Friday, July 25, 2014

Cities of Refuge and Sources for Hope: Parashat Massei

Parashat Masei Sermon
Delivered at Rockland Synagogue
July 25, 2014/ 27 Tammuz 5774

I don’t know about all of you, but the past two weeks have been challenging my faith -- faith in humanity, faith in justice, faith in sanity, faith in the future of our homeland, faith in a safe and fulfilling future for our next generation of Jews.  Most of you, I am sure, have been keeping up with the news coming out of Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the ripple effects for Diaspora Jewry around the world -- it’s Shabbat, so I won’t rehash events that define the world that lay outside of our Shabbat bubble. But I came here to talk to you about faith and doubt, and this week’s portion struck a very resonant chord with me on that topic, in particular, faith in the ability to heal and rebuild after death and tragedy.

Our portion begins with a retelling of the journeys of the Israelites in the desert.  After years of wandering in wilderness, Moses rightly sees the value in recalling how far the Israelites have come in their serpentine journey.  Though it was not clear at the outset, this wandering had a purpose, and each stop had its value worth remembering on the border of the promised land.  

Interestingly enough, before the people Israel enters the Land of Israel, they need to do some prep work -- they need to set up “arei miklat,” cities of refuge.  Setting up cities of refuge before establishing a commonwealth reminds me of the midrash that God created teshuva before the Divine Presence created the world.  Without the ability to repent, return, and forgive, the enterprise of human life cannot exist. Without cities of refuge, you cannot create a just and functional society.

In this week’s portion, parashat Massei, we learn about how these cities function in Numbers chapter 35:

9. The Lord spoke to Moses saying:
ט. וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:
10. Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan,
י. דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:
11. you shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer who killed a person unintentionally shall flee there.
יא. וְהִקְרִיתֶם לָכֶם עָרִים עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם וְנָס שָׁמָּה רֹצֵחַ מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה:
12. These cities shall serve you as a refuge from an avenger, so that the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation.
יב. וְהָיוּ לָכֶם הֶעָרִים לְמִקְלָט מִגֹּאֵל וְלֹא יָמוּת הָרֹצֵחַ עַד עָמְדוֹ לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לַמִּשְׁפָּט:
13. The cities that you provide shall serve as six cities of refuge for you.
יג. וְהֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר תִּתֵּנוּ שֵׁשׁ עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם:
14. You shall provide the three cities in trans Jordan and the three cities in the land of Canaan; they shall be cities of refuge.
יד. אֵת | שְׁלשׁ הֶעָרִים תִּתְּנוּ מֵעֵבֶר לַיַּרְדֵּן וְאֵת שְׁלשׁ הֶעָרִים תִּתְּנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה:
15. These six cities shall be a refuge for the children of Israel and for the proselyte and resident among them, so that anyone who unintentionally kills a person can flee there.
טו. לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלַגֵּר וְלַתּוֹשָׁב בְּתוֹכָם תִּהְיֶינָה שֵׁשׁ הֶעָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לְמִקְלָט לָנוּס שָׁמָּה כָּל מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה:

God understands, and Moses communicates to the people Israel, that human beings will kill each other.  Living in Canaan doesn’t make sin go away.  Some will kill others intentionally, and others with kill their fellow human beings by mistake.  This is part of the project we call human life. Sometimes we kill others out of anger, out of fear, or sometimes we really don’t intend another harm, but in the exercise of power, others fall victim.  We learn in the Torah that God does not believe that those individuals deserve to die, and require protection from the blood avenger (the closest of kin charged with killing the murderer of their family member.)  We also learn, that life cannot go on as normal after one person has killed another.  There needs to be distance between the perpetrator the the relatives of the victim, and life must be changed radically after such a dramatic act.  Thus, the perpetrator must flee to the city of refuge for protection, alone, and build a new life in one of these six cities.

