Shabbat for Shabbat’s Sake: Parashat Sh’lakh Lekha 5782

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I didn’t grow up in a sabbath-observant home. The first time I encountered traditional Shabbat observance was during my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England, when I was about 11 years old. And if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t care much for it.

What especially irked me about Shabbat in those early experiences was what Jewish tradition calls the “fences around the law”, activities that, while technically permitted on Shabbat, are nevertheless considered off-limits, either because they might lead one to inadvertently violate a biblical prohibition, or because they are against the spirit or essence of the Sabbath. 

For example, I remember that, during my first summer, the last day of camp was a Sunday. And I, ever the procrastinator, neglected to pack my bags before sundown Friday. But I thought nothing of it, figuring I could just pack up on Saturday afternoon, since there were no structured activities, anyway. But when my counselor came into the bunk and saw me shoving dirty laundry into my duffel, he made me stop. Apparently, it is forbidden to prepare on Shabbat for something that takes place after Shabbat, even if the activity itself would otherwise be permitted on Shabbat. Why? Because preparing for something after Shabbat violates the spirit of the day as a day apart; sacred time, separate from the days that preceded it and distinct from the week that will follow it. In other words, Shabbat is its own thing. Shabbat exists for the sake of Shabbat itself.

That concept is central to the story found toward the end of parashat Sh’lakh Lekha. After the portion’s main narrative, which centers on the ill-fated mission to reconnoiter the Promised Land, the Torah turns to a lesser-known and somewhat strange story: 

A man was discovered gathering wood on Shabbat. The Israelites are unsure what to do with him, and even Moses and Aaron are baffled, “ki lo foresh mah ye’aseh lo, for it had not been specified what should be done to him” (Num. 15:34). Presumably, the man was gathering wood for the purposes of kindling a fire, and the Torah specifically forbids making a fire on Shabbat. However, while it may be necessary to gather wood in order to make a fire, the act in and of itself is purely preparatory. Is it forbidden merely to prepare to do something that is forbidden on Shabbat, even before performing the prohibited act itself? What if the wood-gatherer doesn’t even intend to make a fire on Shabbat, but is simply getting ready for the next day? What if he just likes picking up sticks? 

Ultimately, God clarifies the law: “mot yumat ha-ish, the man shall surely be put to death” (15:35), which is the same as the punishment for kindling a fire on Shabbat. The sentence is severe, to be sure, but let’s put that aside to note what this passage is really trying to communicate: God regards the act of gathering wood on Shabbat as tantamount to igniting a flame on the seventh day. In other words, merely preparing to perform an act that is forbidden on Shabbat, even if the preparation is intended for doing something after the conclusion of Shabbat, is considered the same as performing the prohibited act itself. 

The fact that the Torah equates preparing to do forbidden labor on Shabbat with committing the prohibited deed itself means, from a biblical perspective, that Shabbat must be observed for its own sake. Once Shabbat begins, one must set aside old business, refrain from engaging in any new labor, and even forgo preparing for that which is beyond Shabbat. Put simply, Shabbat must be its own thing; a day apart, distinct, separate, sacred. A day that exists for its own sake.

This way of understanding Shabbat may strike many of us as counter-cultural. As Americans, we are conditioned to denigrate idleness and prize productivity. We tend to think of and justify time we spend not at work – like weekends, holidays, vacations, self-care; even sick days, family leave, and sleep – as means to an end, necessities for optimal productivity. Perhaps this is why we Americans frequently work on weekends and holidays; receive significantly less vacation time, sick days, and paid family leave than do citizens of similar nations; and even often pride ourselves in sleeping as little as possible. We are taught from an early age that our dignity derives from hard work. I know I was. As a result, we wear busy-ness as a badge of honor, boast about how tired we constantly are, and celebrate productivity, professional accomplishment, and material acquisition above all else. 

Consequently, we are inclined to understand an institution like Shabbat from the same perspective, arguing that the Torah must mandate a day of rest each week only for the purpose of recharging for the week ahead. Without taking time to recoup our strength, the thinking goes, we risk producing diminishing returns and burning out more quickly. Having a regular day of rest, on the other hand, enables us to work harder during the work week and, moreover, to remain at our labors for more years of our lives. 

Explaining Shabbat as a pragmatic strategy for ensuring a healthy and stable workforce is not new. When Roman critics regarded the institution of the Sabbath as an example of Jewish laziness, Philo, the spokesperson of the Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt, argued that the object of Shabbat was “to give [people] relaxation from continuous and unending toil” in order to “send them out renewed to their old activities. For a breathing spell enables [people] to collect their strength with a stronger force behind them to undertake promptly and patiently each of the tasks set before them.” In other words, Philo defended Shabbat by saying that its purpose was to make a person more productive, to regain strength for the work of the week ahead.

I must admit that I am frequently guilty of thinking about Shabbat in these terms. For example, I once had a girlfriend during my college years who I’ll call Sarah, to protect her identity. Sarah was a real go-getter – smart, ambitious, driven, and incredibly hard-working. Now, by that time in my life, I was shomer Shabbat. Sarah, on the other hand, was decidedly not traditionally observant. Spoiler alert, the relationship didn’t last very long. In any case, I remember one Friday afternoon, as I was busy preparing for Shabbat, Sarah said to me with maximum incredulity, “I really don’t know how you are able to spend a whole day off the grid and away from work.” I replied, “That’s funny. I don’t know how you aren’t able to do it!” My point was that having a dedicated day of rest made me more focused and productive in the week ahead, and I couldn’t understand how she was seemingly able to work nonstop with no breaks. However, it strikes me as I think back on it that both of us were actually thinking about Shabbat from the same perspective, that rest is only valuable as a means of attaining optimal productivity. 

To this day, I find that I often explain or justify Shabbat in similar terms. I’m certain I’ve made comparable claims from this very bimah. And just recently, in my letter to the congregation about my upcoming sabbatical, I claimed that Shabbat is intended to be “purposeful and restorative respite,” a time for rest following a period of hard work that exists so that we can return to work with full spiritual, emotional, and physical vigor. 

When I wrote those words, I was not being disingenuous. From the moment I first considered taking a sabbatical – which, as the term suggests, is closely related to the concept of Shabbat – I justified it to myself, and presented it to our congregation’s leadership, as an opportunity to disengage from day-to-day responsibilities so I could focus on other work – a book project or two that I had been dreaming about for some time and beginning to work on the advanced degree I will be pursuing part-time over the next few years. Having the spaciousness to engage in these pursuits, I argued, would enable me to be a better rabbi for our congregation when I returned. 

However, after a recent conversation with a Christian colleague, I started thinking about my sabbatical in an altogether different way. The other week, I was telling my friend, Rev. Jim Somerville, about my sabbatical plans. After listening to me list all the things I was planning to do, all I was hoping I would accomplish, during this time, he replied with a mix of consternation and compassion: “That all sounds great, Michael. But this is Shabbat we’re talking about. What are you doing for your nefesh?”  Rev. Somerville invoked the Hebrew word for soul specifically to remind me that the point of Shabbat is not increased productivity. The point of Shabbat is the soul, reclaiming and nurturing our most essential selves. 

Many of us, myself included, have a deeply ingrained, perhaps pathological, need to feel and be recognized as optimally productive, as though our worth depends on our work. From the Torah’s perspective, however, our value as human beings derives not from our productivity but rather from our godly spirit, from the fact that each of us is created in the Divine image. In other words, we are fundamentally worthy. Work does not endow us with dignity; we are inherently equally and infinitely dignified. There is nothing we must do, indeed nothing we can do, to prove or magnify our worth. 

Therefore, our tradition insists that Shabbat is not for the purpose of productivity. Rather, quite the contrary, “labor is the means toward an end,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues in The Sabbath, his stirring love letter to Shabbat (Heschel 14). We work for the sake of rest, not the other way around. In Heschel’s words, “the Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath” (Heschel 14). 

Shabbat, in this sense, is about ceasing our pursuits to remind us that we actually need not pursue; it beckons us to remember who and what we truly are. In Heschel’s words, Shabbat exists in order for us to “abandon our plebeian pursuits and reclaim our authentic state, in which we may partake of a blessedness in which we are what we are, regardless of whether we are learned or not, of whether our career is a success or a failure” (Heschel 30). 

Heschel describes this kind of “perfect rest” as “an art,” and I would argue that it is indeed an increasingly lost art. 

I can say that, personally, refraining from productive work on Shabbat has grown more challenging over the years. Some of that is invariably due to my chosen profession. Don’t get me wrong, I cherish, and am extremely fulfilled by, the work I do. Getting to be a rabbi is an extraordinary blessing; a great privilege. Yet as the spiritual leader of a congregation, it’s hard to claim that my activities on Shabbat, such as leading services and teaching Torah, while perhaps not technically violating the letter of the law, do not in some way undermine its spirit. 

The pandemic has only exacerbated this challenge. Adapting to the moment required the use of technology I would have previously considered to be off-limits, and while I don’t regret how we found ways to safely and meaningfully keep our community connected to each other and God during this difficult time, I have to admit that, once the electronic devices are on and being used for one purpose, I have found it harder and harder to turn them off and avoid using them for other, less sabbath-appropriate, purposes.

I know I’m not alone. As my rabbi and teacher Art Green observed, “all those labor saving devices, all those prepackaged foods and household gadgets that were supposed to save us so much time” seem to have freed us up merely “to work harder than ever, to answer messages ever faster, to squeeze more productivity out of each minute of our lives” (Green, Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas, 40). With each passing year, it feels as though the pressures on our time, the demand for us to be constantly at work and immediately responsive, the sense that if we are not keeping up we are falling behind, are all growing exponentially. Is it any wonder that burnout has become so pervasive, that our society is in the throes of a widespread mental health crisis? The persistent push to produce is harming us and indeed our entire civilization – mind, body, and soul. We desperately need Shabbat, now more than ever, a radical reclamation of our inherent and equal dignity, a worth that derives not from what we do, or from how much we achieve, but rather from who we fundamentally are. 

Can we rediscover the lost art of perfect rest, respite not only from constant toil itself but also from our constant urge to toil? Can we embrace an opportunity not only to stop working but also to stop even preparing for work? Can we reclaim ourselves from a culture that tells us our work determines our worth? 

Shabbat is the way, a day in which we not only cease productive labor but also, as we learn from the story of the wood-gatherer in this week’s parashah, cease even laboring to be productive; a day that is not preparation for something else, but rather a day that is sacred simply because it exists, reminding us that we too are sacred simply because we exist.

I may yet do some of the things I had originally envisioned doing on my sabbatical; studying, dreaming, writing. But if I do any of those activities, I will strive to engage in them not because I feel the need to be productive, but rather because they affirm and nourish my spirit. More importantly, I am hopeful that the coming months will be an opportunity for me to learn and relearn the lost art of perfect rest, to rededicate myself to the essence of Shabbat, to embrace Shabbat for Shabbat’s sake. 

I am extremely grateful to our holy community for enabling me to receive anew the godly gift of Shabbat, and I am hopeful that, in my taking this time, you will feel inspired and empowered to dedicate whatever time you can for the rejuvenating rest we all need, and that the Source of Life requires. 

Wishing you all an extended Shabbat Shalom.

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Embrace the Wilderness: Parashat Beha’alotekha 5782

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One of the central tensions of the Book of Numbers is perfectly expressed by the two very different names by which it is known. In English, of course, we call it Numbers, a name derived from the book’s opening narrative – counting and organizing the Israelite population for the purpose of invading, conquering, and settling the Promised Land. But in Hebrew, we call it Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of In-the-Wilderness, a tumultuous and tragic tale of wandering, rebellion, and, ultimately, generational ruin. And it is in our Torah portion this week, Parashat Beha’alotekha that the Book of Numbers, a narrative of order and purpose, actually transitions to being Sefer Bamidbar, a story of loss, and of being lost. 

As Parashat Beha’alotekha begins, the Children of Israel are preparing to depart Mt. Sinai, where they had been encamped for about a year, for their apparently imminent arrival in the Promised Land. According to the great medieval French commentator, Rashi, Moses and the people believed that they would reach the Promised Land within three days of their departure from Sinai. But just as soon as the Israelites leave Sinai, they begin to complain, beginning a devastating cycle of rebellion and punishment that culminates in God barring the generation of the Exodus from entering the Promised Land, dooming them instead to perish in the wilderness, a decree that will be leveled against them in next week’s portion, Parashat Shlakh-Lekha.

What happened? How did the Israelites, a people coming from a year of living intimately with the Divine at Sinai break faith so drastically, and soon into their journey? How did this people, who could practically see their destination just over the horizon become so hopelessly lost so close to their destination?  

Interestingly, the text of this week’s parashah does not record the subject of the people’s first complaint. Rather, it uses the term k’mitonenim, which, literally translated, means “like those who cause themselves to wail.” In other words, there was no content to the Israelites’ first complaint. They manufactured a grievance. They drove themselves to dissatisfaction. 

A few verses later, the people complain again. This time, we are told the subject of their protest: they are sick of the manna, the heavenly bread that God miraculously caused to appear for them in the wilderness, and crave meat, expressing a longing to return to Egypt, where they audaciously claim to have freely enjoyed bountiful fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (11:5). Here, too, the text indicates that the complaint is manufactured. The text says that the “rifraff in their midst hit’avu ta’avah,” literally, they “caused themselves to crave a craving.” 

The result of both complaints, of course, is tragedy. Which begs the question, “why”? Why would the Israelites – a people with so much to lose and with so much to gain – deliberately choose to break faith and veer off the simple path toward fulfilling their dreams? 

The answer, I think, lies in the wilderness itself. Between leaving Sinai and entering the Promised Land, the people find themselves in a transitional space. Because the wilderness is literally neither here nor there, it is quite likely that the people felt they were precisely nowhere. Being situated in this transitional nowhere, detached from God’s Mountain and distant from the Holy Land, must have produced within the Israelites a sense of being unmoored, vulnerable, even lost. Philosopher Paul Tillich calls this feeling the “anxiety of nonbeing,” an existential crisis that we can experience when we transition between stages of life, when we are no longer who we were previously, but when we haven’t yet developed into who we are becoming. The Israelites rebel, according to Tillich, to escape the insecurity and uncertainty of living by resisting moving forward, retreating to an imaginary and idealized past, and acting in ways that are harmful and destructive, towards others and even towards ourselves.

The tragedy, however, is that it didn’t have to be this way. Right as the people leave Sinai, just before the story turns to their downward spiral of self-destruction, we encounter two verses that interrupt the flow of the narrative, an interruption expressed by the fact that the verses are bracketed in the text by two inverted nuns, which you can see reflected both in the printed chumash and also in the Sefer Torah itself:

Vayehi binso’a aron va-yomer Moshe: kumah Adonai va-yafutzu oyvekha, va-yanusu mis’anekha mipanekha / When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say, Arise, Infinite One, that Your enemies may scatter, and that those who hate You flee before You!’ Uv’nukho yomar: shuvah Adonai rivevot alfei yisrael / And when it would rest, he would say, ‘Return, Infinite One of Israel’s myriads of thousands.

These verses are likely quite familiar to us all, because to this day, we sing them every time we take the Torah out from, and return the Torah to, the Aron ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark. In their context, these verses are an unheeded reminder to the people that even though they might have felt they were leaving God behind in entering the wilderness, God was not moving on from them. Wherever the Ark goes, God would go with it. Wherever the Ark rests, God would rest with it. And therefore so long as the people travel with the Ark in their midst, God would be in their midst. As long as they camp where the Ark camps, they will dwell with the Divine. 

Of course, according to Jewish tradition, God is no more physically present with the Ark than anywhere else. Moreover, God and the Ark are not synonymous; that would render the Ark an idol. Rather, the ancient Ark was a symbol of God’s presence. So through these verses, the Torah was trying to remind the Israelites that, as J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote, “not all who wander are lost.” Though they may be leaving God’s mountain, and though they may not yet have arrived at their holy destination, so long as they bear in mind that God remains with them on their journeys, then they need not fear the time and space between origin and destination. But the moment they lose sight of that truth, then they will become hopelessly, irredeemably lost. 

The tragedy, then, of our parashah, and indeed of the whole Book of Numbers, is that our ancestors did lose sight of that truth. Consumed by the spiritual disorientation of leaving Sinai and not immediately entering the Promised Land, existentially anxious about traversing the transitional space of the wilderness, the Children of Israel resist moving forward. They resist the uncomfortable uncertainty of the present, retreat to an imaginary and idealized past, and, ultimately, self-destruct. 

What might have happened had the Israelites actually overcome this existential anxiety and embraced the wilderness journey? Of course, it’s hard to say with certainty. But those of us who have gone through periods of transition in our own lives – seasons when we are no longer who we once were, but we are not yet who we might become – likely know the difference between rebelling against the wilderness and embracing the journey, however uncertain and uncomfortable and even frightening as it may have been. Sometimes, our greatest challenges can also facilitate our greatest growth, especially if we choose to lean into those struggles as opportunities for transformation, rather than resisting or rebelling against them. Of course, none of us enjoys hardship, and pain need not be welcomed as a gift. However, it is also true that there is no motion without friction. There is no growth without discomfort. Ultimately, meaningful, positive transformation is impossible without unsettling the status quo and enduring the uncertainty and instability that are a necessary part of the process. 

Our congregation is about to enter a season similar to the one the Israelites experience in this week’s parashah. This is our last Shabbat in our sanctuary before it is shut down for renovation, meaning we will, for a period of time, be proverbially wandering in the wilderness – no longer encamped at God’s mountain, comfortably situated in our permanent sacred space, but not yet in the Promised Land of a rejuvenated sanctuary. No matter how much we need this renovation, no matter how long we have needed it, and no matter how magnificent and beneficial our new facility will be, this transitional period will, for many of us, feel deeply unsettling.

Already, I feel the stirrings of anxiety within our congregation. Who are we outside the space that formed us and spiritually sustained us for all these years? Who will we be when we arrive at our destination, which we have seen only in architectural renderings? In this unknown in-between, how will we nourish our souls, connect with our community, commune with the Divine? How will we celebrate sacred moments in our lives outside our sacred space? How will we remember lost loved ones outside a space suffused with so many memories? 

The question before us, then, is not whether we will enter the wilderness, but whether we will survive the journey. Will we embrace the disequilibrium, or will we seek to escape the instability by trying to retreat to an idealized past, resisting forward movement, or rising up against one another. In this undefined space between Mt. Sinai and the Promised Land, will we flourish, or will we fall? Will our travails precede our redemptive rebirth, or will they swallow us up?

Fortunately, we have something our ancient ancestors didn’t. We have the gift of being able to study how they went astray, and to learn from their mistakes. We can see the wrong decisions they made, and make different ones. When our ancestors left Sinai, they did not heed the words that we now know well, the words we sing every week, which remind us that though we may wander, we will not be lost – so long as we bear in mind that God always remains with us on our journey. 

Those words from our parashah employ the Ark of the Covenant as the symbol of God’s presence, assuring the people that so long as they see the Ark, they will know that God is with them, and as long as they center their camp around the Ark, the Divine dwells in their midst. Today – spoiler alert for those who’ve never seen an Indiana Jones movie – we no longer possess that ancient Ark. Since its disappearance centuries ago, our tradition has regarded Torah itself to symbolize God’s presence in our midst. That’s what it means when we recite those verses about the Ark whenever we take the Torah out to study it: we are reminding ourselves that, so long as we orient ourselves around Torah – around divine insight, around ancestral wisdom, around sacred deeds – God will be in our midst, wherever we journey; so long as we look to Torah, we will never be lost, no matter where we wander. 

My friends, we are about to depart from a holy mountain and enter an unknown wilderness. Maybe we’ve already been wandering for some time. But if we can embrace the wilderness – if we can find the Torah in it, and if we can hold fast to Torah and to each other through it – we will make it to the Promised Land stronger than ever.

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Message to the Class of 2022

Delivered at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School Baccalaureate Ceremony, June 16, 2022

Let me begin by expressing my gratitude for having been invited here this evening. It is such an honor to be with you to celebrate this milestone with you and your families. Congratulations to you all! 

As I thought about the message I wanted to share with you this evening, I thought back to where I was when I sat where you sat. Then I did the math. When I realized that I actually graduated high school 21 years ago, I had a minor existential crisis. But after a few short weeks of doing nothing but staring wistfully out of windows, I ultimately put the pieces of my life back together and returned to thinking about where I was intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually when I was 18, and what I know now that I wish I could have told myself then. And it’s that message I want to offer to you tonight.

My whole life, I have always been something of a contrarian. My parents and teachers would tell you that I was a pain-in-the-butt growing up, the kind of student who looked at authority with skepticism, always questioning and challenging and disagreeing. So it’s perhaps no surprise that in teen years, as my natural disposition toward contrarianism evolved into full-blown rebellion, I fell in love with punk rock. Punk rock is about standing at a remove from the dominant culture, interrogating it with an irreverent spirit, a challenging posture, and a critical eye. It’s about questioning the world as it is, being unafraid to poke at and even to smash sacred cows, and refusing to accept the status quo as inevitable. Punk rock is outsider music, the art of those who look at the world as it is and realize something is deeply wrong.

It’s perhaps more surprising, however, that I embraced my Jewish faith around the same time, and for similar reasons. But the way I saw it then – and in many ways continue to see it now – my tradition is rooted in rebellion. For example, Jewish tradition considers the biblical figures Abraham and Sarah to be the founding parents of our faith, a position they achieve only by leaving their homeland, stepping outside and standing apart from the world they knew. Rabbinic legend takes this idea even further, arguing that Abraham boldly interrogated and challenged the beliefs and practices of his parents’ culture, and that God chose him to found our faith precisely because of his iconoclastic and rebellious spirit. Similarly, Jewish tradition holds that the biblical Moses was called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because he was willing to step outside and stand apart from the norms of the only world he knew. One day, Moses witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating an enslaved Israelite. Given his privileged background, Moses could have easily seen that act as unremarkable, business as usual in Pharaoh’s Egypt. But somehow Moses, despite having been raised as a consummate insider, came to possess the sensitivity of an outsider. He refused to accept the taskmaster’s oppressive deed as normal, and the rest is history. 

Maybe it’s because my people has always been a small minority, struggling to maintain its uniqueness when it is tempting to just be like everyone else; but for whatever reason, my tradition has long taught the value of standing out; of being outsiders, looking with a critical eye at things as they are in order to pursue things as they ought to be. Time and again, Scripture issues commands like, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you…” We are called to reject what is popular in order to do what is right. The great modern Jewish sage, and my spiritual mentor, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, argued that the essence of Jewish faith is “the sense of not being at home in the universe,” feeling spiritually vagrant in a world filled with “so much suffering and evil” (“You Stand,” in Man’s Quest for God, 61-62). 

We human beings, on the other hand, are highly adaptable. We are great at adjusting to a new normal and moving on, even if that new normal was once horrifying. Over time, often with shocking speed, we conflate the world as it is with the world as it ought to be.

But what would happen if we were able to look at what we usually experience as normal with fresh eyes, from an outsider’s vantage point? What would we see, and how would we feel, if we were able to take a step back and look at our world as it is honestly, and critically, refusing to accept the world as it is as inevitable, or unchangeable? 

For starters, as outsiders, I think we would be horrified by the violence and cruelty so prevalent in our world, from Ukraine to Uvalde. And I think we would refuse to accept evils like these as normal. 

As outsiders, I think we would feel outraged to see the callousness to suffering and indifference to others’ wellbeing, especially the vulnerable, that has become so commonplace in our culture. We would experience as utterly scandalous the fact that many in our society have come to accept avoidable sickness and death as a price worth paying for convenience and comfort. And I think we would refuse to accept 1,000,000 American COVID deaths, many of them preventable, as in any way normal.

As outsiders, I think we would be appalled by systemic racial injustice. We would find it impossible not to notice how racism persists, often with deadly results, as was evidenced just the other week in Buffalo, and we would see the mounting backlash to racial justice efforts, to a truthful reckoning with the uncomfortable parts of American history, and to acknowledging clear evidence of widespread inequities for what they are – as cynical ploys to perpetuate inequality. And I think we would refuse to accept a status quo where your zip code determines your life expectancy and the color of your skin your prospects for escaping poverty. 

As outsiders, I think we would see clearly how close we are to losing democracy, in this country, and around the world. We would identify the widespread efforts happening right now at every level to exploit the weak points in our electoral system. We would see how people in powerful positions are embracing, or at least abiding, conspiracy theories, political violence, and autocracy; and how many of our fellow citizens are empowering those who tolerate authoritarianism and excusing those who are bent on subverting democracy. And we would recognize the demand for civility as a cynical ploy designed to get us to look the other way, turn the page, and move on. 

True, every once in a while an event like the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the January 6th insurrection shakes us out of our complacency and forces us out of our comfort zone, something that enables us to see that what we usually experience as normal is in fact profoundly wrong, and that what we know to be wrong is shamefully normal. But then we allow ourselves to settle comfortably back inside a broken system, going back to sleep in a burning house.

But this moment in your life – as you stand at the precipice of graduating high school, poised to strike out on your own to understand the world into which you are entering as young adults and to discover who you are and how you fit into that world – this moment particular in your life is a unique opportunity to step outside of the world as it is and to dream about the world that might be, if only we could clearly and honestly see what is wrong with what is normal and fix what is broken. As a matter of fact, I think college does a great job of teaching us how to be critical observers of our world in precisely this way, and, I invite those of you who are going on to college to take full advantage of the chance to learn how to look at our world as an outsider, with a critical eye and a challenging posture.

At the same time, I also want to suggest that to only look at the world as an outsider is problematic. True, unexamined orthodoxies are toxic. Conformity at the expense of reason is dangerous. But so is cynicism. So is nihilism. As the influential 20th century philosopher and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt once put it, if we believe that nothing is true, then we permit anything to be possible – no matter how horrific it may be. When we approach everything only as outsiders, we risk not actually standing for anything. 

Ideally, then, each of us will find a way of being in the world that enables us to stand for something without falling for everything, to accept and doubt all at once; to interrogate while remaining faithful to the very thing we are interrogating. 

That means, even as you commit to looking at the world as an outsider, you must also discover and affirm what it is you do believe in. What do you believe to be true, even if you cannot prove it to be true? What is so core to your being that you would even stake your life on it? To be sure, we must question and challenge the world as it is. But we must also know what we think the world ought to be. 

Class of 2022, as you strike out to encounter and engage with the world as young adults, as our next generation of emerging leaders, I want to bless you with the hope that you will become at once outsiders and insiders, simultaneously firm in your core convictions and unafraid to hold everything up to the light of reason; that you challenge, but from a place of commitment; that you believe, but with open minds and soft hearts. 

In the 21 years since I sat where you sat, this is what I’ve learned: harmonizing head and heart, mind and soul not only affords balance and direction in life. It’s also what makes possible the crucial work to which we are all called, the work of repairing the world. By becoming at once outsiders and insiders, I pray that you will take the world into which you are entering as high school graduates and make of it a better one. Congratulations, and may God bless you all on the journey.

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Punk’s Not Dead, It’s Jewish: Shavuot 5782

I couldn’t be more excited for the new FX/Hulu miniseries Pistol, which promises to tell the true story of one of my favorite bands, The Sex Pistols. I first discovered The Pistols as a teen, when my natural disposition toward contrarianism evolved into full-blown rebellion. 

Of course, music history buffs and punk aficionados know that The Pistols didn’t invent punk rock; but they did help define its look, sound, and, above all, its attitude. Punk, as epitomized by bands like The Sex Pistols, is about standing at a remove from the dominant culture, interrogating it with an irreverent spirit, a challenging posture, and a critical eye. It’s about questioning the world as it is, being unafraid to poke at and even to smash sacred cows, and refusing to accept the status quo as inevitable. Punk rock is outsider music, the art of those who look at the world as it is and realize something is deeply wrong.

It is no coincidence, then, that I fell in love with punk rock and Judaism around the same time. If you look carefully at our sacred texts, you’ll find that ours is a faith rooted in rebellion. Abraham and Sarah, for example, become the founding parents of our faith only by leaving their homeland, stepping outside and standing apart from the world they knew. The midrashic tradition takes this idea even further, arguing that Abraham boldly interrogated and challenged the beliefs and practices of his parents’ culture, and that God chose him to found our faith precisely because of his iconoclastic and rebellious spirit. Similarly, tradition holds that Moses was called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because he was willing to step outside and stand apart from the norms of the only world he knew. One day, Moses witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating an enslaved Israelite. Given his privileged background, Moses could have easily seen that act as unremarkable, business as usual in Pharaoh’s Egypt. But somehow Moses, despite having been raised as a consummate insider, came to possess the sensitivity of an outsider. He refused to accept the taskmaster’s oppressive deed as normal, and the rest is history. 

Maybe it’s because our people have always been a small minority, struggling to maintain our uniqueness when it is tempting to just be like everyone else; but for whatever reason, our tradition has long taught us to stand out; to be outsiders, looking with a critical eye at things as they are in order to pursue things as they ought to be. Time and again, the Torah issues commands like, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you…” We are called to reject what is popular in order to do what is right. The great modern sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, argued that the essence of Jewish faith is “the sense of not being at home in the universe,” feeling spiritually vagrant in a world filled with “so much suffering and evil” (“You Stand,” in Man’s Quest for God, 61-62). 

