Tents, Flags, Hearts, Mouths – A Father/Daughter Dialogue on Parashat B’Midbar 5777 (2017)

On Shabbat Bmidbar this year, my daughter Rosie will be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah. For many months now, weve logged a lot of hours poring over Bmidbars words together. The following are snippets of our conversations; please know that Rosie really did have all the funny lines in those discussions

David: Hey Rosie, let’s sit down and read your parasha together; I think you’ll find it interesting.

Rosie: Abba, what’s interesting about completely repetitive lists of names, camp formations and numbers that don’t add up? I guess they call this book Numbers for a reason!

David: I bet if we dig a little deeper we’ll find plenty of ideas that will excite you.

Rosie: You always say that; you’re a rabbi after all!

David: True, but humor me; there’s half a chance that I’m right on this one.

In the end, we sat together, discovered quite a few animating concepts, and came to realize that all the names, notations, and numbers actually tell important stories

Rosie: So Abba, I don’t get the opening verse of my parasha. First it says the God spoke to Moses bmidbar Sinai – in the wilderness of Sinai, and then, in the very next phrase it says bohel moed – in the Tent of Meeting. Which is it? Where do Moses and God get to talk to each other?

David: Looks like it’s both. The Tent, after all, gets assembled and dis-assembled throughout the Israelites journey in the wilderness of Sinai. That’s kind of obvious though, don’t you think? The only place the Tent can be is in Sinai. Maybe the Torah means to tell us something by mentioning both places.

Rosie: There you go again rabbi! It would be nice if the Torah just said what it meant!

David: You know, most of your favorite books have more than one possible meaning. Think about how every detail in Harry Potter matters in some way.

Rosie: Okay, okay. So why the two place names?

David: The midbar is a big, wide open space, pretty public. Things that happen there, words spoken there, are seen and heard by everyone. The ohel, in contrast, is intimate and private; only Moses gets to hear what God has to say there. The opening sentence of the book offers us a clue; keep an eye on the difference between what gets said in public and what gets said in private.

Rosie: I get it. The ohel moed is kind of like the “The Room Where it Happened” in Hamilton. You know how Burr keeps saying ‘No one else was in the room where it happened, room where it happened, room where it happened…’

David: You can stop now. Yes, only Moses was in the ‘room where it happened.’ But then he brings God’s messages out to the people. How do they know that what Moses says God said is really what God said? Since they weren’t in ‘the room where it happened’ they have to trust him, right?

Rosie: Right. So for Moses to be a good leader, he has to make sure that the messages all match up? Is that the point?

David: Yes, and a bit more, I think. We all live out our lives both in private and public. The big idea is that the two should match. You should be the same person inside as you are outside. Your thoughts should match your actions (and vice versa), your words should match your deeds (and vice versa), well you get the idea.

Rosie: Don’t they call that transparency, or something like that?

David: Exactly. Lots to learn from one ‘throw-away’ verse!

This insight led to lots of discussion about leaders and leadership, spurred on by a lovely Baal Shem Tov teaching (Sefer Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Ki Tetze) that calls for an aligning of ones heart and ones mouth, another version of the distinction between the Tent and Wilderness. Too many of our leaders, in Rosies judgment, fail that test. I couldnt really argue. Another hot topic in Bmidbar is the question of the banners or standards held aloft by each of the tribes when in formation during the desert journey. What are these flags and what do they mean?

David: Rosie, I’m thinking that the whole people of Israel encamped in formation must have been quite a sight. Very colorful and very impressive.

Rosie: It feels kind of like a big quidditch tournament, with the banners and flags, every tribe with its own colors. I assume they each had their own standards, no?

David: They did, I think. The Midrash (Bmidbar Rabbah 2:7) connects the flags to the different colored stones on the High Priest’s breastplate. Twelves stones symbolizing twelve tribes, each a different color. Other Midrashim suggest specific symbols for each tribe’s flag, some of them mentioned in Jacob’s blessings for each of his children who became the heads of the tribes. There’s even an idea that every family had its own flag or standard. What if our family had a flag? What would you put on it? And what color would it be?

Rosie: For starters it would have to be teal, which you know is my favorite color. I think maybe I’d put an image of a book with eyeglasses lying on top of it since we’re a pretty bookish group and we all wear glasses. Also a map of Israel and the US maybe; some of us live here and some there. And definitely an image of the lake at Mahane Ramah in the middle. What do you think?

David: I love it. Let me toss one more Midrash your way. Bmidbar Rabbah (2:3) puts it this way: “Holy and grand were Israel beneath their banners! All the nations looked at them with rapt attention and wonder, thinking, ‘Who is she that shines through like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, radiant as the sun, awesome as bannered hosts?’ (Song of Songs 6:10)” The flags express grandeur, they command attention. And they connect up with the beauty of the world around us. Ema and I said those same words from Song of Songs to you at your baby naming twelve and half years ago. I can’t wait to say them to you again this Shabbat at your Bat Mitzvah. Mazal Tov Rosie! Wave your flag wide and high.


Universal & Particular – Shabbat Behar-Behukotai 5777 (2017)

For years I have bristled at an increasingly common claim about American Jews. Mainly voiced by politically conservative writers and observers, the thesis states that American Jews, deeply committed to liberal and progressive political values, have chosen universalism over particularism. The consequences of that choice, argue a number of commentators, include a steep decline in American Jewish support for and connection to Israel. [Click here for the most recent rendition.]

I bristle because I count as friends and colleagues many American Jews and community leaders who hold deep and abiding commitments both to liberal political values and to Israel. And yes, I’m among them. Indeed, a robust counter-argument, in the form of a defense of ‘liberal Zionism,’ has been presented by a number of prominent American rabbis and Jewish thinkers. [Click here for one current version.]

On the eve of a Presidential trip to Israel, the commitments and connections of American Jews are very much worth thinking about. And on Shabbat Behar-Behukotai, the interplay of universal ideals and particularist commitments command our attention as well. The tension between the particular and the universal emerges from our parasha’s opening words.

Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe b’har Sinai – The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. Immediately following that heading, the Torah presents the rules relating to sabbatical and Jubilee years, known collectively in Hebrew as sh’mita. Famously, the early Midrash (Sifra Behar) asks, ‘What does sh’mita have to do with Sinai?’ The question turns out to be a theological one. What was actually delivered to the people of Israel at Sinai? Did they receive the whole law in all of its glorious detail, or did God present general principles at Sinai, saving the details for a later date? Details, in the language of the Sifra are p’ratim,  while general principles are k’lalim. That’s one form of the tension between universal and particular.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Ashkenazi community of Eretz Israel’s first chief rabbi, serves up a more philosophical and mystical take. “The sabbatical and Jubilee years are interconnected in time, like the sun and the moon in the universe, like Israel and humanity in the world of souls. The particular and the universal are profoundly interdependent in the most vital and spiritual sense; the particular needs the universal, and the universal needs the particular…” Rav Kook’s words come from an introduction to his collection of laws relating to the sabbatical year as observed in the land of Israel. For him, sh’mita was a practical problem, one that required him to engage in the particulars of halakhic interpretation. But, as his introduction makes plain, sh’mita was also a springboard for reflection on the larger questions of meaning and holiness.

I’m a Rav Kook fan in many respects. His effort to find points of integration, to synthesize forces and ideas in (apparent) conflict and tension with one another very much appeal. His voice is badly needed in the current debate swirling in the Jewish community. His wisdom is equally needed in our hearts and souls. Kook’s synthesis really does call to mind Hillel’s best know teaching from Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” Indeed.

Shabbat Shalom.

D’avdin Uvda d’Aharon (Doing as Aaron Does) – Shabbat Emor 5777 (2017)

A man walks into the rabbi’s study, visibly distressed. ‘Sit down,’ says the rabbi. ‘What troubles you?’ ‘Rabbi,’ he begins, ‘I’d like to make a major contribution to the synagogue, and in exchange I’d like for you to make me a Kohen.’ The rabbi responds: ‘I’m delighted by, and grateful for, your generous gift. However, I’m unable to make you a Kohen.’ Immediately, the man offers to double his gift. Again the rabbi shares that he’s unable to make the man a Kohen. The man offers to double his gift again, and again the rabbi indicates that he really, truly cannot make him a Kohen. Finally, the rabbi asks, ‘Why, my friend, is it so important to you to be a Kohen?’ ‘Well Rabbi,’ says the man, ‘my father was a Kohen, and so was his father before him. I’d like to be a Kohen as well!’

