Korach: Seeking change

“For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (B’midbar 16:3)

Can there never be change
to the iron-clad order?

If you were not born
in the right social group
will your longing to serve
be directly discounted?
May you never rebel
nor challenge authority;
is ability sidelined
in favor of caste?
If you have grown up
an outsider, other;
a woman, a convert or
openly gay,
must you forfeit your dreams,
your loftiest yearnings

or be wholly consumed
in darkening depths?


This parasha relates the story of the eponymous Korach, Moses’ first cousin, who instigates a rebellion against Moses, accusing him of keeping the power for himself and his brother Aaron. He attracts a following of a few ringleaders and another 250 eminent tribesmen. Korach says, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (B’midbar 16:3) Korach takes specific issue with Aaron’s appointment as High Priest. Moses suggests a test on the next day in which the contenders all bring an incense offering and God will indicate His choice by accepting or rejecting the offerings. Moses begs the rebels to desist, but to no avail, so he pleads with God to reject the offering of the rebels. In the meantime Korach incites the people against Moses. God becomes angry and wants to destroy the people but Moses and Aaron intercede so the people are saved, apart from Korach and his family who are swallowed up by the earth while the 250 followers are consumed by a heavenly fire. The people then complain that Moses and Aaron caused the rebels’ deaths and a plague breaks out in which thousands die. Moses then instructs Aaron how to quell the plague. Finally God reiterates His choice of Aaron with a miracle in which each of the tribes presents a staff, and only Aaron’s blossoms.

Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser devotes a commentary that he wrote in 2013 on Parashat Korach http://www.rebjeff.com/blog/nurturing-and-caring-for-your-inner-korach, to mitigating Korach’s bad reputation, which Reb Jeff believes may have been deserved at the end, but was not so at the beginning.
He says, “I want to sing the song of Korach, that rebel of all rebels who opposed Moses and was punished with fire from God and swallowed up by the earth. I want to remember him with some fondness and remember that we all have a little Korach in us. It is a spirit that we need to develop and nurture lovingly.”
Reb Jeff is not alone in noting that Korach’s initial argument is both powerful and even democratic. He says, “Korach held that there was no good reason why Moses and Aaron alone should be in charge of the whole Israelite community — dictating the laws, deciding how they would be enforced, and appointing the heads of each tribe and clan. Korach held that it was wrong for Moses to assume the exclusive right to decree God’s will. Korach declared that God was not the exclusive possession of any one person — no matter how wise or pious — and that each Israelite should be recognized as having his or her own sacred relationship with God.”
Reb Jeff continues that it seems that Moses could hear some truth in Korach’s words as he immediately prostrated himself, which in Ancient Eastern culture indicated recognition of the other’s superiority, and was a sign of humility. Reb Jeff adds, “Moses understood that he was being chastised for a personal failing he had known about for a long time.” He adds that even before the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro had cautioned Moses about his inability to delegate power (in Shemot 18:14,17-18). He says, “Moses was something of a control freak, to put it in modern parlance, and Korach was calling him on it. Moses needed to let go.”
However, Reb Jeff suggests that before embarking on a psychoanalysis of Moses’ personality, we need to focus on Korach. He wonders, “What kind of personality might we attribute to a person who recognizes when an authority figure has gone too far? What could we say about someone who challenges power run amok? We could say that Korach himself was power hungry and he used Moses’ personality flaw as a point of leverage to attack him and to attract other Israelites to follow him. That is possible. It is also possible that Korach had a strong sense of fair play and the courage to stand up against injustice — even against a very powerful foe.”
Reb Jeff asks whether, if this episode occurred today, you would be supporting “the man who says he uniquely speaks for God and has the unilateral authority to set laws over you” or “the man who challenges the established order and declares that power should be shared by all?”
He suggests that Korach is not fighting a meaningless battle; either he wants to propel himself up the rungs of power, or he wants to bring an awareness of everyone’s right to holiness. He believes that a change in the order of things is needed.
Reb Jeff believes “That is a spirit to be nurtured. We need people who passionately want to change the world.
“Jewish tradition teaches that the way the world is right now is not the way that God intends it to be. We are living in a broken world, either because of a cosmic catastrophe (as Lurianic Kabbalah teaches), because the link between heaven and earth was broken by the destruction of the Temple, or simply because error and sin are the nature of imperfect human beings. The world is in need of repair, tikkun olam, and human beings are needed to make it right.”
But Reb Jeff does not end there. He adds that having a desire to change the fixed order is not enough. Although Korach’s initial thesis might have been appropriate, at some point it becomes distorted, turning him into a threat to the order of things. Reb Jeff pinpoints that moment, when Moses challenges Korach and his coterie to bring incense offerings to God, and let God indicate His choice. Moses is suggesting that Korach and his followers essentially carry out the job of the priests, alongside Aaron. Korach does not see the inconsistency in his agreeing to the plan.
Reb Jeff points out, “Korach had been at his best when he declared that his rebellion against Moses was not about himself. He had said, “All of the community — all of them! — are holy.” Now, however, it was Moses’ turn to recognize Korach’s personality flaw and use it against him. If Korach had answered the challenge differently, the story would have ended differently. If he had said, “No, Moses. It is not for me to take up God’s offering, or even for my 250 followers to do so. It is the right of every Israelite, for they are all members of a nation of priests,” then he would have had a strong moral basis to continue his challenge.
“But he didn’t. Korach’s ego was too invested in everything he did. He may have been sincere about wanting to create a more democratic and just society, but Moses demonstrated that Korach also really wanted power for himself. The greatest distinction between the personality of Korach and the personality of Moses is that, when challenged, Moses threw himself to the ground in humble admission of his flaws. Korach, in contrast, lifted his ego up and claimed the right to assume the highest honor.
“Korach saw something that was truly wrong — even Moses knew that it was wrong — and he wanted to do something about it. So, let us sing some praises for Korach! Let us recognize that there is a part of us also that does not just want to complain about injustice of the world, but actually wants to change it. We need more people like that … but only up to a point.”
Reb Jeff adds that it is a delicate balance between challenging inequity and retaining humility, and history is replete with examples of people who have fought for justice but once they have become powerful, have metamorphosed into leaders who are more tyrannical than those they ousted. He concludes that Korach may have been right in his ideas of justice and equality, but his ego also fueled his cause and led to his downfall.

