(a sermon delivered on 6.23.17)
This week in Torah, we read the story of Korach, who was a cousin to Moses and Aaron. Our parasha describes how Korach, along with his lieutenants Datan and Abiram, organized a group of 250 Israelite leaders to challenge Moses and Aaron for leadership. Korach used the language of democracy to support his challenge, saying: “You have gone too far! 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?” [Num. 16:3]
On the one hand, Korach spoke some truth. The community was holy, every person – and God did dwell in their midst. Yet, in accusing Moses and Aaron of “raising themselves” above everyone else, he ignored the fact that it was God who placed them in their positions. The revolt, then, is not merely against Moses and Aaron, but also against God.
While we cannot know their motives for sure, it seems that Korach was angling for the job of High Priest, while Datan and Abiram, as the descendants of Jacob’s first born son Reuben, sought the political leadership. Regardless, their challenge not only failed, but they and their families paid the ultimate price.
In the great drama of this story, however, we often overlook that Korach is not the only one to challenge God:
Then the Presence of the Lord appeared to the whole community, and the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” But they fell on their faces and said, “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins will You be wrathful with the whole community?” [Num. 16:19-22]
At the moment of greatest danger, Moses and Aaron put themselves at risk to challenge God, who incredibly, listens to them and spares those who were not directly involved in the revolt. Moses and Aaron are neither chastised or punished for challenging God directly.
The next day, things got even worse: “the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You two have brought death upon the Lord’s people!’” [Num. 17:6]. God once again commands Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the people. Moses realizes that, this time, there is no time to argue with God, that the punishment has already begun in the form of a plague. So, he sends Aaron not away from the people, but into their midst – with a fire pan for a guilt offering. For the first time, Moses and Aaron challenge God not just with words, but with deeds.
What happens next? Some of the Israelites die of the plague – a large number. But the overwhelming majority are spared. Even more, neither Moses nor Aaron are punished for directly disobeying God.
The story of Korach, Moses and Aaron helps us to understand that we can and should stand up to those who have power, but only for the right reasons. Leadership, according to Torah, is about service. When our leaders truly serve the people, they deserve our support – even if we don’t agree on everything. However, when our leaders, are poised to harm the people, even if it is God, Torah teaches us to stand up for what is right, regardless of personal danger.
Speaking truth to power – this is moral obligation Torah places upon us all.
On this Shabbat, I cannot think of a more timely message.
Let’s talk about Health Care Reform.
This week the Senate passed its version of “repeal and replace,” which while we are still waiting for the CBO numbers to come out, looks as if it could be even worse than the House bill.
Now, before I get into the details, you might be wondering if I am simply taking a partisan position rather than speaking from the standpoint of Jewish values. So, let’s look at the Jewish part first, beyond the idea of speaking truth to power. Then we can get political.
We are commanded in Torah no fewer than thirty-three times to care for the most vulnerable in our midst: the orphan, the widow, the poor and the stranger in our midst. Yes, it is true that Torah makes no mention of Medicaid. Nor is healthcare mentioned anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. How, then, can we link healthcare to these older texts? In a word: Maimonides. Maimonides, who lived and taught in the 12th century, is arguably the greatest and most influential rabbi ever to live. In fact, some historians divide Jewish history into two eras: the one before Maimonides and the one after. More to our point, Maimonides taught that health care was among the most important communal services that a city was obligated to provide its citizens. In his time, the city had the best infrastructure to manage and deliver health care services. Today, our infrastructure has scaled to a national level.
On a first reading, this latest Senate bill seems to cut Medicaid even more than the house bill, it’s just that the deeper cuts are delayed until 2025. Not only do both bills put millions of Americans at risk, but the Senate version is particularly dangerous to Baby Boomers. As they continue to age, Boomers will require more complex care right at the time Medicaid would be most drastically cut. As if this weren’t enough, the bill also mandates a healthy tax refund to the wealthiest among us from funds previously used to subsidize Medicaid and other insurers.