The cities of refuge both acknowledge a wrong while protecting a person who does not deserve to be killed.  It acknowledges an ethical gray area, and attempts to create space for someone who falls into that area that cannot be confined to black and white categories of good and evil.  It allows the families of the victims some sense of justice while putting a stop to the process of revenge.  I think that cities of refuge provide something different than forgiveness, but I think the two ideas are linked because they both provide us the ability to start anew after someone devastates us unintentionally:

The philosopher Hannah Arendt talks about the necessary relationship between human action and the process of forgiveness:  Human action, she writes, is defined by two features: (a) it cannot be reversed, and (b) its effects cannot be predicted. Even the deed committed with the best possible intentions cannot be undone, and its consequences cannot be fully anticipated. Therefore, undoubtedly, our actions cause anguish for the people in our lives. If one is fully aware  of the capacity she possesses to hurt others, it is easy to see how she could live a life paralyzed by fear. She must wonder how she can possibly continue to live an active, meaningful, authentic life. But, according to Arendt, there is hope – there are two essential pathways that allow us to live fulfilling, positive, influential lives: forgiveness and the ability to make promises.

The multiple and unpredictable consequences of our actions can lead to an endless chain of response and revenge. When someone hurts us, we can react in kind, and let the situation get out of control. The situation can become something like a game of pinball – every time the ball is struck, it picks up speed, power, and its course becomes increasingly unruly. When someone does us wrong, we have the choice to strike back, or to stop the process when we have the most control over it. Arendt posits that “Forgiveness is thus the opposite of vengeance.” Vengeance extends the consequences of transgression by automatically reacting to it, in a sometimes unending sequence of actions and reactions that bind all involved after the initial offense.”

Therefore, in order to act in any way, we need to live in a world where forgiveness is possible. As Roxanne Euben, professor of political science at Wellesley College puts it, “Forgiveness is that release that human beings grant one another from the transgressions they have committed against one another unknowingly, but without ever succumbing to the temptation to forget.” Arendt explains that forgiveness, “contains within it the genuine possibility of freeing both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven, and thus beginning anew.”

One may believe that I am speaking in a not-so-veiled way about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I am, but only in a very limited way.  I don’t believe that cities of refuge are the answer, because at this point, too many people would need to be in one.  And I don’t really believe that we can all just forgive each other and live in peace.  I believe that anyone who asserts that this conflict is simple and has an easy, straightforward solution is really not someone worth having a conversation with.  But there needs to be some kind of hope in the ability for something else.   A method for accepting that we hurt each other with varying levels of intention -- that something happened, but we’re willing to begin something new.  I don’t know how to get there, and I know its not easy, it may not even be possible.  But part of the process of living a life of faith is believing in the validity of that which we do not see or have never seen before.  We do not sing, “those who sow in tears will reap in joy,” because that is how the world works, but because we entreat God to make it so.  Faith is the way to live through the agony of being hurt and hurting others, and believing that there can be something other than pain.

Ken Yehi Ratzon
May it be God’s will

Monday, May 26, 2014

Colby Invocation 2014

It is always a great honor and joy to offer the invocation at Colby commencement.  Here are my Bob Dylan inspired remarks:


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Get Ready for the Maine Conference for Jewish Life! June 3-5, 2014

Shavuot is quickly approaching!  While we don't have rooms available on campus anymore, we do still have spaces for participants.  We need to have accurate numbers for food services, and we want to keep track of how many folks are interested in our program!

Check out the full schedule here.

You can register here.

CANNOT WAIT TO SEE YOU THERE!  Over 30 faculty teaching for over 48 hours!  

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Sin of Happenstance: Parashat Bechukotai

One of the most important lessons I learned in rabbinical school was from my Bible professor, Dr. David Sperling.  He always told us that the ancient Israelites preferred to believe in an angry God instead of an arbitrary God.  Consequences that are arbitrary, happenstance, and without reason are far more frightening and disturbing than those for which there is cause.  The Israelites preferred to create  narratives where there was almost always a causal relationship between sin and calamity, even if it meant blaming themselves for whatever negative result befell them.  This trend in Jewish historiography has had positive and negative implications for the Jewish people.  On the positive end, we are a people willing to look inward critically in order to improve.  On the other end, sometimes we cannot properly identify outside evil and danger because of our inward focus.

