Rocks. Words. Water. – Shabbat Hukkat 5777(2017)

Jan Steen - Moses Striking the Rock

When the Roman Tenth Legion destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, they heaved large building stones downward from the elevated platform to the street below. After the Temple burned a large mound remained. Over the centuries, as earth and debris accumulated over the area just to the west of the Herodian platform, that mound of stones was fully covered, completely obscured from view. In our time, and in particular over the past 50 years, archeologists have been digging virtually non-stop on all sides of the Temple Mount, and their findings have been nothing short of remarkable. Today, the pile of rocks created by rampaging Roman soldiers sits at the edge of the archeological park known as Robinson’s Arch, fully visible and explicitly identified as the actual stones of the Second Temple which stood up above on the Temple Mount.

Those stones speak. They tell the story of our people, both the agony and the ecstasy. From those stones flow the water of Torah – ki mi-tziyyon teitzei Torah, u’dvar Adonai mi-yirushalayim – and to them flow visitors and worshipers of all stripes seeking connection with that place and, sometimes at least, with the Divine Presence. I was last there this past February with a group of Protestant ministers from around the Philadelphia region. We talked together about Jesus, who visited the Temple and famously overturned the tables of money changers whose shops stood where we stood that clear winter morning. We discussed Muhammad, who visited that spot on a night journey which took him on a tour of the heavens, tethering his horse to a hole on one of the cornerstones of the platform which can be seen to this day. And we summoned up the memory of generations of Jews who entered the Temple via a bridge that would have extended over our heads delivering pilgrims to the outer courtyard of Israel’s holy place, God’s House.

The much disputed egalitarian prayer space is right there. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to worship there both on my own and with many groups of Jews. Usually, we have also visited the “official” Western Wall Plaza just up the hill. I’ve worshiped there as well, but in truth I’m much less drawn to it and much less moved by it than I once was. It no longer feels like my place. Robinson’s Arch, in contrast, does. In truth, the whole expanse is the western wall of the platform atop the Temple Mount. The southern end is no more, and no less, sacred than the northern end. It’s all one wall. We, increasingly, seem not to be one people. That, for me, is the tragedy of the current moment. It’s not news exactly. American Jews and Israeli Jews have been drifting apart for a while now. We occupy very different realities, and have distinct lived experiences. It is largely a sense of ‘peoplehood’ that connects us to one another; it is that feeling of family that feels frayed and fraying right now.

This past Sunday, my eldest son reported to his ‘permanent’ assignment as a new soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. Right now, he’s living out his commitment to Jewish peoplehood on an army base in the West Bank, the Judea-Samaria Region in IDF lingo. On the very same day, Israel’s Cabinet voted to suspend a plan, negotiated over the course of many months, to establish an officially recognized egalitarian prayer space along the stretch of the western wall near Robinson’s Arch. As I write these words, there are indications that a renewal of discussions is in the offing and that a compromise might yet be reached. On the one hand, I’m encouraged by that prospect. On the other, I’m disgusted by the double dealing and the, at best, a-moral political behavior that has accompanied the process so far. My son is welcome, of course, to visit the Kotel, and even to pray there, but not as part of the kind of minyan with which he grew up at Beth Am Israel, and at Perelman Jewish Day School, and at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. Somehow, that doesn’t seem right to me. It shouldn’t seem right to any of us.

Parashat Hukkat features harsh words directed to the people of Israel along with a rock that, in the end, produces copious water. Famously, God instructs Moses to speak to the rock, commanding it to produce water for the people. Equally famously, Moses strikes the rock – not once, but twice – instead. The water flows, but Moses loses the opportunity to accompany the people he has led for close to 40 years into the Promised Land. His words to the people are harsh – “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” – and his violent act is harsher still. R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev finds a standard for leadership embedded in the story. “The teacher who admonishes us with goodwill raises our souls higher and higher,” he writes. That raising up of others renders one fit to lead. The opposite is, well, the opposite. R. Shimon ben Lakish, a 3rd century Land of Israel sage, derives a beautiful and tantalizing piece of halakha from Moses’ propensity to violence elsewhere in the Torah’s narrative. “Resh Lakish says: One who raises his hand against his friend, even without hitting him, is called wicked…” The hint and threat of violence renders one wicked. Also, not trustworthy. The later halakha teaches that “one who raises his hand against his friend in order to hit him is ineligible to serve as a witness by Rabbinic law.” (ReMA, Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 34:4) Harsh words, acts of violence, and rocks that speak have been part of our people’s story from the beginning. Alas, that combination is still with us. How I wish we could get the water of Torah to flow with greater calm, deeper respect, and an abundance of peace and goodwill.

Shabbat Shalom.

“I Fought the Law…” – Shabbat Korah 5777 (2017)

Rock and roll afficionados will know Sonny Curtis‘s name. Curtis and Buddy Holly founded the Crickets in 1957, and Curtis stayed on as the band’s lead singer and guitar player after Holly’s tragic death. Curtis also wrote and recorded “Love is all Around,” the Mary Tyler Moore Show’s memorable theme song.

The past few days, I have Curtis’s most famous rock and roll tune on the brain. The Crickets recorded “I Fought the Law (but the Law Won)” in 1959. The Bobby Fuller Four made it famous in 1966 and it’s been a rebel rock band staple ever since. I learned it from The Clash whose 1977 rendition filled the airwaves (you do remember airwaves, yes?) when I was in high school. Many years later, Sonny Curtis recalled writing his classic “in about 20 minutes!” Sixty years later some of us are still humming it.

Had there been theme songs in the Biblical period, “I Fought the Law” would have been a good choice for Parashat Korah. (Although, if you went to high school in the 1980’s or later, you could likely make a very strong case for John Mellencamp’s classic “Authority Song!”) Korah fought the law and wound up swallowed whole by the earth. I’d say “the law won.”

Articulating and understanding Korah’s real complaint is an enterprise that has occupied interpreters for centuries. Here are his actual words. “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”

What does he mean by the claim that “all the community are holy?” Rabbi Joseph B’khor Shor, a 12th century French scholar, connects Korah’s challenge to words spoken by none other than God at Sinai. “Is it not the case that ‘all the community are holy’ and worthy of the priesthood? Indeed, God called them ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation!’ So why do you raise yourselves above the congregation saying that you are priests and they are not?” There ought not be any hierarchy in a kingdom of priests.

Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar, 18th century Moroccan kabbalist, argues that the people of Israel uniquely experience the Divine Presence in their midst, “something that no other nation in the world can say! And you will rule over them!?!” The shekhinah lives among Israel by virtue of their merit and that of their ancestors, not as a token of respect for Aaron and the priests. Concludes ibn Attar, “It is not right to belittle this Holy Congregation who are God’s intimates.”

19th century Italian scholar, Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto, one of the founders of modern Jewish scholarship, hears more of an edge in Korah’s complaint. In Luzzatto’s telling, Korah is saying that Moses and Aaron have outlived their usefulness. They’re continuing to lead beyond their expiration date. “It is enough that you have ruled over us until today, for until now we have needed you. Now that the mishkan stands we no longer need you.” The institutions that you built are here; with them in place, we no longer need you as leaders.

All three offer interesting takes on Korah’s words. Is he a populist who truly represents the interests and concerns of the people, or is he a demagogue who exploits a truth and manipulates it, and the people, for his own purposes. And what of Moses? Luzzatto describes Moses as a paragon of humility and patience, a real leader who first responds to Korah’s challenge with reason and affection, but who, in the end, stands his ground and forcefully puts his rebellious Levite cousin in his place.

Korah fought Moses, the law won. Even with the mishkan we need responsible leadership; holding the Divine Presence in our midst remains an aspiration, not a fact. And Moses’s affectionate humility continues to serve as the gold standard for heartfelt, devoted, godly leadership.

Shabbat Shalom.

What’s Your Confidence Quotient? – Shabbat Sh’lakh L’kha 5777 (2017)

I’m a bit of a map geek, which may help explain my longstanding love of Parashat Sh’lakh L’kha. The story of the 12 scouts sent by Moses to explore and assess the land of Canaan reads like a travelogue. The parasha traces the scouts’ itinerary, describes one or two of their adventures, and highlights the size and abundance of the land’s bounty. It’s Homer’s Odyssey, or Joyce’s Ulysses (June 16th is Bloomsday after all!) in miniature. And like those two classics, Sh’lakh‘s story of external physical movement is also a tale of interior spiritual struggle and, hopefully, growth. The outer communal journey and its map overlay an inner personal journey and its map. The scouts’ narrative took place once, a long time ago. The individual’s saga, the spiritual journey, which each of us walks in our own unique way, happens minute by minute, hour by hour, daily and eternally.


Sh’lakh’s spiritual journey narrative centers on what I’d like to call the continuum of confidence. Over-confidence sits at one end and its total absence resides at the other. Ten of the scouts – ‘leaders of the children of Israel’ – manifest both ends of the spectrum, as does Moses. Only Joshua and Kalev hit the bullseye, exhibiting sober, reasonable, and faithful confidence. The decision to send scouts to explore the Land belongs to Moses alone. God allows but doesn’t command it, an insight articulated by Rashi and many other interpreters. The word l’kha – for yourself – in the parasha‘s opening phrase exposes Moses’s ambivalence. At the same time, Moses has complete confidence, mistakenly so it turns out, in the group of notables he chooses for this mission. Each scout serves as a leader of his tribe; what could go wrong? In a deliciously subversive piece of commentary, R Ephraim of Luntshitz, the 16th century author of K’li Yakar, puts these words in God’s mouth: “in my opinion, based on my ability to see the future, it would be better to send women; they love the land and won’t speak ill of it!”

The ten scouts mirror Moses’s mix of over-confidence and none at all. Their report back to the people begins with the word efes, which in most contexts means zero, nothing, or nothingness. Commentators across the centuries heard in that word a nearly complete obliteration of self-worth on the part of the ten scouts. R Ovadiah Sforno, another 16th century writer, catches it with force and color. “Ee efshar lanu – it is not possible for us!” No way, not a chance, can’t even imagine it; we’re simply not up to the task. The inability to imagine possibility paralyzes the ten scouts and the people who are persuaded by their testimony. Ironically, their over-confidence resides in precisely the same space. They are 100% certain, confident beyond all reason, that conquering the land is, in fact, impossible! The simultaneous presence of arrogance and no self esteem is the double edged sword of the scouts’ story.

That double edged sword feels very familiar to me. I know it from my own life, my own journey. I also observe it all around me, especially in the political arena. The language of “it’s impossible” and “all is without value” indeed alternates with the rhetoric of “I know best” and a posture of arrogant condescension in our public life. Joshua and Kalev represent the balance between the alternating polarities. Kalev’s words (Numbers 13:30) sum it up best. “Ki yachol nuchal la – we shall surely overcome it.” Inner confidence doesn’t make challenges disappear. The obstacles remain. Inner confidence makes it possible to overcome those obstacles and perhaps even to transform them. That’s the work. That’s the journey. We shall overcome!

Shabbat Shalom.

Priest, Prophet, Sage – Shabbat Beha’alot’kha 5777 (2017)

In his best known essay, Ahad Ha’Am spells out the differences between ‘the prophet’ and ‘the priest.’ The prophet “can only see the world through the mirror of his idea; he desires nothing, strives for nothing, except to make every phase of the life around him an embodiment of that idea in its perfect form.” The prophetic imagination articulates, indeed can only articulate, what ought to be, with no regard whatsoever for the contingencies and compromises that give birth to what is in actuality. For the prophet there exists the “idea in its perfect form” and there simply is nothing else. In contrast, the priest “bows to” necessity and “comes to terms with” actuality. “Not what ought to be, but what can be, is what he seeks,” writes Ahad Ha’Am. The prophet, “a primal force,” wishes to transform reality; the priest, in the end, seeks to defend and sustain it.

In the cultural parlance of the day, prophets might be called disruptive leaders. ‘Disruption’ is all the rage in recent years. The more disruptive an invention or innovation the better, and ‘disruptive leadership’ has emerged as the gold standard in the business world. Here’s one description of the phenomenon: “The idea of breaking out of normal patterns – both in modes of thinking and practice – is what drives disruptive leaders.”