Rabbi Gail Labovitz entitles her commentary on Parashat Korach from 2014, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=12162 “The Most Difficult Parashah.” In it, she describes her journey into a stricter standard of Jewish practice than that with which she grew up. However, she says that there was one issue that always held her back from a whole-hearted move into that life-style, and that was gender. She says, “More particularly, gender segregation of Orthodox life and the rights and responsibilities denied to women in Orthodox synagogues and study halls. And it was a challenge for me from the beginning. I still remember a conversation with a man I knew at the time, one of the people who was most influential on my journey of personal discovery, about this very issue. What he said to me then was an iteration of a common apologetic (and I choose that word quite deliberately) on this topic. He said – I paraphrase – “I might want to be a Kohen, but I’m not a Kohen, and nothing I do can make me one. I have to accept that I am an Israelite, and the limitations that go along with that.” The implication was meant to be clear: he could not alter having been born an Israelite, and I could not alter having been born a woman, and the only proper response was acceptance of our God-given roles. But even then, at least one response was apparent to me. Was this not comparing apples and oranges? Just how many privileges do the Kohanim – a small minority of the Jewish population – generally enjoy in Judaism today? – The first aliyah, the opportunity to say Birkat Kohanim before the congregation…and not much more. How could exclusion from those few perks (which also happen to come with a few traditional limitations, such as a ban on marrying a woman who is a convert or previously divorced) possibly compare to the near complete exclusion (in most of the Orthodox world) of half the population from participation in the synagogue, in the most rigorous forms of Jewish learning, in religious decision making for the community as a whole?” She adds though, that in the eras of both the Mishkan and later of both Temples, when being a (male)Kohen bore some rather significant rights and responsibilities, and the (male) Kohen was indeed quite distinct from his Israelite co-religionists, or even the other members of his own tribe of Levi who were not descendants of Aaron. He would serve in the Mishkan or Temple, would have access to certain sacred areas denied other Israelites not of the priestly caste, and would also receive assorted portions of, among other things, sacrificial meat, first fruits, first-born animals, tithes, a portion of dough. This, it seems, is one of the things that sparked Korach’s rebellion: the privilege derived only by accident of birth. Rabbi Labovitz focuses on this aspect of the parasha even though she notes that there are several strands of narrative that run through it. She says that after reading through the parasha and various interesting points and commentaries, she concluded that the reason this may be the hardest parasha of all to explain, and not just because the narrative is complex, is that to concentrate on any one particular point is “to attempt to pretend one needn’t grapple with the problematic heart of the parashah as a whole. Which is this: In the modern, Westernized, post-Emancipation context (and perhaps others too) in which I presume most if not all of my readers reside, wouldn’t it seem that our natural urge would be to side with Korah and his band? His/their protest against the autocratic leadership of Moses would seem to fit well with our democratic and meritocratic ideals, in which all people have (or should have) access to roles of leadership, and such roles are awarded based on competence rather than arbitrary characteristics beyond a person’s control or unrelated to ability, such as racial/ethnic origin, religious identity, gender. Put another way: how is Korah’s claim against Moses and more particularly against Aaron and the concentration of the privileges of the priesthood in a single family (and its future male descendants), so different from the claims of Jewish women – or other marginalized groups in the Jewish community such as gays and lesbians? Must we simply accept the roles or limitations placed on us by birth, irrespective of our abilities or desires to serve God more fully?”
It is also very noteworthy that Korach is portrayed even more negatively in rabbinic literature than the biblical text reveals. The midrash relates that not only did Korach seek to oust Moses, but he also challenged the Torah by denigrating certain laws. He is depicted as deriding rabbinic authority and even of accusing Moses and Aaron of oppressing the poor. Commentators have attempted to bring proofs why Korah’s motives were base. Korach’s statement that “the community is holy, all of them” as opposed to the exhortation found throughout the book of Vayikra to “be holy,” is construed as a claim that the goal has been achieved and no further effort is required. Nehama Leibowitz suggests that Korach and his followers believed that the assignment of holiness would grant “superiority and privilege” rather than “extra duties and responsibilities.” Unlike Moses, and other subsequent prophets who were reluctant initially to answer God’s call, Korach is athirst, less for leadership and more for power. Rabbi Labovitz notes, “Personal self-aggrandizement, not a desire to serve God or the community, drove the rebellion.” She adds, “Jewish feminists, of course, are familiar with at least this last charge. As just one example, in 1976, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the great halakhic scholars of the 20th century and a posek (legal decisor) still revered in and sometimes beyond the (Modern/Centrist) Orthodox community, wrote a teshuvah addressing the rise of feminism. He headed this work “Concerning the new movement of smug and (self-) important women,” and in it insinuated that any desire of women to be more involved in areas of Jewish life traditionally withheld from them “comes out of a rebellion against God and his Torah.” Women’s own testimony about their spiritual desires or motives – their desires to delve deeper into their religious identity, to embrace Torah learning, to serve the community, to come closer to God – is discounted, irrelevant, not trustworthy.” However, she brings a commentary by the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, (19th century, Lithuania), who does recognize “positive spiritual longing” in Korach’s motives, citing from his work the Ha’amek Davar (translation taken from Nehama Leibowitz’s Studies in Bamidbar): “The men who offered the firepans were not sinners but saintly persons, for whom the deprivation of priestly office spelt the forfeiting of a coveted opportunity for closer communion with the Creator. They harboured no illusory worldly ambitions, nor hankered after the sweets of office but longed to sanctify themselves and achieve greater spiritual heights through the sacred service.” However, Rabbi Labovitz continues that even if we accept this reading, how can we contend with the ultimate failure of Korach’s mutiny and the calamitous punishment that God inflicts? She says, “Can we take away any other message than that a challenge to the established order, no matter how arbitrary that order appears to be, no matter how well intentioned the challenge may be, is sinful and wrong, worthy of the harshest punishment?” And she answers, “Oddly enough, if there is an alternative to be found, I think we might find it among the very rabbis who inaugurated the midrashic tradition that first tried to interpret the complexities of this story. Not in their attempts to discredit Korah and his motives, and not in their own rulings that limited and restricted women’s equal participation in Jewish rite and ritual, but rather in their very existence. Rabbinic Judaism began and eventually flourished precisely by taking the place of other models of leadership that could no longer stand. Prophecy, the rabbis asserted, ended with the last of the biblical prophets. Kingship (considered an ambivalent form of leadership already in the Bible; see the haftarah this week) had become the province of the corrupt Hasmonean dynasty before being abolished under Roman rule. The Temple was no longer standing, depriving the Kohanim of the locus of their relevance and claim to leadership. In the place of these forms of privilege and leadership, the rabbis created a system that – though still not open to all – was far more open than anything that preceded it. Again and again, the rabbis tell stories of men who have no claim of birth yet come to prominence for their scholarship purely on the basis of merit and ability, despite coming from places of poverty (Hillel, Akiva), illiteracy (Akiva), and even criminal doings (Resh Lakish). Even so, it took hundreds of years for the views and ideals of the rabbinic movement of antiquity to become simply the Judaism that dominated most of subsequent Jewish history. May it be that with the fullness of time and always with the intent of dedicating ourselves more wholly to the service of God and the community, that the expanded ideals of leadership that we are developing today themselves become simply the Judaism of the future.”

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Shelach Lecha: The Comfort Zone

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.” …At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land…and they made their report…”We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey…However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.”…Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers…” (B’midbar 13:1-32).

It’s easier to stay pristine
when we know what God wants,
(preferably mediated by His chosen one).

He tells us; we do it.
Everything is supplied:
manna floats down from heaven,
water spouts from the rock.
Nothing much to think about.

Neither complexity nor modernity
intrude. And if we do slip up,
feedback is not slow to come
(preferably mediated by His chosen one).

Is it not better, then,
to stay sheltered in our safe oasis
and not sully our hands
with the work of the world?


In Parashat Shelach Lecha, we read about the episode of the spies who are sent to reconnoiter in the land of Israel ahead of the Children of Israel going up and inhabiting it, as God has promised they will. We are told that the land flows with milk and honey as promised, yet ten of the twelve spies return extremely negative and fearful about the possibility of a successful outcome. Only Joshua and Calev are encouraging and believe in the people’s ability to go up, with God’s support, to inherit the land, but the people are led astray and refuse to listen, despite having been the closest witnesses to God’s power when they left Egypt and were guided through the wilderness.

In a commentary on Shelach Lecha from 2011, http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/parashat-shelach-on-fear-and-bravery.html, Dr Rachel Anisfeld opens with an anecdote about her small son who wants to join his father in the men’s section of a synagogue they are visiting for the first time. Looking through the glass door, her four-year- old sees rows of men, but cannot spot his father who is among the crowd. He opens the door, goes through but returns after a short interval, saying he is scared. He tries again, but comes back a second time. Finally his mother encourages him by telling him he can do it: “This is your chance to be brave. You’re scared. That’s fine. But you can do it. You just have to be brave.” And with that he goes and does not come back. Dr Anisfeld suggests that had she elaborated on the reality of the situation, that there really was nothing to fear (as she had tried in the past) her words would not have helped him. Through four-year-old eyes, she suggests, entering a sea of men three times his size might be reminiscent of the spies who enter a land whose inhabitants appeared like giants to them. In both cases, she says, their fear might be justified.
Dr Anisfeld cites the Esh Kodesh, the Piaseczner Rebbe who was martyred in the Warsaw Ghetto. He notes that Calev realises that it will be useless to try to argue the other spies out of their perception and deny their impressions. So instead of saying that the inhabitants are not giants, but actually tiny, and that the cities are not well fortified but rather undefended, he is encouraging: “Alo na’aleh veyarashnu otah ki yachol nuchal lah – we will surely go up and inherit it because we will surely be able to accomplish this.” He does not tell them their fears are groundless. As the Esh Kodesh knows, from his own experience, the problem lies not in the reality, which may in fact be insurmountable, but rather in the attitude that might enable fear to conquer faith. Therefore Calev does not try to disabuse them but he tries to instill confidence in them that they can overcome their fear and progress towards the goal. Dr Anisfeld points out that within Calev’s encouraging words, he repeats two of the verbs for emphasis: “ALoH na’ALeH – which translates as “we will surely go up” and “YaCHoL nUCHaL – which in current parlance could be rendered “we absolutely can do this”. She suggests that Calev is trying to point them in the direction of trying, and of overcoming their fear, although, as we read, he does not not succeed.