Despite the complexities of looking at our national history through this lens, we can learn a great deal about relationships (their successes and downfalls) when we confront the Jewish aversion to arbitrariness. When we get into fights with a person we love, the worst weapon we can wield is ignoring the person -- treating her as though she is dispensable and meaningless.  Invisibility is worse than disgust.  We confront this fact in the week's Torah portion, parashat Bechukotai.  God lets the Israelites know the worst sin they can commit against the Divine:

23And if, through these, you will still not be chastised [to return] to Me, and if you [continue to] treat Me happenstance,כג. וְאִם בְּאֵלֶּה לֹא תִוָּסְרוּ לִי וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי קֶרִי:

24Then I too, will treat you as happenstance. I will again add seven punishments for your sins:

כד. וְהָלַכְתִּי אַף אֲנִי עִמָּכֶם בְּקֶרִי וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶתְכֶם גַּם אָנִי שֶׁבַע עַל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם:

In Hebrew, God uses the phrase, " וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי קֶרִי:" the direct translations of which is, "If you walk with me by chance."  If an Israelite believes that they just happened to be redeemed from slavery, if they believe they just happened to receive the gift of Torah, if they believe that their safety and ultimate redemption were accidents of history, they have committed the gravest of sins.  Like a child who doesn't recognize that their achievements are directly linked to the toil and sacrifice of their parents, we can all fall into the trap of seeing the world only in terms of our own achievements, and be willfully blind to the gifts bestowed by others.  

As Jews, a people who believe in a God that we cannot see, touch, or feel, it is often easy to ignore God's gifts.  It is too easy to ignore the life force that connects us to one another.  It is too easy to lose our sense of wonder.  It is too easy to believe that the bounty we enjoy just happened to come into existence.  But we learn in this week's portion, there is nothing more painful to God than to be ignored, to be left in silence -- The Source of Life seeks our recognition, our blessings, our conversation, our awe, and ultimately, our gratitude.

Judaism is a religion without a dogma, and as such it is hard to imagine what a person could say in order to be considered an apostate.  However, we learn there is one sentence that can be uttered that places you outside the boundaries of the faith, "There is no judge and there is no judgement."   Apostasy in Judaism is a form of nihilism -- it is the belief that everything is happenstance and arbitrary, that nothing really matters.

Let us learn from this week's portion to recognize the gifts we enjoy that come from God's grace and the goodness of others.  Let us not fall into laziness of thought or belief, failing to see the relationships between cause and effect.  There are many mysteries in the universe,  but there are also many things we are indeed capable of knowing.  Let us not ignore the sources of our privilege and blessing, take accountability for who we are and what we have, and give earnest thanks.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Jewish Theology Series: Rav Kook on Thursday, May 15th at 6 pm

Final Jewish Theology Class: May 15, 2014
Thai Bistro, downtown Waterville.
6:00 pm

We will explore the thought of Rav Kook, the father of religious Zionism.  How did contemporary Zionism, a movement started and led largely by secular Jews, come to meld with religious Judaism?  How did he envision a Jewish state where religious and secular Jews could live and thrive together?  And how does religious Zionism fit into the larger picture of Torah observant Judaism?   
Come and learn, discuss, and debate with us!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Reflections on Yom Ha'atzmaut

There are times when I commit the ultimate sin:  I lose hope.  I read the Israeli and American media coverage of Israel, and I think -- there is no way that Israel can handle its many challenges, domestic and foreign.  There are times when I am co-opted by the bias against the Jewish State, and I can only see the negative, the hardships, and the ostensible mistakes.

And then I close my eyes, and remember what it is to be there.  I recall the incredible people who shaped my life for the years I lived there -- the thoughtful and innovative students at Ben Gurion University Hillel who were blunt and introspective about their challenges in realizing Israel's potential, the American immigrants in Jerusalem fighting for a more egalitarian society and place for secular culture in Israel's capital city, my teachers at the Hebrew Union College who taught me not only the intricacies of Hebrew grammar, but how to continue teaching when your husband is on the battlefield in Lebanon, the secular Israelis claiming and reinventing Judaism in Tel Aviv...  I remember the late night discussions with Israelis of all political and ethnic backgrounds about the struggle to build a country, defend it, and retain a sense of self in the most ethically challenging wars one could imagine.  I remember one of the most important lessons that I love hearing from Yehudit Ravitz, "the things you can see from here, you can't see from there."

When I am there, I am ebullient and inspired by the evolution and flourishing of Hebrew culture, by the pride and security I feel -- a result of the fact that through Zionism we have taken our fate into our own hands.  As a people, we have have taken on the necessary challenge of shaping and securing our own future in the only land we can call our own.  No act of terror or war can undermine that deep sense of security and profound spiritual comfort that I carry with me -- they run much deeper than a temporary moments of aggression.  I am well aware that Israel is not perfect, but it is extraordinary. I am reminded of that fact each time I discover another story of an incredible Israeli citizen or enterprise making the world a better place despite facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

There are times, when even in America, I encounter the stories of Israel that affirm and feed my faith in the Jewish State.  Below is a story of a soldier younger than most of my students at Colby who tends to injured Syrian refugees on the Israeli border.  She is humble, guided by Jewish values, and courageous.  Honored by President Shimon Peres today on Israel's 66th birthday, she showcases Israel's greatest and only natural resource: it's amazing citizens.  Her story, among so many others, brings me to where I need to be this day: proud to be a Jew, proud to be a Zionist, and deeply thankful that I live in a world where Israel exists and achieves the miraculous every day.

