Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
This week’s Torah portion has a lot of anger. That is, as Rabbi Pamela Wax teaches, five different expressions and types of anger are woven into the parasha, and in essence, serve as a unifying theme.
Here are just three:
The portion opens with a murder, or perhaps an execution – depending on your point of view. God is angry with the Israelites (not for the first time) because of growing idolatry in their midst. As a punishment, God sends a terrible plague that kills entire swaths of the population. In order to prevent more Israelite deaths, Pinchas (for whom the portion is named), kills an Israelite man and a Midianite idol worshipper for cohabitating with a single thrust of his spear. This act of violence successfully averts God’s divine wrath. Yet, as Rabbi Wax observes, is the use of violence the best way to remove anger? Pinchas’ actions effectively enabled God’s “acting out” instead of what Moses and Abraham had done in the past, which was to talk God down and plead for the well-being of Israel.
The second expression of anger involves the five daughters of Zelophophad who petitioned Moses to grant them the right of inheritance from their father, who had no sons to leave his estate to. In the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel this was unheard of. If there were no sons, the inheritance would go to the nearest male relative. The daughter’s anger at this injustice can be seen by in the Hebrew by how they demand the inheritance, rather than ask for it politely. In this case, their anger is rewarded, and their request granted.
The third exploration of anger brings us back to last week’s parashah, to when Moses lashed out in anger at the Israelites for demanding water from him while he was grieving for his sister Miriam. In his anger he put himself in place of God and acted as if he was miraculously causing the water to flow from the rock. His punishment was that after forty years of leading our difficult and cantankerous people through the Wilderness, Moses would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. In this week’s portion, Moses humbly references that moment and accepts his punishment, by asking God to designate his successor. In other words, he has completed his process of teshuvah – of repentance and return to the right path.
Taken together, these three different episodes shed light on how anger can play out in our own lives, how it can be harnessed for good when necessary, and how to move through and past it to find a better place. Then and now.
In today’s world, anger brought us to a rather odd place this week, especially for those who are both Jewish and football fans. You know who you are!
I am referring to Eagles star wide receiver Desean Jackson, who posted some anti-Semitic remarks on Instagram, including a false claim that Hitler said that Black people were “the real Children of Israel” and that white Americans would be terrified to know that they have been “mistreating and discriminating and lynching” them. There was a quick and powerful backlash, after which he took down the post and apologized, only to then turn around and praise Louis Farrakhan, who is himself considered by many, including me, to be an anti-Semite.
Again, there was a strong backlash, and again Desean Jackson apologized and took down his post, and pleaded ignorance.
Before saying anything else, I want to acknowledge that as painful as his comments were and are, thank God that we live in a nation where most people simply will not tolerate such statements. He may be an NFL superstar, but his anti-Semitism was quickly and powerfully repudiated, and for that I am grateful. However, the same is not as true for those who declare that Black Lives don’t Matter.
For this reason, it is not enough to simply say we have to stop anti-Semitism. This story, still unfolding in real time, gives us an opportunity to go deeper. I believe Desean Jackson when he pleads ignorance. I believe that he does not understand the first thing about anti-Semitism and the realities and dangers Jews have faced throughout history and throughout the world. And, I believe he was trying (and failing) to express the same righteous anger as the daughters of Zelophophad – anger against injustice.
It is not news, or at least it shouldn’t be, that the Coronovirus has exposed the racial injustice which exists systemically in our nation against black and brown people. For the first time in a long time, more and more white people are becoming aware of how prevalent and devastating this injustice is. Many of us support the cause of fighting racial injustice, and we are seeking to become anti-racist allies for Black and Brown people.
That cause is just. However, Desean Jackson expressed his anger in way that looked more like Pinchas than the sisters Zelophophad. And while the NFL did not respond directly, some of his fellow players chose to be friends rather than enablers. Steelers offensive tackle Zach Banner, who is also black, shared an emotional video in which he denounced anti-Semitism and referenced the Tree of Life massacre, and then went on to say: “We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I’m not trying to get emotional right now. I want to preach to the black and brown community that we need to uplift [the Jewish community] and put our arms around them just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and elevating ourselves. We can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves. That’s very important to me and should be important to everyone.”
This is a classy response, and I am grateful to Banner for speaking so powerfully. He epitomized the Jewish value of tochechah, of rebuke when our friends do something wrong – not out of anger, but out of love for them, so that they can learn and grow.
My favorite response, however, came from Julian Edelman, Superbowl MVP and Patriots wide receiver, who also happens to be Jewish. He posted a video in which he spoke deeply and profoundly in solidarity with black and brown people. And then he ended with the following blockbuster statement: “We need to listen. We need to learn. We need to act. We need to have those uncomfortable conversations if we’re going to have real change. Desean, let’s do a deal, how about we go to D.C., and I take you to the Holocaust Museum, and you take me to the Museum of African American History and Culture. Afterward, we grab some burgers, and we have those uncomfortable conversations. This world a little more love, compassion, and empathy.”
Edelman moves from rebuke to teshuvah just as Moses did, and he recognizes that there is ignorance among Jews about black and brown racial injustice, just as Desean Jackson demonstrated and acted out of ignorance of anti-Semitism. I really hope they get together and tour the museums and have a heart to heart over burgers.
The goal for all of us is not to get into a contest to see who has suffered more, or even to try to compare our different pains, but to acknowledge that we all have something to learn, and that right now, black and brown people are suffering and that healing can only come through the uncomfortable process of teshuvah – of opening ourselves up to the realities which we prefer to ignore, of doing the serious soul searching that leads to lasting change, and then determining to act on what we have learned. In this way, anger becomes love, fear becomes understanding, weakness becomes strength.
 Rabbi Pamela Wax, “Pinchas – Kaas: An Anger Banquet,” in Block, Rabbi Barry H. ed. The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2020, p. 253-57
 Zach Banner, Instagram post, July 8, 2020
 Julian Edelman, Instagram post, July 9, 2020
(for our new and departed Beth Ami board members)
Numbers 19:1 – 25:9
Let’s talk about miracles.
When we think about miracles, we tend to think of God, but in Chukkat, it is Moses who performs the miracle.
Here is the story: Miriam (Moses’ sister) was a water diviner, and for close to forty years found water for the Israelites throughout their journey through the Wilderness. This week, the Torah records her death, and immediately the Israelites become thirsty and gather against Moses and Aaron to demand water. Moses turns to God, who directs Moses to speak to a rock in God’s name, in order for God to perform a miracle and cause water to flow out from the rock.
Moses, however, still grieving for his sister and deeply frustrated with the Israelite demands, does not follow the plan. Instead, he goes to the rock and then yells to the Israelites: “Listen you rebels! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” [Num. 20:10] Moses then smacks the rock with his staff twice and enough water for all of Israel and their flocks came forth.
In the eyes of Israel, the miracle maker was Moses, not God. For that reason, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land, lest Israel began to worship him instead of God. Yet, there is a larger story at play here. Rabbi Neil Schuman, quoting Professor Richard Elliot Friedman notes:
“This is an all-important step in a gradual shift in the balance of control of miraculous phenomena in the Bible. Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Isaac perform no miracles.” God brings about miracles in Egypt and by the Red Sea, but now Moses changes a miracle. “This shift will continue in the biblical books that follow the Torah, and it is one of the central developments of the Bible: Joshua will call for the sun to stand still in the skies. By calling for a miracle on his own, without direction from God, he goes even further than Moses. Later, Samson has powers implanted in him at birth, so that he is free to use them as he wishes all his life. Later still, Elijah and Elisha use miracles for a variety of personal purposes. It appears that, starting with Moses, God is entrusting humans with ever more responsibility and control of their destiny.”
For the entirety of my rabbinate, I have considered Torah to be (at least in part) a description of God our parent and our early childhood as Israel. Babies need their parents for everything. As toddlers, we are still completely reliant on our parents, except we begin to walk on our own. As children we slowly take on more responsibility for ourselves until eventually, we have the maturity and the strength to enter adulthood, still with our parent’s help. So, in a sense, I see the forty years of wandering between Egypt and the Promised Land as the collective bar/bat mitzvah of the Jewish people. We are not done growing, but we are taking more and more responsibility for ourselves.
It is not that miracles disappear completely with the end of the Jewish Bible. Rabbi Schuman reminds us of Honi the Circle Maker who forced God to bring rain in the midst of a drought, and Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa – a miracle worker from the first generation of rabbis following the destruction of the Temple. He also speaks of other miraculous deeds recorded in Talmud, such as Rabbi Zeira using prayer to restore a life he had accidentally taken. Then there are the Chassidic traditions, which record miracles performed by their rebbes and saints.
Rather, Chukkat is the turning point. It is the moment the arc of our story begins to shift from outward reliance towards communal and self-reliance. God is still with us, the love of our parent never leaves us, but we are invested with the knowledge that we have agency, that through our acts we can change even that which seems unchangeable. And, more often than not, it does not require a miracle – but rather initiative and good leadership.
To our departing lay leaders: thank you for the strength, courage, compassion and love you have demonstrated through your leadership to our congregation and the Jewish people. To our incoming and continuing board members: you’ve got this. You are all blessings, you are all a little miraculous, and we are blessed because of you.
 Schuman, Neil, “The Miracle Worker,” online Torah commentary, date unknown, quoting Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah (Kindle Locations 29017-29032). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Torah teaches us to speak truth to power, to challenge authority for the sake of a greater good. Contrary to so many other ancient traditions, which equated disagreement with disloyalty, and often punished it with death, both Abraham and Moses are able to successfully challenge God. Even more, they survived!
Enter Korach (cue scary music).
Korach challenged Moses for the leadership of Israel. He used language surprisingly reminiscent of democracy (an idea that would not exist for several thousand years). His words seem just on the surface, and Moses responds with humility, inviting Korach and his followers into dialogue. However, they refuse.
In the showdown which follows, God demonstrates divine support for Moses with spectacular drama, destroying Korach and his followers in a terrible and precise earthquake which miraculously leaves Moses and the rest of Israel untouched.
The classical rabbinic commentators condemn Korach, not because he challenged authority, but because he challenged authority for the wrong reason. He did not seek to replace Moses for the sake of Israel, or as the rabbis would put it, ‘for the sake of heaven.’ Instead he was motivated by greed and ego. Moses, in stark contrast, was consistently described as humble and a leader who understood his role as one of service, not self-aggrandizement.
The Korach story is among the most important in Torah, because it teaches us to refine our understanding of how to pursue justice. Leadership is a sacred responsibility and trust, and when that trust is violated, we must challenge our leaders. However, even in the Israelite community, where God visibly dwelled in the midst of the camp as a pillar of fire by night and smoke by day, were those who sought leadership with cynicism and malice, those who only cared for themselves and not for the community. If this could happen there, in the presence of God, then how much the more so for us.
Yet we can model ourselves on Moses and not Korach. Let us refute lies with truth, ego with humility, hate with love, and indifference with compassion as we continue to seek our way out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
That is the path of Torah.
Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
In Shelach Lecha God tells Moses to send twelve scouts to the Promised Land, so that they can bring back a report. The scouts return and say that the land is rich with “milk and honey,” but ten of the twelve go on to say that it is heavily fortified by “giants” and that there is no hope for the Israelites. Joshua and Caleb are the only scouts to speak against this fear, but their urgent pleas fall on deaf ears. As a result, panic spreads through the camp and the Israelites lash out at Moses and God. In the end, God decides that the Israelites are not ready, and decrees that they shall wander in the Wilderness for forty years. All of the adults over the age of 20 (except Joshua and Caleb) will live and die in the Wilderness. Only the next generation will be able to enter the land.
Traditionally, we understand this story as being about Israel’s loss of faith. Only Joshua and Caleb were able to keep the faith, so only they ultimately merited a home in the Promised Land. However, this year, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offered a wholly different approach. He notes that all twelve of the spies witnessed the plagues in Egypt, they saw parting of the Sea, and they heard the Revelation at Sinai. All twelve experienced God’s presence in the midst of the camp as a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. They could not possibly have questioned their belief in God, or their experience of God’s power.
What then is the story about? Rabbi Sacks teaches that the problem is not faith but narrative, by which he means, the scouts did not understand the narrative they were part of – meaning the reality of the world around them. He noticed that while we often talk about the twelve as spies, the Torah does not call them spies at all. There are two Hebrew verbs for spying: lachpor and leragel. Neither of these terms are used in our Torah portion. Rather, the verb used to command their work is latur – and it is used twelve different times. Latur is rarely used in Biblical Hebrew. In modern Hebrew it has come to mean “to tour” – as in being a tourist. Spies and tourists are not at all similar. Tourists look for the good in the lands they visit, spies look for weaknesses.
Rabbi Sacks, in noticing this difference, understands that the problem with ten of the spies wasn’t faith, but that they did not listen! They were commanded latur, to tour, but instead they spied – and we have been calling them spies ever since. In other words, they completely misunderstood their mission, because they completely misunderstood the narrative. Their mission was to tour the land and bring back the good they found, and they did bring back a good report. But then they added the bad, acting as spies rather than as tourists, and in so doing undermined the whole purpose behind why they were sent in the first place – with catastrophic result.
Understanding the narrative around us is important at all times, but especially in times of crisis. Our ability to find our way through successfully depends to a great extent on our ability to learn and understand the narratives which surround us, not just the ones we want to believe.
For example, I want to believe the words in the Pledge of Allegiance which describe the United States as “one nation, under God.” I wish it were true, but it is not. I cannot remember a time when we were more polarized and divided than we are now. We face a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of racial injustice – and our political dysfunction is so deeply entrenched that what should be basic common sense is in and of itself politicized and polarized in ways that further divide us. We will never find our way through unless we learn to pay attention our narratives, which if they are based in reality, must include the narratives of the people around us. In other words, we must learn from the would-be spies of the Torah; we must learn to listen.
We can still make it to the Promised Land.
We will make mistakes along the way.
Please, God, may it take less than forty years.
Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
This is the week everything changes. The first ten chapters of the book of Numbers are about the pageantry and grand preparations for our great national journey of uplift. No longer will we be on the path from oppression in Egypt. No, midway through chapter ten we start on the road to the Promised Land. We are finally on our way! We are no longer fleeing but moving with direction and purpose towards a brighter future!
One might imagine that the Israelites were joyful at this moment, that they anticipated the freedom which beckoned just over the horizon.
Nope. Not at all.
The careful planning and ceremonious ordering fell apart even as the journey began. The Israelites did not rejoice – they complained! They wanted better food. They remembered the fresh food which they ate in Egypt, while conveniently forgetting their enslavement, and they worked themselves into a frenzy. Moses bore the brunt of their anger and fell into the deepest despair of his career. He was ready to throw in the towel. Rabbi Noah Farkas writes: “After the greatest liberation in history and the greatest revelation in history, it is lunch that brings Moses to the breaking point.”
God, of course, helps Moses, but that is for a different drash.
Instead, let’s consider why Torah takes ten full chapters to set the stage for an orderly and triumphant journey, and then chronicles how those plans unravel. Indeed, the entire rest of the book is about just that – everything that went wrong along the way.
The journey should have been straightforward, a few weeks or months, if only life didn’t get in the way. Perhaps that is the message. No matter how carefully we plan, we cannot control the world around us. Nor can we control the people around us. Indeed, sometimes we even struggle to control ourselves. The plan was great in theory. It’s just that the people were not ready. So, over the course of the book of Numbers, God will develop a new plan, a slower and more painful plan, which will eventually get us through the Wilderness.
Today, COVID 19 has upended all of our plans. It has infected millions, killing over 400,000 people worldwide and overwhelming our health care systems. It has wrecked our economies and infrastructures and caused additional pain and trauma through the imposed isolation of social distancing. And, in the United States, is has also shed new light on the devasting and systemic racism which stands in stark contrast to the central values of our republic. If the goal of our founding fathers was to truly create a nation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of our citizens, then the plan has failed for entire swaths of our population. We are in the Wilderness and the plan isn’t working.
Despair is one reaction. Another is to do as God instructed Moses: don’t go it alone, get help.
Today we are in the separate yet connected wildernesses of COVID and of racism. Yet, amidst all of the pain and suffering, fear and rage, are signs of hope. More people have worked together to protect the health of others through social distancing and medical research than ever before in human history. Protests and sustained political pressure following the murder of George Floyd have created never before seen momentum for new interracial partnerships and the kind of national soul-searching that can lead to real change.
We are deep in the wilderness, but there is a Promised Land. Perhaps now we are finally on the path from slavery to the promise. We will need a new plan, flexible enough to change along the way. It will take longer that we wish. It will not be easy. Yet I have every faith, that one day, together, we will arrive.
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
For as long as I can remember, we Jews have spoken about the importance of Tikkun Olam, of repairing the world. When we began to look at how broken the world is and worried that it was too much to handle, we (quoted the rabbis and) said, “We are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” [Pirke Avot 2:16] And while historically, we have more often than not been among the most at-risk humans on the planet, recently we have enjoyed relative comfort and stability. This, in turn, has led some of us, perhaps many of us, to a place of disconnect, of not being sensitive to the brokenness around us and God’s call for us to be agents of healing, of repair.
Then COVID struck – and suddenly everyone was at risk together.
Except we weren’t. People of color were far more at risk than white people, because of the inequalities baked into our society.
Then the economy tanked – and everyone was at risk together. Except we weren’t.
Then George Floyd was murdered by officers who are supposed to serve and protect, and it was caught on video, and the nation saw, and the protests erupted, and the fires were lit, and our national leaders poured more violence into the mix, increasing the fissures of brokenness rather than finding paths towards healing.
And the pain, and the suffering, and the outrage, and the fear became unbearable, overwhelming. Our great nation is so broken, and we feel so helpless.
Yet we are not helpless, nor are we, by ourselves, the solution.
As I always do, when I need guidance and direction, I turn to Torah. This week’s portion, Naso, contains two separate teachings written for this moment. In the opening verse of the parasha, the Israelite census from the last portion is continued. However, the Hebrew for how we count is important – indeed, it is how this portion got its name:
“Naso et rosh – lift up the heads of the people of the Gershonites, too …” [Ex. 4:21-22]
Each time a tribe or clan of Israel was counted in the census, the phrase naso et rosh – lift up their heads, is invoked. Torah calls to us, despite everything, to lift up our heads, to know that we count, that even if we cannot fix all that is broken, we can still be agents of repair.
This is where the second teaching comes in:
“Should a man or a woman commit any of the human offenses (chatot ha’adam), to betray the trust of God, that person shall bear guilt. And they shall confess their offenses which they committed …” [Ex. 5:5-7]
The first step to lifting our heads and becoming agents of repair, is to look within, and to recognize our part, conscious or unconscious, large or small, active or passive, in supporting the status quo of brokenness. Even more, if we pay attention to the grammar in Torah, we can see that while the teaching starts in the singular, it moves to the plural “they.” From this the rabbis understood that creating a just society is not merely a matter of individual agency, but a collective responsibility. We are our brother’s keepers. The entire Torah exists to teach this lesson. When we ignore each other’s pain, or worse, intensify the suffering, we “betray the trust of God.”