Although I know that there are deeply religious people who support these bills, I personally struggle with them. I cannot reconcile the harm these bills would cause to millions of vulnerable people with any teaching I have learned from our tradition. Perhaps that is why so many Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federations of North American and the Union of Reform Judaism are lining up against these bills. For that matter, I cannot understand how something as basic as health care can be considered a polarizing partisan issue. It is a human issue! We need to be working together, across the aisle, to find a better solution..
Yes, Obamacare has some real problems. Yes, we need a better system. But, these bills are not the answer. Not only do they effect the most vulnerable in our midst, but they could place anyone who does not have enough personal wealth to cover their expenses without insurance at risk as well. In addition to dramatic cuts to Medicaid, this bill would remove protections against lifetime limits on the amount insurers will pay to cover individual health care costs, and instead leave it up to the states to decide.
Why does this matter?
Those people with the most significant health problems have higher medical expenses. Once they burn through their life-time limits, they would no longer be covered for the care they need to keep them healthy, and in some cases, alive. Only those with the means to handle private pay would be able to continue treatment. Leaving it to the states to determine which limits if any should be allowed is simply a race to the bottom. Let’s say that our wonderful State of Maryland decides to keep lifetime limits off the table. What happens if our neighboring states allow them? For-profit insurance companies would have an incentive to pull their business from Maryland in favor of markets that are easier on their bottom line. That in turn would place increased pressure on our state to change the rules to bring at least some coverage back to Maryland citizens. The cycle could repeat over and again, forcing potentially millions more to choose between health care or poverty.
Dayenu. It would be enough for us if only the most vulnerable were placed at greater risk, but these bills will harm many of us sitting here in this sanctuary right now.
In some ways we are quite fortunate. Thank God. All our representatives and senators are strongly against these bills. We do not need to lobby them. Not only that, but Governor Hogan issued a powerful statement yesterday decrying the bill – using even stronger language than his fellow Republican, Governor John Kasich.
So, what can we do?
First, we must stay engaged. We are so fortunate to live in a constitutional democracy, where we have the right to speak our minds in the public square. We must exercise that right.
Second, we can reach out to our friends and family who live in states where there is not strong opposition to these bills. We can explain why we are so opposed and ask them to reach out to their senators to urge them to vote against this legislation.
Finally, we should contact Governor Hogan’s office to thank him for his strong statement. He is taking a political risk, and he needs to know that we are behind him. Not only that, but we could also ask him to reach out to his fellow Republican governors and encourage them to make similar public statements, and while they are at it, to also place pressure on their senators who may be on the fence about this bill.
Korach may be the headliner of this week’s Torah portion, but we can follow a better example. Instead of pursuing our own wealth and power, let’s be like Moses and Aaron. Let’s speak truth to power to preserve life and health –
now and always.
Recently, Ed Reilly, who reports for our local channel 7 news affiliate, WKBW, broadcast a wonderful story on the challenges facing religious institutions and the national trend of declining affiliation rates. I was both honored and humbled to participate.
This weeks marks the one year anniversary of a remarkable collaboration at the Town Square Food Pantry, which is jointly operated by Temple Beth Zion and Catholic Charities at the Town Square Center for Aging.
There is a lot to love about this pantry. First and foremost, it provides food for those who are hungry in a dignified fashion. Even more, our specially trained volunteers care for the overall well-being of our clients by learning about their specific needs and connecting them to relevant community resources. Second, the pantry brings Jews and Christians together to serve God by serving humanity. This initiative is building bridges not only between the Jewish and Catholic communities, but within the Jewish community by bringing Reform and Orthodox Jews together. In addition, a growing number of greater community organizations have gotten involved, creating a ever widening scope of services including transportation and fresh produce from two community gardens. Finally, our wonderful volunteers have discovered that doing this holy work nourishes not only the hungry, but the souls of those who serve: it has brought them closer to our clients, to each other and to God.
There is so much to celebrate, and I offer my heartfelt gratitude and congratulations to everyone who is involved!