However, in a commentary on Shelach Lecha from 2012, http://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5772-shelach-lecha-the-fear-of-freedom/ and in a later commentary from 2016, http://www.rabbisacks.org/two-kinds-fear-shelach-5776/ Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses the same episode, which he notes puzzled the sages through the ages and was generally regarded as a huge failure of faith and vision on the part of these ten spies. What makes this story more bewildering is the fact that these ten scouts were leaders and princes among the people, not ordinary citizens. So why were they so mistaken? Rabbi Sacks cites the Rambam who suggests that they were fearful because they had been slaves and although now free, they were not ready to fight to inherit the land and live as free people. That would be the work of a new generation, born in freedom. The Rambam posits that human beings can change, but that transformation does not happen so fast. (Guide to the Perplexed III, 32). Rabbi Sacks says that most of the commentators then, assume that the spies were guilty of a failure of nerve, or faith, or both, and this is what the text seems to imply. But, he says, Chasidic teaching, from that of the Baal Shem Tov through R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (the Sefat Emet) to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, brings a vastly different interpretation. These Rabbis suggest that the spies, all princes and leaders, had good intentions. They were not afraid of the battles against the inhabitants of the land. Rabbi Sacks says, “They did not fear failure; they feared success. Their concern was not physical but spiritual. They did not want to leave the wilderness. They did not want to become just another nation among the nations of the earth. They did not want to lose their unique relationship with God in the reverberating silence of the desert, far removed from civilization and its discontents.”
He continues that here in the desert, they could feel God’s presence among them, in the Mishkan and in the clouds of glory that led them. No other generation before or since lived in such palpably close proximity to the Divine Presence. They were fed on heavenly manna and drank water that issued from the rock. They witnessed miracles daily! Rabbi Sacks says, “So long as they stayed in the desert under God’s sheltering canopy, they did not need to plough the earth, plant seeds, gather harvests, defend a country, run an economy, maintain a welfare system, or shoulder any of the other earthly burdens and distractions that take peoples’ minds away from the Divine.
“Here, in no-man’s-land, in liminal space, suspended between past and future, they were able to live with a simplicity and directness of encounter they could not hope to find once they had re-entered the gravitational pull of everyday life in the material world. Paradoxically, since a desert is normally the exact opposite of a garden, the wilderness was the Israelites’ Eden. Here they were as close to God as were the first humans before their loss of innocence.”
Rabbi Sacks reminds us that both Hosea and Jeremiah liken that early era in the wilderness to a honeymoon. Hosea says, quoting God addressing His people “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:16), prophesying that in the future God will return to the desert with His people to celebrate a second honeymoon. Jeremiah says in God’s name, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). So both prophets allude to the wilderness years as the time of the first love between God and the Israelites. And that, suggests Rabbi Sacks, is what the spies were reluctant to leave.
He adds that although this line of thought is not suggested by a simple reading of the text, we should not disregard it as he believes it gives us an insight into “the unconscious mindset of the spies” which has something to teach us today. He says the spies did not want to relinquish their intimacy with God and the comforting simplicity of their life under His shadow, just as children sometimes are reluctant to move into adulthood. “Ultimately the spies feared freedom and its responsibilities.”
But, Rabbi Sacks continues that Torah is about going out into the world.
Judaism has produced its hermits who have retreated from the world, like the Qumran sect depicted in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Talmud also teaches us about R. Shimon bar Yochai who lived for thirteen years in a cave, so as not to see people pursuing physical activities such as ploughing a field. But these were by no means part of the mainstream. Rabbi Sacks says “This is not the destiny of Israel, to live outside time and space in ashrams or monasteries as the world’s recluses. Far from being the supreme height of faith, such a fear of freedom and its responsibilities is – according to both the Gerer and Lubavitcher Rebbe – the sin of the spies.”
And although a few people, epitomised by R. Shimon bar Yochai, regarded involvement in worldly matters as incompatible with spiritual ascent, the majority view did not accept this. Rabbi Sacks cites from Pirkei Avot, (2:2): “Torah study without an occupation will in the end fail and lead to sin” and from the Rambam: “One who makes his mind up to study Torah and not to work but to live on charity, profanes the name of God, brings the Torah into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself, and deprives himself of life hereafter.” (Laws of Torah Study 3:10).
So Rabbi Sacks suggests that the spies had an idyllic fantasy in which they might be secluded from the outside world, and the people would dwell forever in “the eternal childhood of God’s protection and the endless honeymoon of His all-embracing love.”
So Rabbi Sacks surmises that the spies were not afraid of failure, rather of success. Their mistake, he says, was that of very holy men, who failed to understand that what God is searching for is, in Chasidic parlance, “a dwelling in the lower worlds”. He notes that Judaism is notable for seeking to bring Heaven down to earth, rather than the reverse. Thus Torah is incredibly occupied with mundane and practical issues, often not considered the stuff of religion at all, like agricultural matters, loans and debts, responsibilities of employers, welfare provisions. Rabbi Sacks says, “It is not difficult to find God in the wilderness, if you do not eat from the labor of your hands and if you rely on God to fight your battles for you. Ten of the spies, according to the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe, sought to live that way forever. But that, suggested the Rebbe, is not what God wants from us. He wants us to engage with the world. He wants us to heal the sick, feed the hungry, fight injustice with all the power of law, and combat ignorance with universal education. He wants us to show what it is to love the neighbour and the stranger, and say, with Rabbi Akiva, “Beloved is humanity because we are each created in God’s image.”
“Jewish spirituality lives in the midst of life itself, the life of society and its institutions. To create it we have to battle with two kinds of fear: fear of failure, and fear of success. Fear of failure is common; fear of success is rarer but no less debilitating. Both come from the reluctance to take risks. Faith is the courage to take risks. It is not certainty; it is the ability to live with uncertainty. It is the ability to hear God saying to us as He said to Abraham, ‘Walk on ahead of Me’.” (Bereishit 17:1).
Rabbi Sacks notes that the Lubavitcher Rebbe endorsed this teaching in a very practical way. He dispatched emissaries to every possible place where Jews might live and thus transformed Jewish life world-wide. He asked his followers to take risks, to leave their comfort zones. But the Rebbe believed in them and in their mission that demanded of them to radiate their faith outwards in a very practical way.
Rabbi Sacks concludes, “It is challenging to leave the desert and go out into the world with all its trials and temptations, but that is where God wants us to be, bringing His spirit to the way we run an economy, a welfare system, a judiciary, a health service and an army, healing some of the wounds of the world and bringing, to places often shrouded in darkness, fragments of Divine light.”