In the June edition of the Atlantic, George Parker wrote:
“When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills – a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public – had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.”
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, in responding to Parker’s statement, teaches:
“Indeed, we must confess the pre-existing conditions which have plagued humanity for centuries and threaten our democracy today – racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and ableism. These ills all boil down to thinking some lives matter more than others. We must rid our world of these toxins to prevail against Coronavirus and whatever other threats come our way.”
Let us look deeply within ourselves. Let us listen with humility and attention to those around us. Let us acknowledge our place in the world as it was before Coronavirus and let us choose how we will live in the world as is should be.
Then we can lift up our heads and know that our lives count.
 Parker, George. The Atlantic, “We are Living in a Failed State,” June 2020.
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
A story from Rabbi Craig Ezring:
During the Corona Virus Lockdown, many parents wound up working from home via their computers. They also had to make sure that their children were doing their schoolwork. One Mother, who happens to be an Accountant came up with a great idea. She knew her little one enjoyed doing the same things she was doing. When they went to the market, Mamma got a big cart and her daughter got a little one. When Mamma was busy cooking in the kitchen, her daughter loved to play with the pots and pans and a play oven.
“I needed to count on you.”
This is what it means to be in a family, in a friendship, in a community. This is how we get through the joys and the challenges of our lives. This is how we get to the Promised Land. We count on each other.
Parashat Bemidbar not only begins a new book of the Torah (Numbers) but a new stage in our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The entire portion is a census of Israel (and the census is so long that it continues into next week’s parasha). As each and every Israelite is counted, their dignity is elevated from that of a slave to that of a free person, for the first Israelite census taught all of Israel that they count – and can be counted on
The same is true for us today. Now more than ever, we need to count on each other. We need to ask for help when we need it and give support when we are able. Now more than ever the skills, intention, and blessings we have to offer make a difference – they truly count. And, now more than ever we need to make sure to participate in the national census and register to vote, because each one of us counts.
This is the Torah for finding our way from the Wilderness to the Promise … then and now.
Count on it.
Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
What’s in a word?
The answer depends on this word, and this week we encounter an especially important one. This week’s double portion, Behar/B’Chukotai, begins with the commandments for a sabbatical year, a year of rest for the land, and those who work it every seven years and the Jubilee year, a complete reset every 50 years for the land and for people. While these commandments may seem a little strange to the contemporary reader, they are rich with meaning and wisdom.
This year, Rabbi David Greenspan inspired me to look at only one word among many:
“And the land shall not be sold irreversibly, for Mind is the land, for you are sojourning settlers with Me.” [Lev. 25:23]
This verse is about the Jubilee year, where all land sold between the last Jubilee and this one are returned to the original owners. The key word is the last one in Hebrew: imadi (translated as “with Me”). Imadi is an unusual expression in bible, and as such, carries a unique import. Immi and itti are the two most common ways to say “with me.” Imadi, in contrast, only rarely occurs. Perhaps its most famous use is in the Psalms:
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me (imadi).” [Psalm 23:4]
The Psalmist chose imadi over the other options for a reason: unlike itti and imi, the word imadi shares a root with the verb omeid (ayin, mem, dalet), which means “to stand.” Imadi means more than just “with me,” it means “stand with me.” In the Psalm, David overcomes his fear by recognizing that God stands with him, even in times of desperate danger. In this week’s parasha, we find the opposite side of the same coin: we are commanded to stand with God.