Here is what others are saying about the project (from the Buffalo Jewish Journal):
Rabbi Adam Scheldt - Temple Beth Zion
“It has been incredibly amazing to see the Town Square Food Pantry blossom and flower over the course of the year. Supporting and watching our volunteers not only embody, but enjoy the amazing Jewish values that underpin so much of what the Pantry is and does is an amazing gift. Their efforts and the pantry itself truly bring light to dark places and can inspire us all.
Amy Schaefer – Temple Beth Zion Lead Coordinator
We are excited about our successful collaboration with Catholic Charities and the broader community. The Food Pantry will continue to look for opportunities to expand its outreach to serve more clients.With over 20 volunteers who come on a regular basis and more who have helped with holiday food preparation and collections, we are very pleased to celebrate the first anniversary of the Town Square Food Pantry together.”
Jen Scheibner, Community Assistant at Catholic Charities.
“The Town Square Food Pantry has been a wonderful addition to the community. We are delighted to be a part of this operation in helping those in need,”
Currently the Town Square Food Pantry is serving nearly 175 families and about 40 residents at the Jewish Federation Housing unit and also reaches out throughout the zip codes of 14221 and 14068 in Amherst, New York region. Town Square Food Pantry located just west of the Weinberg Campus in Amherst welcomes donations or if you are in need of their services please call 716-391-2921.
I love Israel. I love the land, the people, the history and our deep connections to our ancient homeland. I have never felt more at home anywhere in the world than Israel, and my connection to Israel is central to my identity as a Jew.
However, as the Israeli equivalent of the 'Religious Right' gained more an more power, I as a non-Orthodox religious Jew, have felt less and less welcome in my homeland. It is incredibly ironic that Israel, the only Jewish nation in the world, guarantees freedom of religion for all people ... except for Jews.
The Kotel, also known as the Western Wall, is the closest Jews have been able to get to the site of the First and Second Temples for centuries. It commands a powerful place in our collective religious psyche and is far and above the holiest place a Jew can come to pray.
I stopped praying at the Wall about ten years ago, because it had come under the control of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who turned it into a place of intolerance.
Thank God, the Israeli cabinet decided on Sunday to reclaim the Kotel and the Kotel plaza for all Jews, not just the chareidim. In addition to the traditional men's and women's sections, a new egalitarian section will be constructed, where men and women can pray together, and women can sing and chant from Torah, and wear tallitot. The men's and women's sections will remain under ultra-Orthodox control, while the new section and the plaza will belong to the State (which is to say, to the rest of us).
This is truly cause for celebration! As the center of the Jewish world, Israel should reflect the diversity of our people. The establishment of the new egalitarian section at the Kotel is a major step forward. Now we need to remain vigilant, to make sure that the promise becomes reality.
I am writing about the core narratives in Judaism and Christianity as reflected in Psalms 105:26-45 and Acts 2:22-24 respectively. I am comparing and contrasting these scriptures. To me, they are simplistic yet complex in nature as they explain the underlying narrative of each religion.
Thank you for exploring these questions, and especially, for your service to our country.
Your question deserves a nice Jewish answer - so I have one for you: yes and no.
To explain my answer, I first need to define what I mean by the Exodus, and how I understand your question. The story of the Exodus from Egypt begins with Exodus 1:1 and ends with the last verse of Deuteronomy - and contains everything in the middle. As you thought, that narrative is the central and defining narrative of Jewish tradition.
In your question, you describe the Exodus as "God's plan for the redemption of his people." That is not the way I generally think about it. Yes, the text specifically says that this is all according to God's plan. However, for me, it is more about our experience (in which God of course is the driving force) of moving from Egyptian slavery through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness towards the Promised Land. In other words, my response is less theological and more humanistic (although I am not a humanist, but a religious Jew). I do not think that the Exodus went the way God planned, because we Israelites had a way of stubbornly getting in our own way over and again. So, for example, in Psalm 105 there is a reference to God providing quail - but that happened two times, and the second was actually a punishment for how we complained that we were tired of manna and had better food in Egypt - so that the quail came until it was coming out of our nostrils (Num. 11:1-20).