 

 

Beha’alotcha: The Golden Menorah

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses. (B’midbar 8:1-3)

Let the lamps glimmer,
dissipating darkness. Force
cannot quell spirit.


Dedicated to victims of terror, worldwide.
**************************

In a commentary on Beha’alotcha, http://www.jtsa.edu/lights-camera-action, Deborah Miller notes, “Light and wisdom are inextricably tied. Wisdom is often depicted in Christianity and Buddhism as a lamp. Light dispels darkness and ignorance, helping the lost find their way…” However, she adds that light in Jewish thought, is a metaphor for Torah. As it says in Proverbs (6:23) “For mitzvah is a lamp (candle) and Torah is light.” And in Midrash Eichah Rabbbah we find God lamenting, “”Would that they had abandoned me but observed my Torah. From their involvement in it, the light within it would have returned them to goodness.”
Miller notes that during the periods of both Temples, the menorah retained the same function as during the days of the Tabernacle, an ever-present reminder of God’s constant presence among them. She says, “It not only symbolized the wisdom of Torah, but of the nation itself; one that was expected to become a “light that would illuminate the way for the nations.” (Isaiah 60:3).

The commentary in the Hertz Chumash cites the Talmud: Israel said before God: ‘Lord of the Universe, You commanded us to illumine before You; are You not the Lord of the world, and with Whom light dwells?’ ‘Not that I require your light’ was the Divine reply, ‘but that you may perpetuate the light that I conferred on you as an example to the nations of the world.’ Rabbi Hertz* adds that the menorah is one of the favourite symbols of Judaism. Through its association with Chanukah, it has come to symbolise spiritual conquest that is realised by God’s spirit. He notes that the Haftarah of Beha’alotcha is the same as for Shabbat Chanukah, in which the prophet Zechariah says, “Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” Rabbi Hertz continues that Israel, as God’s servant, is mandated to carry out God’s work without violence. He quotes Isaiah who describes God’s ideal servant, who will be soft-spoken and self-effacing, yet his spiritual influence will spread throughout the world: “He shall not cry out and nor raise his voice, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall not break, and the dimly burning wick he shall not quench.” (Isaiah 42 2-3). Later in the chapter, Isaiah describes a covenant of peace among the peoples and the image is of a light, shining. So Rabbi Hertz notes “The image employed by Isaiah to describe Israel’s mission is the gentle agency of light, with its irresistible illumination of the surrounding darkness” and he concludes by quoting Richard G Moulton** “This is among the loftiest conceptions of all human thought. How new an idea it was, is measured by the length of time it has taken before the idea began slowly to make its way that force cannot conquer spirit.”

*Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz (1872 – 1946) was a Jewish Hungarian-born rabbi and Bible scholar, who was the Chief Rabbi of the UK from 1913 until his death in 1946, in a period encompassing both world wars and the Holocaust.
Born in Rebrín/Rebrény, Kingdom of Hungary (presently part of the village of Zemplínska Široká, Slovak Republic), he emigrated to New York City in 1884 and was educated at New York City College (BA), Columbia University (PhD) and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Rabbi, 1894, the Seminary’s first graduate). His first ministerial post was at Syracuse, New York.
In 1898, he moved to South Africa and remained there until 1911, despite attempts by President Paul Kruger in 1899 to expel him for his pro-British sympathies and for advocating the removal of religious disabilities of Jews and Catholics in South Africa. He was Professor of Philosophy at Transvaal University College (later known as the University of the Witwatersrand), 1906-8.
In 1911, he returned to New York to the Orach Chayim Congregation and two years later was appointed Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire, which post he held until his death. His period in office was marked by many arguments with a wide variety of people, mainly within the Jewish community (he was described in the Dictionary of National Biography as a “combative Conservative”).
Despite his title, he was not universally recognised as the final rabbinical authority, even in Britain. While he was Chief Rabbi of the group of Synagogues known as the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire, led by the United Synagogue, some new immigrants who had arrived since the 1880s regarded it as not orthodox enough. Rabbi Hertz tried both persuasion and such force as he could muster to influence them; he added to his credibility among these immigrants by persuading Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky to become head of the London Beth Din.
Rabbi Hertz antagonised others by his strong support for Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s, when many prominent Jews were against it, fearing that it would lead to accusations against the Jewish community of divided loyalty. He was strongly opposed to Reform and Liberal Judaism, though he did not allow this to create personal animosities, and had no objection in principle to attending the funerals of Reform Jews.
However, despite all this, his eloquent oratory, lucid writing, erudition and sincerity earned him the respect of the majority of British Jews and many outside the Jewish community. His commentary on the Torah is still to be found in most Orthodox synagogues and Jewish homes in Great Britain.
Although Rabbi Hertz vigorously denounced the horror of the Holocaust, he was opposed to the Kindertransport if it meant Jewish refugee children would be raised in gentile homes. He admired and supported the British war effort, wishing Prime Minister Churchill a happy 70th birthday in late 1944 with the message, “But for your wisdom and courage there would have been a Vichy England lying prostrate before an all-powerful Satanism that spelled slavery to the western peoples, death to Israel, and night to the sacred heritage of man.”
He held many other offices as well at different times. He was: ex officio President of Jews’ College, and Acting Principal, 1939-45; president of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 1922-3, and of the Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers. He was on the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Chairman of the Governing Body of its Institute of Jewish Studies. He was Vice-President of a wide variety of Jewish and non-Jewish bodies, including the Anglo-Jewish Association, the London Hospital, the League of Nations Union, the National Council of Public Morals and King George’s Fund for Sailors. In 1942, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, Chief Rabbi Hertz founded the Council of Christians and Jews to combat anti-Jewish bigotry.

**Professor Richard Green Moulton (1849-1924) was a lawyer and author who wrote a number of scholarly works including on the Bible.

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The poem is based on the structure of an English language Haiku which is a very short poem following, to a greater or lesser extent, the form and style of the Japanese haiku. Traditional haiku consist of 17 syllables in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 respectively. Japanese Haiku are often written on one line, while English Haiku are frequently written in three lines.
Haiku has become a term sometimes loosely applied to any short, impressionistic poem, but there are certain characteristics that are commonly associated with the genre. The first English Haiku is considered to have been written in the early 20th century while Japanese Haiku date back to the 17th century.

Shavuot: The Night of Torah

Parsha Poster (from Parshat Yitro: We saw it on the mountain) by Hillel Smith* http://bit.ly/parshaposter

Parsha Poster (from Parshat Yitro: We saw it on the mountain) by Hillel Smith* http://bit.ly/parshaposter.

Each year the gift is tendered,
recalling, at the outset,
how we stood as one before You
trembling and awestruck
on the bedrock of the mount.

Do You glory in Your people, on
the night before the Giving,
disregarding sleep
as they learn until the morn?

Intent upon their study
they sit beside each other
external separations
for once are laid aside.

Do You feel the stirring charge
that permeates the room;
do You relish the diversity,
the myriad ideas?

Do You revel in the wrestling
all for Heaven’s sake,
as each one seeks a different face
that speaks to her alone?


The Midrash tells us that on the night before the Giving of the Torah, the Children of Israel went to bed early in order to be well-rested for the fateful following day. However, they overslept, and Moses had to wake them up as God was already waiting on the summit of Mount Sinai. To compensate for this, the tradition arose, once only among the orthodox, to stay awake all night to learn Torah. This is called “Tikkun Leil Shavuot – The Rectification of the Night of Shavuot.”

Legend has it that the custom of all-night Torah study dates to Ottoman Salonika in 1533 when Rabbi Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch invited Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz and other Kabbalistic colleagues to hold Shavuot-night study vigils for which they prepared for three days in advance, just as the Israelites had prepared for three days before the giving of the Torah. During one of those study sessions, an angel appeared and taught them Jewish law.
(The mass-consumption of coffee in the Ottoman empire is thought to have aided in this all-night ritual of Torah study on Shavuot!)

In traditional communities, although any subject might be studied on Shavuot night, Talmud, Mishnah, and Torah are the most common. People may learn alone or with a chavruta (study partner), or attend late-night shiurim (lectures) and study groups.

However, in recent years, all-night study sessions are no longer the domain of the orthodox.
In May 2015, the Times of Israel reported that Modern Orthodox rabbinical organization Tzohar added an extra session to its Shavuot overnight programming to serve as a platform for Conservative and Reform rabbis. The decision followed criticism of Tzohar for leaving non-Orthodox rabbis out of their lecture schedule for the holiday and the subsequent decision of some participants not to attend. Tzohar’s partner organization for the event, the Tzavta cultural center, said it made the decision to hold the extra session given the importance of being seen “as giving space and voice to all streams of Judaism…we have turned Shavuot learning into a tradition that will pull hundreds more secular, traditional and religious Jews together.” (Tzavta Executive Director Hayman Gold).
The Vice President of Tzohar Rabbi Yakov Gaon added, “We remain steadfastly committed to ensuring the widest range of Israeli Jews are able to experience the joys of studying Torah and recognize the undeniable link between the delivery of the Torah at Sinai and our lives thousands of years later,” He emphasized that Shavuot’s theme of Jewish learning was ideal for bridging differences between denominations.
“Our people face many threats of all different types; physical and spiritual. Overcoming these challenges can only be achieved if we refrain from creating unnecessary internal divisions and appreciate that we are one people with one heart and one soul.”