Without the word imadi, the commandment for the Jubilee seems to be focused on maintaining the balance of power between the tribes of Israel (because land equaled power). However, when God connects the reason behind the commandment with imadi, a new layer of meaning is revealed. Let’s take another look at the verse from Torah, this time with a less poetic but more literal translation:
“And the land shall not be sold irreversibly, for Mind is the land, for you are sojourning settlers - stand with Me.” [Lev. 25:23]
It seems to me that the inclusion of imadi changes the focus from the balance of power through control of land to the recognition that land is not, in actuality, equivalent to power. The strength and security which comes from our relationship with the land stems from our relationship with God. The land changes. We change. God remains constant. God, even more than the land, is the source of our strength. Additionally, the Hebrew can be read to mean that God says imadi, because we are all wanderers together – even God. Theologically, the concept is enormous, because it suggests that just as we need God, God needs us.
We may be vulnerable, afraid, in danger, but when we say to each other the word imadi, we are expressing our mutual commitment: we stand with each other. In other words, imadi is the very definition of faith.
The general arc of our tradition is one of hope and realistic optimism. The faith of imadi both with God and with each other is one of the historical sources of our collective resilience. Today we carry our fears and anxieties about the many dangers we face – physical health, mental health, economic health, and spiritual health. This week let us seek the faith of imadi.
While the phrase “we are all in this together” has become so ubiquitous as to have been rendered almost meaningless, let us turn to each other and to God with the faith of imadi. Let us stand not against each other motivated by our fears, but with each other sustained by our faith.
Just remember, that for now we should stand together … … six feet apart.
Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
Torah is not easy.
Nor is spirituality just about finding those warm and fuzzy feelings.
Both require work; work which is more than worth the effort.
Yet there are times, like with this week’s Torah portion, when that work seems especially challenging. In many ways the book of Leviticus can seem foreign and distant to the contemporary reader, especially because of its laser focus on the rites and rituals of the ancient Israelite priesthood. One of the most difficult passages is in Emor, where a whole section of chapter 21 is devoted to the various defects and deformities which would prohibit a priest from entering the sanctuary and performing his duties. The list is long:
“For no man in whom there is a defect shall come forward, no blind man nor lame nor disfigured nor malformed, nor a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm, nor a hunchback nor a midget nor one with a cataract in his eye nor scab nor skin flake nor crushed testicle. No man from the seed of Aaron the priest in whom there is a defect shall draw near to bring forward the fire offerings of the Lord. There is a defect in him. He shall not draw near to bring forward his God’s bread. From the holy of holies and from the holy, he may eat God’s bread. But he shall not come in by the curtain nor shall he draw near to the altar, for there is a defect in him, and he shall not profane My sanctuaries …” [Lev. 21:18-23]
How do we even begin to understand this passage today? How can we reconcile this with our tradition’s emphasis that we are all made in the divine image, regardless of any of the “defects” mentioned in this week’s parasha?
Many have tried.
Some look to history and say we no longer do these things. And they are correct. Kohanim (priests) still have a role in many synagogues today. They are given the first Aliyah in Torah services and they offer a special blessing to the congregation on Yom Kippur, and none of the Toraitic disqualifications are even considered. Yet, that approach does not satisfy because it allows us to negate any bit of Torah we find uncomfortable by simply allowing us to say, ‘that was then, this is now.’
Some look to history and say that while this may disturb us today, it was progressive for its time. Greek culture and philosophy, for example, characterized people with disabilities as “not human” and, in some cases, would suggest death as the only humane response. Compared to their views our Torah portion is generous! Yet, while it may be comforting to know that we have a progressive history, that does not soften our struggle with the text and how to apply it in our lives today.
Some rationalize these laws on practical terms, suggesting that these disabilities would make it difficult for the priest to perform his duties. But as Rabbi Jack Reimer points out, that approach does not cover every disability mentioned, and makes no attempt to address the end of the passage, which declares that their very presence is a desecration.
Finally, some create new interpretations out of whole cloth. Interpretations which resonate with us today, but which have only loose connections to the actual (con)text.
I do not pretend to have the answer, but I would like to share a teaching from Rabbi Judith Abrams (by way of Jack Reimer) which has changed the way I look at this. But first, one more Midrash from the Jerusalem Talmud, another little gift from Rabbi Reimer:
“Rabbi Yochanan said: each of the forty days that Moses was on Mount Sinai, God taught him the entire Torah. And each night he forgot what he had learned. Finally, God gave it to him as a gift. If so, why did God not give it to him as a gift on the first day? In order to encourage the teachers of slow learners.”
Just think about this. It means that Moses, the greatest of all of our teachers, had a learning disability in addition his already well documented speech impediment. Even God required patience to keep on going until Moses was finally able to reach his potential. And Moses wasn’t the only one. Isaac was blind in his old age, and Jacob suffered from a permanent limp. We are descended from people who have had disabilities, which is to say that disabilities are in our very blood. We all have them. None of us is perfect. Not even the priests who are technically allowed to enter the sanctuary.
I find this to be an effective counter-narrative to the priestly restrictions in Emor, but when combined with the deep wisdom of Rabbi Judith Abrams, a whole new perspective opens before us. She saw a direct connection between Emor and a well-known midrash:
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah (who had miraculously appeared before him): ‘When will the Messiah come?’ Elijah said to him, ‘Go ask him.’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: ‘And where is he sitting?’ Elijah said to him, ‘At the entrance of the city of Rome.’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked him, ‘And what is his identifying sign by means of which I can recognize him?’ Elijah answered, ‘He sits among the poor who suffer from illness. And all of them untie their bandages and tie them all at once, but the Messiah unties one bandage and ties one at a time. He says, Perhaps I will be needed to serve to bring about the redemption. Therefore, I will never tie more than one bandage, so that I will not be delayed.’” [Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin, 98a]
Rabbi Abrams saw this passage as the polar opposite of the priestly disability restrictions. The priest cannot serve if he has the disabilities listed in Emor because those disabilities make him ritually impure. The messiah chooses to be ritually impure by living with the lepers and infirm at the gates of Rome in order to serve.
Why is this insight so breathtaking?
The role of the priest is to facilitate our connection with God. The role of the messiah is to bring redemption to the world. Redemption comes not from the sanctuary and the priesthood, but from the messiah. The messiah could easily stay in the Temple precincts among the pure and the wealthy, where he would be welcomed with open arms. However, instead, he endows cosmic dignity on the sick and disabled by living among them as one of them, and thereby supporting them in community.
If we want a role in bringing about the redemption, then we should first look to how we treat each other, and especially, the most vulnerable among us. Only then will our worship and the offerings of our hearts be acceptable before God. For, as an anonymous preacher once quipped, “Any church that ain’t no good on Monday, ain’t no good on Sunday.”
So as we read this week’s parasha, let us hold fast to what Rabbi Reimer and Rabbi Abrams teach, “Let us judge ourselves before we judge the Torah.”
Beth Ami has proudly been and continues to be an inclusive holy community. Yet, there is still more we can do. May we learn from our missteps and omissions along the way and grow in our commitment, as we strive to become the synagogue of our dreams, and in our own way, to help bring a little more redemption to our world.
 I was not able to locate the source, but it is similar to another Midrash in the name of Rabbi Abihu [Exodus Rabbah 41.6] which is exactly the same except it omits the last line about teaching slow learners.
Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
This week’s double Torah portion is simultaneously challenging to read and rich with deep meaning. I have written extensively on it, but this week encountered a commentary so beautiful, I just had to share it with you. It is written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose writings I read ‘religiously,’ and it spoke to me in a powerful way. I hope you find his words as meaningful as I. The link is below. For those who do not want to read the entire piece, here is the conclusion (but, even knowing the end, reading how he builds the case is worth taking a few minutes to consider):
“I believe that there is something unique and contemporary about the ethic of holiness. It tells us that morality and ecology are closely related. They are both about creation: about the world as God’s work and humanity as God’s image. The integrity of humanity and the natural environment go together. The natural universe and humanity were both created by God, and we are charged to protect the first and love the second.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
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