Compare that to Heschel’s famous description of Israel’s prophets: “Indeed, the sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice–cheating in business, exploitation of the poor–is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”

Parashat Beha’alot’kha introduces a variety of leaders and leadership types. Priests reign supreme in the parasha’s opening passage, sustaining reality in precise detail. But then, in the midst of a description of the Passover sacrifice, the Torah’s focus shifts. Asked a question of a priestly sort by a group of Israelites – “Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” – Moses responds in prophetic mode. “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Lord gives about you.” This is the disruptive moment brought about by a leader both able and willing to reframe the question. Moses as prophet occupies the space between the people and God aiming to represent each to the other.

Maimonides understands Moses’ words as proof that he is a prophet like no other, “always mindful and prepared, ready like an angel of God” to be enveloped by the Divine Presence at a moment’s notice. A thousand years before Maimonides a great rabbinic observer saw and heard something a bit different. Avot d’Rabbi Natan, a running commentary on and expansion of the teachings of Pirkei Avot, connects Moses’ words to a central attribute of a Sage (hacham): a commitment to listening well. For the early rabbis, Moses is Moshe Rabbenu – Moses our Teacher/Rabbi. And Sage (hacham) is their title for themselves! Moses may be the prophet of all prophets; but he is also the rabbi of all rabbis.

In the rabbinic imagination, the tension between priest and prophet is resolved by a new form and style of leadership called sage or rabbi. In good Hegelian fashion, the thesis known as priest and the antithesis titled prophet finds its synthesis in the person and practice of rabbi. Sages, like priests, focus on details and real life; and, like prophets, rabbis aim to speak truth to power in an ongoing effort to transform reality. Moses, prophet without peer, Moses our Rabbi, does it all. And Parashat Beha’alot’kha is where the big shift happens.

Shabbat Shalom.

Loyalty & Betrayal – Shabbat Naso 5777 (2017)

On Shavuot we took on the Book of Ruth, the Hebrew Bible’s delightful short story about two women – a widow and a foreigner – and their shared journey from tragedy to triumph. Ruth is all about kindness and loyalty, most notably Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi her mother-in-law from a neighboring country and another tradition. Despite the differences, Ruth keeps faith with Naomi; her loyalty and compassion win over Boaz and the people of Bethlehem. Her committed choice of Naomi, Naomi’s people and Naomi’s god is the book’s big story.

On Shabbat Naso, always the parasha read just after Shavuot, the Torah introduces us to the possibility of disloyalty. Two varieties of betrayal – one involving ‘breaking faith’ with God and one centering on marital infidelity – make an appearance near the beginning of Naso. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.” (Numbers 5:5-7) Rabbinic tradition notes that this case ultimately involves a false oath, the technical version of ‘breaking faith.’ Just a few sentences later, however, the Torah expands the category. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him…” (Numbers 5:11-12) ‘Breaking faith’ (lim’ol ma’al in Hebrew) describes betrayals of many kinds.

Later Biblical books – Ezekiel, Ezra, Chronicles – utilize the very same vocabulary to mark moments of national and personal disloyalty of various kinds. ‘Breaking faith’ takes on a multitude of forms. Ancient and medieval commentators go further still, equating m’ilah – breaking faith – with treachery and rebellion more broadly conceived. Betrayals abound.

Amos Oz’s most recent novel, aptly titled “Judas,” explores the nuances of betrayal and loyalty. Linked to the Christian Scriptural story of Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus of Nazareth, Oz’s tale seeks to take on the question of who is and isn’t a traitor in the early, pre-1967, days of the State of Israel. Like so much about Israel in the 1950s and today, it’s complicated.

On this 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, it’s worth considering the categories of loyalty and betrayal. Who betrays the Zionist idea and who exactly is loyal to the Jewish people turns out to be very much in the eye of the beholder. The juxtaposition of Ruth and Naso indeed suggests that treason and patriotism function less as black and white opposites and more as a continuum of choices and judgements entered into in real time and space with all of its complexities and nuance. There are, to put it simply and clearly, as many forms of loyalty as there are of betrayal.

Shabbat Shalom.