Let us remember the words of president John F. Kennedy on this incredible day, "For Israel was not created in order to disappear - Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom; and no area of the world has ever had an overabundance of democracy and freedom."

May we all rejoice in Israel's past, present, and incredible future today.  Yom Ha'atzmaut Sameach!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ethnocentrism vs. Striving for Holiness: Lessons from Parashat Emor

   Are we better than everyone else?  So often in Jewish contexts, we refer to ourselves as “chosen,” “a light unto the nations,” or “a holy people, set apart.”  But often, as English speakers or as folks not listening carefully enough, we miss important nuances in our Hebrew texts.  We are now in the middle of Leviticus, the book of the Bible that most intensely focuses on holiness.  In last week’s portion,
parashat Kedoshim we are told, “you shall be a holy people.”  In this week’s portion, parashat Emor, we are given on instructions on how the priestly class should attain the holiness needed for their work.  We learn in the following in Leviticus 21:6, and in Rashi’s commentary:

21:6. They [the priests] shall be holy to their God, and they shall not desecrate their God's Name, for they offer up the fire offerings of the Lord, the food offering of their God, so they shall be holy.
ו. קְדשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם כִּי אֶת אִשֵּׁי יְהֹוָה לֶחֶם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הֵם מַקְרִיבִם וְהָיוּ קֹדֶשׁ:
RASHI: They shall be holy: [Since Scripture does not state “They are holy,” but rather “They shall be holy,” it means that if kohanim wish to defile themselves over the dead and thereby desecrate their holiness]-against their will, the court must [prevent them from doing so, and thereby] sanctify them in this respect. — [Mizrachi; Torath Kohanim 21:13]
קדשים יהיו: על כרחם יקדישום בית דין בכך:
Taken from

The Children of Israel and our priestly leaders are not inherently holy -- we are commanded to act in accordance with Law in order to attain holiness and illumine the world.  Holiness, specialness, luminescence are not gifts of birth; they are hard won attributes gained through a life of mitzvot.  We all have the choice to live a life of integrity and purity or to choose a path of defilement and shame.  Our choices not only affect our lives, but the entire moral identity of our people.  It is for that reason that Rashi teaches us that the (non-priestly) rabbinical courts are responsible for guiding the priests toward a life in accordance with the Divine Will and ritual purity.

It is not a coincidence that last week’s Torah portion is paired with a very strongly worded hafatarah from the Book of Amos.  In Amos 9:7-8, God has strong words for a Jewish community that believed it was inherently special and beyond rebuke:

ז  הֲלוֹא כִבְנֵי כֻשִׁיִּים אַתֶּם לִי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, נְאֻם-יְהוָה:  הֲלוֹא אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, הֶעֱלֵיתִי מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וּפְלִשְׁתִּיִּים מִכַּפְתּוֹר, וַאֲרָם מִקִּיר.
7 Are you not like the Ethiopians, O children of Israel? said the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?
ח  הִנֵּה עֵינֵי אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, בַּמַּמְלָכָה הַחַטָּאָה, וְהִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֹתָהּ, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה:  אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא הַשְׁמֵיד אַשְׁמִיד אֶת-בֵּית יַעֲקֹב--נְאֻם-יְהוָה.
8 Behold, the eyes of the Lord GOD are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from off the face of the earth; saving that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, saith the LORD.

Many peoples, God says, I have redeemed from slavery.  They are all my children, and they have all had their exoduses.  If you sin, you shall be punished.  If you correct your ways, you will be taken back in love.  This is the human journey, and in my Divine Court, you do not stand on any pedestal.

As Jews, we are a people drawn together by a common mission to achieve holiness, not a people connected by the foolish belief that we are beyond frailty.  When we fall into the trap of ethnocentrism, we not only sin against our fellow human beings, but we also instantly betray our foundational mission.  We must always remember our responsibility to imitate God’s ways -- and to remind ourselves constantly -- we are not yet there.