creates a paradox where one side is perceived as having attained their goal while the other side is lacking. What does it mean to lack something? I would like to suggest that lack is a fact of life and is a very basic state of our human existence. 

And yet, our Torah portion calls for us to be whole with the Eternal One (Deuteronomy 18:13). It is important to note that the Hebrew word for ‘whole’ here is different from the one mentioned above: תמים - tamim. The other meaning of this word in Hebrew is: “innocence or naivete.” Our Sages teach us that being tamim is the highest level one can attain. We are therefore invited to be whole with the Eternal One. 

What does this mean? The great commentator Rashi explains that we are to walk before the Eternal whole-heartedly, put our hope in Him and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shall be with Him and become His portion. 

Investigating the future implies that we seek to fill in that part of us we perceive as lacking. What can we do to fill the perceived gap in our life so that we have what we need to be whole? 

The Kabbalah sees lack or deficiency as the key to the existence of the world. It creates a sense of deprivation, which, in turn, creates will - the will to fill what is lacking - which is the essence of creativity, and therefore the essence of existence. Without deficiency there is no sense of lack. Without lack, there is no will. Without will there is no creation, and without creation there is no existence.

And, yet, why is it that we feel miserable when we perceive to be lacking something? The memory of what we do not have is the reason for fear and anxiety. Once these primal feelings are activated within us, it becomes fertile ground for breeding greed and violence. And this is why we need the laws and boundaries contained within the Torah.

It is our attitude towards what we perceive as lacking in our life that defines us. We all have the ability to undergo a transformation towards wholeness. Everyone can have a sense of deficiency while realizing that in truth there is no lack. 

The verse, “you must be whole with the Eternal,” is an invitation to ponder the ultimate paradox: Know that you are totally whole, and as part of this wholeness, you also have a sense of deficiency. This is what will create life and drive your will to succeed. 

The sense of deficiency is not the opposite of wholeness, because wholeness contains everything, including the perception of deficiency! Otherwise, how could it truly be whole? 

The Torah of Shalem (Wholeness) calls for us to accept this seemingly impossible paradox where, on the one hand, nothing is missing because everything is actually whole, and on the other, there is definitely deficiency - because without it there would be no existence.

May we be blessed with reconciling the opposites in our lives, wholeness and deficiency, peace and struggle, life and death. 

Shabbat Shalom.

On Chosenness and Repairing the World: Parshat Re'eh

“Follow none but the Eternal your G!d, and revere none but Him; 
observe His commandments alone and heed only his orders; 
worship none but the Eternal, and hold fast to the Lord.” 
-Deuteronomy 13:5

The Creator is envisioned as a raging fire, so the commentators ask how can one hold fast to a fire? We are to cling to the Eternal by doing what the Eternal does, so to speak; this includes visiting the sick, sustaining the poor, freeing the enslaved, and comforting the grieving (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 14a). 

During our Thursday evening learning we talked about Tikkun Olam and why it is that we are expected to ‘repair the world.’ Our chosenness is one that obligates us to take part in making the world a better place.

The idea of chosenness has been deeply problematic for our people throughout the ages. It has been one of the causes of antisemitism as well as the misinterpretation that we are superior to other peoples. Last week’s Torah portion was very clear in saying that it is only because of our foremothers and forefathers that we were chosen to enter into the Holy Land. We did not have any particular virtue that made us better than others, to the contrary, we are called a stiffnecked people (see Deuteronomy 9:4-6).

Such stiffneckedness has been important for us to remain as a Jewish people holding onto a three thousand year old Torah. It has an important role to play. Someone who is stiffnecked is less likely to submit passively to reality. Such as person may help change the world, waking us all up from a moral coma and lighting up a new path for us to know that yes, there are alternatives. The best example of this is Mordechai the Jew from the story of Purim. He is the first to be called a Jew and refused to bow down when Haman rode by him. Everyone else accepted the evil official with a “soft, flexible neck.” It was Mordechai’s unwillingness to submit that was part of saving the Jewish people alongside Esther.

The new Hebrew month of Elul begins this Shabbat. We begin fifty days of reckoning that lasts from the first of Elul to the Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot. During these fifty days we are to engage in self-examination and fine-tuning, asking the important question: Are we being stiff necked for the right reasons so that we can do the work that we were chosen to do.

Shabbat Shalom, Happy New Month of Elul and may your reflections be fruitful!

Reward and Punishment: Ekev

The word Ekev that opens our Torah portion this week means "following." In other words, if you do this, the result will be one way and if you do the opposite, the result will also unfold accordingly. During our Torah study last night, the participants found this to be an old theological model that no longer resonates especially after the Shoah (Holocaust). After all, some of the most observant Jews, 80% of Jewish leadership, perished at the hands of the Nazis and their allies.

Our Torah portion attempts to condition us to accept this old theological model: if we keep the Eternal's commandments our lives will be wonderful in every way and if not we will be punished. It was the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) who cast doubt upon this conditioning and helped ignite the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah). 

At the beginning of my return to the Jewish religion in my early 20s, I was scrupulous in my observance of the commandments. I fulfilled the classical response of our people when they said that, "they will do and then they will understand" (Ex. 24:7). Now I look back and I think to myself how dogmatic such a way of thinking is. We believe in a religion that questions, such as when Abraham questioned the justice of destroying all the people of Sodom. 

Our Sages suggest that to reconcile this issue we need to focus on what the word Halachah (Jewish Law) means. It comes from the root that means to steer in the direction of. This direction should be towards internal movement or change. The purpose of this change is to dissolve the powerful grasp of the human ego and lead us into an inner place of humility, one that allows for dialogue with the Eternal. When we create an internal process of growth, we tend to only understand the benefits afterwards, when calm prevails in the stormy sea of anxiety.

As the prophet Micha 6:8 reminds us, "He has told you, human, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your Creator." 

May our humble walking and acts of justice bless us with calm waters.

Shabbat Shalom

A Comforting Shabbat of Forgiveness: Va'etchanan

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Nachamu or the Comforting Shabbat. On Shabbat morning we will read the words of consolation of the prophet Isaiah, which are the source of the name of this Shabbat: “Oh comfort My people, says the Lord. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, And declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of the Eternal double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2) 

A familiar pattern emerges: we sin, we are punished, we ask forgiveness, we are pardoned, and then consoled.

Is this cycle truly necessary? Perhaps there is another way?

The Hebrew word for sin is חטא. חטא (pronounced “chet”) literally means to miss the target, as in archery. We, too, tend to miss our own targets, our own path, our own destiny. Some of us spend many years getting lost, climbing over rocks, and getting scratched by thorns, lost, thirsty, and very very tired. 

Missing the mark has a very important role to play in our lives. Losing one’s way teaches us and reminds us that there indeed is a path and that we may not be on it at that moment. 

Suffering can be a sign letting us know that we are not on our path, we are missing the mark. Without this suffering, we would not know how to be more precise on our journey. We would not learn the lessons that move us forward, that enable us to bring our gifts to the world.

There are three kinds of suffering described in the Talmud (Berachot 5a):

  1. If a person sees suffering come upon him, he should examine his actions, as it says (Lamentations 3:40) 'Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to the Lord'.
  2. If He has searched and did not find something wrong with his actions or a hidden sin, he may attribute his suffering to “Bitul Torah” not dedicating enough time to studying Torah.
  3. And if he still doesn’t find [the source of his suffering], it is then the suffering of love, as it says (Mishlei 3:12), 'For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes'."

 

I would like us to focus on the third kind of suffering - the suffering caused by love - it is actually not a punishment at all. This suffering does not result from our own actions. Its sole purpose is to help us grow, to take us to the next stage of our development. It is painful, but it has a purpose, which is development and growth.

It is so challenging to ask for forgiveness! Doing so is admitting that we have done wrong, perhaps even very much so. Most of us instinctively prefer to excuse our behavior, to explain why we didn’t actually sin, why it isn’t our fault. But just as we saw the sin in a different, more human light, and the punishment a result and not a penalty, so, too, we can perhaps see asking for forgiveness in a different light. Because at the end of the day, without asking for forgiveness we cannot expect to be pardoned and find consolation.

Forgiveness enables repair and allows growth. Forgiveness following a sin raises us up to a higher and more precise level than we were prior to committing the sin. Judaism is unique in that it demands that forgiveness be asked from the person against whom we sinned. Even the Lord cannot provide forgiveness in the name of someone we have wronged. 

This Shabbat is one of consolation. Finding consolation through forgiveness is a difficult and yet necessary task. May we be blessed with finding a way forward.

Shabbat Shalom

Taking the First Step: Deuteronomy

We read in Exodus 4:10 that at the beginning of the journey for Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt that he said that he was “not a man of words.” By the time of Deuteronomy, he is the master of words. The book of Deuteronomy is his final message to the people that include eloquent words of guidance. Moses as a leader grew by leaps and bounds in the forty years alongside the other Israelites. The shift in his consciousness was necessary to prepare the Israelites to finally enter the promised land.

Moses recounts the famous story of the twelve scouts that resulted in the need to wait a generation before entering the land. The version he chooses to relate is entirely different from the one we read in the book of Numbers, at the time it occurred. 

Moses says, “Have no dread or fear of them. None other than the Eternal, who goes before you, will fight for you, just as the Eternal did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, and in the wilderness, where you saw how the Eternal carried you, as a person carries his child, all the way that you traveled until you came to this place. Yet for all that, you have no faith in the Eternal, who goes before you on your journeys—to scout the place where you are to encamp—in fire by night and in cloud by day, in order to guide you on the route you are to follow” (Deut. 1:28-33).

I am reminded of the parable of the footprints in the sand:

One night, a man fell into a deep sleep and had a detailed dream; he dreamt that he was walking along the beautiful beach in the company of the Eternal. While he was walking along the sea shore, the scenes of different incidents and situations from his life flashed one by one across the dark sky. He kept moving and watching the different stages of his life, the good times as well as bad ones. After the last scene of life flashed before him, he looked back and noticed the footprints in the sand. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand. One belonged to his own and the other one to the Lord. All of sudden he noticed that at many times along the path of his life; especially at the very lowest and saddest times, there was only one set of footprints. This really disturbed him, so he asked the Eternal about it. He said, “Lord, you said once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you the most, you were not there for me.”

The Eternal waited in silence and then in a small silent voice whispered, “My precious child, I love you and never left you. When you were fine and healthy, I used to walk beside you. So the extra pair of footprints was visible. When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you during your challenging times. Whenever you were in difficulties and problems, it was then that I was protecting you the most.”
Coming back to Deuteronomy, you may have thought that it was only you who traveled on the difficult journey of life. Actually, it was the Eternal who carried you like a parent carries their child. You thought you chose the path on which your feet trod? Well, no. The Eternal goes before you and guides you on your path, day and night.

The demand of faith is one that is deeply difficult. It is as uncomfortable to us as the demand to love (V'ahavta prayer after the Shema) or the demand to collectively mourn as we will be doing on Saturday night for the 9th of Av. Most of us struggle with the demands on our emotions. We feel that it is there that we should have ultimate free choice. 

William James, a pioneer of American philosophy and psychology at the turn of the 20th century, gave a series of lectures entitled, "The Will to Believe". James, who was more scientist than philosopher at the beginning of his career as a professor at Harvard, searched for a response to the despair he felt in light of the uncompromising laws of nature. He even considered committing suicide, because what was the point? What is the point of making an effort, when the unrelenting laws of nature are so oblivious to us? And then, at the beginning of his thirties, William James experienced an intellectual transformation which changed his understanding. He understood that in any case our reality is based on belief, and that proof - if there is any - comes later. In other words, we choose to believe in life anew each day, in our body’s ability to bear us, in our ability to walk. Only after we take a step, do we discover that we were right. And it is at that moment of taking a step do we recognize the footprints of our Creator alongside us. 

Tomorrow night we will mark the eve of Tisha b’Av, the 26 hour fast where we collectively mourn the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, the exile from Spain and so much more. It was a time when we felt that we were walking alone as a people and yet, if we concentrate on each of the incidents that transpired, we can see that the Creator was going with us into Exile. 

Let’s take for example the destruction of the Second Temple. For hundreds of years prior, the prophets were speaking out against the phenomenon of sacrificing animals as a way of being forgiven for personal and communal sins. A new system had to come into place. That new system is prayer which replaces the sacrifices. And yet, what does the Talmud teach us for why the Second Temple was destroyed and we as a people experienced an exile that lasted for thousands of years? Because of “baseless hatred.” I would like to venture that Tisha B’Av is the time for us to take first steps in repairing relationships. 

If we take a step in the direction of believing that we are capable of creating a healing, tolerant and conscientious society, and if we work together on that belief, the chance that such a society will be created is very high.

Moses believed that he was not a man of words. Forty years later, he delivered speeches that most likely surprised him as well. Who would have believed it was possible? This year, on the eve of Tisha B’av, I choose to believe that we will overcome our difficulties, that light will prevail over darkness, that tolerance will prevail over extremism, that love will prevail over hatred. 

Shabbat Shalom, and for those who are fasting, may it be a meaningful fast.

The Tisha b’Av fast will begin at 7:01pm on Saturday and finishes at 7:24pm on Sunday. Please join us at JCM for an evening of reflection and reconciliation at 7:30pm on Saturday, August 6.

Learning to be with the Lord when Struggling: Matot-Masei

Our Torah portion this week records each of the stopping places of the Israelites during their forty year trek in the Wilderness. There is a touching story in the Midrash that explains why this is part of the narrative. The detailed account of the stopping places reflects the Eternal’s loving concern for the Nation of Israel. It is compared to a king who has taken his ailing child to a distant place in order to be cured. On the return journey, the king would stop at each resting place and remind his child: this is where we found shelter; this is where we cooled off at an oasis; this is where you were quite ill. Each place evoked memories and created a deeper bond between the king and his ailing child.

When groups of people have shared experiences together what results is a deep bond that can be relied upon for building a common future. Thus, recounting the past is not mere nostalgia, rather it is coupled with the knowledge that we are now moving forward together towards a better future. New challenges and opportunities can now be met with those experienced in working together.

What kind of consciousness should we cultivate during the process of moving from one challenge to the next? Let’s begin by reading the repeating structure that appears throughout Numbers 33:5-49:

“When they were thrown by one place (state of being)
They found rest in another.
And when they were thrown by that one,
They found rest in another…”

Our people’s story is an ongoing journey, always shifting, always subject to change.

“An ongoing journey–
Always with the Eternal, and never with stability.
Always with longing, never with fulfillment.
Always shifting and moving, with no guarantees regarding the next stop or the next upheaval.”
-Rabbi Ebn Leader

At every stop along the road, these wanderers who came before us had to reconstruct the Lord’s home in their camp. This was done even in the most challenging of places based on the names that the Israelites gave them (Shadow Land, Terror, Bitterness, Desire’s Graves, etc.) We learn from our Torah portion this week to take upon ourselves the challenging practice of creating a place for the Eternal at every stop of the journey, no matter how intense the experience feels.

We are now in the second of the three weeks of collective national mourning that takes place every year between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av (this year on Saturday evening, August 6). Liturgically, this mourning is oriented towards the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. We learn from the Mishnah (Taanit 4:6) that there are numerous additional historical tragedies that took place during this time and the list only got longer. What is revealed is that the spiritual practice of communal mourning is oriented towards suffering in general rather than towards one specific historical tragedy.

Our Sages teach that a practice for these three weeks is to focus on the challenge of being present with the Lord in a reality that shifts and changes, and particularly in the difficult and painful stops along the way. This time becomes the practice ground on which we train for challenges whenever they appear in our lives. During this time, through memory and ritual, we strive to create a communal setting for engaging with the presence of the Eternal even in the midst of suffering.

Rabbi Ebn Leader teaches that all of being is the Eternal’s presence, though the form of that presence which we experience is constantly transforming and changing. The forms of presence that we find difficult may feel like absence or rejection, but they are divine no less than the forms we find inspiring. We do not always get to choose if we will encounter the Lord as an experience of beauty or as an experience of pain. But we can always choose our response. And as Victor Frankl teaches, it is in that response where our power lies.  

We each have a choice in our response to see challenges as a gateway to a deeper connection with the Eternal and each other, an opportunity to expand a sense of interdependence. Alternatively, we have the option to shut down when facing these moments and retreat into feelings of alienation, despair and pain. For our generation, could there be any spiritual practice more necessary than learning to recognize and be with the Eternal during our struggles?

On Tisha B’Av this year, Saturday evening August 6 at 7:30pm, we will come together at JCM to learn about how to confront challenges together as a community and turn them into opportunities for growth. Join us.

Pinchas: On Confronting Extremism

On Thursday, June 30, the Hebrew month of Tammuz began and Rosh Hodesh prayers took place at the egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel, known as Ezrat Israel. A large group of extremist Orthodox youth arrived there with whistles and used them to disturb the prayer service at the plaza. A few of the demonstrators tore the siddurim published by the Conservative movement, and one teen was photographed blowing his nose on a torn page of a siddur.

My colleague and close friend, Rabbi Arie Hasit, a Conservative rabbi, was leading a Bar Mitzvah service for an American boy at the plaza. He wrote the following post on Facebook: “It is difficult for me to find the words to describe my experience this morning at Ezrat Israel. I hoped that the charming, shy, but determined young boy wouldn’t be exposed to hatred. Instead, he received shouts from dozens of children and teenagers with whistles calling him a Christian. There were chants saying that he was a Nazi. An American boy who wanted to celebrate reaching the age of observance. A boy who chose to get his aliyah to the Torah in Israel. In the presence of his parents, grandparents and extended family. The boy was amazing. It happened beautifully, and he did not make a single mistake, despite the disturbances.” Rabbi Hasit added that the Bar Mitzvah boy is broken, believing that some people hate him and are willing to hurt him because his Judaism is different from their Judaism.

In our Torah portion, Parshat Pinchas, we learn of the reward given to the priest Pinchas for his zealotry. The story goes that after the failed attempt by the wizard Bilam and the king Balak to curse Israel, they developed a new tactic and sent the beautiful Moabite women to seduce the powerful men among the Israelites. The women then invited them to sacrifice to their gods which the elites gladly agreed to do. And once again the Lord was angered and told Moses to execute the leaders who were participating in the idolatry. Moses told the people to do this and just at that moment one of the Israelite princes brought a Midianite princess before the people to continue performing the rituals.

It was at that moment that the zeal of Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the Priest, saw this, took a spear and killed the prince and the princess. The Torah portion this week begins with the Lord rewarding Pinchas with the Covenant of Peace (Numbers 25:12) for his actions! When Pinchas killed Zimri and Kosbi it unleashed a great controversy among the people. They asked, “Were his actions correct? Were they murderous?” According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the Sages were prepared to excommunicate Pinhas until the Holy Spirit came upon him and gave him the Covenant of Peace and Priesthood. 

The Rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud understand Pinchas’ act as singular, and acceptable only with the testimony of the Lord. No matter what the provocation, zealousness such as Pinchas’ requires immediate excommunication; an individual prone to such action cannot be abided in the community. The Eternal’s intervention on his behalf is understood as both promoting Pinchas as a uniquely righteous individual and as denying permission for others to follow in his footsteps in an era when the Lord no longer directly speaks through us.

Unfortunately, what transpires far too often at the Western Wall and its environs are scenes of extremist Orthodox Jews using their fervor to build walls rather than bridges. They claim to be “zealous for the Lord,” like the Maccabees during Hanukkah who also took inspiration from Pinchas’ act. How are we to deal with the extremism in our text and it being glorified as holy zealotry? Is it reasonable for us to criticize other religions for problematic quotes in their holy texts while not paying attention to our own? 

I would like to suggest that a metric for judging the zeal of those who act “in the Lord’s name”  is how their actions affect the Jewish community in its entirety? That is, how do their actions preserve, or destroy the very fabric of, the Jewish community? Whereas the potential exists for arguments to be made on both sides of the issue, there are constructive arguments that can be made “for the sake of Heaven.” Destructive arguments, on the other hand, are characterized by the misplaced logic of Korach and all others who joined his camp to oppose Moses for whatever reason they may have had at the time. Differentiating between the two requires wisdom and patience on behalf of dedicated mediators who can calm tensions and encourage dialogue for the sake of heaven.

I pray for the day when Rabbis who are also experts in conflict transformation, can create dialogue between both groups at the holiest site of Judaism and show by example how we should transform “baseless hatred,” which caused the destruction of the Second Temple, into “baseless love.”

On Tisha B’Av this year, Saturday evening August 6 at 7:30pm, we will come together at JCM to learn about how damaging baseless hatred can be and what we can do to turn things around when it happens. How can we have zeal for baseless love even when there are reasons to be angry and upset at the other amongst us? 

Rabbi Yaakov Rabinowitz once taught that we should cultivate, “a feeling of love for all Jews, whatever their background, whatever their status. There will be those whom we will applaud, those whom we will oppose, those who will give us pain, even make us cry. But we will try never to forget that we are one and that the inner door should never be closed. And we will keep an outer door, to the outside world, open as well. To be sure, it will have a screen. Not everything is needed or wanted. But it is, after all, the Lord’s world and we live in it, not despite it.”

Parshat Balak: Leadership and Listening

“There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9)

  One of the challenges in leadership is understanding who we are supposed to listen to and to what extent are the opinions of others supposed to influence us? We have something to learn from a common analogy that compares a leader to a lion who is considered the king of nature. According to our Torah portion this week, the wizard Balaam compares the children of Israel to a lion and says: “A people that rises like a lioness and leaps up like a lion.” In the TV series, "Game of Thrones," Tywin Lannister said, "the lion does not consider the opinion of the sheep."

Numbers 23:9-11
As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright, may my fate be like theirs! Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? Here I brought you to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them!”

  The story tells of a group of Moabites and Midianites led by a prophet and a king who ascend together to the tops of the hills and observe all of Israel from above. The Prophet noticed that Israel dwells separately and is not considered among the nations. The descendants of Israel seem endless to him. He swears that just as he wants to die being known as an honest man, so he also wants his fate to be the fate of Israel. The unity of destiny, that is, the common destiny, is first and foremost the building of a shared society.

  Imagine a political reality in the future when all nations will be able to greet us as Israel, and reverse the curses of our enemies. What kind of helpful dialogue will take place when we understand the common destiny that the Jews share with the non-Jews living among us? How can we listen to each other despite the differences between us?

  Such a dialogue stems from building relationships based on mutual interests. And what interest can be more mutual than the development of next-generation leadership out of all the diverse peoples composing modern society? 

  Leadership in the modern world is a complex and multifaceted discipline. It can no longer rely on innate talent or skill alone. Leaders today need to hold on to the values ​​that their society values. They must be practiced and experienced in skills appropriate to their tasks. They need to know the techniques by which they can collaborate with their peers and those who follow them, effectively and positively.

  Leadership development is a difficult and long-term challenge. However, it is rewarding, satisfying and helps people understand their true destiny. Leadership development should begin in adolescence, at a time when young people are shaping their identity, goals and destiny. This work should begin with young people leading themselves, being led by others, and experimenting with leading others.

  Leadership skills should become habits that leaders use without thinking. They should be studied and practiced until they become natural behaviors. The same is true of values; They need to be studied and applied on a daily basis.

  I envision a program dedicated to developing the next generation of leaders, regardless of race, religion or gender. The process begins with basic “life skills,” such as camping, outdoor skills, and survival skills. Through treks, setting up camps in the field, organizing equipment and backpacks and providing food and water to the group, participants will learn the importance and values ​​of these skills on their way to becoming leaders in society. These skills are universal and bridge the gap between different ideologies and beliefs.

  Attention and consideration for the opinions of others are important milestones on the path to prospering together. In contrast to the story in our Torah portion this week, in such a leadership program, all different types of people will ascend together to the tops of hills to greet all the people in peace.

Power for the Sake of Heaven

I would like to thank my teachers for their words and reflections that are part of this week's Torah portion.

Sometimes the Torah portion matches the Haftarah perfectly. Usually, the haftorah is assigned to a parasha because of a connection of content and this time, the connection is perfect.

In our Torah portion, Parashat Korach, a group of 250 men led by Korach, Dotan, and Aviram, question the leadership abilities of Moses and Aaron. Korach, who, according to the Midrash, was a very wealthy man, was not satisfied with what he had in life. He wanted it all and sold his vision to the people telling them that they are all inherently holy. 

"Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, took for himself, along with Dathan and Aviram sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet—descendants of Reuven - to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chiefs of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined together against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?”

“You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” Moses said, “Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you direct access, to perform the duties of God’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that [God] has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?" (Numbers 16:1-10)

Let’s look closely at the statements being said here. Korah is arguing that Moses has separated himself too much from the people and that he has raised himself above the congregation. It seems that Moses does not hear the needs of Korah. He responds from the hip and says, “You are a son of Levi with privileges, be happy with that.” This was not Korah’s message. His message was that Moses had separated and elevated himself from the people. 

The problem was even deeper. Korah’s camp included all those who had any complaint against Moses. For example, Dotan and Aviram, who were not Levites, took their argument even further. When Moses called them to him, they refused to come. They answered him in the same manner - “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey (Egypt) to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?... We will not come!” (Numbers 16:13-14).

Moses is shocked. He didn’t want to be the leader of the people any more. He asks them, have I done something wrong? “I have not taken the donkey of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them” (Numbers 16:15).

What would have happened if Moses had really listened and understood the needs of Korah and the people? Could they have had a dialogue to prevent the violent end of the story when the ground opens up and swallows Korach and his people? 

The haftorah relates the story of Samuel the prophet, who is deeply insulted when the people turn to him and demand that he anoint a king to rule over them. He sees this as a personal attack. The people have had enough of his leadership, and particularly the leadership of his sons. A moment before he crowns Saul as king, Samuel turns to the People and asks them: "Here I am! Testify against me, in the presence of the Eternal and in the presence of His anointed one: Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe…” (I Samuel 12:3).

Moses and Samuel are both shocked by the dissatisfaction of the people, and particularly by their lack of appreciation. They don’t understand where they went wrong and what the people want from them. 

According to the Book of Chronicles, Samuel was a descendent of Korach!

How can this be? After all, Korach was swallowed up by the earth together with his entire family. How can there be anyone left, and how can a great man like Samuel the Prophet descend from Korach?

It appears that power-hungry people never entirely disappear. Furthermore, every few generations this hunger for power and control dismantles the mechanisms of government, the delicate distribution of authority, the division between roles and centers of authority in society - all in order to gain more power. Systems of government are built with internal checks and balances, delicately constructed, but easily destroyed when there is greed for power in the vicinity. 

Korach fails at dismantling the existing structure of power. But his descendent, Samuel the Prophet, succeeds! Samuel is actually the one who implements Korach’s vision, and the one who does exactly as Korach wanted to do: He dismantles all the governing structures that Moses created. He inherits the priesthood from Eli the High Priest and then cancels it all together. He himself offers sacrifices, although he is not a Cohen (Priest). He cancels the judicial system created by Moses at the advice of his father-in-law, and judges the people himself. And the most extreme measure Samuel takes is to try to bequeath the leadership to his sons, even though they had no leadership or prophetic abilities. We do not hear about Moses’ sons, for example. There is no reason for the leadership to transfer to them. 

The big difference between Korach and Samuel is that Korach’s belief in equality was cynical. It did not stem from a true belief in equality “for the sake of heaven” or just for its own sake, but rather for the purpose of power and for the benefits of governance. Samuel, on the other hand, believed that his intentions were good. He dismantled the mechanisms which had become corrupt.

Equality is very important, but true equality does not mean everyone has the same abilities. Not everyone can be a judge. Not everyone can lead an army into battle. Not everyone is suitable to lead a nation. And when the motive is only power and not suitability, everyone ends up losing.

This is why the people turn to Samuel and demand that he instate a king over them. They are actually demanding that he forego his centralized authority and rebuild an organized system of government in which there is military and political leadership, spiritual/prophetic leadership, and judicial leadership. 

Remember, it was Moses who sowed the seeds of kingship in Israel. He is the one who gives the People the laws of kingship. In these laws, Moses describes exactly what the king’s authority is, and mostly what it isn’t. Moses makes sure that the future king is answerable to the laws of morality and judgment. 

It is easy to destroy the delicate structure of government. It is much more difficult to rebuild it. To Samuel’s credit, having dismantled the mechanisms of government and giving himself complete authority, at the end of his life he lays the foundations of rebuilding those mechanisms, albeit against his will. He will be the one who establishes the kingship in the spirit of Moses’ laws, and he prepares the infrastructure for the building of the Temple.