In recent years, the annual event of nighttime lectures and Jewish studies sessions at Tzavta has attracted a mixed crowd of religious and secular Jews, of over 1,500 people.

In an article from the Jewish Chronicle from 2015, http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-features/136554/you-dont-have-be-frum-study-shavuot Rabbi Joe Wolfson recalls that while he was at University, “one of the keenest consumers of our Jewish society’s educational offerings was a practising Christian who would attend everything from Hebrew lessons to in-depth Talmud classes. I once asked him what the learning was like at church. He looked at me surprised, “We don’t do learning”. He explained that although the vicar would frequently preach based on a biblical story, the culture of study as a religious act – with its intense debate and diversity of opinion, accessible to, and expected from all members of the community – was something uniquely Jewish.”
Rabbi Wolfson says that he realised then that whereas all religions endorse prayer, “Judaism’s unique contribution is to see study as an equally important dimension in which humans encounter the divine. The metaphor of Sinai as wedding canopy for the marriage of God with Israel is no abstract image. If Judaism is a relationship between God and His people, then the study of Torah – an interaction between people, text, and God – is the way in which that relationship finds daily expression.”
He notes that in recent years, both in Israel and the diaspora, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional texts among those who do not identity as religious. He says, “While for myself I cannot separate the study of Torah from the presence of God – like trying to talk about a novel without mentioning its central character – I understand that Torah study can still be meaningful for those who are not believers. This seems to be anticipated by the Talmud itself, “Let them forget Me but not forget My Torah, for if they remember My Torah they will eventually return to Me”. Although secular Torah enthusiasts may reject the conclusion of that statement, they would agree with its implicit assumption that Jews can be engaged with Torah even if they have forgotten God.”
He says that ex-MK Ruth Calderon brings a beautiful depiction of studying Torah. He says, “She described Jewishness as a lens for viewing life. The more one studies, the deeper one’s intimacy with the ocean of texts, the more profound one’s appreciation becomes of the nuances and rhythms of life. The Jerusalem Talmud quotes a conversation between two sages as they saw the dawn over the Galilee mountains, “Thus is the redemption of Israel, at first a tiny glint of light, then it begins to spread, and finally its light bursts everywhere.” ”
Rabbi Wolfson adds, “The tradition is authoritative but also diverse and to regularly study ancient texts brings that tradition alive. Hillel, Rambam and the Shach cease to be historical figures encased in dusty tomes and become members of the same study hall.
“Diverse emotions accompany intensive learning. One can be humbled by the vastness of the Torah and how much there is to learn, and yet simultaneously sense oneself not only as observer but also as participant, contributing one’s own insights to the texts that millions have encountered before. For while every subsequent generation is further removed from the original light of Sinai, nevertheless with every new year there is more Torah in the world, more additions to the ever expanding corpus.”
Rabbi Wolfson concludes with a story, “Once on a flight from Tel Aviv to London I sat in my scruffy jeans and T-shirt next to an elderly Chasid. After an hour of politely ignoring one another – we were both English – my neighbour could no longer contain his interest in the classes that I was preparing using the Responsa Project, software that has digitised all classical Jewish texts.
“There followed an intense and warm discussion about the sale of Joseph.
“Later I went for a walk on the plane and someone I slightly knew engaged me in conversation. He was secular but had grown up ultra-Orthodox. He told me that his family had refused to speak to him for many years and that the gentleman I was sitting next to was his great-uncle. Would I ask him if he would speak to his nephew?
“I reported the request to my neighbour. He looked perturbed. He hinted that his nephew had suffered serious abuse – “things that should never be done to a child” – but that his public apostasy was so severe that he could not bring himself to talk to him.
“Rather than continue the conversation I searched on my laptop for the Talmud’s advice on giving rebuke: “Push away with the left and draw close with the right”. According to the ancient story, the errant student of a rabbi who failed to mind this maxim became the founder of Christianity. I showed the screen to my neighbour. He paused and then nodded. I swapped seats with my acquaintance and the Chasidic uncle and estranged nephew sat next to one another for the rest of the flight.
“Judaism must not be reduced to bagels, humour, vague values and victimhood.
“Shavuot recalls that at Sinai a shared inheritance was received that has space for all varieties of Jewish self-understanding.”

*Hillel Smith is an American artist and designer creating contemporary Jewish work with deeply traditional content. In particular, much of his work explores the history and potential of Hebrew typography, which he sees as the common thread linking Jews together across time and space. Other projects he’s working on include an animated GIF for each day of the Omer, at bestomerever.tumblr.com, and a Hebrew mural series (some here and some here under Murals). Anyone can subscribe to project updates via eepurl.com/bdqZIT.

B’midbar: The voice in the wilderness

In the wilderness (Illustrative photo © Elizabeth Topper 2016)

In the wilderness (Illustrative photo © Elizabeth Topper 2016)

We trudge through arid desert
on endless unmarked sand,
harsh sunlight all but blinding
bedazzled reddened eyes.

We climb up craggy inclines
seeking footholds in the rock
grazing skin of knees and palms
on hard unyielding stone.

A sudden silence hovers;
an eagle glides aloft
buttressed by what seems to be
the gentle breath of God.

