Friday, June 24, 2011

Gilad Shalit: We Have not Forgotten You

This weekend marks the five year anniversary of the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. I was in Israel when he was taken, just as I was entering rabbinical school. It is beyond belief that he is still in captivity all of these years later. Hamas, the terrorist organization that runs the Gaza strip and is holding Shalit, has not allowed the Red Cross or the UN to visit him and verify the fact that he is alive and in good health -- rights guaranteed (and then some) for all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. We must fight for his release every day and pray for his well being.

Gilad -- We have not forgotten you. May you return home quickly and in good health to a family that loves you, a country that cares deeply, and a people who are on your side.

Deception as Theft: Parashat Korach

What's wrong with wanting to be holy? Aren't we all commanded in the Book of Leviticus to be a holy nation? These questions are in the forefront of our minds when we read the story of Korach in this week's portion. Korach challenges the exclusive authority of Moses and Aaron and calls for a power-sharing agreement. Is that such a sin?

On one hand, from a Biblical perspective, Korach's actions are sinful because they contradict the explicit will of God. However, with close reading of classical texts, we can identify some of the more nuanced elements of the parasha, and the multifaceted nature of Korach's wrongdoing.

The parasha begins with vague wording, "Korach took," but it is not clear what he took or how he took it. The rabbis, in midrash Numbers Rabbah 18:2, propose a theory of what Korach took and how he acquired it:

ויקח אין ויקח אלא משיכת הדברים רכים שנמשכו כל גדולי ישראל והסנהדראות אחריו

In English, this line has been translated this way (Soncino):

KORAH... TOOK. The expression ‘taking’, clearly denotes ‘drawing along with persuasive words’, all the chiefs of Israel and the Sanhedrin having been drawn after him.

In essence, the chiefs and judges of Israel were taken with his speech. The English translation, in an effort to be clear, obscures some nuance. According to the midrash, Korach draws people in with הדברים רכים, words that are soft. This could mean that he had a unique ability to draw people in with a soft voice instead of loud demagoguery, contrary to popular depictions of this Biblical anti-hero. It could also mean that he spoke words that were easy to digest, as opposed to the tough realities that were being presented by Moses and Aaron. Eager for easy answers and accessible solutions, the leaders of Israel were willing to follow Korach instead of Moses and Aaron.

Korach not only compelled people with his words, he also took away something from them -- their good sense and their understanding of truth. In Jewish law, there is a prohibition against גניבת דעת, g'neivat da'at, or stealing someone's knowledge. For example, if you walk into someone's store and take up the owner's time asking questions only to compare prices but with no real intention of buying anything from him, this is g'neivat da'at. Deception is a form of theft, and just as much a prohibition of Torah law as stealing an object from them.

We live in a world of complicated problems, as Americans, Jews, and global citizens. There are a variety of individuals, who occupy all points on the political spectrum, who claim to present a simple version of reality and solutions that require no sacrifice. Korach was a compelling speaker who spoke of receiving privileges, but never about mitzvot, commandments, the hard prices we pay for freedom and privilege.

There are two parties who were responsible for the sin of Korach -- Korach himself and the people who allowed their better judgment be stripped of them. This week let us be resolute and critical of all the messages that are out there for the taking. Is what I am hearing overly simplistic? Does it require nothing of me? Does it contradict the advice of the people I trust? When we speak, do we give the full truth with all of its complexities and the limits of our own power of speech and action? Let us learn from the story of Korach to be intellectually and spiritually strong in our presentation and understanding of Truth.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Please Pray for Ilan

My good friend, Ilan Grapel, who I studied with in Be'er Sheva has been arrested in Egypt because of false charges that he is a Mossad spy. He is a sweet man, a law student at Emory, who went to Egypt to help refugees. Now his fate is uncertain, so please pray for his speedy release. His Hebrew name is: Ilan Chaim ben Chaya v'Daniel. May he be released speedily and in good health.

You can read more about his story here.