So what are the lessons to be learned from the linking of the Torah portion of Korach to the Haftorah of Samuel the Prophet? 

First of all, the value of equality requires further investigation. Every person is unique and one-of-a-kind. Every person is created in the Creator’s image. Therefore, in essence, we are indeed all equal. But the fact is that we all have different abilities and not everyone can fulfill every role.

There is nothing more poisonous for the soul than our tendency to compare ourselves to others, and we do so all the time - in the name of equality.  A lot is written, for example, about how Facebook is a leading cause of depression, because it shows the external glory of other people’s lives, and we mistakenly compare our inner chaotic messy lives to the external glory of others, leaving us feeling inferior and inadequate.

We must set boundaries for ourselves! The value of equality can exist only if it is accompanied by humility and a realistic recognition of our value. 

The desire for power usually stems from a sense of inferiority, and it is dangerous. Power that is “for the sake of heaven” is a power that has the ability to create and heal worlds. Any other kind destroys those worlds that have been so carefully constructed.

Shabbat Shalom

Confronting Our Expectations: Parashat Shelach

After departing the spiritual center of Mount Sinai, the Israelites began their journey into the Negev. For all intents and purposes, the community made its way to the Promised Land, to the Land of milk and honey. And yet, this is not what happens. They almost arrive, but that almost is so far away. Just as Moses will see the land from a distance but not enter it, so, too, the Israelites will see their goal in the distance, and not be able to attain it.

In our portion this week, the Eternal commands Moses to send twelve spies to tour the Land: “Send spies to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one participant from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a prince among them” (Numbers 13:2).

The Sages explain that when the Eternal initially ordered Moses to send the spies that it was a concession. They understood this from the literal translation of שלח לך - “send for yourself.” That is, for your own purposes (not Mine). The Eternal seems to be saying, “I have told you already that the Land is good and that I will give it to you. If you need human confirmation of that, go ahead and send scouts.” 

So why really are the Israelites having to do this? Moses rationally explains that they are to see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Why does Moses add these instructions when they were not requested by the Eternal?

Moses is rightfully thinking like a human general and understands that he is supposed to get an intelligence report from the leaders of the tribes so that the Israelites as a whole would feel confident in their conquering of the Land. We can not blame Moses for thinking this and adding the instructions as he thought that they would be helpful for the spies to be able to discern. In this circumstance, their attention to detail resulted in disaster: the inability to conceive that the community could undertake what it has been tasked with doing.

And the princes of the tribes who brought back the report that the land could not be conquered? Can they be blamed? I do not believe so. They were thinking in the best interests of their tribe and their people. They would prefer to see them live in the wilderness than to be destroyed in war.

The result of the report of the spies is that the community complains to Moses and Aaron resolves to head back to Egypt. Joshua tries to tell the people not to fear the situation at hand and the people move from verbal violence to physical violence. 

The Creator then intervenes and tells Moses that the people will die in the wilderness and the responsibility for conquering the Land will be transferred to their children. When the people hear this, some of them definitely march toward the Land and the inhabitants destroy them. 

I often wonder if there could have been a reconciliation between Moses and the spies which would have prevented the resulting calamity. What would have happened had the spies processed their legitimate human fears with Moses instead of airing those fears to the entire community? Could Moses have then intervened with the Eternal and understood how to communicate a hope for a future that they felt was all but lost? I would like to believe so. 

An effective community leadership is one that can work through its challenges together and be strengthened as a result. This relies on understanding the needs and fears of the community while communicating a united vision for a better future.  

Shabbat Shalom

On Manifesting the Pillar of Cloud in Our LivesParashat Behaalotcha

Once upon a time we as a people had a form of certainty in our relationship with the Eternal One. According to our Torah portion, there was no human general or political leader who told us when to move forward. It was the Creator who indicated Its desire through the movement of a pillar of cloud: 

"And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp. At a command of the Eternal the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Eternal they made camp: they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle.  When the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle many days, the Israelites observed the Eternal’s mandate and did not journey on. At such times as the cloud rested over the Tabernacle for only a few days, they remained encamped at a command of the Eternal, and broke camp at a command of the Eternal. And at such times as the cloud stayed from evening until morning, they broke camp as soon as the cloud lifted in the morning. Day or night, whenever the cloud lifted, they would break camp.  Whether it was two days or a month or a year—however long the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle—the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp.  On a sign from the Eternal they made camp and on a sign from God they broke camp; they observed the Eternal’s mandate at the Eternal’s bidding through Moses" (Numbers 9:17-23).

Our portion picks up after a year of encampment at the foot of Mount Sinai after receiving the Torah. This was the formative year when a group of freed slaves organized themselves and created the infrastructures that would accompany the Nation of Israel until its entry into the Holy Land and even up until the modern day. A moment before they embark on their journey, two historic events take place: the seven-branched menorah is lit for the first time, and Passover is celebrated for the first time. And then the cloud rises.

This was a sign to dismantle the encampment and the Tabernacle, pack all the belongings, and begin to move. "In the second year, on the twentieth day of the second month, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle of the Pact and the Israelites set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai…" (Numbers 10:11-12).

One of the principles in Torah study is that the Torah is not just a guide for one moment in time on the journey in the Wilderness. It is intended to be an ultimate guidebook for the Nation of Israel. The Torah is intended to be our version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

Our Sages throughout history have understood the Israelites’ journey in the Wilderness as an archetype for all journeys.  Every person experiences an Exodus in her or his life: parting of the Sea, the receipt of the Torah, the story of the Golden Calf, the endless complaints, the sin of the spies which brought about forty additional years of wandering and even Moses’ final view of the Promised Land from Mount Nevo a moment before his death. 

Therefore, the Divine pillar which determines when we move and to where, and when we rest and where - is a hidden guidance system which, if we get to know it, may bring about dramatic change in our lives. In Psalms 99:7, King David wrote, "He speaks to them in a pillar of cloud". The pillar of cloud did not disappear. It is present today, just as it was then. What did change was our ability to see. 

Our world is a reflection of our sight: “Tell me what you see, and I will tell you about you."  The modern world has veiled our ability to truly see. Today we are able to see things and objects, even more so with the use of telescopes and microscopes, but we are completely blind to the spiritual infrastructure in which they exist, and especially to the gaps between them. Our physical sight and intellectual sight works well and yet as these two developed, our spiritual sight atrophied.

How are we to define spiritual infrastructure? Presumably each person will see it differently, and yet, at the deepest level, this infrastructure is the infinite wisdom that activates the world. The pillar of cloud comes from that wisdom. More precisely, the pillar itself is the wisdom and intelligence that activates existence. The pillar of cloud "lives us,” directs us, makes us grow and guides us. It also takes us up the mountain from which everything can be seen, and from which the cloud returns us to the place from which It gave us life.

There is no reality without the pillar of cloud; no life and no journey. The Eternal spoke to them in a pillar of cloud and continues to speak to us and it is time we listened. Therefore, the invitation this week is to notice the pillar that is always there, although we don’t see it. Pay attention to how it feels, what it wants, and what it asks of us. For those who have never thought in this direction and are sure that it is possible to see only animate things and objects, this may be a little hard to do at first, and maybe even a bit strange. It is worth it as the power contained within is life-changing.

There are no mistakes on the journey. The Israelites did not know that they would wander in the wilderness for forty years. It is not the fault of the spies or of the people. The pillar of cloud is the deep wisdom that motivates the process. This all encompassing wisdom knew that the people were not yet ready, and that it was not yet the right time for them to reach their destination. When we learn how to listen to the pillar of cloud, we discover that there is nothing to regret.

Shabbat Shalom

Choosing How We Bear Things: Parshat Naso 5782

 

This week I had the privilege of conducting my first marriage here at JCM. Marriage in Judaism is נשואין  (Nisuin) that comes from the same root as נשא (Nasso), our Torah portion this week. The root means to carry, to forgive and to ascend. Marriage requires all three of these essential elements. The need to forgive is central and the ultimate test of a successful marriage is whether or not it is a source of upliftment and inspiration for both sides.

Our Torah portion is all about responsibilities. There are the families of the Levite tribe who bear the Tabernacle and its utensils on their backs. They also bear the spiritual responsibility for the people; an adulterous woman (Sotah) bears her sin, whereas a jealous man who has embittered his wife’s life bears his shame in public; a person who chooses asceticism (Nazirite vow) bears the weight of the abstinence he has chosen, including the price entailed in ending it; the Cohanim (Jewish priests) lift (bear) their hands upwards when bestowing the priestly blessing on the People; and, at the end of the parasha, each tribe bears its gifts and sacrifices in their carts to the Mishkan.

Bearing is the story of our lives. Many of us understand “bearing” as dragging or carrying a heavy burden. We can understand from the Blessing of the Priests that there is a different meaning revealed: May the Eternal lift up (bear) His countenance upon you implies lifting, raising, rather than carrying. 

In other words, the heavy burden can be transformed into wings.

We have a choice: to bear well - to lift our past up - or to carry it on our back like a heavy and oppressive burden.

Shabbat Shalom

Welcoming the Convert, Part Two

On Purim this year, I wrote a sermon called, “Welcoming the Convert,” where I explained that Amalek directly resulted from our forefathers and foremothers denying Timna the ability to convert. In her desperation she became the concubine of Esau’s son and Amalek was born. I concluded with a suggestion that the true way to counter Amalek and confront assimilation is to ensure that all who wish to convert have a path to do so. Forging a path to Judaism is a deeply individual process and it is a blessing to be here on Maui to assist those who choose to climb Mount Sinai together with our people. 