What I am trying to express is that the Exodus, as the primary narrative of the Jewish people is less about God's plans and more about the nexus where we and God meet. It is about God's extraordinary generosity, and reliability. It is about remembering that we have humble origins, that our successes are tied to God, and that in turn helps to remind us to be humble, to look after each other (and not just other Jews BTW), and most especially those who are most vulnerable in our community. It connects us to God intimately and profoundly, and it connects us to each other. As the genetic descendants of the Israelites, it is also our family story and we read it as such.
Before I ramble on any further, let me try to reel this in with a more concise frame. The story of the Exodus (as I define it), is in my opinion the central and defining narrative of Jewish tradition - everything else that follows is in some way connected to this story. However, the Exodus itself is predicated on another, more theological frame, which is the covenant between Israel and God, as first expressed by God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Exodus is definitive because it demonstrates God's fulfillment of the covenantal promise and reminds us to make sure to do our part. However, it is one moment in time, and the story is repeated in one way or another in each generation. My teacher Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes that Jewish spirituality can be summed up as the repeating cycle of exile and return. The Exodus was the first great return from exile, and most dramatic. Yet for us as individuals and as a people, this is a recurring experience. In other words, it is not just that the Exodus is what we build everything on, but rather something we are still experiencing.
I hope this helps. Good luck with the paper!
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Anyone familiar with the Game of Thrones series (whether in its printed or video forms) knows the phrase: “winter is coming.” Filled with ominous foreboding, these words are intended to inspire caution so that we will prepare for the very worst we can imagine, because in the story-line it is coming – and then some.
Here in Western New York, we are no strangers to cold and long winters. February (and sometimes January) have always felt like the coldest months to me. If you live anywhere above the Mason-Dixon line chances are that you are also feeling the cold; and if you are recovering from the big blizzard in the mid-atlantic region you might also be wishing for an early spring!
“Winter is coming” is a terrifying concept. As Jews we have lived in “cold” times of crisis, when anti-Semitism grew and we faced ever-increasing persecution, harm and even death. However, “winter is coming” is not really a Jewish approach to life.
What is a Jewish approach?
This evening we will celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the new year of the trees. Tu B’Shvat is one of my favorite Jewish holidays, because it recognizes that there is more to winter than meets the eye. Tu B’Shvat boldly proclaims that winter is not a time of death. Rather, it is the time when, hidden beneath the surface, the process of new life is already beginning. Tu B’Shvat reminds us to look beyond the surface, and to recognize that when it feels like all is winter, God is with us - and “spring is coming.”
[This letter, to which I am proud to attach my name, was published in the Buffalo News on January 14. I consider it a true blessing to be able to partner with the Reverend George Nicholas of Concerned Clergy, Bishop R. William Franklin of the Episcopal Church and Bishop Richard Malone of the Catholic Church in the fight against poverty here in Buffalo.]
By George Nicholas and R. William Franklin
Pope Francis has said that in a world with so much wealth and so many resources, it is unfathomable that so many live in poverty. He calls poverty in today’s world a “scandal.” Poverty strips people of their dignity. To see it so rampant in our city is indeed a scandal.
While Francis speaks as the leader of the Catholic Church, the truths about which he speaks transcend Catholicism and even Christianity. Across faiths, there is a call to ensure dignity for everyone.
Whether that sentiment is expressed as “love your neighbor as yourself,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or to “regard your neighbor’s loss as your own,” the command is the same – to work toward the dignity of all of God’s children.
As clergy, we feel the call to heed this commandment. It guides our actions and shapes our ministries. It has foundational significance for each of our religions and allows us to reach across faiths to unite with the singular goal of alleviating poverty in Buffalo.
Our historic union of religious leaders established a working group to discuss how we could better the economic circumstances of our brothers and sisters in Buffalo.