In its sly and gentle way, our old joke gets at an essential lesson and idea. The Biblical priesthood, of course, is hereditary. The son of a priest is, by definition, a priest. We maintain that concept, at least in name, to this day. I am a Kohen, simply and only because my father is a Kohen as was his father (and his father, etc…) before him. The fancy term for it is ‘ascribed status.’ I did nothing to earn my status as a Kohen; it was assigned to me at birth.

The man in our story operates on a different assumption. He imagines that priestly status is achieved. To his mind, one earns the title ‘Kohen’ by virtue of one’s merit or one’s generosity. Hence his willingness to double and even quadruple his gift. My father and my grandfather both supported their synagogues in myriad ways and both were recognized and acknowledged by their communities for their contributions. And both were routinely called to the Torah for the first aliyah, reserved in many congregations for a Kohen.

Parashat Emor’s unusually worded opening verse offers interpreters an opportunity to reflect on different kinds of status. The rabbinic tradition, no surprise, privileges ‘achieved status’, even as it acknowledges the ‘ascribed status’ of kohanim ancient and contemporary. Emor opens with these words: “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them…” The verb ‘to say/speak’ appears twice in our opening phrase and the kohanim are identified twice in two different ways. Is there a distinction between a ‘priest’ and a ‘son of Aaron?’

The Talmud (Bavli, Yoma 71b) shares a delicious story about Shemaiah and Avtalyon, two early rabbinic figures, both converts to Judaism, and together the heads of the Sanhedrin – ancient Israel’s high court. At the end of Yom Kippur one year they accompanied the High Priest home from the Temple. On the way, they attracted more of a crowd than did the Kohen Gadol on his own. Out of jealousy, it seems, the High Priest insulted Shemaiah and Avtalyon by referring to them as ‘the descendants of gentiles.’ Their answer is both cutting and ground breaking. ‘Welcome are the descendants of gentiles, who act after the manner of Aaron; and unwelcome is the descendant of Aaron, who does not act after the manner of Aaron.’

The rabbinic definition of the ‘true’ or ‘proper’ priesthood is based on merit and achievement and not on ascribed status. The ‘real’ priests are individuals d’avdin uvda d’Aharon – who act after the manner of Aaron, literally who do Aaron’s deeds. For the rabbis, a priest is as a priest does. It is no accident, then, that the prime rabbinic statement of practical ethics, Pirkei Avot, spells out what it means to be a spiritual, if not biological, descendant of Aaron the Priest. “Hillel taught: Be a disciple of Aaron – loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and attracting them to the study of Torah.”

Want to become a kohen, Talmudic style? Here’s the recipe – love and pursue peace, love people, share Torah. Following that practice paves the way for all of us to count among the ‘kingdom of priests and holy people’ (Exodus 19:6) that is the people of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom.


One Destiny, One Love – Shabbat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777 (2017)

My week began with a visit to Whitwell, Tennessee. Nestled in the beautiful Sequatchie Valley, at the base of the Cumberland Plateau, Whitwell is a small town of 1700 or so residents in the heart of southern Appalachia. Quite poor, all white, very undeveloped, Whitwell’s largest employer is its public schools, all housed on one campus in the middle of the town. There must be hundreds of towns like Whitwell all over the United States, dozens just like it in Tennessee alone.

Whitwell, however, stands out. In 1998 a small team of Whitwell Middle School faculty began to seek out a diversity and tolerance project that they might undertake at school. David Smith, then a 32 year old teacher at Whitwell Middle, attended a conference at which he heard a survivor of the Shoah speak. He knew instantly that his school needed to teach the Holocaust. He drafted fellow teacher Sandra Roberts to the project and together they began to teach white kids from Southern Appalachia, most of whom had never met a Jew in their entire lives, about the greatest calamity in Jewish history.

That would have been remarkable enough; what happened next is mind blowing. In an effort to help students get their heads around the numbers involved in the story of the destruction of European Jewry, David and Sandy hit on the idea of collecting paper clips. It turns out that the paper clip, perhaps invented in Norway, served as a symbol of resistance to Nazi rule worn by every day Norwegians on suit and dress lapels during World War II. So students in Whitwell started to write letters to everyone they could think of seeking out gifts of paper clips for their growing collection.

Their story, we would say today, went viral; soon they had a couple of million paper clips, exceeding their initial goal of 1.5 million representing the number of Jewish children murdered by the Nazis during the Shoah. Their next goal of 6 million paper clips was quickly exceeded and by the end of their project’s first phase they had received and manually counted more than 25 million paper clips. Housing that many paper clips was the next challenge, ultimately solved by procuring a World War II era German rail car, itself a painful symbol of the Holocaust’s cruelty. To this day, that rail car stands on the grounds of Whitwell Middle School. That’s what I (and a bus full of fellow Philadelphians) went to visit.


