Friday, July 24, 2015

Power, Powerlessness, and Justice: Complicated Lessons from Parashat Dvarim

       "There shall be one Torah for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you." (Exodus 12:49)  At the center of the Torah's conception of justice is that there is one law for all individuals within the physical borders of Israel and among the Jewish people.  In order to create a just and orderly society, you need to have one legal system applied equally to all individuals.  On the face of it, this demand, and the values that support it, seem simple and fair.  We cannot make up laws on the spot depending on context or convenience, nor should be tip the scales of justice in favor of the rich, strong, or influential.
         However, the Torah does not just warn us against favoring the strong against the weak, but also against favoring the weak against the strong.  And when Rashi delves deeper into the Torah's warning, he forces us to see how justice can be perverted even with the best of intentions.  In Deuteronomy 1:17, we are instructed:

17You shall not favor persons in judgment; [rather] you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man, for the judgment is upon the Lord, and the case that is too difficult for you, bring to me, and I will hear it."

What does it mean to hear the "small just as the great?"   According to Rashi, there can be many meanings:
יזלֹא תַכִּירוּ פָנִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כַּקָּטֹן כַּגָּדֹל תִּשְׁמָעוּן לֹא תָגוּרוּ מִפְּנֵי אִישׁ כִּי הַמִּשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹהִים הוּא וְהַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִקְשֶׁה מִכֶּם תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו:
You shall hear the small just as the great: A case regarding a perutah [small coin] should be as important to you as [a case] regarding a hundred maneh [a large sum], so that if it [the former] is presented before you first, do not postpone it for last (San. 8a). Another explanation of “You shall hear the words of the small as you do those of the great,” as per the Targum [The words of the small you shall hear like the words of the great]: You shall not say: “This is a poor man, and his friend [opponent] is rich, and it is a mitzvah to support him [the poor man]. I will favor the poor man, and he will thus be supported respectably.” Another explanation: You shall not say,“How can I affront the honor of this rich man because of one dinar ? I will favor him now and when he goes outside [leaves the court] I will tell him, 'Give it to him [to the poor man], for you really owe it to him!’” (Sifrei)כקטן כגדול תשמעון: שיהא חביב עליך דין של פרוטה כדין של מאה מנה, שאם קדם ובא לפניך לא תסלקנו לאחרון. דבר אחר כקטן כגדול תשמעון, כתרגומו, שלא תאמר, זה עני הוא וחבירו עשיר ומצוה לפרנסו אזכה את העני ונמצא מתפרנס בנקיות. דבר אחר שלא תאמר היאך אני פוגם כבודו של עשיר זה בשביל דינר, אזכנו עכשיו, וכשיצא לחוץ אומר אני לו, תן לו שאתה חייב לו:

One reading of this verse teaches us that we should view all transgressions
 with equal weight, whether the amount of money is small or large.  From a Torah perspective, we should not let small transgressions slide and only take large ones seriously.  When trying to create a holy society worthy of God's presence, every mitzvah (commandment) and every averah (sin) need to be taken seriously.  Many small averot can culminate into a profoundly crooked society.
     However, beyond the issue of small crimes verses large crimes lay the issue of linking judgment to actual or perceived power, wealth, and status.  This singular ethical standard is quite controversial, especially in contemporary academic circles.  And to a certain extent this makes sense.  Should someone poor receive the same fine as a rich person if the fine affects them in deeply unequal ways?  If one nation has a strong and wealthy army, shouldn't they be held to a higher ethical standard than a nation without an army that uses terrorism as a form of resistance?  
     These challenges to the Torah's standard are not new, and many of them were addressed by the rabbis in Talmud, specifically in the tractates that deal with financial damages and criminal codes.  Jewish law becomes far more nuanced and sophisticated over time, in large part because the blunt tools provided by Scripture often failed to address the complex contours of real life.   
     At the same time, however, the Torah also teaches us an important lesson about justice, and highlights some of the problems with distributing justice based on perceived power, status, or wealth.  For one thing, our perceptions can often be flawed.  Power is complicated, rarely stable, and can express itself in unexpected ways.  If one people has the power to kill 20 people by blowing up a bus, and another people has power to drop a missile that kills 20 people on a beach, who is more powerful?  What if someone used to be rich and lost all of their money, but the judges on the court don't know his current financial status, and judge him according to his former wealth?  What if someone is wealthy, but friendless and held in contempt by most of her community?  What if someone is a police officer and respected in the community, but barely makes enough to sustain their family?  Who is powerful and who is powerless?
      Beyond the problem of evaluating the power of another individual or group of people, if we link perceived or actual power to judgment, our deliberation centers on evaluating privilege and not on the nature of the crime or its victims.  This type of deliberation not only moves the focus away from crime and punishment, but it also poisons discourse.  In circles where being oppressed has cache and power, parties compete for the position of greatest victim.  Neither party is encouraged to own up to their power and assume responsibility for their sins.  Neither party is encouraged to empower themselves.  Rather, we create a society of ressentiment,  justifying powerlessness and glorifying the licking of wounds instead of accountability, self-determination, and a mutual submission to the common good.  One does not need to look particularly far to see how this trend has polluted contemporary political discourse in our country (from both the political right and left), and made a mockery out of current political culture on college campuses. 
     The Torah cannot always provide the final or perfect ethical or legal standard for a just society.  If it could, there would be no need for a Mishnah, Talmud, Midrashim, or later legal codes and Responsa.  Over the generations, our scholars have had to challenge and refine the wisdom posited by the Torah in order to make it relevant and more fair.  At the same time, there are deep lessons to be learned from this foundational text, even if they are difficult to hear and accept.  Even though maintaining a single legal standard may be difficult and unpalatable at times, I believe it still be the best of all the available options. We've seen the alternative, and it seems to lead to a world that is no more just or holy as a result.  Sometimes, the older wisdom still holds the key to the most timeless and valuable truths.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 17, 2015

On Solidarity, Selfishness, and Respecting the Journey: Parashat Matot Massei

       Moses' life was one of constant pain and frustration.  He expected that in return for the blessings that the the Israelites received, they would submit to the will of God and actualize the lessons of Torah.  For most of his life, he was deeply disappointed.  In this week's portion, parashat Matot-Massei, Moses is yet again disappointed in the Jewish people acting in a way inconsistent with the lessons of their history and Torah.  In particular, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask for portions of the Land of Israel separate from the rest of the Israelites, and seem to be more concerned with locating quality pasture land for their livestock than with building cities for their children or standing in solidarity with the rest of the nation.  Both Moses and God were furious that they could be so selfish and materialistic.  Moses' anger isn't quelled until they promise that they will not take these lands until they have fought and made sure that every Israelite can inherit their portion.
          Obviously, it would have been better if those two tribes made evident their solidarity with the rest of the nation before making their request.  At the same time, it was clear that they learned from their leaders' anger.  In order to live in a way that truly shows an appreciation for the blessings and teachings they have received, they must make sure that everyone has their portion before taking possession of their own.  Someone who lives in a way consonant with Jewish values does not take for herself before making sure there is enough for everyone in her community, and that all have access to take what is theirs.  A Jew who exhibits understanding of Torah is not a hazer (a pig), taking the best for himself without regard for the needs of others.  A Jew who is committed to a Torah lifestyle does not put the "I" before the "we."  If there are two core Jewish texts that have inspired me in my work as a rabbi, they are, "You shall not separate yourself from the community," and "Each Jew is responsible for one another."  These two statements -- one from Hillel the Elder and the other from the Gemara -- affirm that communal responsibility is at the core of Jewish life, not individual fulfillment.  When we put God and community at the center of our decisions, we show respect for Torah, its Author, and those who received this holy text with us.
         That said, we are not always perfect.  Some of us (I am often guilty of this) are the first ones on the kiddush line, filling our plates without regard for how many other folks are in the room or how much is available. And we would often rather forget our past sins, where we were when we committed them, and the folks who rebuked us effectively so that we could become better versions of ourselves.  In the same way, the Israelites would have preferred to forget their years of forced wandering, the trials they faced, and all of the impediments that stood in between them and the Promised Land.  Rashi writes that the Torah reminds them of their wanderings in the Book of Numbers, not in order to shame them, but in order to encourage and comfort them.  Drawing upon the Midrash, he explains, "... R. Tanchuma expounds it in another way. It is analogous to a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all the stages of their journey, saying to him, “This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache etc.” - [Mid. Tanchuma Massei 3, Num. Rabbah 23:3]   God and Torah remind us of our journeys, even our most difficult ones, not in order to dredge up painful memories, but in order to remind us how far we've come, and how we've been cleansed and improved by the hardships we have faced.
          We are all on journeys to be better people, and to improve as a Jewish nation.  Let us remember our responsibility to put the community first, even when better pastures lay elsewhere, and even when we'd prefer to run away from the difficulties and messiness of living in community.  And let us also not bury our most painful memories (personal or communal.)  Without our trials and mistakes, we never learn nor do we grow.  Rather, let us ritualize the telling, and recall the pain with pride as proof of how much we've grown and how far we have come.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Interfaith Progressive Dinner: May 17, 2015

Please check out this incredible event.  I'm so pleased that Beth Israel Congregation will be participating this year.  Please contact Rabbi Isaacs if you can bake or help serve, set up, or clean up.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Educator and Artist-in-Residence in Waterville: Shirel Horovitz

Shirel Horovitz: Educator. Artist. Activist.
From Tel Aviv to Waterville, Maine

All are welcome!


- Monday, April 6th at 6:30 pm
Thai and Torah: Slavery and Liberation
(Hillel Room at Colby College - for Colby students only)

- Friday, April 10th at 4-5:30 pm. 
Shirel’s Welcome Reception
(Pugh Center) at Colby College

- Monday, April 13th at 7:00 pm
“Understanding Israel through Graffiti” 
(Diamond 141) at Colby College

- Thursday, April 16th at 7:00 pm. 
“Brokenness and Wholeness in the Jewish Tradition: A Workshop in Tikkun.”  
(Colby College Museum of Art)

- Monday, April 20 at 6:30 pm  
"Torah on Tap: The Spiritual Works of Rav Kook - The Father of Religious Zionism."
(Mainely Brews)

- Wednesday, April 22 at 12:00 pm 

“Religious Zionism: A Primer.” 

(Lovejoy 318) at Colby College

- Thursday, April 30 at 7:00 pm.    “Art and Activism: Discussion and Workshop.”   (Pugh Center) at Colby College

- Sunday, May 10 at 11:00 am.  "Bagel Brunch:Storytelling and Tradition " 
(Beth Israel Congregation - Waterville)

- Saturday, May 23 at 6:00 pm 
Waterville Tikkun Leil Shavuot 

(Beth Israel Congregation - Waterville)

**June 12-14, 2015 
Multiple Sessions at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life! Register here.**

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Silence is Complicity: A Lesson from the Talmud for Maine and Israel

      This past week, I was invited by the Maine NAACP's Rachel Talbot-Ross and Democratic Leader, Justin Alfond (who became bar mitzvah at Beth Israel Congregation) to speak out against racist comments posted on the facebook wall of a Maine State Senator.  There were many who claimed that an apology issued by this individual was sufficient, and that the body politic was not required to speak out on the record against his comments. We disagreed.  When asked to speak from a Jewish perspective, there was one quote from the Talmud that stood out to me time and time again, 

"שתיקה כהודאה דמיא" 
(יבמות פז ב, פח א)
Silence is the same as agreement

When we do not call out sin and publicly condemn it, it is as though we have committed the sin ourselves.  From an ethical and legal perspective, when we do not publicly distance ourselves from what is wrong, we are implicitly agreeing with it.
           The Jewish community has a long tradition of standing up against racism and intolerance.  The picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching at Selma is historic, and exemplifies an era of active Jewish involvement in the civil rights era.  That legacy continues until today with Jewish organizations and leaders who combat hate speech and activity directed toward a wide array of minority groups.  However, many of our representative organizations fall silent when it comes to racist speech in the world's only Jewish State, led by a Prime Minister who claims to represent all of world Jewry.  I claim that when we do not speak out against racism everywhere, especially in our homeland, we lose all moral credibility to speak out against bigotry anywhere.
            On the day of the Israeli election, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, released a video on his facebook page that implied that Arab citizens of Israel voting was a threat to the Jewish state.  Much of the world was outraged, and Arab citizens of Israel certainly took note.  The most heartbreaking response came from Lucy Aharish, a famous Israeli newscaster, Muslim citizen of Israel, and the woman chosen to light the torch on Israeli Independence Day at Har Herzl, Israel's national military cemetery. 