As we explored options, we heard from many that another “handout” was not the answer. Social programs serve as safety nets and don’t provide permanent solutions to the problems of unemployment, underemployment or the absence of opportunities. It is said that the highest rung on the ladder of charity is to “help people help themselves.” This is what people are asking for – a strategic effort to bring opportunities to the most impoverished sections of Buffalo.
To this end, we put our collective voices behind the efforts of Assemblyman Sean Ryan and call for the establishment of the Hiring and Investing in Real Employment program (HIRE Buffalo) to connect high-quality jobs to the sections of the city facing extreme concentrations of poverty.
We are grateful for the economic boom that has come to Buffalo. But, if a decade from now, businesses have brought jobs to the area, yet portions of our city still have a poverty rate over 50 percent, then the economic renaissance is a mirage. The measure of true resurgence is found not in how much wealth the rich can accumulate, but by how many we can lift out of poverty.
The poverty rate was a key reason Gov. Andrew Cuomo established the Buffalo Billion. We call on Empire State Development to complete the circle and connect the jobs coming to Buffalo with our brothers and sisters in need.
It is our duty to live a life that protects the dignity of everyone; it is also our duty to call on others to do the same.
[In addition to the Rev. George Nicholas and Bishop R. William Franklin, this letter was signed by Bishop Richard J. Malone and Rabbi Gary Pokras.]
Filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand has spent almost forty years photographing the world to better understand our planet. Recently, he dedicated three years to create a new project: "Human." The scope of "Human" is breathtaking. He and his team traveled to sixty countries and spoke with 2000 different people, recording their stories on film. Each story is a precious gift, a window into the meaning of human life and death: our struggles, our loves, our pain, our triumphs.
Francine Cristophe is a French Jew who, as a child in 1944, was interred in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Do yourself a favor, watch and listen as she tells her story.
She's worth it,
and so are you.
For more stories
and information on "Human"
please click on the photo
We live in seemingly dark times, which is why more than ever, we need to bring light into our world.
It is easy to be afraid of the dark, to fear things that go bump in the night, because we can't see our surroundings. Instead, our imagination takes over so that everything around us is transformed into "danger." Fear is a natural response to danger, and we have a primal urge to protect our ourselves and our families from the dangers we can see, and from those hidden by the dark.
Terrorism spreads darkness in our world.
Terror attacks do more than kill people. The despicable horror of the acts themselves, in combination with the stealth that sometimes makes them difficult to anticipate (and therefore prevent), gets inside of our heads and feeds the darkest part of our imaginations. When we begin to act out of fear rather than out of principle, we begin to forget who we are.
We begin to accept the darkness.
Consider the Israelites wandering in the Wilderness. Never mind that with their own eyes they saw the Ten Plagues that brought Egypt to its knees. Never mind that they witnessed the parting of the Sea and walked through on dry land, and then saw the waters close over Pharaoh's chariots. Never mind that they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and felt the ground shake, and heard with their own ears the voice of God speak from on high. The fear felt by the Israelites was so profound that despite the horrors they knew of Egyptian slavery, and the miracles they personally witnessed, they could not embrace the Promise of a new future. Instead, they complained and rebelled over and over again. They began to accept the darkness. The generation that was freed from Egypt would not, could not, reach the Promised Land. Over forty years of wandering, a new generation needed to be born and to grow up, a generation that was not enslaved by their fear.
Fear leads to hatred. Hatred leads to violence. Violence leads to fear.
It takes courage to break this cycle, courage and faith. We must be brave enough to take risks in the face of our fear, and have faith that we can ultimately prevail.
Since the attacks in Paris last week, a new wave of fear is sweeping through the West. Here in the United States, this has been expressed as a backlash against accepting Syrian refugees. Why? Because we are afraid that cells of sleeper terrorists might be embedded among them.
We are beginning to accept the dark.
More than thirty sitting governors said that no Syrian refugees will be welcome in their states. The House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday to freeze any further Syrian refugees from being granted asylum until some time in the future when the refugee resettlement program can be reevaluated (whatever that means). In my own neighborhood, in Western New York, where for years we have helped refugee populations from all over the world, some of our political leaders now want to close the gates and the county legislature is even considering a public referendum on whether or not to admit any refugees fleeing from Syria.
