New Heart, New Spirit – On the Making of (Proper) Distinctions – Shabbat Shemini-Parah 5779 (2019)

Make distinctions! That, in a mere two words, is the central command of Leviticus 11, the Torah’s first collection of rules regarding eating. Separate this from that! Same concept, now in four words. The point of the ‘Torah’ of eating is ‘to divide between the unclean and the clean’ – לְהַבְדִּ֕יל בֵּ֥ין הַטָּמֵ֖א וּבֵ֣ין הַטָּהֹ֑ר (l’havdil beyn ha’tamei u’veyn ha’tahor). (Leviticus 11:47) Robert Alter reminds us that in Genesis 1, the great priestly rendition of Creation, “the world comes into coherent being when God divides the chaotically interfused primal elements – light and darkness, the waters above and the waters below, the sea and dry land – from each other.” Paradoxically (perhaps), to create coherence one has to divide chaotic forces from one another. Wholeness (hopefully) emerges from distinguishing and separating.

The rabbinic tradition in all of its guises – halakhic, ethical, philosophical, kabbalistic, pietistic – loves the making of distinctions every bit as much as does Leviticus. The Sifra, the early midrash on Vayikra, reads the Torah’s imperative ‘to distinguish’ (l’havdil) to mean “that we should not merely observe the distinction between the ass which is unclean and the cow which is clean, but also that we should be careful of the distinction between that which we can render unclean and that which we can render clean.” (beyn t’me’ah l’kha la’t’horah l’kha) The Torah of the priests calls on us not only to notice the distinctions between that which is clean and that which is unclean, but also to notice the ways in which we make further and finer distinctions.

R Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal), author of Mesillat Yesharim, the great 18th century musar classic, brilliantly draws out the ethical point. “Forbidden food,” he writes, actually introduces impurity into the heart and soul of a person, so that the holiness of blessed God departs far from her/him.” How? “By depriving her/him of the powers of understanding and reason which the blessed Holy One bestows upon the saints.” The result? “A person becomes coarse and beastlike, steeped in the grossness of this world. And this is more true of one who partakes of forbidden food than of one who commits any other transgression, because food enters the body and becomes part of its very substance.” (Mesillat Yesharim, chapter 11) Refined humanity, characterized by purity of heart and soul, requires understanding and reason, the hallmark of which is the making of proper and appropriate distinctions.



[Ezekiel panel, Dura-Europos Synagogue, 2nd century]


On this Shabbat just after the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, I’m thinking a lot about how we make distinctions. I spent the day at AIPAC on Monday, hearing the big event speeches and participating in smaller, blessedly more nuanced, conversations about Israel and the US-Israel relationship. (Video of most of the main stage presentations can be accessed here.) I learned a lot, stewed more than a little, and came home thinking about the painful divides that mark American political life and the current state of the Jewish people. None of it was new; all of it was on display at Policy Conference. The good news is that both sides of the American political continuum were well represented, and American Jews of many stripes gathered together under one roof. The much more difficult news is that we continue to mistrust and talk past one another, sometimes civilly, sometimes with contempt.

And the questions we face are hard ones. What does it mean to be pro-Israel? Can one love and support Israel and simultaneously object to Israel’s government and its policy? Can Israel be a truly democratic and Jewish state at the same time? How should those two commitments be balanced? Can they be balanced? Can the Jewish people hold itself together in the face of sharp disagreement on fundamental questions? Can support for Israel truly be bi-partisan? Can we accurately diagnose the anti-Semitism that has reemerged in our moment and place? And can we join together to combat it without tearing ourselves apart? Great challenges face all who love and care about Israel and the Jewish People, regardless of political or religious affiliation. Great challenges face all who love and care about America as well. We have a lot of work to do.

A century ago, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook struggled with some of the same questions about the health and well being of the Jewish people and its then new national movement. In an essay called Nishmat ha-Leumiut v’Gufah – The Soul of Nationhood and its Body, Rav Kook draws a distinction between “the abstract, ideal content of the universal objective and its expression in reality.” His moving words feel remarkably contemporary to me. “The love for the nation, or, more broadly, for humanity, is adorned at its source with the purest ideals, which reflect humanity and nationhood in their noblest light. In the conceptual world these are entities full of majesty and beauty, delight and life, mercy and truth, justice and humility, valor and joy, intelligence and feeling…But when they enter the world of action, and are set within boundaries, at once some elements of the higher light disappear. The large aleph becomes a small aleph.

For Rav Kook, and hopefully for us as well, the story doesn’t end with that small aleph. To the contrary, Kook envisions “an awakening to the true revival” which will feature “the cleansing potency of the original soul of our people, with hidden divine influences and with the light of mercy and a higher pleasure hidden within it” a time in which those hidden sparks will “come and also cleanse all the outer garments in which the soul and spirit of the nation robed itself.”

The haftarah for this Shabbat Parah serves as Rav Kook’s prooftext and punchline. “I will give you a new heart, and I will place in you a new spirit; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. I will put My spirit within you…you will be My people and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36: 27-32)

New heart, new spirit. Ezekiel’s evocative and uplifting words need to be our prooftext and punchline as well. The future of the Jewish People’s soul and body depend on it.

Shabbat Shalom. 

Yihud & Union – Shabbat Tzav 5779 (2019)

One can easily view the Book of Esther, and the holiday of Purim which grew from it, as nothing but farce and frivolity. In fact, rather serious challenges and questions reside just beneath the surface of the Bible’s great comic melodrama, none of greater historical and contemporary consequence than the taxonomy of anti-Semitism. Esther isn’t the first biblical book to place the rhetoric of anti-Semitism in the mouth of a villain. That distinction belongs to Exodus which begins with Pharaoh’s devious observation that “the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Exodus 1:9-10)

Pharoah’s concern, that Jews are fundamentally disloyal, finds richer and more nuanced expression in Haman’s words in the third chapter of Esther. “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them…” (Esther 3:8) Haman makes three claims – the Jews are ‘scattered and dispersed’, they follow different customs from everyone else, they don’t follow the realm’s law – each of which comes to be a standard trope of later anti-Semitism.



[Rembrant van Rijn, Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther, 1660]


The Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible expands on Haman’s statement, adding to the narrative the text of a letter to the governors of the empire’s 127 provinces written by ‘the great king Artaxerxes’. The letter includes the claim “that this nation, and it alone, consistently stands in opposition to all men, perverting society with its own laws, that it is hostile to our interests, and does all the harm it can so that the well-being of the land is threatened.” (Septuagint, Esther 3, Addition B:5) The basic tropes of anti-Semitic rhetoric are already here, a full two millennia before the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Two late medieval commentators tease out the deeper meanings of these staples of anti-Semitic thought. Gersonides (1288-1344, Provence) understands Haman to mean that the Jews “were always of one mind” and that “they are like rebels against the kingdom.” Solomon Astruc (14th century, Catalonia) goes even a bit further: “…The Jews have taken counsel together to rebel against the king and to make a union (yihud) and plot called union…They are in all the provinces of the kingdom and their laws are different from those of every other people. They do not eat and drink with us and do not worship like we do. They do not obey the laws of the king, even those which do not contradict their own faith. One must beware lest they multiply and when a war breaks out unite with our enemies and cause all the countries especially those farthest away from you to rebel.”

One wonders if Gersonides and Astruc read the anti-Semitism of their time and place into Haman’s words. Commentary often reflects the circumstances in which it is written, and we know that fourteenth and fifteenth century Spanish and Provencal Jews faced church sponsored anti-Semitism laced with precisely these themes of disloyalty and willed separation. Indeed, Spanish Jews didn’t eat and drink with their Christian neighbors, nor did they worship like them. For our medieval ancestors, Haman’s words described the move from observed reality to open hatred that they themselves experienced.

How might we read Haman’s words in this moment of renewed anti-Semitism and heightened awareness of the rhetoric of hate?

The temptation is great to hear current expressions of anti-Semitism as one more instance of the same old Jew hatred pioneered by Pharaoh and Haman. The words certainly employ some of the same tropes already on display in Exodus and Esther, and they come from both ends of the political spectrum. Robert Bowers, the Tree of Life murderer, and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar utilize some of the same language.*  But are they really one and the same? Troubling as Representative Omar’s words (and actual sentiments?) may be, they are a political statement with no incitement to violence. Bowers’ words, in contrast, preceded the worst act of mass murder committed against Jews in American history. Our difficult challenge is to confront both of these versions of anti-Semitism recognizing that they differ from one another and from the Jew hatred articulated by Haman and Pharaoh.