This ethos is central to the story we commemorate on this Shavuot holiday. God introduces the theophany at Sinai by saying, “You shall be unto me a nation of priests and a holy people.” What are priests if not a group of people who live as outsiders, distinct from the dominant culture? Traditional commentators underscore this point by emphasizing that separateness is precisely the meaning of the word “holy.” To be a holy people is to be a people apart, unique and distinct from all others; to be “גּ֥וֹי אֶחָ֖ד בָּאָ֑רֶץ, a singular people in the world” (II Samuel 7:23).

According to tradition, this message is embedded in the very setting of the story or matan Torah. Why, ask the rabbis of the midrash, was the Torah given at Sinai – at an unremarkable mountain, and not at a more celebrated site? Indeed, they wonder, why was the Torah given in the remote wilderness and not in the Promised Land? The answer? “כל מי שאינו עושה עצמו כמדבר הפקר, אינו יכול לקנות את החכמה והתורה, Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah” (Numbers Rabbah 1:7). According to the 19th century Belarusian commentator Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn, also known by the acronym Maharzu, the term the midrash uses, “ownerless,” implies total independence, “shelo l’hakpid al shum davar m’divrei olam,” a person who doesn’t rely on any single thing in the world.” 

In other words, the precondition to accepting the Torah is independence – of mind and soul. The midrash doesn’t say only an ownerless person may receive Torah; it says only an ownerless person can receive Torah. Because the purpose of Torah is about transforming the world as it is into the world as it ought to be, it can only be fully appreciated and embraced by those who are able to look at their world with the critical posture of an outsider – those who think for themselves, those who resist unquestioned acquiescence to external authority, those who reject unexamined conformity to others’ norms and values. 

Perhaps this is also why rabbinic tradition associates the story of Ruth the Moabite with matan Torah. Ruth is the paradigmatic outsider. Not only is she not an Israelite, she comes from a nation that was historically regarded as one of Israel’s most relentless enemies. Our ancient ancestors so detested their Moabite neighbors that the book of Deuteronomy famously says, “No Moabite shall be admitted into the Lord’s congregation; nor shall their descendants, even in the tenth generation, ever be admitted into the Lord’s congregation” (23:4). And as if this were not enough, Ruth’s marginalization is exacerbated by her status as a propertyless widow and immigrant.

But it is precisely her marginalization that enables her to see the redemptive promise of Torah. Her willingness to leave everything she once knew and embrace the possibility of an unseen future is rooted in her independence of mind and spirit. And, perhaps even more importantly, Ruth’s independent spirit is also what propels her to hold those around her accountable for fulfilling the Torah’s vision of a compassionate and just society. Tradition therefore holds Ruth up as a model for matan Torah, past, present, and future, as though to say that only those of us willing to become outsiders like Ruth can truly receive Torah. And, of course, Ruth is regarded as the ancestor of King David, whose dynasty is associated with the advent of the messianic era, as though to say that only those who are prepared to see the world through Ruth’s eyes, as outsiders, can help bring about the world’s ultimate redemption.

What would it mean for us to look at our world today as outsiders? 

It would mean, for starters, refusing to become desensitized to violence and cruelty like we are witnessing in Ukraine, or to the fact that mass shooting events – such as the one that occurred the other week at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, claiming the lives of nineteen children and two teachers – uniquely happen in our country with alarming frequency and horrifying severity. To look on these horrors as outsiders would mean never allowing evils like these to become normal. 

To look at our world as outsiders would mean refusing to accept widespread sickness and death that is largely avoidable through vaccines and other public health strategies as a price worth paying to return to pre-pandemic normalcy; resisting the urge to pretend that the pandemic is over for the sake of our own convenience and comfort. It would mean refusing to accept 1,000,000 American COVID deaths, many of them preventable, as in any way normal; to resist becoming in any way callous to suffering or cavalier about our own or others’ wellbeing, especially the vulnerable.

To look at our world as outsiders would mean refusing to look away or simply move on in the face of obvious and egregious systemic racial injustice, as we have done in the two years since we all saw George Floyd suffocate to death under the knee of a police officer. It would mean recognizing that racial injustice persists, often with deadly results, as was evidenced just the other week in Buffalo. It would mean recognizing the mounting backlash to racial justice efforts, truthfully reckoning with the uncomfortable parts of American history, acknowledging clear evidence of widespread inequities, even against the use of the term “racism,” as a cynical ploy to perpetuate inequality. It would mean keeping our eyes wide open and refuse to look away or allow ourselves to become numb to the pervasive reality of racial injustice in America; to refuse to accept as normal that many of our cities are just as segregated as they ever were; to refuse to accept a status quo where your zip code determines your life expectancy and the color of your skin your prospects for escaping poverty. 

To look at our world as outsiders would mean acknowledging how close we are to losing democracy. It would mean recognizing the widespread efforts happening right now at every level to identify and exploit the weak points in our electoral system; rejecting leaders who embrace, or even abide, conspiracy theories, political violence, and autocracy; refusing to empower those who tolerate authoritarianism and excuse those who are bent on subverting democracy. It would mean resisting the bad-faith calls for civility that require us to look the other way, turn the page, or try to move on. 

True, every once in a while an event like the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Ugalve, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the January 6th insurrection shakes us out of our complacency and forces us out of our comfort zone, something that enables us to see that what we usually experience as normal is in fact profoundly wrong, and that what we know to be wrong is shamefully normal. But we human beings are nothing if not adaptable. We are great at adjusting to a new normal and moving on, even if that new normal was once horrifying. Over time, often with shocking speed, we allow ourselves to settle comfortably back inside a broken system, going back to sleep in a burning house.

But this day, Shavuot, invites us to resist our natural human tendency to accept things as they are and instead to strive to be like Sinai and emulate Ruth – to perpetually regard ourselves as spiritually homeless in our world, looking at our reality from the vantage point of outsiders. Because only as outsiders can we clearly and honestly see what is wrong with what is normal. And we cannot fix what we cannot face. As Jews, our core purpose is to fix what is broken, to repair the world. Therefore, to embrace our calling as Jews, we must become outsiders.

And as long as there are Jews who embrace this calling, Punk’s not dead.

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‘Earn This’: Last Day of Passover 5782

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Over the course of the past year or so, I’ve committed to filling in what I call my “pop culture blindspots,” making a point to watch movies with a significant cultural footprint that I, for various reasons, haven’t seen. 

One of the best films I’ve seen along this journey was Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s award-winning World War II epic. I’m assuming that most of you have seen it, since it came out nearly 25 years ago to widespread critical acclaim and tremendous box office success; but otherwise, consider this your official spoiler alert!

The film centers on a squad of Army Rangers led by Captain John Miller (played by Tom Hanks), who, surviving the bloody American invasion of Normandy, are sent behind enemy lines to find a paratrooper, Private James Ryan (played by Matt Damon). Ryan’s three brothers have already been killed in combat, and bringing Private Ryan home would prevent his mother from having to bear the terrible burden of losing all her sons in the war. 

The orders come directly from central command, but virtually every other character in the movie, even Private Ryan himself, thinks the mission is either immoral, unwise, or both. Of course, no one wants to see a mother have to bury her children. But the soldiers tasked with saving Private Ryan have mothers, too. What is the sense in risking their lives just to save him, one unexceptional private? Underscoring this haunting question is the fact that most of Captain Miller’s squad is killed in the course of carrying out their mission. Even Miller himself dies in the climactic battle.

Throughout the movie, the viewer is forced to sit with the painful reminder that Miller (and hundreds of thousands of others just like him) died so Ryan (and countless others) could live. That message is underscored by the final order Miller gives Ryan right before dying. With his final breath, Miller tells Ryan to “earn this…earn it.” 

The movie’s final scene takes place years later, when an elderly Ryan visits Miller’s grave, he says to his fallen captain, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me,” that he has tried to live in such a way that justified the sacrifice Miller and others made for him. Ryan then turns to his wife and implores her, “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”

By concluding the movie with this emotional scene, it seems to me that Spielberg is making a statement that he essentially intended his entire film as a question: What is our responsibility to those who have gone before us? Specifically, what do we owe to those who have died so that we might be spared? How must we live in order to honor those who have sacrificed their lives for ours? 

Passover confronts us with a similar question. 

In yesterday’s Torah reading, we encounter the climactic moment of the Exodus story, the dramatic salvation of the Children of Israel at the Sea of Reeds. Following the horror of the tenth and final plague, Pharaoh lets the enslaved Israelite nation leave Egypt. But soon after, he has a change of heart and sends his army into the wilderness after them. The Children of Israel find themselves trapped between the charging Egyptian horde behind them and a seemingly impassable sea in front of them. But God miraculously splits the sea, enabling the Israelites to cross. When the Egyptians chase after them, God sends the walls of water crashing down, wiping out the entire host. Safe on the other side, we are told, “va-yar Yisrael et Mitzrayim met al s’fat ha-yam,” that “the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea,” and then Moses, Miriam, and the rest of the Israelites burst into song. 

Typically, the Israelite mood here is read as joyous and jubilant. After centuries of brutal enslavement, they had finally secured their freedom; confronted with what seemed to have been certain death, their lives were miraculously saved; justice was done, with the oppressors meeting their doom, and the oppressed finally knowing liberation. 

But that’s not what the Torah says. Rather than depict the Israelites as exultant, the Torah reports, “va-yar Yisrael et ha-yad ha-g’dolah asher asah Adonai b’Mitzrayim, va-yi’iru ha-am et Adonai, va-ya’aminu ba-Adonai uv’Moshe av’do” that “the Israelites saw the great power which the Infinite had wielded against the Egyptians, and the people became afraid of (or were awed by) the Infinite, and they affirmed God and Moses, God’s servant.” 

The people’s reaction to seeing thousands of Egyptian corpses wash up on the shore was not celebration, but rather recognition – recognition of the awful magnitude of what had just occurred. 

Indeed, even the song they sing in the aftermath of this event does not express joy per se. Rather, they sing of God’s power to save, but also of God’s power to destroy. They acknowledge with amazement and appreciation that their lives were spared and that their freedom was secured. And they express their belief, or at least their hope, that God will continue to deliver them in the future. 

But they also sing at length of the extraordinary costs of their good fortune, even if those costs were just and necessary. Perhaps the Song of the Sea is best read less as a hymn than as a dirge. It is less an exuberant celebration of victory, and more a somber acknowledgement that the Israelites only live because Egyptians have died

It turns out that this reading isn’t as against-the-grain as it might seem. Many of us are familiar with the famous midrash attributed to the ancient sage Rabbi Yohanan, that when the angels saw the Egyptians drowning in the Sea of Reeds, they wanted to sing in celebration. But God rebuked them, saying, “ מַעֲשֵׂה יָדַי טוֹבְעִין בַּיָּם, וְאַתֶּם אוֹמְרִים שִׁירָה? / My creations are drowning in the Sea, and you sing songs?!” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b).

To God, according to this midrash, the destruction of any of God’s creations, no matter how wicked they are or how deserving they might be of retribution, is a tragedy. After all, our tradition reminds us, every human being is unique, infinitely valuable, and so the destruction of one human life is nothing less than the destruction of an entire world. 

We give expression to this principle at the Passover Seder. During Magid, the portion of the Seder in which we discuss the Exodus story, we pour out some of our wine as we name each of the plagues that God wrought upon Egypt in order to secure our freedom. The full cup of wine symbolizes the joy of our redemption, but since people died in the course of our liberation, our joy must be subdued. The death of any human being, even those on the wrong side of a moral divide, is tragic. 

We human beings, of course, are not angels; and we are certainly not gods. We might experience joy, or at least relief, when bad people get what they deserve. Our instinct for vengeance, our desire for justice – heck, our schadenfreude – is not only natural, it can serve a useful function, reinforcing and sharpening our moral red lines, our sense of right and wrong, good and bad. 

However, by telling us that our ancestors’ joy at the Sea of Reeds about their salvation was tempered by the shock and awe of seeing the terrible sight of thousands of drowned Egyptians, and by directing us to diminish our celebration by mourning the Egyptian casualties of the Exodus, our tradition goes out of its way to remind us that our liberation came at an incalculable cost

There are several reasons for this: one is to inculcate humility, to teach us to be extremely careful when we possess the power to administer justice or wage war. While our tradition doubtlessly believes that there is such a thing as right and wrong and good and evil, that people ought to be held accountable for the crimes they commit, and that sometimes violence – even war – is justified, it tempers its insistence on pursuing justice with the reminder that a human life is as valuable as an entire world. Since we human beings are not gods, we must recognize that our knowledge and understanding is inherently imperfect and our judgment inescapably flawed. We therefore must exercise great caution in our administration of justice, especially when a person’s life hangs in the balance, and in the prosecution of even the most righteous of wars. 

But there is another, arguably more important, reason our tradition directs us to remember the terrible cost of our redemption, particularly when we are most exultant: Like Private Ryan, we must remember that we live only because others have died, that our freedom isn’t free. Bearing the burden of this reminder is meant to cause us to question whether we have “earned it”, whether we have lived in a way that would make us worthy of such sacrifice. And like Private Ryan, we are confronted with the ongoing challenge of justifying that sacrifice by striving to live our lives as well and as fully as we are able, and to do as much good as we can do – for others, for our community, for our world.

Memory is such a major theme of this holiday. It is the essence of the haggadah, a book that literally means “telling,” because the purpose of the Seder is to recount the extraordinary events of the Exodus. It is a reason that we recite Yizkor, the service for remembering our ancestors, on Passover (and also on the two other pilgrimage festivals that are tied to the Exodus narrative). Beyond Passover, the Torah commands us to recall our ancient liberation each and every day, with rituals like laying tefillin and observances like Shabbat and holidays serving as additional regular reminders. 

Our tradition enjoins us to repeatedly remember the Exodus at least in part because whenever we remember the story of our people’s redemption, we will invariably face not only its joyful outcome, but also its awful price. In confronting the cost of our freedom, we also confront the fact that we owe a debt to those who paid for our redemption with their lives, a debt that can only be repaid by making the most of the lives we have been given.

This, of course, is not just a question posed by Passover. It’s not even necessarily a uniquely Jewish question. Rather, our tradition calls us to a fundamentally human question: What responsibility do each and every one of us living today have to those who have gone before us? Like Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, our tradition answers with a simple but substantial commandment: earn this

With the way we live our lives, we must earn the sacrifices of our ancestors, our martyrs, and our survivors. In how we treat others, we must earn the sacrifices of those who have been oppressed and killed for their otherness. In the way we strengthen our communities, in the way we contribute to the common welfare of our nation, in the way we pursue justice and make a more perfect union, we must earn the sacrifices of those who have lost their lives in the ongoing struggle of freedom against tyranny.

Today, we imagine ourselves like our ancient ancestors, standing at the shore of the Red Sea with a mix of relief and awe. Are we worthy of the cost of our liberation? Can we be? The answer, today and every day, is up to us.

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Judaism for the Wise and Wicked: Passover 5782

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Questions are perhaps the defining feature of the Seder. The ceremony, with its unusual rites and symbols, appears to have been specifically designed to arouse questions, particularly from children. 

To all these questions, let me add one that I want us to consider this morning: what is Conservative Judaism? 

This question has been on my mind lately. I was recently invited to join the Rabbinical Assembly’s strategic planning committee, a group of about fifty Conservative rabbis and leaders of diverse backgrounds and perspectives from within our movement who are charged with developing an actionable vision for the near-term future of Conservative Judaism. 

Our initial conversations made it clear to me that our task will neither be simple nor easy; in part, I think, because it will require us to articulate shared principles, to define who we are and what we stand for as a movement. What defines Conservative Judaism? What makes our movement unique?

There have, of course, been numerous attempts throughout history to define Conservative Judaism. One of our movement’s founding fathers, Zacharias Frankel, said that our defining quality was our “positive historical” approach to Judaism, that we see our tradition as a historical phenomenon that evolves, and improves, over time. Later, leaders like Mordecai Waxman said that we believed in “tradition and change.” Indeed, many people have belonged to Conservative congregations throughout history because, in various ways and to varying degrees, Conservative Judaism seeks to blend the traditional with the contemporary. None of these definitions are bad, but none have ever become, well, definitive. And as a result, Conservative Judaism still has something of an identity crisis.

On its surface, Conservative Judaism’s identity crisis would seem to have nothing to do with Passover. Yet, as it turns out, identity is a major theme of the holiday. 

Consider “The Four Children,” one of my favorite parts of the Seder. The haggadah identifies four different types of children – a “wise” child, a “wicked” child, a “simple” child, and a child “who does not know how to ask” – each asking a distinct question. 

The archetypes are rooted in rabbinic midrash. On several separate occasions, the Torah predicts that, when Jewish adults observe Passover’s peculiar rituals and practices, their children will invariably ask what it all means. The ancient rabbis interpreted this apparent repetition to mean that the Torah was actually talking about four different types of children, each naturally asking a distinct type of question about Passover, and each requiring a response consistent with the child’s disposition and capability: to the “wise” child, a “wise” answer; to the “wicked” child, a “wicked” answer; to the “simple” child, a “simple” answer; and to the one “who doesn’t know how to ask,” a basic answer.

It’s interesting to note that the Torah itself does not describe any of the children or their questions as particularly wise, wicked, simple, or elementary. The children and their questions just are. It’s only later that the rabbis characterize and categorize them. And in so doing, they even sometimes change the answers provided by the Torah itself, or else proffer altogether different answers to the questions the Torah predicts. 

So, for example, in today’s Torah portion, the special reading for the first day of Pesah, we read: 

וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃ 

And when your children ask you, ‘What is this ritual to you?’ 

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַ֠ח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנׇגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל

You shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Infinite, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’ (Exodus 12:26-27a).

If you’re familiar with the haggadah, you probably noticed that this is the question the rabbis ascribe to the rasha, the so-called “wicked” child. However, you may have also noticed that this is not the way the haggadah instructs the parent to answer the rasha. Instead, the rabbis emphasize the fact that the child says “to you.” The rabbis infer from this that the child sees their relationship to the holiday as distinct from their parent’s. Therefore, according to the rabbis, the child has effectively placed themself outside the tradition as a whole, as well as the family and community that cherish it. The parent is thus instructed to respond, “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם / It is because of what the Infinite did for me when I went free from Egypt.'” In other words, God liberated me, but not you, since you have excluded yourself from the community. One who places themselves outside the community cannot be included in the community’s redemption. 

It is a sensitive interpretation of the question in Exodus chapter 12 verse 26, and a meaningful lesson to teach. But above all it must be noted that the rabbis are making a deliberate choice to read the text this way, since they substitute the answer that the Torah itself provides in verse 29 with one from an altogether different passage, Exodus chapter 13 verse 8. 

The only other child who is given an answer that is different from the one provided by the Torah is the hakham, or wise child. The hakham asks “מָה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם / “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that the Infinite our God has commanded us?” This is a quotation from Deuteronomy chapter 16 verse 20. 

But the haggadah instructs the parent to respond with a very different answer than is prescribed in the biblical passage. The subsequent verses in Deuteronomy read, “You shall say to your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Infinite freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. God freed us from there, in order to take us and give us the land promised to our ancestors. And the Infinite commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Infinite our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case” (Deut. 16:21-24).  

The haggadah, on the other hand, says to answer the wise child, “We do not conclude the Passover Seder with the afikoman,” which is a teaching from the mishnah, a text written approximately 1,500 years after the Torah! Why does the haggadah provide this rabbinic answer for the wise child’s question, when the Torah itself already gives a perfectly good response?