They are beginning to accept the dark.
We Jews know what happens when refugees are turned away. We know what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land. Our Jewish values teach us to welcome the stranger, and to care for the most vulnerable in society. This principle is so important that it is repeated no fewer than thirty-three times in the Torah. It is at the heart of who we are:
We are commanded to bring light into the darkness.
Closing our borders to refugees plays right into the hands of the terrorists. It is exactly the kind of response they are hoping for, because it creates a sense of alienation and resentment among those who are desperate for relief. By closing our borders, we not only reject our own values and principles, but we turn the very people who need us against us. We are helping the terrorists to create a new fertile recruiting ground for future rounds of violence.
All of the evidence suggests that there is no real danger to the United States from refugees, because each candidate for asylum is rigorously vetted through a two to three year process. According to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times ("They Are Us," Nov. 19, 2015) of the 785,000 refugees admitted the States since 9/11 only three have been arrested on charges related to terrorism (and apparently they were out of the country). Kristof goes on to note that embedding a terrorist in the refugee population is far more difficult and time consuming than just sending them over on student visas, or as tourists from Europe (where they may already have citizenship). He asked pointedly if we should close our borders to foreign students and tourists?
As Jews we are commanded to bring light into the darkness. As Americans, immigration is central to our history and to the ethos of our great nation. Providing safety to those who flee oppression is a cornerstone of who we aspire to be.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Let us fight terror not with fear but with strength and with faith. Let us fight terror not only with weapons of war, but with ideas and values. Let us remember who we are and live by the principles that make us great. Let us demonstrate to those who have suffered horribly and have fled for their very lives, that here things are different, that the United States is truly a land with justice and liberty for all.
Let us fight darkness not with more darkness, but with light.
The story is legendary, and seemingly simple. Cain and Abel are brothers, the children of Adam and Eve. They offer sacrifices to God, but because Abel offers his best to God and Cain does not, God only accepts Abel's sacrifice. In a fit of anger or jealousy (we're not sure which) Cain kills his brother and then lies to God about it, famously asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4:9)
Look more closely at the story, however, and another frame emerges. "In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to God from the fruit of the soil; and Abel for his part brought the choicest of the firstlings from his flock." (Genesis 4:3-4)
God doesn't ask for a sacrifice, but after a period of time, Cain decides to show some gratitude and respect. There are no instructions, there is no established practice of rights and wrongs, just the idea - and Cain decides to invent a new thing we now call 'offering a sacrifice.' Abel, possibly seeing what Cain is doing is moved to do the same, but improves upon Cain's idea by choosing to offer not just anything, but his very best.
I can imagine Cain's indignation. It was his idea! Abel stole it and then beat Cain at his own game!
God speaks directly to Cain, to reassure him that he has nothing to worry about. If Cain tries again and offers his best, then God will accept his sacrifice as well, but, if he instead chooses to not do his best, then "sin will crouch at the door" (Gen. 4:7).
Perhaps Cain was too upset, but regardless of his reason, he ignores God's advice. Instead of making a second, better offering (not to be confused with offering his second-best), he chose to kill his brother. In other words, he put the blame on his brother, not on himself, and acted to eliminate his competition. He was wrong, even if we can sympathize with his pain, and he paid a terrible price..
We can derive two lessons from this. First, life is not a race, and success is predicated, at least in part, on learning from each other. We don't need to be first to succeed. Second, and I think more importantly, we have the ability to choose how we respond to adversity. We can do as Cain did, and blame (or even harm) others when we don't bring our best; or we can learn from Cain's tragic mistake and strive to always bring our best.
Reading this story seemed strangely and uncomfortably familiar. Far too many of us act more like Cain than Abel, and this seems especially true in politics - where it is common practice to be say little and do less, and make sure to blame the other guy (or gal) for what is wrong in the world. Imagine what would happen if, in our personal lives and in our political discourse, we all tried to be less like Cain and more like Abel.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras