Tag Archives: Moses

The Trauma of a Migrant Nation and What to Do About It

3 Aug

 

Homestead child detention center (photo by Miami Herald March 31, 2019, https://images.app.goo.gl/22KMEeYni7rPHZ7G6)

Note: When I attended services on Saturday morning August 3 and delivered this sermon, I was not yet aware of the breaking news that all children were transferred out of the Homestead detention center that morning, effectively closing the facility. This is a modest victory for the protests against the facility, though the ultimate fate of the children is unknown as of this writing. The larger crisis of the US Government’s inhumane detention of asylum seekers, including separation of children from families, still demands our attention.

Let me tell you a story. It is a story of a caravan of migrants. These are people who are oppressed, who are exhausted and who are deeply traumatized. Yet, despite their numerous hardships they still stubbornly dream of a better future. And so they embark on a very long walk to freedom. Along the way they endure all kinds of hardships: hunger, ravaging thirst, attacks from enemies. They are tormented by the elements. And finally, after the journey of a lifetime, they nearly reach their Promised Land. They’re so close. They can almost smell it. But there is one final obstacle for this bedraggled, beaten but not broken people. They have to pass through the border of another land in order to achieve their freedom. In a mix of hope and desperation, their leaders send ambassadors with a message for the leader and they make the case for entry. The response that they receive is no. They are not welcome The bedraggled people standing at that border is us. The oppression that our ancestors fled was slavery in Egypt. The inhospitable nation was Edom. What our ancestors sought was asylum. (Adapted from Rabbi Sharon Brous: https://ikar-la.org/sermons/our-nation-is-in-crisis-there-are-several-good-reasons-to-do-nothing-about-it/)

This account appeared in our Torah reading a few weeks ago in Parashat Hukkat (Num. 20: 14-21). We reflect on this narrative as a great injustice, a nation kicking us when we’re already down. The Torah repeatedly reminds us of the ethics in treatment of the stranger. No fewer than 36 times we are reminded that we were strangers, and our duty is to love the stranger. 

Yet, in this week’s Torah portion Matot-Masei, as we come to the end of Numbers, we find a major system breakdown. It comes at the very end of Moses’s career. He could have ridden off quietly into the sunset. Instead, Moses embarks on an act of genocidal vengeance, apparently at God’s direction (Num 31). The Israelites invade Midian as revenge for their seduction of the Israelites into a pagan orgy in Numbers 25. Small detail—there it was the Moabites, here it’s the Midianites.  The Israelite army kills every Midianite man. Then they return with captured women, children and booty. Does Moses grant them a ticker tape parade? Hardly. In fact, Moses chastises his soldiers that they were not brutal enough! He commands them to kill every non-virgin female and every male child among the captives. One more small detail: Moses lived in Midian for a period of his life and that his wife Tziporah and father-in-law Yitro are Midianites. 

Just try to grasp this. In one of his last official acts in public leadership, Moses calls for genocide against his own wife’s nation, the cousins of his children. This is maniacal. If it were up to me to edit the Torah and expunge problematic texts, Chapter 31 of Numbers would be the first to go. It makes me ill reading it. In reviewing my personal files from my twenty years in the rabbinate, I have never spoken about or taught this chapter. Somehow this year I could not avoid it any longer. 

The Rabbis of our tradition were not blind to the problematic nature of this text. According to Midrash Tanchuma, Moses offered terms of peace to Midian before the invasion. According to Bemidbar Rabbah, Moses was not deemed responsible because the zealot priest Pinchas led the campaign. Explanations like these would be laughable if they weren’t so horrific. And yet, the Rabbis of the Midrash deserve credit for their implicit questions about the text. We may not buy their answers, but they too are wondering along with us what to make of this text. 

In reflecting on this ugly chapter, my eyes opened to another reading that draws upon psychology. I’m not trained in psychology, and I wish to tread very carefully. However, let us consider the immense trauma that Moses witnessed and experienced in his life. He bore witness to slavery and the oppression of the taskmasters. Once out of Egypt, the people complained constantly. They were thirsty, they were hungry, they were scared. Throughout, Moses leads them and protects them. God was going to destroy them over the golden calf, but Moses intervenes. Moses endures a lot more including the spies episode and the attempted coup of his cousin Korah. Finally, in Numbers 20, Moses’s patience wears thin. He yells at the people when they complain of thirst, and he strikes the rock. As a result, God forbids him to enter the Promised Land. Later on, at Baal-Peor, the Israelites are drawn into a pagan orgy. Chapter 31 is evidence that Moses completely snapped in his outburst against Midian. I believe the accumulated trauma of his career took a tragic toll on him, and he unleashed a violent rage. The abused became the abuser.

Many Biblical heroes are presented in their full humanity, and we learn from them as much what not to do than what to do. Abraham, Moses and David all committed grievous acts of violence and other morally problematic acts. With Moses, we don’t need to justify the massacre, but we can at least try to understand how it came about. Only under these circumstances can I justify keeping this chapter in our sacred text. If I’m going to square Numbers 31 with the rest of the Torah, if I am to continue to respect Moses for his immense contribution as a founder of our nation, psychology may be a useful tool to at least begin to make sense out of something so utterly senseless. 

In looking at events of our day, I also struggle to make sense out of the senseless. Last week I went to Homestead to see as best as I could the atrocity of a child detention center in our own backyard where our government sends migrant children. The Homestead Temporary Influx Care Facility (“Homestead”) is located on the grounds of Homestead Air Reserve Base. Officially, children ages 13 – 17 are sent to Homestead directly from the border once Customs and Border Patrol processes them, yet children as young as eight years old have been held there. 

Homestead is a secure facility, surrounded by an 8’ chain link fence with a privacy covering. An organization called Witness Homestead (from whose website much of the following information was found) was formed by activists to monitor the facility. They set up a tent outside. They set up ladders across the street from the the facility. I climbed on one of these ladders and looked out over the fence into the grounds. Sometimes kids are seen on the grounds, but they otherwise spend the day under a tent then sleep in the barracks in a grey concrete building.  Entrance and exits are blocked by fences and gates are staffed by security personnel.  Children understand that they are not free to leave, and have been told that they will be arrested by local police and ICE and deported if they do.

The average stay at Homestead is 67 days, and some children are there for several months. Miami Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in one visit to the facility interviewed a child that had been there for 9 months, in violation of a court order limiting detainment to 20 days.  

Homestead is run by Comprehensive Health Services, Inc., a private, for-profit company.  Its parent company is Caliburn International.  Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is on the Board of Caliburn. Caliburn was recently awarded a no-bid extension of their contract to run Homestead through November for $341 million dollars.  The contract stipulates they will receive $775 per child per day. By comparison, the Palm Beach County School System spends about $50 per child per day. When it comes to child detention centers, our tax dollars are enriching corporate executives so that they may imprison children in squalid conditions.

A year ago, the Administration’s family separation policy went into effect. After much public outcry the Administration officially said they would back off from the practice, even though it’s been found to have continued—some 900 children have been separated from their parents in the past year. This summer we’ve seen increasing revelations of the horrific conditions in the detention centers at our border and around the country, which are unsanitary, unsafe and cruel. We have read stories of families torn apart, of imprisoned children denied toothpaste, and soap and diapers and medical treatment. In these detention centers there are reports of physical abuse and sexual violence towards adults and children. We’ve read about the deprivation of food and drink. Some held in detention centers have been forced to drink toilet water to stay alive. Most appalling of all at least seven children in these centers have died since last year. We have failed as a nation in allowing this crisis to occur.  

We as Jews cannot remain silent. We too are border people. We too are asylum seekers. We remember the St. Louis carrying nearly 1000 Jews fleeing the cauldron of Nazi Europe. The St. Louis came to the shores of the US but was denied entry. The boat turned back to Europe. Many of those Jews perished in the Shoah. We as Jews understand trauma. The Torah presents different two different models for dealing with national trauma. One is the approach of Numbers 31. Only our suffering matters, and nobody else suffered like we did. The rest of the world be damned. Moreover, our parents and grandparents came to this country legally, so why should I care about people coming here illegally? As much as I want to rip Numbers 31 out of the Torah, it’s there, and we need to listen to its echoes in our world today. We have some legitimate fears based on our communal history.  If we’re not careful, our fears can lead us to silence and indifference to the suffering in our midst. Numbers 31 is a cautionary tale. In contemporary Jewish life much of our communal thinking derived from communal trauma from the Shoah. This trauma affects so much of our psyche and may be misdirected. Some white Jews in America show indifference or outward hostility towards migrants and people of color. Some Israeli Jews show indifference or actively participate in the plight of their Palestinian neighbors. Given our history of communal trauma, it is one of the unspoken tragedies of our people that sometimes the abused become abusers. 

Then there’s the other strand of Torah, the prominent strand, with a very different approach to trauma. You shall love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Torah reminds us that every human being is created in the image of God. Our history of oppression has inspired many Jews to  pave the way for greater justice in the world for all, and when there is justice for all, the Jewish people benefit. Elie Wiesel, z”l, witness to and survivor of the Shoah, taught us to to reject the dehumanizing term “illegal alien.” He said, “No human being is illegal.”  Further, Wiesel taught, “The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.” We cannot afford to be indifferent in the face of oppression. Let us transcend our fears. Let us crawl out of our cocoon. Let us bear witness and cry out against the injustice in our midst. May God grant us strength to meet this challenge and to bring about justice and peace for all. 

Moses the Mensch and Moral Imagination

18 Mar

Hillel teaches us in Pirke Avot: In a place where there is no mensch (decent person), strive to be a mensch. In Parashat Ki Tissa, Moses demonstrates how to be a mensch when his entire environment is chaos.  The Israelites push God’s patience to the limit when they create the Golden Calf. God threatens to destroy them, but Moses saves the day. Let’s take a closer look. Upset that Moses is tarrying for 40 days on the mountain, they build a Golden Calf to worship as God, despite the fact that they were specifically instructed not to make a graven image.

God is furious and threatens to destroy the people and start a new nation with Moses.

9The LORD further said to Moses, “I see that

this is a stiffnecked people. 10Now, let Me be,

that My anger may blaze forth against them and

that I may destroy them, and make of you a great

nation.” 11But Moses implored the LORD his

God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze

forth against Your people, whom You delivered

from the land of Egypt with great power and

with a mighty hand. 12Let not the Egyptians say,

‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them,

only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate

them from the face of the earth.’ Turn

from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan

to punish Your people. 13Remember Your servants,

Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You

swore to them by Your Self and said to them:

I will make your offspring as numerous as the

stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring

this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.”

14And the LORD renounced the punishment

He had planned to bring upon His people.

 

It seems clear enough from Exodus that Moses intervenes and saves the people from God’s wrath and certain destruction. To underscore the point, Psalm 106:23 singles out Moses for praise:  “And [the Lord] said He was about to destroy them, if not for the fact that Moses, God’s elect, stood in the breach against Him to deflect His anger from destroying.”

Aviva Zornberg notes the Zohar’s contrast between Moses and Noah:

[T]he Zohar rereads Noah’s obedience to God’s commands—to build the ark and save his own family as a genetic basis for a future humanity: what looks like normative obedience is in fact collusion in the destruction of the world. Moses perceives the analogy with his own situation and prefers to die, rather than incur such a charge. The moral intuition that Moses articulates constitutes a momentous advance in ethical sensibility: to accept God’s offer to found a new nation on Moses, reconstructing history with Moses as patriarch of a revised world, would mean in effect to conspire, like Noah, in destroying the sinful world.

“Indeed, the contrast between Moses and Noah may be deciphered from a possible wordplay on Hanicha li (Let Me be…) …Moses, unlike Noah catches the drift of God’s intention, rather than unimaginatively obeying His explicit words. Noah becomes the paradigm, then, of an unimaginative literalism, which is harshly judged as murder. This moral vision is Moses’ creation, making sense of God’s implicit communications. To achieve this order of sensitivity to the unexpressed desire, a kind of self-forgetful attention is necessary. (Kornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, 416)

God wants us to think beyond the bounds of our personal lives.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes of approaching life with a sense of moral imagination, the ability for people to think about the implications of their actions before they do them—to think through before we do it.  People often have imagination but lack moral imagination.

Leaders in our country today have plenty of imagination but are woefully lacking in moral imagination. When lawmakers threaten to strip health insurance away from 24 million Americans, they suffer from a deplorable lack of moral imagination. When our leaders threaten to cut heating subsidies from single mothers in the Midwest who would freeze in the winter without this assistance, that’s not just a lack of moral imagination, it’s pure cruelty.

Moral imagination is the ability to learn before you do something. But how do you teach this? How do we cultivate genius for helping other people? Telushkin writes that we have the ability to cultivate moral imagination, particularly in youngsters, when we reserve our highest praise not for good grades or athletic prowess, but for acts of kindness. Examples may include returning a lost object, helping someone in need or stopping a friend from committing an act of vandalism or some other anti-social behavior. By praising children for simple acts of kindness, and I might add adults as well, “they will identify having a high self-image with being a good person.”

One young man in my community was on a high school sports team a few years ago when a teammate of his developed cancer and lost his hair in the course of treatment. In response, all members of the team shaved their heads to show solidarity with their teammate during his treatment. Somewhere along the way, this team developed moral imagination. Telushkin writes that “children who grow up associating being praised and loved with the performance of ethical acts are apt to most like themselves when they are doing good.”

In our society, it’s too easy for us to say Hanicha li—leave me alone—as God said to Moses in this morning’s Torah reading. But God didn’t really want to be left alone. He was testing Moses’s level of moral imagination. Moses had this keen sense and was able to think on his feet act swiftly so that his people were not destroyed. In a place of chaos and no decency, Moses rose to the occasion to be a mensch. We learn from  Moshe Rabbeinu that God expects no less effort on our part. Ken Yehi Ratzon, so may it be God’s will.

#TieBlog #Va’era

16 Jan
"Frogs here, Frogs there. Frogs were jumping everywhere."

“Frogs here, Frogs there. Frogs were jumping everywhere.”

Many of us learned the song in pre-school as we were preparing for our Passover Seders:

One morning when Pharaoh awoke in his bed
There were frogs on his pillow and frogs on his head.
Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes,
Frog here, frogs there, frogs were jumping everywhere.

This week in Parashat Va’era, we read about the first seven of ten plagues that God sent to Egypt to pressure Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free. With the children’s song about the frogs, it’s easy to make light of the plagues and even laugh about them. However, at the Seder we remind ourselves not to rejoice by removing a drop of wine from our wine glasses as we recite each plague. We rejoice that the plagues led to freedom for an enslaved people; we do not rejoice that human beings suffered as a result, so we temper our joy. #TieBlog deems it’s not out of bounds to wear a frog-themed tie when reading about the plagues, so here’s my tie of the week.

We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers

9 Jan
"Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4: 9) The Torah turns Cain's protestation into the essence of Judaism.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4: 9) The Torah turns Cain’s protestation into the essence of Judaism.

(This D’var Torah was inspired by a D’var Torah delivered by Rabbi Daniel Nevins at JTS Rabbinic Training Institute, January 8, 2015)

As we begin reading the book of Exodus, it’s fitting to review one key aspect of the previous book, Sefer Bereshit, the book of Genesis. Normative Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not have a concept of original sin. We are all born with a clean slate, and we have free will to do good or evil and shape our destiny. Further, one can argue that Adam and Eve should not really be considered to have committed the first sin by eating the forbidden fruit because 1) They didn’t hurt anyone; 2) God bears responsibility for planting the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the first place; 3) How could God have NOT desired that humans understand the difference? As far as the direction of the Torah and Jewish tradition is concerned, the first real sin in the Torah is when Cain kills Abel. Not only does he kill him, but he denies responsibility. When God asks him אי הבל אחיך–where is your brother Abel?–Cain answers: לא ידעתי–I don’t know–השומר אחי אנוכי Am I my brother’s keeper?

Cain’s contempt for his brother and his brutal violence set a tone for the rest of Genesis. There is terrible sibling rivalry. Brothers are not their brothers’ keepers. True, we don’t see another fratricide, but we come close. Esau almost kills Jacob. Joseph is almost killed by his brothers. Even sisters Rachel and Leah have a painful rivalry, even if it is not physically violent. Brothers are not kind to brothers, sisters are not kind to sisters and brother are not kind to sisters, such as Laban treating his sister Rebecca like a piece of chattel to sell for a significant sum. Simeon and Levi’s response to Dina’s liaison with Shechem–they’re not protecting her, they’re protecting their honor through horrific violence. One chapter after another, generation after generation, and our ancestors are not their brothers’ or sisters’ keepers.

Then, suddenly, when we least expect it, there is a change. Judah breaks the spell when he stands up before Joseph and protects his endangered brother Benjamin. Joseph, in a position to avenge the brutality of his brothers from years before backs off. He relents. He says אני יוסף אחיך–I am Joseph your brother. He welcomes them into his palace in Egypt. This is the first recorded act of forgiveness in human history. Genesis closes with siblings serving as shomrim, guardians for one another.  Genesis begins with a question–will siblings guard one another?After generations of struggle, by the end of the Genesis, the answer is finally yes.  This resolution sets the stage for the opening of Exodus.

A new Pharaoh arises who enslaves the Israelites and afflicts them with pain. Despite the pain, the Israelites are not broken. As the narrative zeroes in on one family, we see a reason why. An infant Moses is guarded closely by his sister Miriam until he is safely in the care of Pharaoh’s daughter. An adult Moses is called upon by God to lead the people out of bondage. He’s terrified and tries mightily to avoid the task. God tries to impress him with a fiery bush not consumed by fire. God turns Moses’s staff into a snake and turns his hand white as snow only to cure it just as instantly. God presents one final ace in the hole: Moses won’t be alone. His brother Aaron will be by his side to help. Only then Moses goes forward.

Exodus presents a new model. Siblings are each others’ keepers. They support one another and care for each other. The Torah is making a powerful statement. Sibling rivalry is natural. However, when siblings are there for one another, other people who are not biological siblings are more capable of looking out for one another. Indeed, a nation is born. When a nation of disparate tribes comes together, they have the capacity to enter a covenant with God.

The power of brotherhood, sisterhood or, if you will, siblinghood is as real for us today as it was for our ancestors. This weekend we join with people of good will of all faiths and persuasions in abject horror over the brutal terrorist attacks in France this week. The massacre of at least 12 people at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the apparent murder of at least four at a kosher market in a related incident on Friday remind the world that the   depravity of militant Islam knows no bounds. Every time a horrific incident like this occurs, whether in Israel, Europe, the U.S. or anywhere, we hope that maybe, just maybe, the world will finally understand the Torah’s teaching that we are all created in God’s image and that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. After all, what does it take for the world to get it?

It is easy to fall into despair when we observe such evil and horrendous violence in our world. To a large measure it’s beyond our control, and we feel powerless. And yet, time and again we answer the call of our tradition to affirm life and attempt to bring loving kindness into the world.

This weekend, our community is celebrating a historic moment in the life of our congregation. We honor the trust, the fellowship, the sense of responsibility to the Jewish people that brought together two congregations, Temple Torah and Temple Emeth, to form one vibrant congregation, Temple Torat Emet. Our new name means the Torah of truth, a powerful phrase that is found throughout our liturgy, including the second blessing we say in a Torah aliyah. How do we discover the truth of the Torah? By acting as guardians of our brothers and sisters as we see in today’s Torah reading.

Our new venture as Temple Torat Emet came about through courage, trust and a great sense of responsibility to the Jewish people. Our success in the future depends on choices we make based on the Torah’s guidance. As a Kehillah Kedoshah, a sacred community, our task is to create a sense of caring for one another as if we are all brothers and sisters. Let us build a community in which we see one another, listen to one another, rejoice with one another, and, when necessary, weep with one another. We must ensure that all activities in our building are conducted with dignity and respect. At every service and program, we must remember the higher purpose to which we are called in creating this sacred community. Our sense of community and fellowship must extend beyond the walls of this building and include Shabbat and holiday meals in each other’s homes where we will build true and lasting friendships.

Our world is, tragically, a vicious place. We need a refuge. We need a laboratory for goodness and loving kindness. That is what Temple Torat Emet must be for our community.  If we can model for the broader community the meaning of shemirah, looking out for one another, we will give ourselves and the world a desperately needed gift. Let me close with the words of the Psalmist:

הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד

“How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony.”

May we be worthy of this sacred task.

 

 

#TieBlog #Shofetim

28 Aug
The scales of justice

The scales of justice

 

“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” This is the clarion call of Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16: 20). It is in the context of Moses instructing the Israelites to create the institutional infrastructure for a just society. The scales of justice on my tie evoke this central and eternal Jewish quest for justice.

#TieBlog #Re’eh

22 Aug
Parashat Re'eh--Look and see

Parashat Re’eh–Look and see

The “eye chart” tie relates to the very first word of this week’s portion: Re’eh/ Look/See. As Moses addresses the Israelites throughout the book of Deuteronomy, he appeals to multiple senses. Many of us are well familiar with Deuteronomy 6: 4, Sh’ma Yisrael/ Listen up, Israel! Adonai is our God. Adonai is one. In the opening to this week’s Torah portion, Moses appeals to the sense of sight in laying out the choice faced by the Israelites: Re’eh/ Look (folks)! I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.

#TieBlog #Ekev

14 Aug
Moses breaking tablets

Moses breaking tablets

The rabbinic term for the fifth book of the Torah is Mishneh Torah, repetition of the Torah. This is because the book is a collection of Moses’s sermons that he gave to the people on the banks of the Jordan River shortly before his death. The Greek term “Deuteronomy” is synonymous with “Mishneh Torah.” In Moses’s sermons he reminds the Israelites of their history and exhorts them to stay true God’s law. In recounting 40 years in the desert, our Torah portion this week contains Moses’s recounting of the sin of the Golden calf and his breaking of the tablets of the Decalogue. The original account is from Exodus Chapter 32, Parashat Ki-Tissa. As you read the selection below from Parashat Eikev, it will be clear how this week’s tie connects to the portion.

Deuteronomy Chapter 9
8 At Horeb you so provoked the Lord that the Lord was angry enough with you to have destroyed you. 9 I had ascended the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant that the Lord had made with you, and I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, eating no bread and drinking no water. 10 And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God, with the exact words that the Lord had addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly.
11 At the end of those forty days and forty nights, the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant. 12 And the Lord said to me, “Hurry, go down from here at once, for the people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted wickedly; they have been quick to stray from the path that I enjoined upon them; they have made themselves a molten image.” 13 The Lord further said to me, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. 14 Let Me alone and I will destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven, and I will make you a nation far more numerous than they.”
15 I started down the mountain, a mountain ablaze with fire, the two Tablets of the Covenant in my two hands. 16 I saw how you had sinned against the Lord your God: you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the Lord had enjoined upon you. 17 Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes. 18 I threw myself down before the Lord — eating no bread and drinking no water forty days and forty nights, as before — because of the great wrong you had committed, doing what displeased the Lord and vexing Him. 19 For I was in dread of the Lord’s fierce anger against you, which moved Him to wipe you out. And that time, too, the Lord gave heed to me.

#TieBlog #Devarim

1 Aug
Parashat Devarim begins "These are the words...." Hence, a crossword puzzle tie.

Parashat Devarim begins “These are the words….” Hence, a crossword puzzle tie.

Parashat Devarim begins: “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite the Red Sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab” (Deuteronomy 1:1).

When Moses is first called upon by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt he tries to get out of the task by saying he can’t speak. Now, 40 years later, Moses delivers to the people a long succession of speeches that are compiled in the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy. Moses has found his groove as a speaker, and he spends the fifth book of the Torah reminding the people of their sacred mission. His facility with Devarim/ words inspires this week’s crossword-themed tie.

Speaking of words, there is another important link between the Torah portion and the season. This is Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av, the fast of the Ninth of Av commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The sages teach that sinat hinam, causeless hatred among Jews, easily enabled the Roman destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Therefore, this season is a time to reflect on the words we say and how we say them. Let’s focus on words of kindness, rather than words of hatred.

#TieBlog #Korach #RebelWithoutACause

17 Jun
James Dean was  not the original "Rebel Without a Cause;" he inherited the mantle from Korach.

James Dean was not the original “Rebel Without a Cause;” he inherited the mantle from Korach.

Parashat Korach tells the tale of perhaps the original “rebel without a cause.” A Levite, Korach is jealous of the power and prestige of his cousins Moses and Aaron and stages a rebellion. With an assist from God, the rebellion fails miserably, and Korach and his comrades are swallowed by the earth. Several millennia later, James Dean inherited from Korach the mantle of “Rebel Without a Cause;” hence, the tie of the week.

All the World’s a Stage–Moses’s Dramatic Flair in Smashing the Tablets

14 Feb
Moses breaking tablets (Rembrandt)

Moses breaking tablets (Rembrandt)

Expanded upon 2/13/14 blog post

The last couple of weeks have confirmed more than ever how obsessed America is with celebrity. Even when events of much greater consequence to our daily lives occur, more newsprint, more air time and more Internet bandwidth are given to celebrities in the news. Why do we grant equivalent if not greater importance as a society to people who entertain us rather than people who produce for society in other ways, such as manufacturing and teaching? There may be numerous answers to this question. One is that entertainment is a vital human pursuit that makes us, well, human. We need to be entertained to nourish our souls, and the people who entertain us play important roles. Furthermore, the songs singers sing to us; the stories actors perform for us; the games that athletes play for us become part of our individual stories. Their successes and failures become metaphors for our own.

Let’s consider some recent headlines to illustrate this point. Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first trip to America and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s amazing how these four men, their music and the moment they stepped onto the American stage all continue to capture our imagination. Their music was transformative in that it feels current, even decades later.

The recent passing of Shirley Temple Black reminded us of the young girl who brought song and smiles to our nation in the midst of the Depression. She then grew up and became a distinguished diplomat and public servant, blazing a trail for women in public service. Sid Caesar, who died this week, revolutionized American comedy, bringing Borscht Belt humor to the masses via television. Pete Seeger, the granddaddy of American Folk music, used joyful song to galvanize multiple social movements including for civil rights, labor and the environment. These were not just three people who grew old and died. They touched people’s souls in personal ways and were transformative figures through their genres of entertainment.

Other entertainers in the news remind us of the fragility of life, its complexity and occasional tragedies. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death by a drug overdose reminded us of the dangers of substance abuse and that some of the most accomplished and celebrated actors are not immune from this disease. New public allegations that Dylan Farrow was molested as a child by Woody Allen forces the issue of child sexual molestation back into the limelight. We are forced to confront not just whether or not we think Woody Allen is a creep but whether our society has turned a corner in confronting the seriousness of the broader issue of child sexual abuse.

Any of the celebrities I mentioned and their respective achievements and failures would probably warrant a sermon in his or her own right. I’ve chosen to briefly survey these recent newsmakers to highlight the extent to which people who entertain us grab our attention. We live vicariously through performers such as these because, as human beings, they help provide structure and purpose to our lives.

In this light, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that among the numerous roles that Moses plays in leading the Israelites, he is also a great performer on the public stage. We see his flair for the dramatic on full display in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki-Tissa. The reading contains the famous–or infamous–story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites fear that Moses is not returning from the mountaintop, and they make a graven image–a golden calf–in direct violation of the second of the Ten Commandments that they had just received. God is incensed and threatens to destroy the people. Moses, not having yet seen the idolatry has enough distance to put God “on the couch” as it were, and talk him out of destroying the people. However, once Moses sees the idolatry himself, his rage is so great he throws down and breaks the tablets of the Decalogue.

The above is the plain sense of the text. The Midrash and commentators probe a little deeper to try to get inside the head of Moses to see what he was really thinking and why he would take such an extreme measure.

The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah says: When Moses saw there was no future hope for Israel, he threw in his lot with theirs and broke the tablets and said to the Holy one blessed be He: They have sinned, but so have I with the breaking of the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me too; as it is said; “and now, if you will forgive their sin” forgive mine too. But if thou do not forgive them, do not forgive me but “blot me out I pray from Your book which You have written.”

According to the Midrash, Moses has a flair for the dramatic, and it is none other than God whom he needs to impress. Abarbanel, the 15th century Spanish commentator agrees that Moses has a flair for the dramatic but takes a different approach: Moses did not break them on the mountain itself when he was first apprised of the sin of the calf, but he broke them in the camp. For had Israel not seen the Tables intact, the awesome work of the Lord, they would not have been moved by the fragments, since the soul is more impressed by what it sees, than by what it hears. He therefore brought them down from the mountain to show them to the people and then break them before their very eyes.”

Moses may have been the great lawgiver, but his job description also included Actor-In-Chief. It’s possible that both the Midrash and Abravanel are correct and that Moses was playing to different audiences at the same time–God AND the people. In this case he gave the performance of his life. Moses shows that a leader is tasked with engaging the soul as well as the mind. He intuitively understood that the people needed a performance. They needed drama. In fact, his absence for forty days prompted their yearning for the ritual performance of the Golden Calf. His clamping down on that act of idolatry had to be even more dramatic in order to get his point across.

Last Yom Kippur, I paid tribute to my late grandfather, Sam Lesner, who was the film and entertainment critic of the Chicago Daily News. His birthday was February 16, and he would have been 105. In a 1978 lecture on the Yiddish theater, he said the following:

“It has been written that ‘[a]ll the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely the players’ (Shakespeare). For Jews everywhere, that is more than a literary catch phrase. It’s a philosophy for living, for surviving. For, do we not daily reenact our traditions? Do we not daily reenact our faith? And do we not daily rededicate ourselves to continuity of a vast, varied and colorful heritage, the Jewish heritage?

“It has also been written that ‘[t]here is that smaller world which is the stage, and that larger stage which is the world’” (Isaac Goldberg, early 20th century journalist).

“And yet another sage has written the theater is not a game. It is a spiritual compulsion. Once it celebrated the gods. Now it broods over the fate of man. Mensch trocht, Gott lacht (Man plans, God laughs).”

My grandfather’s words continue to ring true. So, the next time we read an obituary about an entertainer or a story about a fall from grace of a celebrity, let’s remind ourselves that it’s only human for us to consume such stories because we need performers in our society. But let us also remember that Moses himself was also a performer who mustered his dramatic skills to inspire a nation towards repentance and renewal.

Shabbat Shalom