You can view the video here:

The most important thing she said was, "The next time that there is a murder of an Arab citizen, it will be as though [the murderer] was given a certification of kashrut from the Prime Minister that it is ok to hate Arabs."

When it comes to evaluating whether or not Netanyahu's words were racist, it is her opinion that carries the most weight with me.  I also take heart from Israel's incredible President, Ruby Rivlin from the Likud party, that was quite clear in his denunciation of the Prime Minister's statements:

"In [Rivlin's] meeting with representatives of the Joint List, he said, 'Everyone must be careful with their remarks, particularly those who are heard around the world...We experienced a turbulent, impassioned campaign,' said Rivlin. 'We heard Jews say harsh things about the Arab public. We cannot ignore equally harsh remarks from the Arab side. There is no room for such comments. We share one reality in the state in which we all live, and citizens cannot discriminate against one another.' Rivlin went on to say, 'Israel is defined as a Jewish state, and we cannot forget that it is democratic at the same time. I call on Jews and my Arab brothers to avoid incitement. It's clear that remarks from a head of state are heard differently and more clearly than someone else."

The President of Israel understands his responsibility as a representative of the entire State of Israel, and all of its citizens, Arab and Jewish, right-wing and left-wing.  He not only defends the values of Israel's Declaration of Independence, but also of Revisionist Zionism's founding father, Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinksy (the ideological father of Likud), who wrote this about his vision for the Jewish State:

"In every Cabinet where the Prime Minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab, and vice-versa. Proportional sharing by Jews and Arabs both in the charges and in the benefits of the State shall be the rule with regard to Parliamentary elections, civil and military service, and budgetary grants… Both Hebrew and Arabic shall be used with equal legal effect in Parliament, in the schools, and in general before any office or organ of the State… The Jewish and the Arab ethno-communities shall be recognized as autonomous public bodies of equal status before the law… 

After all, it is from Jewish sources that the world has learned how ‘the stranger within thy gates’ should be treated.” (The Jewish War Front 1940)

             Not all of the racism of this election came from the Israeli right, though it received more attention because it came from a sitting Prime Minister.  Likud is a party supported largely by Mizrahi Jews and there were some in the left-wing that expressed their outrage with the party in racially charged, repulsive terms.  The derision of religious Jews and Jews of color by many in Israel's left-wing is a moral outrage and has hobbled it politically for decades.  Progressives in Israel cannot be surprised that they have failed to win the hearts and minds of those whom they hold in contempt. 
             There are those who believe that a Jew in the Diaspora has no right to comment on anything inside Israel.  When the Prime Minister of Israel asserts that he represents all Jews, we are both allowed to speak out and duty-bound to do so.  Personally, as someone who consistently stands up for Israel in the public sphere, invests in Israel, and loves Israel deeply, I feel an even greater responsibility to acknowledge and condemn the racism that mars the soul of the Jewish State and its public image.  I do so by publicly standing in agreement with Israel's President and its founding fathers -- both right and left wing.  I will not be silent, I will not stand idly by, and I will not give the appearance of agreement.  I am proud that my professional union, The Rabbinical Assembly, has done the same.  I hope that more of the Jewish world will follow suit.

Shavua Tov.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Passover in Waterville: April 3 and 4, 2015

Passover is just a couple of weeks away!  We need your help and participation to make it a success. Here is all the information you need to know.  There will be two community seders in Waterville.