The answer, I think, is because the “wise” child isn’t wise, and the “wicked” child isn’t wicked. 

Let’s start with the wise child. In Hebrew, he is called hakham. True, the Hebrew word hakham does literally mean wise. But for the ancient rabbis, hakham is a technical term, synonymous with the title “rabbi.” 

For the ancient rabbis, the term hakham denoted someone who was considered to be part of the rabbinic community, and indeed someone who was qualified to be one of its leaders. A hakham was not a generic wise person, but rather “a Sage.” So the hakham of the haggadah is not wise in the sense of possessing wisdom. Rather, he’s a hakham, a rabbinic Sage. It is only from this perspective that the haggadah’s response to the hakham’s question makes sense. His question, about the laws of Passover, is characteristically rabbinic. And since his question emerges from within the rabbinic tradition, it makes sense for the rabbis to answer him not from the Torah, but from the mishnah, from within rabbinic tradition. Neither the hakham nor his question are wise in any conventional sense. Instead, I think it’d be more accurate to call him “The Insider”. 

If the hakham is better understood as “The Insider,” then it stands to reason that the rasha, whom the haggadah implies is the hakham’s opposite, would have to be “The Outsider.” 

And indeed, from the haggadah’s perspective, the rasha does seem to stand at a remove from Jewish tradition, interrogating it as an outsider looking in, with a critical eye and a challenging posture. The rasha is therefore not “wicked” in the sense of being morally evil, but rather someone who rejects the religious philosophy, and maybe even the authority, of the rabbis, and positions themself in opposition to the rabbinic community. Like the hakham, rasha here is not used as an adjective, but rather as a noun. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just not a rabbi. He’s a rebel.

[PAUSE]

It is of course tempting to assume that the haggadah is holding up the hakham as a model and the rasha as a cautionary tale. But I actually think it is making a much more subtle point. The haggadah’s problem with The Outsider is obvious: he seeks truth but embraces nothing. As a result, the haggadah instructs the parent to give The Outsider an intellectually interesting but emotionally hostile answer: the meaning of Passover is that God liberated me, but not you, since you have excluded yourself from the community.

However, I also think the haggadah has a problem with The Insider, though you have to read between the lines to see it. The haggadah’s answer to The Insider is technically correct and nurtures communal belonging. But it also utterly misses the point of the holiday. 

I have to believe that was intentional. I can’t imagine the ancient rabbis actually believed that the correct answer to a question about the meaning of Passover is that the afikoman isn’t the last step in the Seder. 

Perhaps the haggadah is forcing a comparison between the hakham and the rasha not to vindicate the former and vilify the latter, but rather to suggest that they are mirror images of one another. 

The Insider, situated deep inside the tradition, is uncritical, but also incurious. They seem unconcerned with “why,” and instead focus on “what” and “how”. The Outsider wants to know “why”, but is unconcerned with “what” and “how”. 

As a result, The Outsider might get to the heart of the matter. But because they aren’t invested, getting to the heart of it doesn’t matter. The Insider, on the other hand, is so deep inside the system that they are unable to interrogate it. Sure, they are invested, but the investment ends up being quite literally meaningless. 

The haggadah draws our attention to the hakham and the rasha, two apparent extremes. At first glance, it would seem that the haggadah is saying one is good and the other is bad; one is right, and the other is wrong; we ought to celebrate and emulate the former, and deride the latter. 

But upon closer inspection, I think the haggadah is actually making a much more subtle point: Both extremes on their own are problematic. When we approach everything as outsiders, we risk not actually standing for anything. But unexamined orthodoxies are also toxic. Conformity at the expense of reason is dangerous. Ideally, we can find a way of being in the world that enables us to stand for something without falling for everything, to accept and doubt all at once; to interrogate while remaining faithful to the very thing we are interrogating.

It strikes me that this is Conservative Judaism’s defining quality. Ours is an approach to Jewish tradition, a Jewish way of encountering the world, that seeks to find balance between extremes, unapologetically embracing Jewish tradition while also unapologetically interrogating and challenging it. Conservative Judaism encourages us to embody both the wise child and the wicked child simultaneously, to be at once outsiders and insiders. We benefit from being rooted in Jewish wisdom, practice, and community, and also from holding our tradition up to the light of reason. 

This approach is complex. But so is our world. It resists simple answers and easy explanations. Yet so does life. Those who position themselves only as Outsiders, who challenge the tradition without being wholeheartedly committed to it, are beyond the pale. But so too are those who position themselves only as Insiders, those whose loyalty to the tradition closes their minds and hardens their hearts. Those parameters, it seems to me, are broad enough to include the diversity of belief and thought – the commitment to intellectual pluralism – that has always been one of the hallmarks of Conservative Judaism, while also being sufficiently narrow to exclude approaches that we have always regarded as out of bounds. 

This, to my mind, is the only standard that matters; the one to which I consider myself bound as both a proud Conservative rabbi and as a proud Conservative Jew: to relate to our tradition simultaneously as both an Outsider and an Insider. 

Is this wise, or wicked? Maybe it’s a little of both. But maybe, ultimately, that’s precisely what the haggadah is telling us: that redemption is possible if we embrace a way of being that unites head and heart, mind and soul, one that seeks to harmonize the wise and wicked children within each of us.

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When the Devil Comes for You: Parashat Tazria 5782

Sometimes, live television affords us moments that could never have been predicted in advance and yet, as you watch them happen, you know you are witnessing something that everyone is going to be talking about for years to come. 

Last Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony is a reminder that even today, in our balkanized and asynchronous media environment, we can still collectively experience these kinds of moments. By now, you all doubtlessly know what I’m talking about: 

About two-thirds of the way through the evening, comedian Chris Rock came onstage to present the award for Best Documentary. Of course, you’d be forgiven if you don’t remember anything about the award itself. Rather, what you probably remember is Chris Rock’s joke about actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair, and what transpired after. 

It’s not clear whether Rock knew that Pinkett Smith lives with alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss. I didn’t, although apparently she has been quite public about it. When the camera panned to Pinkett Smith, it was clear that she was not amused. Neither, apparently, was her husband, Will Smith, who went into the evening as the frontrunner for Best Actor. He ultimately won in that category – a recognition which many of Smith’s fans, myself included, thought was long-overdue. 

But Smith’s award would not become the most consequential moment of his night. Instead, furious over the way he perceived Rock insulted his wife, Smith walked on stage, hit the comedian in the face, and then returned to his seat, shouting profanities. 

It was such a shocking moment that I assumed, as I was watching it, that it must have been scripted. But it quickly became clear that it was exactly as it appeared: one of the world’s biggest movie stars, and the night’s favorite for Best Actor, physically assaulted a man on live television. 

There is a lot that can be said about this whole ordeal. But I want to focus on something Smith said after the altercation that struck me as profound. In his acceptance speech, Smith mentioned that, shortly after the incident occurred, legendary actor Denzel Washington, who was seated nearby, took him aside and said to him, “‘In your highest moments, be careful. That’s when the Devil comes for you.’” 

Now, I don’t know for sure what Washington meant by that statement. Maybe he was saying that there are always people who seek to knock others off pedestals. One should be on guard against these kinds of enemies, especially in one’s highest moments, because they will either try to actively bring you down themselves, or else tempt you to act in such a way that precipitates your fall. 

Maybe it’s because we Jews tend not to believe in the Devil as an external enemy like our Christian cousins, but I understood Washington as referring to an inner enemy, perhaps what Jewish tradition calls the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination. In Jewish tradition, the yetzer ha-ra is our selfish instinct, the propensity each of us has to do what feels good in the moment, even if it is morally wrong. It is precisely in our highest moments that the yetzer ha-ra is strongest within us, because those moments might give us an inflated sense of our own importance and power, seducing us to treat others as inferior or believe we can act without consequence. It’s the mindset once infamously articulated by a different notorious celebrity: “when you’re a star they let you do it.” Or, as 19th century British politician John Dalberg-Acton famously put it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I’m not positive that Washington was warning Smith about the tendency of power to corrupt. But regardless, it strikes me as true and meaningful wisdom for us to consider, and it is, I think, the lesson at the heart of this week’s parashah, Parashat Tazria. 

I am certainly not the first to say that Parashat Tazria is one of the most confounding parts of the Torah for us moderns. Chapter 13 of the book of Leviticus infamously describes in great and sometimes gory detail a mysterious skin ailment called tzara’at. Despite how it appears in many English translations, tzara’at is almost certainly not leprosy. As contemporary biblical scholar Robert Alter puts it, “the symptoms do not correspond” with the disease we now identify as leprosy. Moreover, “there is scant evidence” that leprosy was even a disease with which our ancient ancestors would have been familiar, as it was not present in the Near East at the time the Torah was written. Alter goes on to write that it’s not even clear the Torah is describing one disease here, arguing that “some conditions” the Torah ascribes to “a single malady may actually have been a variety of diseases, not all of them intrinsically related.” 

All we can really ascertain about tzara’at from the Torah is that its defining feature is a loss of pigmentation in the hair and skin, and that it renders the afflicted person tamei, or ritually impure. In other words, the person who experiences a sudden loss of pigmentation in their skin or hair, in Hebrew a metzor’a, is barred from participating in the sacrificial cult until they are healed and undergo purification rites.

Why? 

According to Alter, the Torah’s language about tzara’at conveys the sense that its appearance was “ghastly,” meaning reminiscent of a ghost, or corpse. My predecessor at Temple Beth-El, the great 20th century biblical scholar Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, argued that the pervading theme in the Book of Leviticus is that “all deathlike phenomena” should be separated from the living. Since “the wasting of the flesh associated with tsara’at is associated with death,” a metzor’a must be separated from the community of the living until they are healed.

This explanation helps, but it still leaves us with a more fundamental question, namely why Leviticus is so preoccupied in the first place with separating living things (and that which is reminiscent of them) from dead things (and that which is reminiscent of them), and also what does any of this have to do with our relationship with God? 

For this question, I find the analysis of the great 20th century anthropologist Mary Douglas helpful. In her landmark book Leviticus as Literature, Douglas argues that the whole system of purity and impurity as laid out by Leviticus boils down to this: There is an immeasurable difference between God — who is supremely awesome, powerful, and majestic — and we mere mortals. Sure, we human beings may have been created in the divine image, but we are not ourselves divine. Unlike God, we are fundamentally ephemeral and hopelessly flawed. And yet, since the Torah envisions the Tabernacle as God’s home and its altar as God’s table, worship in the Tabernacle, which involved not only symbolically offering food to God but also eating a portion of the food that was offered, represented nothing less than an invitation break bread with the Divine. Douglas explains that given who we are compared to what God is, “the height and the depth of this honor,” of mere mortals being permitted to sit, and share a feast, with God at God’s table, of we human beings being invited to be in an intimate relationship with the Majesty of Space and Time, “is inexpressible.” 

The system of purity and impurity outlined in Leviticus is therefore a way of ensuring that we remain mindful of our place in the scheme of things. Because we have an invitation to be in relationship with the Divine, we might come to think that we are Divine ourselves, that there is no distinction between what it means to be God and what it means to be mortal. Even as the Torah entices us with the possibility of intimacy with the Divine, it warns us: In your highest moments, be careful. That’s when the yetzer ha-ra comes for you. It is precisely when we start to believe too much in our own greatness that our tendency to see others as inferior, or believe we can act without consequence, is strongest. One need look no further than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine for evidence that people who fancy themselves gods tend to do a whole lot of killing; historically, they also themselves often meet their own violent ends. The more important we feel we are, the more morally dangerous we become, to ourselves and others.

“Pride goes before destruction,” teaches the book of Proverbs (16:18). “Arrogance, before calamity.” The Torah recognizes this insight about human nature and responds by training us to remember, “there but for the grace of God go I,” prohibiting us from worshiping in the Tabernacle in precisely those moments when we are confronted by our mortality — for example, when we come into contact with a dead body, when we eat fowl that feeds on carrion, or, in the case of our Torah portion, when we are afflicted with a disease that makes us look like a corpse, or that reminds us that the unique trappings of human existence, our clothing and our homes, are, like we who inhabit them, made of imperfect matter destined to decay and disappear. The Torah bars us from intimacy with the Divine in precisely moments such as these in order to remind us that our place in God’s presence, indeed in God’s world, is an undeserved gift; a privilege, not a right. Mindful of this fact, we might walk in the world not with a sense of self-centered and self-serving entitlement, but rather with the kindness, generosity, and beneficence that can only be rooted in deep humility. 

It’s striking that we always chant Parashat Tazria in the weeks leading up to Passover. Indeed, today is both Shabbat ha-hodesh and Shabbat Rosh Hodesh, a special Shabbat marking the beginning of the month in which we celebrate Pesah, the month of Nissan. The Passover story centers on a tyrant who fancied himself a god — and his nation of collaborators, enablers, and bystanders — oppressing a minority population it deemed inferior, even abominable. After the Children of Israel are liberated, they are given a system of laws that serve to guide them to create a counter-Egypt, a society that affirms the equal and infinite dignity of all, that strives for equity and fairness, and that celebrates compassion and kindness, inclusion and peace. 

Building a Tabernacle, a place where all people — not just a small ruling class — are invited into intimate relationships with God, is a major part of that counter-Egypt. So too are the laws of purity and impurity which govern Tabernacle worship, including our parashah’s strange rules about ghastly skin diseases that render one impure, because they provide a perpetual and deeply necessary reminder that our place at God’s table is an undeserved gift. By remaining mindful of who and what we truly are, even and especially in our highest moments, we can become humble and kind, gracious and generous, the kind of body politic needed to build a society, and ultimately a world, that is a true counter-Egypt. 

May we embrace that message of liberation speedily and in our days. 

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Having a Heart: Parashat Teztaveh 5782

Every single human being is God’s child. We had better handle each other with caution. 

As far as I can tell, it was contemporary author Elizabeth Stone who first said that having a child is to forever “have your heart go walking around outside your body.” It’s since become something of a cliche, a quote that frequently pops up on parenting blogs and circulates in internet memes. But, as is often the case, the sentiment has attained cultural ubiquity precisely because anyone who has ever had a child knows in their bones that it is true. 

The heart, the symbolic seat of our emotions, is literally the organ that keeps us alive. For such a vital organ, it is extremely delicate, which is probably why evolution has situated our hearts securely underneath our sternum and rib cage, some of our bodies’ toughest natural armor. So when we say that having a child is like having your heart walking around outside your body, we are acknowledging our children’s vulnerability, our own limited ability to protect them, and, at the same time, how vital their wellbeing is to our own. 

That, of course, is why our instinct as parents is to shield our children from harm as best we can. But as soon as our children are out there, walking around in the world, there’s only so much we can do. So we provide them, as best we can, with the skills, abilities, and resources they will need to protect themselves and avoid getting seriously hurt. 

But even that is not enough, because when they’re out in the world, our children will inevitably encounter other people who, whether by malice or ignorance, whether on purpose or by accident, will act in ways that put them in danger. It works the other way, too – our own children might act in ways that can hurt other people’s children. In essence, this is why human beings establish and maintain laws and social norms, so we can to the best of our ability protect our children, and indeed ourselves, from each other. 

What is true of human parents and children is also true of our relationship with God. According to our tradition, God is avinu sh’ba-shamayim, our heavenly parent. If so, then God must see each and every one of us as we human parents see our own children. God sees each and every one of us as though we are God’s heart walking around outside of God’s body. 

From this perspective, we might think of the whole Torah as God’s way of saying to each of us, “You see that person over there? Your sibling? Your neighbor? Your fellow countryman or the person who is a foreigner to you? The person closest to you or the person clear on the other side of the world? Each and every one of them is my heart, just walking around out there, vulnerable and exposed. To injure or endanger any one of them is to inflict harm on Me personally. Treat each other accordingly.”

Some of the Torah’s laws more clearly lend themselves to this interpretation than others. Take this week’s Torah portion for example, parashat Tetzaveh. Like last week’s parashah, Terumah, parashat Tetzaveh painstakingly details elements of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary the Israelites carried with them during their journey through the wilderness. The bulk of parashat Tetzaveh describes the bigdei kehunah, the priestly garments, and in particular the special outfit that Aaron, the High Priest, must wear when he is officiating in the mishkan

To be sure, the colorful and bejeweled High Priest’s uniform as described in our parashah must have been stunning. But except for those of us who are fans of high fashion, the attention the Torah pays to the priest’s clothes is more than a little baffling. Our tradition insists that nothing, not even one letter, of the Torah is purposeless; everything in the Torah is there for a reason. So what could possibly be the reason for all this detail about the priestly garments?

Of all the bigdei kehunah, the Torah focuses most of its attention on the ephod, which was kind of like an apron, and the hoshen, sometimes translated as a breastpiece, a large ornate piece of jewelry that was situated atop the High Priest’s chest. So if we are to understand why the Torah gives so much precious scriptural real estate to the priestly garments, the answer is probably to be found in the ephod and the hoshen.

The hoshen had a particular ritual function: it carried sacred objects called urim and tumim. What exactly these were is a matter of debate, but most commentators believe they were a special tool used to discern God’s judgment about particularly difficult issues – matters of death and life, war and peace. 

Because it bore the urim and tumim, the more proper name for the hoshen was the hoshen ha-mishpat, the breastpiece of judgment. Perhaps it is for this reason that the hoshen was set with twelve precious stones, mounted in four rows, framed in gold; the names of the tribes of Israel etched into each stone. As we learn in Exodus chapter 28 verse 29, “Aaron shall carry the names of the children of Israel on the breastpiece of judgment over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Infinite at all times.” 

Commentators debate the meaning of the phrase “for remembrance before the Infinite at all times.” For whom are the names of the Israelite tribes on the hoshen, which Aaron is to wear over his heart, meant to serve as a reminder? Maybe for God; but I think more likely for the High Priest himself. Since only he was permitted to wear and use the hoshen ha-mishpat, for all sakes and purposes the High Priest bore sole responsibility for decisions about the vital issues that were adjudicated by the urim and tumim; he was the only one who could be sure he was using the urim and tumim correctly, the only one who could be sure he understood their oracle properly, the only one who knew whether we was accurately reporting God’s judgment to the people. In any case, having the names of the children of Israel upon the High Priest’s heart would be a reminder that the people who will be impacted by the hoshen’s pronouncements are in fact God’s children, who are like God’s heart walking around outside of God’s body. Proceed, therefore, with caution and care.

Similarly, the ephod was adorned with shoulder pieces made of precious stones engraved with the names of the children of Israel, six names on each stone. According to the Torah, these stones, like the stones of the hoshen, were borne by the High Priest “for remembrance of the children of Israel.” For whom are the names of the tribes on the shoulder pieces meant to serve as a reminder? Again, maybe for God; but I think more likely for the High Priest himself, reminding him that the High Priest’s job is to bear responsibility for the welfare of God’s children. 

In his collection of sermons called Be’er Mayim Chaim, the hasidic master Chaim Tyrer of Tchernovitz, who lived from 1760-1816 in what is now Ukraine, emphasizes that the High Priest carried the names of the tribes of Israel specifically on his shoulders for this reason:  

So that the High Priest himself would remember to protect the children of Israel, and carry them like a father who carries his child on his shoulders (כאב הנושא את בנו על כתפיו) to save him from any dangerous obstacle out of concern that his child might trip over a stone. So too the High Priest would remember to protect the children of Israel from all afflictions and plague…with all his might and merit, and by always seeking mercy for them, sweetening whatever fate might befall them, even protecting them from harm.