Our eyes traverse the splendor
of the soaring mountain cliffs
intricately chiseled
and colored by His hand.

And in this place where earth meets sky
God’s voice is better heard.


In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 1974, Annie Dillard reflects on faith, religion and awareness against the backdrop of the year she spent observing the flora and fauna at the creek, throughout the changing seasons of the year. Although some critics described the book as a nature book, Dillard herself is adamant that it is a theology book. She wrote her master’s thesis on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), in which Thoraeu describes a journey of self-discovery and a spiritual quest while living simply in the solitude of nature.

In a commentary on Parashat B’midbar from 2015, http://www.jtsa.edu/the-wilderness-speaks, Rabbi Daniel Nevins recalls a backpacking trip he made with a friend the summer after he graduated college. He describes a “euphoric beginning” with the sun shining on the lake as they were ferried deep into the woods. But the weather deteriorated and so did his mood. He describes inclement weather and physical discomfort. He remembers fantasizing about the hot soup and dry warm tent that would be awaiting them, instead of which they became wetter, colder, and his feet hurt. He wondered why he had left home. He continues, “When we enter the tortured world of Numbers, better named in Hebrew as Bemidbar — In the wilderness — I recall the discomfort of that journey and my inclination to self-pity. There is quite a bit of complaining in this book, as the Israelites schlep through the wilderness, making mistakes that lengthen their journey and deepen their problems. Yet the wilderness is also their place of revelation. True, its discomforts and exertions bring the people’s character flaws to the surface, but they also discern there the voice of God and their national mission…” Rabbi Nevins notes that later biblical texts offer differing perspectives of the Children of Israel in the wilderness. We read Jeremiah (2:2) likening the youthful love of the people for God, to a bride who follows her beloved into a desert land. But we also read in Psalms (95:10) of the people journeying through the wilderness and complaining all the way! He comments, “Both accounts appear to be true. The desert was a place of terror and complaint, but also a place of inspiration and love. Perhaps the challenges of the wilderness are a necessary discomfort for the revelations of the spirit. Second Isaiah, the prophet who seeks to reboot the covenant after the catastrophic destruction and exile, begins his words, “A voice cries out in the wilderness: ‘Make a path for the Lord!’” (Isa. 40:3). The wilderness speaks —hamidbar medaber — and generations of Jews have returned to its rugged isolation to discover the divine presence.”

Rabbi Nevins observes, though, that in later times, the Rabbis did not extol the virtues of being out in nature and the wilderness. Their spiritual life was more city-based. But he notes that we find in Pirkei Avot (6:2), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that every day a voice cries out from Mount Horeb (Sinai): “Woe to those creatures who have contempt for Torah. Rabbi Nevins ponders this strange statement. He wonders why the Divine voice would continue to call out in the wilderness when the people are no longer there. He says, “In a midrash, Rabbi Levi explains by way of parable: “If a person loses a gem, where will they go to find it? They will return to the place where they lost it.” (Aggadat Bereshit, 68).”So, too,” continues Rabbi Nevins, “did God “lose” Israel in the wilderness when the spies led them to demand a return to Egypt. And since it was in the wilderness that God lost Israel, it is in the wilderness that God waits and calls out for Israel to return.”

He notes that the wilderness is not an easy place in which to be: it can be frightening, subject to extremes of heat and cold, with scarce resources of food and especially water, and a place of potential encounters with dangerous animals. A minor mishap, he adds, can turn into a life-threatening emergency. So, he says, we should go well-prepared, as we read the people tried to be. Rabbi Nevins notes that this week’s parashah opens by describing how they set forth on their desert journey with orderly preparations. “Moses is like a scoutmaster, preparing his charges for the rigors of the road. There is a census, and then a detailed description of the arrangement of the camp, replete with visual imagery of colorful pennants under which our ancestors marched. They were well organized in the beginning — as befits the start of an expedition — but in this book, the people of Israel will repeatedly break ranks, betray one another, and turn on their leaders. The farther Israel gets from Sinai, the fainter grows its inspiring message and the louder grow their voices of doubt and fear.”

Rabbi Nevins adds, “If God lost Israel in the wilderness, and God waits there for us still, then we, too, ought to leave the comforts of home at times and visit the wilderness, the midbar. In towns and cities we build ornate structures of religious life, and indeed, Judaism flourishes in urban settings. But it is in the wilderness that we can hear the divine voice and remember our purpose as people and as Jews. The wilderness speaks — hamidbar medaber— and in it a person may discern the voice of God. In the wilderness, the Torah may reveal itself once more. So, too, did my miserable trek on that ridge in the Cascades yield to magical moments. That Shabbat we camped on a little island in the middle of a rushing stream, and in its pulsing voice, I felt the presence of our Creator.”

“As the weather warms, it is time to seek out wild places, experience the raw power of God’s world, and listen for the divine call.

And finally, Rabbi Nevins says that ever since Sinai, the people of Israel have walked away from the mountain where once God’s voice called out to them. We have distanced ourselves from the wilderness and largely settled in urban surroundings. But every year on Shavuot, he says, we turn back towards the mountain of God. This week we begin the book of B’midbar, with its “wild and petulant pages” and he says, “[we] imagine ourselves back in the wilderness, returning to the mountain of the Lord.” Very soon, we will also celebrate Shavuot, the holiday on which we re-enact the revelation at Mount Sinai. Rabbi Nevins concludes, “Around midnight on Shavuot eve, let us try to wake up and listen closely, opening ourselves once more to hear the voice of God.”