During Shavuot, it is traditional to read the book of Ruth where a Jewish family leaves the land of Israel, intermarries with a tribe who were the traditional enemies of the Israelites and the Jewish sons and the father die. In such an ancient society it is natural that Naomi, the mother, would have seen her departure from the Holy Land and her people as the sin which resulted in this misfortune. She turns to her daughters-in-law and tells them to return to their houses. Initially they refused and after much convincing, Orpah left and Ruth decided to stay. Many remember that Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David; less of us know that according to Rabbinic tradition (Sotah 42b), Orpah was the mother of Goliath the Giant, David’s archenemy. This is not to say that every time someone is turned away from the Jewish people that they will produce our enemies, but it is fascinating to note the similarity between Timna and Orpah. 

And what lessons can we learn to encourage inclusion of the potential convert? There is a tradition to turn away a potential convert three times from the story of Naomi telling her daughters-in-law three times to “turn back” (see Ruth Rabbah). Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani states: "She says, 'turn back' three times, which corresponds to the three times one pushes off a convert" (Ruth Rabbah 2:16). This position was never codified into Jewish law. In fact, the authoritative Jewish legal texts go in the opposite direction, demanding that anyone who expresses a sincere interest in Judaism be immediately welcomed. The preeminent code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, states: "When a person comes to convert, we tell them: 'Do you know that Israel faces oppression and other challenges.?' If they reply: 'I know, and yet I would be honored [ani yodea v'ayni k'dai]' then we befriend them, immediately accept them, and begin to teach them" (Shulchan Aruch 268:2 - sixteenth century standard of Jewish Law).

Those who seek to convert, if they answer with sincerity ought to be met with a loving embrace and a hearty welcome to the family. According to Jewish law, one does not need to turn a person away three times, or even once. All that is required is one straightforward question of intent, ensuring that a person understands what it means to throw in their lot with the Jewish People. 

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth and pay respect to the spiritual courage it took her – and all her children after her – to take a leap into the unknown and discover a new path. But it is not enough to pay lip service to that courage. I have heard story after story from those on the path to conversion who are met with suspicion or outright rejection. Our community needs to take a hard look at itself and ask why "everyone knows" that we turn away converts three times, but too few people know that the actual law is to do the opposite.

As we are met with concern about assimilation we as Rabbis are called upon to transform our concern into an opportunity for a wider and more inclusive Jewish future. Rabbi Shmuel's minority position of turning away potential converts three times was rejected by the Sages millennia ago. It is certainly time for us to fully commit to do the same. 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Shavuot.

JCM as a Safe Space: A Message of Support for Diversity and Inclusion

For Passover this year, the Jewish Congregation of Maui included an orange on all of our Seder plates in recognition of those who have felt marginalized and excluded. As we approach Shavuot, fifty days later, it is incumbent upon us to remember this message in the context of receiving the Torah. 

The Talmud (Berakhot 58a) teaches that one is required to recite a special blessing when witnessing a vast throng of Jews, praising the Almighty who is the One who understands the root and inner thoughts of each individual. “Their thoughts are not alike and their appearance is not alike.” The Creator made each person a unique being expecting and wanting a diversity of thought. We must bless Him for having created this diversity among us.

The antithesis of this ideal is represented by a society that wants everyone to be the same. The Rabbis taught us that this was happening in Sodom. The Sodomites placed visitors in a bed and if the person was too short, he was stretched until he fit the bed. If he was too tall, his legs were cut off so that he fit the bed. This parable is not more than a desire for physical uniformity; the people of Sodom wanted everyone to fit the same pattern. They fostered and enforced conformity in an extreme way. 

Another part of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) relates that when a person stamps several coins with one seal, they are all similar to each other. But the Eternal One stamped all people with the seal of Adam the first human, as all of them are his offspring, and not one of them is similar to another. Therefore, since all humanity descended from one person, each and every person is obligated to say: “The world was created for me, as one person can be the source of all humanity, and recognize the significance of his actions.”

Respect for individuality and diversity is the basis of a healthy human life. We each have unique talents and insights, and we need a spiritual climate that allows us to grow, feel safe and be creative. JCM declares itself to be a Safe Space where individuals can express themselves as they are. 

JCM’s Response to the Tragedy in Uvalde, Texas: An Invitation to a Grief Circle at JCM on Wednesday, June 8 at 4:30pm 

JCM’s Response to the Tragedy in Uvalde, Texas; An Invitation to a Grief Circle at JCM on Wednesday, June 8 at 4:30pm for all who are grieving spouses, parents, children, friends, etc.

“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor [and their children].” Leviticus 19:16

It is with great sorrow that we respond to the tragic killing of nineteen schoolchildren and their teachers in Uvalde, Texas. We must be committed to the value that children are of greater value than indiscriminate rights to weapons. How have we built a society where driving a car is more difficult than purchasing a weapon?

Jewish values certainly mandate that we go beyond prayers for the lives lost. We must ensure that political action results in the prevention of this ever happening again, although sadly we fear that it will. America remembers all too well the killing of its children in Parkland, Sandy Hook and the hundreds of other locations where mass shootings have taken place.

We must organize and demand that United States politicians, currently obsessed with reelection campaigns, put aside partisanship in order to literally save lives. They must firmly and immediately enact meaningful gun reform legislation and mental health reform. 

We offer our deepest condolences and support to all those impacted by this horrible attack and reiterate our vehement condemnation of gun violence. Limiting the availability of weapons is a moral imperative in our time. If we do not do this we are standing idly by the blood of our neighbor and their children.

JCM would like to offer a grief circle on Wednesday, June 8 at 4:30pm led by Rabbi Raanan Mallek and Mitch Berman for all who are grieving spouses, parents, children, friends, etc. The community is invited to come together, grieve and provide comfort to one another during these times when we ask where justice is. 

The Inner Mountain that Flows

“The Eternal spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:
Speak to the People of Israel and say to them:
When you enter the land that I assign to you, 
the land shall observe a Shabbat for the Eternal.”
Leviticus 25:1-2

Rashi says, “What special relevance does the subject of Shemittah [the “release” of fields in the seventh year] have with Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments stated from Sinai?" This teaches us that just as with Shemittah, all the finer details are also from Sinai.

The mountain being discussed here is Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai is much more than a mountain. According to the Jewish tradition (as opposed to he Christian one), we do not know exactly where Mount Sinai is. Why is this? Mount Sinai is not a geographic location that may be located on a physical map, but an internal mountain, a spiritual one, which can be anywhere.

Mount Sinai is also a spring, a flowing spring. Life-giving water flows from it, giving Life to all who study it.

“Ben Bag Bag would say: Delve and delve into it, for all is in it; see with it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing better.” Ethics of the Fathers 5:21

Shabbat Shalom

Finding Meaning in the Omer: Leadership in Endurance

This week’s Torah portion includes the commandment of counting the Omer:

“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the Shabbat—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal” (Leviticus 23:15-16).

In a day and age when we no longer bring agricultural offerings to a Temple in Jerusalem, how can the Omer be significant and meaningful in our lives? Our Sages explain that the Omer is a road to transformation through time, the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. Kabbalah teaches us that the Omer is a time when we should focus on ridding ourselves of negative influences. It is during these seven weeks that we are called to break open the klipot (negative shells) from within us which will release the Light that has been trapped by our choices in life. Although the extraction is sometimes painful, the benefit of releasing the trapped sparks of Light are more than worth it for our souls.

Each of the seven weeks is associated with one of the seven lower Sefirot (Kabbalistic Jewish Chakras): Chesed (loving-kindness), Gevurah (might), Tipheret (beauty), Netzach (victory), Hod (acknowledgment), Yesod (foundation), Malchut (kingdom). This week we are to focus on Netzach translated as Victory or Endurance.

Netzach represents Eternity and is representative of the right brain where the creative process takes place. Netzach is therefore the artist, the poet, the musician and the dreamer. Netzach radiates the desire to share and becomes the channel of that energy as it approaches the physical world we live in.

The Kabbalistic Sages teach that each day of each week is also associated with one of these same seven sefirot, creating forty-nine permutations, i.e. 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. This Shabbat is when we should focus on leadership (Malchut) in endurance (Netzach). 

Robert F. Kennedy once said, “each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, s/he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance… Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.” 

May we be worthy of leadership that can endure the challenges of our times. 

Shabbat Shalom.
 

The Empathetic Imperative - Kedoshim

ואהבת לרעך כמוך
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself
-Leviticus 19:19

Being commanded to love by the Torah is a challenging theological concept for us to wrap our heads around. How can we be commanded to love? Is this not a personal feeling we manifest as a result of our personal choices? Perhaps the Torah is asking of us something else. The command “ואהבת” - “and you shall love” really means to care for and protect, to be loyal. It is all about how we show love, not with feelings but with action. 

To reinforce this idea, we need to move onto the next word of this commandment: “רעך” - your neighbor? Who is this neighbor? There are some who understand it as someone who is ‘like you,’ who acts like you, lives like you and thinks like you. This person is “your neighbor” specifically because s/he is like you.

There are other Sages who invite us to understand our neighbor in the most universal sense possible. This person is the other par excellence, the one who is perhaps at the opposite end of your beliefs but is still made in the same Image of the Divine that we all share from Adam, the first human being.

This week was Israeli Independence Day and with independence comes sovereignty. And sovereignty mandates that the Jewish state take responsibility over the other in our midst no matter what race or religion they come from. 