Our own disunity deepens that challenge. In Hebrew, Haman’s first words to Ahasuerus are yeshno ‘am ehad – literally ‘there is one people.’ Abraham Saba, himself an exile from both Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, serves up a tart piece of commentary on Haman’s words that, to my ears and eyes, powerfully resonates: “There is one people. That is, although it may seem that they are one people, in total harmony, nevertheless, they are scattered and divided – that is, they are divided against each other by needless hatred even though they are in exile among the nations.” Saba’s fellow exile, Isaac Arama, puts an even sharper point on the Jewish disunity of the time: “They are separated from each other and rejoice in each other’s misfortune and therefore since they are so divided it will not be difficult to overcome them.”

On this Shabbat after Purim, let’s leave the farce and frivolity behind, and get focused on the profound challenges that we face as a people. ‘Rejoicing in one another’s misfortune’, not to mention ‘needless hatred’, can not, must not, be our path. We can successfully combat the anti-Semitism that surrounds us on all sides only if we rediscover and reclaim our internal solidarity and really work toward yihud and union among the people of Esther and Mordecai.



*[Bowers: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Omar: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”]

To Err is Human…Shabbat Vayikra/Zakhor 5779 (2019)

“an inadvertent violation that involves committing an act…” – in Hebrew, shig’gat ha-ma’aseh (שגגת המעשה). Such is the rabbinic understanding of the case described in our parashah.

If any person from among the populace unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt— or the sin of which he is guilty is brought to his knowledge—he shall bring a female goat without blemish as his offering for the sin of which he is guilty.” [Leviticus 4:27-28]

We all make mistakes. To err, after all, is human. What happens next is what really matters. The Torah’s words detail a number of steps, starting with awareness. Responsibility begins at the moment at which one ‘realizes one’s guilt’ or when the erroneous act is ‘brought to one’s knowledge.’



[Peter Paul Rubens ‘Sacrifice of the Old Covenant’ 17th century]


Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the great 1st century sage, offers up a provocative teaching. “Fortunate (ashrei) is the generation whose ruler brings a sacrifice for a sin s/he has committed unwittingly. If its ruler brings a sacrifice, is there any need to say what one of the common people would do; and if s/he brings a sacrifice for a sin committed unwittingly is there any need to say what s/he would do in case of a sin committed willfully?” [Talmud Bavli, Horayot 10b]

Commenting on this teaching, my friend and teacher Rabbi Shai Held argues that “a generation whose leaders respond to charges of misconduct by denying, obfuscating, or shifting incessantly to the passive (‘mistakes were made’) is a generation whose children learn to offer an honest, straightforward apology for bad behavior only when their backs are against the wall – only, that is, when all other (self-exonerating) tactics have failed. But a generation whose leaders step forward and say, ‘Yes, I really blew it, and I’m sorry’ just might learn the importance of integrity and accountability.” [Heart of Torah, vol. 2, p. 11]

The Torah’s construct is a call for precisely that kind of integrity and accountability. We make mistakes. We do wrong. Sometimes it’s truly unintended; sometimes we mean it. Either way, the act has significance; what we do or say leaves a real and often lasting impression. The sin or purification offering mandated by Leviticus in a case of inadvertent wrongdoing is the absolute equivalent of “an honest, straightforward apology for bad behavior.” That’s the standard to which we are called. Nothing more; nothing less.

Shabbat Shalom.

Clouds & Glory – Shabbat Pekudei 5779 (2019)

The Torah’s second book, Exodus, concludes with these words: “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” The final word – translated as ‘journeys’ – is mas’eihem (מסעיהם) ‘denoting the stages of a long trek, anticipat(ing) what follows. The Books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy will take Israel from Mount Sinai to the borders of Canaan. They do not know their way but must rely entirely upon YHVH.’ (William H.C. Propp, Anchor Bible, p. 674) Rashi explains that “on each of their journeys and travels, the cloud would rest wherever they encamped. The place of their encampment (therefore) is also called a journey…from the place of their encampment they returned to traveling, therefore they (the places of encampment) are referred to as ‘journeys.’



[Bible map, attached to Numbers 33, London, 1562]


Journeys happen in stages, and each stage consists of setting out, traveling, and coming to a place of rest. Rashi’s comment on that last word of Exodus uses all three terms. The journeying undertaken by our ancestors, the ‘long trek’ in Propp’s phrase, is filled with uncertainty. As Propp aptly puts it, ‘they do no know their way.’ We and our Biblical ancestors have much in common. Our journeys feature the very same uncertainty and need to rely on forces and people outside of ourselves. ‘Well we know where we going but we don’t know where we’ve been’ gets it exactly backwards. The Israelites know where they’ve been – Egypt, Red Sea, Sinai, wilderness – but they really, truly don’t know where they’re going. To be fair, the Talking Heads song sets itself right with its assertion that ‘we’re on the road to nowhere.’

Our uncertain journeys call for some measure of comfort, something to support us, to keep us calm along the way. Enter the cloud. In the words of the earliest Midrash on the last part of Exodus ‘when the Israelites were camped, the pillar of cloud rose straight up and stretched out over the children of Judah like a sukkah. It covered the tent from the inside and filled the tabernacle from outside…’ (Baraita d’M’lekhet ha-Mishkan, 14) The cloud, suggests the Midrash, combined elements of a sukkah and a huppah, and so served as a kind of protective shield throughout the children of Judah’s long trek. In fact, claims the same Midrash, there were ‘seven clouds of glory that ministered to Israel for forty years in the wilderness’ serving such a myriad of protective purposes as ‘lowering the high places and raising the low places before them, killing serpents and scorpions, consuming thorns and briers, and guiding them by a straight way.’



[Jacques Francois Brand, Paris, 1738]


We journey in stages. Perhaps we know where we’ve been. For sure, we don’t know where we’re heading. Something mysterious guides us, something hard to describe let alone touch or see. Our ancestors had the cloud containing the Divine Glory. And we? We too, I believe, have the opportunity to sense and feel the Divine Presence in the course of our journeys. It may not dispense with the spiders encountered along the way, but it will, I believe, guide us by a straight way. I hope I’m right.  Shabbat Shalom.

Feeling Left Out…Shabbat Vayak’hel-Shekalim 5779 (2019)

A parable, courtesy of Midrash Shemot Rabbah (51:6) –

A young man came to a city and found the people collecting money for charity, and when they asked him also to subscribe, he went on giving until they had to tell him that he had already given enough. Further on his travels, he came to a place where they were collecting for a theater, and when asked to contribute toward it, he was also so generous that he had to be told, ‘Enough!’

The young man of the story (and it seems important that he is young!) ‘has to be restrained from a kind of obsessive drive to give,’ in Aviva Zornberg’s words. Zornberg also points out the sequence of his giving. First he gives to ‘charity’ an unalloyed good in the mind of the rabbinic author of the parable. Next he gives to ‘a theater’ an equal and opposite evil in the eyes of the rabbis. As Zornberg pithily puts it, ‘instead of progressing, the young man is regressing.’ A few more Zornberg phrases are worth repeating. The young man exhibits ‘compulsive, morally opaque generosity,’ or, if you prefer, ‘promiscuous generosity’ which renders him ‘undiscriminating.’

Obsessive, compulsive, promiscuous, undiscriminating, morally opaque…it’s quite a collection!


[Nuremberg Bible, 1483, colored woodcut]


The Midrash applies the parable to the fashioning of the Golden Calf and the building of the Mishkan. They both require gifts from the people and, in both instances, the people over give. What’s underneath the ‘promiscuous generosity’ of God’s ‘undiscriminating people’?

Another Midrash (Avot d’Rabbi Natan A, chapter 11) offers a hint.

Said Rabbi Nathan: So long as Moses was engaged in the work of the Mishkan he did not wish to take counsel with the rulers/chieftains of Israel (n’si’ei yisrael), and the rulers/chieftains of Israel sat in silence, thinking, ‘Now Moses will need us.’ When they heard it proclaimed in the camp, saying ‘their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done’ they cried: ‘Woe unto us that we had no part (shutafut) in the work of the Mishkan!’ So they arose and added a large gift of their own accord, as it is said, ‘And the chieftains brought lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece; and spices and oil for lighting, for the anointing oil, and for the aromatic incense.’ (Exodus 35:27-28)

‘Now Moses will need us!’ and ‘Woe unto us that we had no part in the work of the Mishkan!’ are statements of longing and desire. The chieftains wish to belong, to participate in the great project of their day, to not feel left out. So too, the young man of our parable. So great is his desire to belong and to participate, that he will give (and give) without restraint or discrimination.

And what of us? We too wish not to feel left out; we too desire to be needed; we too long to participate in the great projects of our day. Hopefully, we can be a bit more discriminating than the young man of the parable. Roman theaters and righteous charity are, after all, not the same thing. Nor are the Golden Calf and the Mishkan of equal moral value. Smart restraint and discriminating wisdom, coupled with passion and participation, are the order of the day.

Shabbat Shalom.