You can join the facebook page with updates about his status here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

When Saying the True Thing is the Wrong Thing to Do: Parashat Shlach L'cha

I am always especially excited when the JTS Torah commentary for the week is written by one of my most beloved teachers at the Seminary, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond. I would like to share some of his words this week because I think that they are so beautiful and insightful. You can read his remarks in their entirety here.

In this week's portion, we hear about the report of the spies who went down to the Land of Canaan to scout out its advantages and challenges. Contrary to the partial story we usually hear, the scouts do say wonderful things about the land, praising its fecundity. However, they follow the good with the word efes, "but" and describe the daunting power of the Land's current inhabitants with the insinuation that it is not possible to complete the task that God has put before the Israelites.

By today's standards, the spies might be described as "realists" or individuals doing the difficult work of conveying tough truths. However, they are accursed because the laws of lashon hara (harmful speech) prohibit saying negative things about another, even if they are true. Even if we convey facts about another individual that are reputable, they often impugn the character of that person in a multiplicity of ways some of which we can prevent and others of which we cannot imagine.

R. Diamond applies this lesson to the ways in which we discuss Israel. Pointing out factual, painful truths may be justified to a certain extent, but especially in today's extremely negative atmosphere, criticizing Israel publicly on one or two points can have much larger consequences about the greater ways in which people view the Jewish State and its legitimacy. It is something we need to be aware of, and always be very careful in contextualizing our criticism and imagining the intended and unintended effects of sharing our opinions.

We can also learn from this lesson on a personal level. There is little that we love more than speaking about other people. It affirms our sense of power in being able to control, at least in part, how others see the world and assess the character of another. Even when praising someone else, we can do unintentional harm in conveying incidental information that this individual may not want shared. Moreover, in the age of the Internet, nothing is really private anymore.

This week let us be fully aware of how we speak of one another, and especially people we do not know. Sometimes we convince ourselves that "speaking out," even if harming another person or entity, is righteous or worth it. We should ask that person whether or not they agree. I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the pasuk from the Book of Micah 6:8:

ח הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what the LORD does require of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. {S}

I think of all of these three phrases as connected. Often when doing what we think is right or just we abandon a sense of mercy and become haughty in our quest to achieve social justice. Doing what is right should be done with the humanity of those you are trying to describe or "correct" in mind, and should be done without unnecessary attention drawn to ourselves or other individuals caught in the cross hairs.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Israeli Song of the Week: Song of Ascents

In place of a davar Torah this week, I'll share a wonderful song by Israeli artist Inbar Bakal based on Psalm 121, I lift up my eyes toward the mountains, from where will my help come? From God:

Friday, June 3, 2011

Parashat Naso: How Important are Numbers?

It's a legitimate question -- how much do numbers matter? It is a question that we are concerned with as a Jewish people constantly. How many of us are there, how many of us are left, how many will there be? It is also an issue we are concerned with locally. We feel happy when we make minyan and when our chanukkah party fills our social hall. When there are only 2 or 3 of us praying together on a Saturday morning, we are often crestfallen, wishing that the presence of others would have enriched our learning and worship. The issue of numbers is central in this week's portion, Parashat Naso. Our portion begins with these words:

21. The Lord spoke to Moses saying:

כא. וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:

22. Take a census of the sons of Gershon, of them too, following their fathers' houses, according
to their families.

כב. נָשֹׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן גַּם הֵם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם:

There is a famous questions about the significance of the census. If God is all-knowing, then why are we commanded to count? Some commentators say that the counting is for us, not for God. When we see how numerous our numbers are, it gives us the confidence to face our personal and communal challenges.

In a community as small as ours, counting often does not inspire confidence. However, I think we need to count differently: taking account of our talents, commitments, and passions for the success of our congregation. The rabbis teach that whenever two people come together in order to study Torah, the Shechinah , the feminine element of God, dwells between them. All it takes is two committed to the project in order to invite the Divine into our lives.

Numbers do matter. Your attendance does make a difference, and everyone needs to make an effort to come to our services and events in order to strengthen the community and attract new members. However, at those moments when we are just a few, we should take stock of the richness we all bring to this community in a multiplicity of ways.

I'm looking forward to being counted among this holy community soon!!

Shabbat Shalom.