And now we come to why I call this commandment the ‘empathetic imperative’. Why wasn’t the commandment merely “love your neighbor,” why add, “as yourself”? Because to love the other, to take care of them, to value them, one has to love themselves, one has to value what they are, we have to see ourselves as someone worthy of being loved. It is our self love that allows us to love others especially if they are not ‘like us’.

Hillel puts it best in Ethics of the Fathers 1:14- “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Shoah* Remembrance Day 5782/2022 by Rabbi Raanan Mallek 

"The Eternal spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal" (Leviticus 16:2).

Our Torah portion this week is called Aharei Mot in Hebrew which means, "after the death." And yet, the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu died six chapters earlier in Leviticus 10. After their death, instead of comforting his brother, Moses says, 'This is what the Eternal meant by saying: Through those near to Me I become holy, and gain glory before all the people.' And Aaron was silent." (Leviticus 10:3). Most difficult of all is how Aaron and his sons are told not to mourn the loss of their sons and brothers.  

As a student of theology, I am confronted by the Shoah (Holocaust)* and the denial of our greatest thinkers to ever attempt to justify or explain why such a tragedy happened to our people. Where were we as the Jewish people after the death of one third of our people, 80% of our scholars and an untold cultural history lost for all time? I can not help but remember stories of how for thirty years after the founding of the State of Israel, Israelis tended to distance themselves from remembering those who were killed and instead sought to focus on the future of the "New Israeli". Survivors of the Shoah* found living in Israel challenging since many of their brethren were "silent" like Aaron.

At the end Passover we recite Yizkor (Hebrew for "remembrance") prayers which just so happens to ready us for Shoah (Holocaust) Remembrance Day. Although traditionally Yizkor is recited by those that have lost either one or both of their parents, most modern prayer books include a remembrance prayer for the victims of the Holocaust. In this prayer, they are rightly remembered as martyrs. Our tradition holds that martyrs are closest to the divine thro

"And the Spirit of the Eternal Shall Rest Upon Him": Traits of Leadership

"The spirit of the Eternal shall alight upon him: A spirit of wisdom and insight, A spirit of counsel and valor, A spirit of devotion and reverence for the Eternal. He shall sense (smell) the awe of the Eternal..." (Isaiah 11:2-3)

How are we to identify traits of leadership that we hope to bestow to our children? Isaiah prophesied that through history we will be able to historically identify a series of repetitive and confirming truths. For Jewish memory, the Eternal’s redemptive acts constitute one such truth, and the source of hope. The festival of Passover is one of many ritual occasions when this truth and this hope are publicly celebrated (Etz Hayim p. 1316).

The messianic era is one that is identified by justice, kingship and restoration. It holds a vision of social and natural transformation and this requires a generation of leaders able to reveal the influence of the Spirit through wisdom, council, justice and impartiality.

And how is this leader to sense the awe of the Eternal? The commentators Radak (1160-1235) and Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) interpret this as an inner perception, in contrast to the external senses of sight and of hearing. The Hebrew word "והריחו" is also used for “smelling”. 

The incense has the same fragrance as the Garden of Eden, because our sources state that from the aroma of his offering, Adam remembered his former home in Eden. This is the first instance of memory that ever occurred. That is why fragrance imprints on memory and is so deeply connected with it, and also why our primordial ancient collective memory is actually all about fragrance and the Garden of Eden (Rabbi Avraham Sand). 

May we merit to have leaders in this generation who can identify truths that will act as road signs on our way to turning this world into Eden. Together we can then “smell our way home”. I will certainly be smiling when I recognize frankincense and myrrh. 

“For you will not depart in haste” Isaiah 52:12The Long Unfolding of the Exodus and the Redemption

"The inner liberty is gradually manifesting itself in the small steps of our renewal, 
in limited amounts according to the measure of the redemption which is being revealed to us.” Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook

Many are of the opinion that the Exodus from Egypt was an immediate success and that the Israelites were saved at the blink of an eye. Such, however, was not the case. Leaving Egypt was a long process that took place over many years.

First, Moses had to be convinced to assume leadership. The next stage was interacting with Pharaoh and begging him to free the Jewish People. Upon Pharaoh’s refusal, the Lord’s miracles began to afflict Egypt, and the country was crippled by a long series of plagues. Finally, after the final plague, the Israelites marched out of Egypt. It was not an instant salvation, but a process.

Psychologically, Moses must have struggled deeply when the first audience with Pharaoh was a failure. He was heart-broken and despaired before the Lord, “Why have You sent me?! Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed the People, You have not saved Your People” (Exodus 5:22-23). 

The Eternal proceeds to teach Moses that his despair was misplaced. Moses had to step back and realize that he was in the midst of a far larger picture, standing within a longer, historic process. The forefathers and foremothers stood at the beginning of the process. Imagine how Abraham felt when he was told, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13).

It was not only our ancestors who waited, but also the Almighty. The great commentator Rashi explains that the Holy Name YHWH was not known to those who came before Moses because this Name means that the Eternal is faithful to verify His words as He made promises to them, but did not fulfill them while they were alive (see Rashi on Exodus 6:3). 

When Exodus 12:42 relates that the Passover night is “a night of anticipation for the Lord, to take them out of the land of Egypt; this night is the Lord's, guarding all the children of Israel throughout their generations,” Rashi explains that the Holy One was also waiting and anticipating, in order to fulfill His promise to take them out of the land of Egypt.

The Exodus was one part of the spiritual evolution of the Jewish people. Moses began to lead the people in the middle of an unfolding process. Even the manifesting of the Eternal to all of Egypt was not the culmination, but the beginning of the events which would lead to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. “Don’t worry,” the Lord was telling Moses, “this will be a gradual, incremental mission; success will come with time.”

The message is that success is a process that we are a part of and may very well not see the culmination if even there is one. Perhaps it is the journey of Torah unfolding that is the purpose of life we seek. 

The Torah never finishes, it is alive with the ever present promise of redemption. The Land of Israel may be in the process of being established, and yet we know from the news how volatile the current situation is. Just as the Exodus unfolded over so many years, so too the Messianic era. 

The prophet Isaiah clearly explains that the redemption of the future is one where we shall not go out in haste (Isaiah 52:12). Its gradual nature is one by design so that all of humanity can experience the full nature of redemption alongside us. And this takes time. Maimonides explains that Christianity and Islam came about to pave the way for the Messianic Age and to prepare the entire world to worship the Eternal together (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Kings and their Wars 11:7).

Our ancestors had to travel for a whole generation in the Wilderness to change the mentality of the nation from one of a slave mentality to that of a nation building mentality. They could not enter into the Holy Land thinking as they did in Egypt, because when they encountered the first sign of struggle, they would seek security in the strong handed tyranny of Egypt. 

We are taught that life is a process and that achievements are gradual. We can only improve ourselves gradually. As Rabbi Dessler teaches, “Our humble, everyday choices to do the right thing is the only way we can battle and climb up the ladder of self-perfection to become better people.” 

Jewish prayer is designed to be daily and repetitive precisely for this reason. It helps us to slowly inculcate values within ourselves and gradually draw us closer to our Creator. The message of the Lord to Moses is, “Lead my People out of Egypt but know that this won't be an overnight success, you are part of a long process that started centuries ago. Put one foot in front of another and see that you will climb Mount Sinai to receive the Torah that will carry My people through the ages from now until the redemption of all humankind: “For then I will turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the Name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent” (Zephaniah 3:9).

Happy Passover

Parshat M'tzorah: How Guarding our Tongues Strengthens One Another

"When you enter the Land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, 'Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.' The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become impure; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house." Leviticus 14:34 

Of all the difficulties our ancestors had to deal with, plagues on our houses seems like one challenge too many. How could this have been part of our reality? Midrash Leviticus Rabba 17:2 says that the plague of the house was a punishment for the owner. If a person lied that s/he did not have something that a neighbor requested, the Lord would bring this plague on the house and then the person would need to put everything outside of their house (like a yard sale) so that everyone would be able to see what they have. 

And yet, as we learned last week, impurity is not something "bad" (in the normal sense of the word), nor is it something dirty. Impurity is a state in which something that was brimming with life is now emptied of the life force it contained. The Torah is meant to be read allegorically as we learn from the greatest sages and interpreters of old: Philo of Alexandria, Maimonides and Rabbi Samson Hirsch. Our portion is therefore an allegory for the inner vitality and potential for life, that emanates outwards and is unproductively emptied of its life-enhancing promise.

How do we channel our inner vitality so that instead of being emptied, it is filled with life enhancing promise? Another Midrash interprets the reason for this plague in houses as follows:

"The plague on the home was a warning for people to stop speaking 'Lashon HaRa' or Evil Tongue. As a person runs with their speech the lives of others, the Lord can ruin the home of someone if they do not repair their behavior." -Midrash HaGadol Leviticus 115 

Psalms has a beautiful way of helping us into realization of these concepts:

"Who is it who is eager for life and desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech." -Psalms 34:13-14

Even though today we no longer experience this plague in our homes, it is incumbent upon us to learn the lessons as though it were. Speaking badly about others empties our inner vitality and prevents us from realizing our full potential. If we desire a fortunate long life, may we guard our tongue and find ways to strengthen one another with our speech, for we learn the power of speech from the beginning of Genesis when the Eternal Spoke Creation Into Existence.  

Shabbat Shalom

Preparing for Passover - Parshat HaHodesh

 On years such as the current year when the New Moon (new Hebrew month of Nisan) falls on Shabbat, the special section known as Parshat HaHodesh - the Month Portion, is read on Shabbat. This special section is read in anticipation of the festival of Passover, which begins on the 15th of Nisan. 

 The special section is Exodus 12:1-20 and tells of the first commandment received by Israel, while still in Egyptian bondage, to mark the new moon and to prepare a lamb for the Passover offering. The famed commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040 – 1105) begins his commentary of the Bible by reminding us of this: "The Torah which is the law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2) - 'This month shall be unto you the first of the months' which is the first commandment given to Israel." 

 We learn the following: "Thirty days before Passover, questions about the laws of the festival are asked and expounded" (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 429:1). The Talmud teaches: "A woman having Passover Seder with her husband need not recline, but if she is an important woman then she must recline" (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 108a). A thousand years later the Rama says: "All of our women are called important" and therefore they are also obligated to recline and relax during the Passover Seder. 

 I would like to suggest that we men do our part to manifest 'peace in the home' by helping to prepare and serve the Passover meal so that the important women in our lives can recline and take in the spirit of freedom we are all supposed to enjoy.

In the mean time, Shabbat Shalom.  

The Significance of Eight in Judaism

Shmini / Shabbat Parah 5782
Rabbi Raanan Mallek

 וַיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י
On the eighth day (Leviticus 9:1)

In previous sermons I have discussed how the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was representative of the process of Creation. The seven day week symbolizes the completion of a cycle and the eighth day represents starting over at a new level. As Rabbi Hirsch explains, it is like concluding a musical octave and leading to a higher octave.

Rabbi Kaplan explains that as opposed to six which represents the six directions of the physical world or the six days of the week, and seven which represents an integrating factor that unifies and perfects the physical world, eight represents the spiritual dimension or the realm that transcends the physical.

These values are also represented in the ceremony of the Brit Milah or the Covenant of Circumcision of Jewish boys. On the eighth day of their life they are brought into the Covenant as they begin the second week of their life as a member of the Jewish people. 

The emergence of the eighth day challenges us to begin living in the day to day world of ordinary events while keeping in mind the changes effected by the previous work undertaken, whether that is creation as a whole or the building of the Tabernacle. 

Transformation of being is clearly indicated in the Haftarah for the special Shabbat (Parah) we will be observing starting tonight. Ezekiel’s prophecy says, “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put My spirit into you.” Paying attention to what kind of heart we have, a heart of stone or of flesh is the first step in the spiritual awareness that Ezekiel is prophesying. I would like to suggest that everyday living, the consciousness of the eighth day, calls for us to return to our humanity and strive to be just a bit better than the day before.

Shabbat Shalom

Welcoming the Convert - Purim 5782          Rabbi Raanan Mallek

Lotan’s sister was Timna (Genesis 36:22)

 Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once explained that this is the very origin of Purim. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) states that Timna wanted to join the household of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but was rebuffed. She became the concubine of Esau’s son Elifax, thinking: “It is better to be a maidservant of this nation than the governess of another nation:

Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.          (Genesis 36:12)

 As punishment for the sin of rejecting Timna she gave birth to Amalek, who grieved Israel. Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite was a descendant of the Amalekite king whose life was spared by Mordechai’s ancestor, King Saul, in direct contravention of the prophet Samuel’s instructions.

 One of the greatest enemies of the Jewish people was born as the result of Timna’s inability to convert many generations before. Amalek (and Haman) was a descendant of Abraham. This fact is overlooked by so many and yet it calls out to us from the depths of our intellect which seeks the root causes of ethical challenges in the Torah and in our lives. How can the same Torah which recognizes the image of the Creator in every human being (Genesis 1:26) call for the genocide of the nation of Amalek (Exodus 17:14-16 and Deuteronomy 25:17-19)?

 Reconciling such a dichotomy calls upon us to think differently. The Unity of Opposites is the central category of dialectics related to the notion of non-duality in a deep sense. It defines a situation in which the existence or identity of a thing (or situation) depends on the co-existence of at least two conditions which are opposite to each other, yet dependent on each other and presupposing each other, within a field of tension. (1)

 I would like to suggest that the textual challenge of Amalek calls for us to remember the Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael or the thirteen rules compiled by Rabbi Ishmael b. Elisha for the elucidation of the Torah and for making halakhic deductions from it. The last of the rules states that when two Biblical passages contradict each other the contradiction in question must be solved by reference to a third passage.

 When Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine (1921-1935) explains that Genesis 36:22, “Lotan’s sister was Timna” he is bringing awareness to the idea that stringency in conversion almost led to the destruction of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire.

 The Talmud in Sanhedrin 88a explains that the Eternal overturned Mount Sinai above the Israelites and said to them: “If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, this will be your burial.” The Rabbis questioned whether or not such a Torah would be obligatory to follow. (2) The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Another Rabbi (Rava) then said: “Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus (Purim), as it is written: ‘The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them’ (Esther 9:27)”, and he taught: “The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai.”

 Purim resulted in a great change among the Jewish people. Whereas before Purim they were under a paradigm of coercion, now they would be in partnership with Torah, having chosen to remain among the Jewish people instead of assimilating into the masses of the Persian Empire.

 Jewish demographer Gary Tobin z"l in his 1999 book, Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community, says: "No number of day schools or summer camps is going to turn back the clock on religious freedom and competition....It is time for Jews to join every other group in America and quit obsessing about who is being lost and start acting on who might come in".

 Perhaps the true way to counter Amalek and confront assimilation is to ensure that all who wish to convert have a path to do so. Forging a path to Judaism is a deeply individual process and it is a blessing to be here on Maui to assist those who choose to climb Mount Sinai together with our people.

Happy Purim!

(1) - V.T. JMcGill and W.T. Parry. "The Unity of Opposites: A Dialectical Principle (PDF)", Science & Society, vol. 12 no. 4 (Fall 1948), pp.418-444.

(2) - https://steinsaltz.org/daf/shabbat88/

Why is it important to us to know that we are "doing it right"?

Torah Portion of Leviticus by Rabbi Raanan Mallek

  Last week we finished the Book of Exodus where the grand finale of the Divine Presence (Shechinah) came down upon the Tabernacle. I imagine the Israelites sitting around after this amazing experience wondering, "and now what?" They wanted to know how to worship the Eternal. In our modern world we tend to discount prescribed ritual in favor of spontaneous religious expression. And yet there is power in the knowledge that we are doing what generations of our people before us have done in similar situations, something that other people in other places are doing at the same time and in the same way. 

  It must have brought comfort to our ancestors in the middle of the desert confronted with the unknown in front of them that they had clearly laid out guidelines for how to properly express their devotion to the G!d of Israel.

  Our modern day sensibilities have difficulty accepting sacrifice of animals as a method of worship. And thankfully that is the case. The Midrash imagines the Creator saying: "Better that they bring their offerings to my table than that they bring them before idols" (Lev. R. 22:8). The Israelites at the time could not conceive of religion without sacrificing animals. So human conception of the divine and what the divine wants of us is translated into our ritual practices, even if this is not the true desire of the Eternal.

  On Thursdays at 7pm here at JCM and on Zoom we study the weekly Torah portion together. We decided to delve into the deeper question of understanding for what sake we are doing something. Is not the intention what determines whether or not we are doing it correctly?

  I suggest we listen deeply to the words of the prophet Micah who said, "With what shall I approach the Eternal, do homage to the Most High? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? He has told you O' human what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your G!d."  

  May the justice that we perform and the love of goodness around us be the guiding light for helping us feel that we are "doing it right" as we walk modestly with the Eternal One.

  Shabbat Shalom 

Manifesting Encounter and Presence

ב"ה

Manifesting Encounter and Presence
Torah Portion of Pikudei
Rabbi Raanan Mallek
ר"ח אדר ב' תשפ"ב March 4, 2022

Exodus 40:33-34; 38
When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and fire would appear in the cloud by night, in the view of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys.

During the Torah portion of Terumah the Eternal said, “There I will gather with you, and I will speak with you” (Exodus 25:22). The Tent of the Meeting (Mishkan) is not just a place where the Israelities come to worship and honor the Eternal, it is a place of the Eternal’s presence. This is not a metaphor; it is an actual physical manifestation. Thus our forefathers and foremothers in Sinai could visit and dwell with the energy of the Creator’s presence in a very physical way because it was actualized on the physical plane. 

It is challenging for us to comprehend such a physical manifestation. Many of us live in a modern scientific paradigm which rejects the premise that spirituality can transcend the divide into the physical world [Notable exceptions are: Professor Michio Kaku's The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything (2021), Professor Gerald Schroeder's Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science And The Bible (1991) and especially John Horgan’s book, Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality (2004)]. And yet the end of Exodus is clear, all of the House of Israel would see the Presence of the Eternal throughout their journeys. 

The tabernacle was to function as a portable Sinai, a means by which a continued channel of communication with the Eternal could be maintained. As the people move away from Sinai, the Mountain of Revelation, they need a visible, tangible symbol of the Eternal’s abiding presence in their midst, in other words the Shechinah.

A portable place of holy ritual accompanying the Israelites and engaging the nation in something other than material affairs or the personal needs of its members, it demanded a Legion of Cohanim (Priests) to disassemble and pack it up for transport for 39 of the 40 years of wandering. It was the place through which consciousness could be altered. The sanctuary enabled ritual devotion, purification, and unification.

Jewish legend says that when Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the Shechinah withdrew from the earth. Over the centuries, through the various patriarchs and matriarchs, this aspect of the Creator, referred to in feminine terms, was successively brought back to the material world from each of the seven dimensions (or firmaments), above which the Infinite encompasses all. 