Friday, April 3, 2015.  
Colby College Seder in the Alumni Center at Colby College
 6-7:30 pm 

Free for Colby students and staff.  Community members should pay $18.  Please make checks out to Colby College. RSVP to

Saturday, April 4, 2015.  Beth Israel Congregation Seder (Kelsey Street Entrance.) 6:30-8:00 pm. 

Cost is $25.  Please make checks out to Beth Israel Congregation.  

DO NOT BRING MONEY TO THE SYNAGOGUE in honor of Shabbat and Chag -- please mail them in advance.  Colby students are invited to join.  RSVP to

The community needs help preparing for Passover -- both in terms of kashering the synagogue and preparing the seder meal.  Please fill out this form in order to help us make this event a success and keep Mel sane!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Changing Communities: Wisdom from Parashat Va-yak'hel-Pikudei

             "Well why didn't you tell me sooner?!"  Anyone involved in community leadership has probably encountered these words before.  I have heard these words and uttered them myself on several occasions.  You are trying to create a movement or an initiative, and the individuals you are trying to recruit are offended that they weren't invited to participate in the envisioning of the project.   One of the first lessons you learn in leadership is that the process is just as important as the product.  This idea is conveyed in an important way in this week's Torah portion, Va-Yak'hel.
            The first verse of the portion is:

1Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: "These are the things that the Lord commanded to make.אוַיַּקְהֵל משֶׁה אֶת כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהֹוָה לַעֲשׂת אֹתָם:

According to Nahmanides, Moses made a point to invite the entire community: women, men, and children.  Anyone involved in the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle, needed to be there to hear instruction and received guidance.  The B'khor Shor takes this idea a step further.  Why does everyone need to be called together from the moment that Moses descends from Mount Sinai? "So that no one would be able to complain, 'We did not have a chance to contribute, because we were not told until those who knew had already contributed everything necessary.'"
                This is an incredibly salient point that is applicable to modern life.  If you don't bring in all necessary partners at the beginning of a project, not only do you risk leaving out an important voice, you also alienate critical investors in your project.  In the process of changing communities and societies, all potential partners need to be included in the envisioning process.  Then, even if people choose to opt our or not contribute as you had hoped, they were provided the opportunity.  When individuals feel dignified and included from the beginning of an endeavor, only then can you hope to create change effectively within a community or cultivate a community that can have a broader impact.
                There are two other important details in this portion about leadership.  The term va-yak'hel is a hifil verb in Hebrew.  It is a verb that is causative, but not coercive.  Rashi picks up on this fine point and derives some important wisdom from it:

Moses called… to assemble: Heb. וַיַּקְהֵל. [He assembled them]. This [word] is a hiph’il [causative] expression [i.e., causing someone to do something], because one does not assemble people with [one’s] hands [i.e., directly], but they are assembled through one’s speech.ויקהל משה: ... והוא לשון הפעיל, שאינו אוסף אנשים בידים, אלא הן נאספים על פי דבורו...

In order to bring people together for a critical discussion that requires heartfelt participation, folks cannot be coerced.  Moses did not assemble the people Israel with a staff or a forceful hand, but rather with the call and timbre of his voice.  Rashi emphasizes the importance of speech in community building: its power, its importance, and its limitations.  When you want to create and maintain a covenanted community, participants need to be invited and attracted by your message, not compelled by force or guilt.
           Lastly, I have always been moved by the fact that when Moses descends from the mountain after receiving revelation, he is wearing a veil.  His face shines so brightly after receiving the Truth of Torah that it is blinding to other human eyes.  Moses cannot let his light outshine or overpower those he is tasked with leading.  Sometimes leaders need to pull parts of themselves back, not out of shame or lack of confidence, but just to make room for others to speak, contribute, and shine.  Bringing the entirety of your truth to every encounter may allow you to act with authenticity, but it can also limit the contributions of others.  As leaders, we need to provide illumination to those who follow us, but its brightness should attract and not repel, inspire and not shut down.  

May we find inspiration from the leadership skills that Moses exhibits in this week's portion: including all partners from the beginning of a project, attracting them with the quality and attractiveness of our message, and holding back just enough to allow others to grow and shine.  

Shabbat Shalom!!