I came home moved and inspired by what we saw and even more by the remarkable people we met. Despite distance – physical, cultural, religious, socio-economic – the students and teachers and preachers of Whitwell welcomed us a neighbors, as sisters and brothers. The feeling, very quickly, was mutual. The great verse from this week’s parashav’ahavta l’rei’akha kamokha ‘Love your neighbor/fellow as yourself’ – was often recited over the course of our day and a half in Whitwell. The circle of neighbors and fellows is as wide as we make it. That’s one lesson.

Another, related, lesson emerges from another key verse. Our parasha begins with a description of the ancient ritual for Yom Kippur, the centerpiece of which is the presentation of two sacrificial goats. One goat is presented as a sin offering on the altar, the other is dispatched ‘to Azazel,’ a rocky spot in the wilderness to which the goat symbolically carries all of Israel’s sins. The Torah’s wording has been running around my head all week. Lots are drawn to determine which goat plays which role. The Hebrew word for lots, goral, also means fate or destiny. Here’s the language – goral ehad ladonai, goral ehad la’azazel. In some sense, we get to choose. Will our fate be ‘for Azazel’ or will it be ‘for God.’ If we choose well, it becomes ‘goral ehad’ – one fully shared destiny.

This week I learned that we and our neighbors in Whitwell, Tennessee – indeed in all the Whitwell, Tennessees around the county – really do share ‘goral ehad’ – one destiny, one fate. And since we’re neighbors, we’re called upon to live out that destiny through love. Here’s the big lesson. One fate, one love. Nothing more, and absolutely nothing less.

Shabbat Shalom.

Yom Ha’atzmaut 69

This week’s Torah portion – Aharei Mot-Kedoshim – includes this piece of Biblical law:

23When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. 24In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Lord; 25and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I the Lord am your God. [Leviticus 19:2]

The Midrash understands the Torah to mandate planting as the very first act in which one engages when entering the Land of Israel:

In truth, the Blessed Holy One, from the very start of the creation of the world, was occupied before all else with planting, “And first of all, the Lord God planted a garden in Eden (Genesis 2:8).” Therefore, when you are in the Land of Israel, occupy yourselves first and foremost with planting. Therefore it is written, “When you come into the land, you shall plant…(Leviticus 19:23).” [Leviticus Rabbah 25:3]

When Israel were about to enter the Land of Israel, Moses said to them: “Let every one of you take a shovel and go out and plant trees!” [Leviticus Rabbah 25:5]

Recognizing and enjoying the fruits of those early plantings takes time. Five years in horticultural time, and perhaps longer in historical time. Israel’s 69th Yom Ha’atzmaut, celebrated last night and throughout the day today, feels like a perfect time to look back on all that has been planted in the Land of Israel over the last three quarters of a century and more. Actual planting aplenty, and also the figurative planting that consists of building a society, defending its people, creating and sustaining a state.


Appreciating what has already been planted concerns the Midrash as well:

The Holy One said to Israel: “Even if you find the land full of all good things, you should not say, ‘We will sit and not plant’; rather, be diligent in planting! Just and you came and found trees planted by others, you must plant for your children;…You must not excuse yourself from planting. As you found trees, plant more…” [Midrash Tanhuma, Kedoshim]

Our job, whether we live in Israel or in the Diaspora, is to continue to water and nurture the great Jewish experiment of our time and to keep planting. Already four decades ago, Rabbi David Hartman captured the religious significance of the enterprise called the State of Israel:

Israel expands the possible range of halakhic involvement in human affairs beyond the circumscribed borders of home and synagogue to the public domain. Jews in Israel are given the opportunity to bring economic, social, and political issues into the center of their religious consciousness. The moral quality of the army, social and economic disparities and deprivations, the exercise of power moderated by moral sensitivities, attitudes toward minorities and the stranger, tolerance and freedom of conscience – all these are realms that may engage our sense of covenantal responsibility.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut we celebrate the radical, and ongoing, expansion of Jewish religious concern and responsibility in the real world. Earlier generations planted beautifully and well. There is much to tend and even more to plant in the days and decades ahead.

Hag ‘Atzmaut Sameah!