It is said that it was Moses who brought the Shechinah into full embodiment on the physical plane, making the Tent of Meeting the archetypal model for uniting our lives with the Shechinah. Today we are charged with redeeming the light of the Eternal within and without, knowing that divinity is everywhere. Our challenge is to recognize this constant Presence in our lives without it becoming so ordinary that we take it for granted. It will be worthwhile to discuss as a community how JCM can grow as a place more conducive for encountering and being present with the Divine. Please email me with your ideas and interest to be part of this conversation: rabbi@mauijews.org 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Month of Adar II.

Honoring Jewish Women in the Partisans during Women's History Month

"The future historian will have to dedicate an appropriate page to Jewish women in the war. She will take up an important page in history for her courage and her steadfastness. By her merit, thousands of families have managed to surmount the terror of the times." - Emanuel Ringelblum, (Jewish historian - 1900-1944, notes from inside the Warsaw Ghetto)

Today marks the beginning of the 42nd Annual Women's History Month celebrating women who changed the world. The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation website offers an extensive library of easily accessible resources and lesson plans to help you teach students about female Jewish partisans who helped change the course of history. Empower them through the lives of Sara FortisBrenda Senders (z''l), and Cesia Blaichman (z''l) (pictured above), and the many other women who fought back against the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. 

These JPEF resources offer in-depth insights into the lives of Jewish women who resisted as soldiers, spies, saboteurs, medics, and vital support personnel, helping to save people and end the war:

  • Women in the Partisans Resource Page: Includes free curricula, links to profiles with biographies, primary-source video testimonials, and photos, plus a printable poster and other resources.
  • Short FilmsEvery Day the Impossible: Jewish Women in the Partisans (15:00) and A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters (21:00) – both narrated by Emmy-winner, Tovah Feldshuh.
  • Free Curriculum: Women in the Partisans Study Guide
  • Video Course: A 41-minute training that can be used for lesson preparation (offering free CEUs), or shown to students in the classroom.

For more information, read JPEF's blog about female Jewish partisans. There are now 34 extensive biographies of female Jewish partisans on JPEF's Jewish Partisan Community website, and thirteen that include video testimony at www.jewishpartisans.org.

Restoring Unity and Shared Purpose - Vayakhel by Rabbi Raanan Mallek

Exodus 35:1-2
Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble...

The Israelite community was struggling with a sense of failure after the incident of the Golden Calf which introduced divisiveness and disillusionment. I would hope that the community of nations is also feeling a sense of failure as they watch Russia invade Ukraine. How can it be that in the 21st century humanity is still resorting to state sponsored violence after the horrors that the 20th century left behind?

After the incident of the Golden Calf, the community sought to restore a sense of unity and shared purpose which had existed before this incident. Jewish tradition teaches that although the majority of the Jewish people worshiped the Golden Calf, the instigators of this incident were not the Jews themselves, but the “mixed multitude” which accompanied them out of Egypt. The stigma of those who convert to Judaism for the wrong reasons are attached to this mixed multitude. 

The human tendency to blame the Other is one deeply ingrained. Social scientists sometimes claim that this was a useful evolutionary trait as separating out those who do not adhere to the majority creates the sought out sense of cohesiveness and shared purpose. And yet, we as the Jewish people, know all too well the dangers of being used as a scapegoat for the woes of other nations; whether they be the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans or Germans. 

The Talmud in Yoma 9b tells the story of why the first and second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. The First Temple was destroyed because of idol worship, forbidden relations and bloodshed. However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of commandments, and acts of kindness, while refraining from the sins of the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was baseless hatred, which is equivalent to the three severe transgressions. 

Generalizing and blaming the other for our problems is a direct extension of baseless hatred. To counter this we need baseless love, or loving even when you may not have a reason to do so. If we want to see the manifestation of Isaiah’s prophetic words that one day all peoples will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks so that nation shall not lift the sword against nation and neither shall they learn war any more,” we have much work to do. Instead of children being taught the ways of war, they must be taught the ways of the garden. Different people coming together to tend the land is a tool within our grasp to build unity and shared purpose. Join us here at JCM to help tend our new garden. And on Sundays during Kulanu, the kids will lend a hand.

Imagine that instead of violently battling one another, nations would plant gardens together and work out their differences while growing a shared outcome. The environment would be conducive to constructively figuring out their conflicts and we will be able to overcome irrational fears as dialogue flourishes.  

May we see a peaceful consciousness overcome the fears from our past. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Ki Tissa 18th of Adar I, 5782 - 2/18/2022

  What a Parsha! We begin with laws that continue to detail the building of the holy Tabernacle and the ways to worship within. Bezalel and his assistant Oholiab are singled out to lead the design and building of the Tabernacle. Bezalel will be endowed with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft. The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 40:2) tells of Moses' assumption that he would have to build the items of the tabernacle himself. The Eternal explains that he can delegate to other Israelites and that they too will be able to fashion artifacts of holiness capable of bringing people close to the Divine.  

  Just when Moses may be able to relax, knowing that tasks have been delegated to others, the incident of the golden calf transpires. Imagine the scene: Moses is so happy that the two tablets inscribed with the finger of the Creator have been given to him. He is assured that the Israelites will be filled with an all encompassing consciousness to assist him on the rest of the journey to the promised land. He loses himself in the sublime joy of the seeming success of his mission. And then disaster. The slave mentality takes hold of the Israelites when Moses does not appear exactly when he is supposed to. Their impatience translates into idolatry. They can not comprehend a deity without a physical form.  

  Moses is brought out of his exalted position on the mountaintop and is told by the Eternal to, "hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have acted in a corrupt way." It is interesting to note that even the Creator struggles with blaming others. No longer are the Israelites the Lord’s people who were brought out from the Land of Egypt by His hand. Instead it is Moses who did this and must take responsibility for them as his people.

  And Moses answers the call in an exemplary way. After practically dealing with the situation at hand, Moses intercedes on behalf of the people and does not let the Almighty destroy them. Although Moses has been let down as a leader, he focuses on the failure of the behavior and not the failure of the people as a whole. The Midrash relates a beautiful reflection on behalf of the Creator: “Whenever I win an argument with My children, as at the time of the Flood or of Sodom and Gemorrah, I lose (in other words the Lord ends up destroying culpable human beings). Whenever I lose an argument, I win (as here, when Moses persuades the Lord not to destroy Israel.)”

  How many times do we lose when we win an argument? How many times does it fracture a relationship with a friend or family member, even if we are ‘right’? When is it helpful to lose an argument for the greater win?

  I think that the Eternal realizes that the nation of Israel is not ready to uphold a divinely ordained Torah in the Land of Israel. They need to become part of the Torah that they receive. In the words of the Hatam Sofer, we can not see the Eternal directly. We can only see the difference that the Eternal has made after the fact. We can recognize the Eternal’s reality by seeing the difference made in our lives. The first set of tablets was fashioned by the Divine alone. Moses passively received them. The second set will be a joint divine-human effort. This second set was written with a greater knowledge of human weakness, at the hand of an imperfect human being, rather than by a perfect deity. It is truly a Torah for human beings.  

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi advised: Be careful to continue to respect an elder who has forgotten his Torah knowledge due to circumstances beyond his control. Even though he is no longer a Torah scholar, he must still be respected for the Torah that he once possessed. As we say: Both the tablets of the Covenant and the broken tablets are placed in the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple. Even though the first tablets were broken, their sanctity obligates one not to treat them with contempt. An elder who forgot the Torah knowledge he once possessed is likened to these broken tablets (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 8b).

  The Talmud explains here that the fragments of the first set of tablets that Moses broke were carried in the Ark of the Covenant along with the replacement set. That which was once holy retains its holiness even when it is broken. So too the elderly, the senile, and the infirm may not be cast aside. They must be accorded the reverence they have earned in their lives (Etz Hayim p. 540).

  The Japanese have a form of art called kintsukuroi or “to repair with gold”. It is the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. Perhaps the second set of tablets were kintsukuroi. They were repaired with the humanity of the Jewish people so that the Torah could manifest as a vessel that would carry us for thousands of years.

Tetzaveh 2/11/2022

Exodus 28:15, 29

You shall make a Hoshen of Judgment, the work of a master weaver. You shall make it like the work of the ephod; of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, and twisted fine linen shall you make it. Thus shall Aaron carry the names of the sons of Israel in the Hoshen of Judgment over his heart when he enters the Holy, as a remembrance before the Lord at all times.

In the midst of all the rituals that have to be done for the Tabernacle, it is particularly interesting to pay attention to the miraculous shining stones that the High Priest used to wear to divine the will of the Eternal.

Why did the High Priest wear such a vestment? Rashi (1040-1105CE) says that Aaron, the first High Priest, had a good heart. When Moses returned to Egypt after the Eternal chose him to be the leader of the nation, Aaron was not jealous of Moses and was happy for his brother - in his heart. The Eternal therefore wanted to reward Aaron and gave him the vestment to wear.

Each one of the precious stones had the name of one of the tribes carved into it. The stones and their corresponding tribes are as follows: Carbuncle - Levi, Prase - Simeon, Ruby - Reuben, Pearl - Zebulun, Sapphire - Issachar, Emerald - Judah, Crystal - Gad, Turquoise - Naphtali, Leshem - Dan, Jasper - Benjamin, Onyx - Joseph and Chrysolite - Asher.

Another Jewish commentator, Sforno (1475-1550CE) explains that by having each one of the tribes on the heart of the High Priest, the High Priest would remember to pray for the whole of the nation of Israel.

Ethics of the Fathers 1:12 quotes Hillel who says, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.” We need to learn from Aaron to love others and to love peace. We must strive with all our being so that peace can manifest between peoples. May we merit as a community to see such peace manifest around us.

Sun, February 5 2023 14 Shevat 5783