Be’er Mayim Chaim, Parashat Tetzaveh

As a father who is frequently asked for “uppies,” as my kids call them, I absolutely adore and fully identify with this interpretation. Like any leader, the High Priest might be inclined to see the people he serves as an anonymous crowd that he might care about less than he would his own children. As a result, he might be more cavalier with their welfare than he would be if it were his own children at stake. Placing the names of the children of Israel on his shoulders reminds the High Priest to regard the people he serves as precious and vulnerable children. They are, of course, God’s children, but the High Priest’s job is to carry them gently and protect them steadfastly as though they were his own

Now, that may be all well and good for the High Priest, but what does it have to do with us? We haven’t even had a functioning priesthood in nearly two-thousand years, much less a High Priest. Why should we care about the priestly garments? 

Because the priesthood is in fact not limited to Aaron and his descendants. Before the revelation at Sinai, God instructs, “atem tihiyu li mamlekhet kohanim, you shall be unto me a nation of priests” (Exodus 19:6). Just as Aaron and his descendants care for the welfare of the Israelites as their own precious and vulnerable children, the rest of us are similarly called upon to care for all of God’s children. Every single human being is God’s child. And so God reminds us, whether they are like us or foreign to us, close by or far away, we should think of each and every human being as God’s heart, placed in our care. We had better handle each other with caution. 

This principle has many applications, but it’s been particularly on my mind lately. Last month, one of the first official acts our new governor took upon assuming office was to lift the requirement for faculty, staff, and students to wear masks at all times inside of schools. “A parent should have the right to make their own health decisions for their own child,” he said. 

Let’s be perfectly clear: the end of the school mask mandate while a deadly disease is still ravaging our community may be many things, but it is not about the right of parents to make health decisions for their own children. Since wearing a mask is both a way we keep ourselves from getting sick and a way we make sure we don’t inadvertently get others sick, enabling parents to send their own kids to school maskless – regardless of vaccination status, infection rates, or the percentage of the population that is vaccinated – means that one parent’s decision for their own child can and likely will undermine another parent’s decision for theirs. This executive order, like those now being issued all over the country, empowers and encourages those who embrace a cavalier, or at least careless, attitude toward the health and wellbeing of others, including other people’s children. 

This, of course, is not just about our new governor. The ongoing failure to care for one another and do what is necessary to end this godforsaken pandemic is not just about our leaders. It’s on us. Our governor, along with officials around the country, aren’t taking actions like this because they’ve been advised by medical experts that it’s good for our health and welfare. They’re doing it because they’ve determined it’s good politics. So, yes, shame on our governor and his ilk who care more about winning elections than caring for our wellbeing. But also, and more importantly, shame on us.

Too many of us – a number that appears to be growing by the day, as evidenced by the protests against safety measures that are spreading like wildfire here and abroad with the giddy encouragement of cynical and callous politicians and media personalities – have come to think about all of the health and safety measures with which we have become so familiar over these past two years primarily as methods to protect ourselves, and less as ways to protect others

For most of us, I don’t believe this is malicious or intentional. Maybe it’s cultural – as Americans, we have always tended to see things through the lens of individual rights, rather than communal responsibilities; we don’t like the government telling us what to do. Maybe we’re all just sick and tired – of having to wear these uncomfortable and annoying masks all the time, of having to constantly worry about our and others’ health and safety, of enduring all the disruptions and devastations of this seemingly endless pandemic; I know I am. Maybe it’s just human nature. 

But whatever the reason, it appears that growing numbers of us have given up on caring how our personal choices might harm or endanger others. Instead, we increasingly seem to care mostly about what makes us personally comfortable or uncomfortable, what risks we are or aren’t willing to bear for ourselves personally.

Unfortunately, that’s not how pandemics work. The decisions each of us make about these precautions don’t just impact us. They impact our neighbors, those close by and far away, even people on the other side of the world. They affect not only our children, but also others’ children. Indeed, the very definition of the Greek conjunction pandemic is a phenomenon that encompases all people. 

This pandemic in particular has repeatedly shown us how our decisions, our actions, affect all God’s children. And yet, because of our selfishness and indifference, we continue to ignore that lesson over and over again. So here we are, stuck for nearly two years in this seemingly endless cycle of anxiety, illness, and so much death. 

The only way we will ever make it out is if we heed what our parashah makes clear: we must cease being so careless about and cavalier with the wellbeing of God’s children. We, like the ancient High Priest, are to perpetually bear in mind that each and every person is God’s child. Indeed, each and every person is God’s own heart, walking about exposed in the world. We are called upon to see this in one another, everywhere and at all times, caring for one another as if our dearest lives were beating, vulnerably, in our hands. 

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What Oneness Demands of Us

The following remarks were delivered at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, Virginia on Monday, January 31, 2022.

Good morning, Trinity. It’s such an honor to be with you today, and I’m deeply grateful for the invitation and opportunity to speak with you today.

I am a rabbi, which is the Hebrew word for “teacher.” Rabbis like me have long been recognized as Jewish religious leaders because we have expertise in and teach the tradition of beliefs and practices that have been cherished by Jewish people all over the world for more than three thousand years. Today, there are between 15-20 million Jews in the world – which is less than half a percent of the global population. About half of the world’s Jewish population lives here in the U.S., and most, but not all, the rest live in Israel, which is a small country in the Middle East, established in 1948 as an independent Jewish state. Jews come from virtually every racial, ethnic, and national background you can imagine (as some like to say, there are Jews in all hues), and there is a lot of diversity in how different Jews think about and practice our tradition, including many Jews who don’t think about or practice our tradition much at all. 

As a matter of fact, our diversity means that there isn’t much we Jews have in common, other than a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, meaning that in one way, shape, or form we all identify as Jews. So, as I like to say, if you hate organized religion, you’ll love Judaism; we’re a very disorganized religion! We Jews disagree with each other all the time; asking tough questions, discussing and debating big ideas, even protesting and arguing with one another is not just allowed, it’s encouraged

But there is one thing we Jews do share – a recognition that the most fundamental Jewish idea of Jewish faith is this: God is One. That doesn’t mean every Jew believes in God. One can in fact be Jewish even if they don’t believe in God. But it does mean basically every Jew would agree, even if they don’t personally believe in God, that if there is one core belief in the Jewish religious tradition, it’s this belief, that God is One. 

That belief is probably most famously expressed in the holiest text in the Jewish religious tradition, the Torah, which is what we call the first five books of the Bible. We read in the book of Deuteronomy: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad, Jewish people, listen: The Infinite is our God, the Infinite is One.” Many Jews recite these words each and every day in morning and evening prayers. Some even try to make sure that these are the last words they say before they die. What does this idea mean, and why has it been so central to Jewish faith for millennia? 

Saying that God is One is more than a mere mathematical statement about how many gods there are. Yes, it does mean that Judaism believes there is only one God; or, as a good friend of mine likes to put it, since one can still be Jewish even if they don’t believe in God at all, that Judaism believes there is at most one God. More importantly, saying that God is One is a statement about reality itself, a way of looking at the world. If God is One, then all is one. Everyone and everything in existence, all of us, all that is, is one. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously put it in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” We are all connected to each other, and indeed to everything in existence.

According to Jewish tradition, this belief has moral implications. If all is one, then you and me, us and them, ours and theirs is all ultimately an illusion. We may appear separate and different on the surface, but on the deepest level of reality, we are totally interconnected, manifestations of the same basic oneness, part of the same whole; all of us, brothers and sisters. 

As a result, Jewish tradition demands that we live in such a way that supports, sustains, and benefits everyone and everything. We are therefore called to detest injustice, abhor cruelty, stand against oppression, and love all our neighbors, whoever and wherever they are, as ourselves, fashioning communities of inclusion and equity, pursuing justice and peace, and protecting the planet and all its living creatures. Virtually every traditional Jewish practice is designed, as the Jewish mystical tradition puts it, l’shem yihud Kudsha b’rikh hu u-sh’khintei, for the sake of unifying all existence. Traditional Jewish observance as I understand it exists primarily to sensitize us to this calling and to help us fulfill it.

As a Jewish religious leader, as a teacher of my tradition’s values, I try to impart these ideas to my fellow Jews whenever and wherever I can. I say to my fellow Jews that, of course, we must take care of ourselves and each other. We must be concerned with the wellbeing of, and provide support to, our fellow Jews everywhere. This is particularly important as violent antisemitism, which the Jewish people have experienced over and over again throughout history, once again rises in the U.S. and around the world. Just the other week, we were reminded once again of this grim reality when Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX was the target of an act of antisemitic terror. We Jews must continue to speak out, remain vigilant, and defend ourselves and each other against acts of hate-fueled violence. 

But I also strive to teach my fellow Jews that we must broaden our sphere of concern to include all people, not just other Jews, and indeed the entire planet and all it contains. Jewish tradition calls on us to pursue justice and peace, for all people, in all places, and at all times, and that we must be uniquely concerned with the most vulnerable – those who live on the margins of society and thus are at special risk of exploitation and oppression, like immigrants, whom the Torah singles out for special protection 36 times. 

And I try to remind my fellow Jews that pursuing this calling is in our self-interest. Antisemitism historically rises when the broader society is experiencing widespread instability and injustice, and it often goes hand in hand with other forms of bigotry like racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia. We can’t defeat antisemitism without addressing the conditions that allow it to emerge and flourish and fester and threaten in the first place. 

We Jews can’t be safe, prosperous, and free unless everyone is safe, prosperous, and free. It’s just as Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We Jews ultimately can’t take care of ourselves unless we also care for others. In eras of upheaval and great peril like this one, it is always tempting to retreat inward, circle the wagons, batten down the hatches, and care exclusively for our own. But relationships, friendships, love and concern for others – across boundaries, beyond borders – are in fact the pathway to a better world for us all. 

The same, of course, is true for the more than 99% of people around the world who are not Jewish, which I assume includes pretty much all of you. None of us can be safe, prosperous, and free unless all of us are safe, prosperous, and free. That means your wellbeing is bound up in the Jewish people’s wellbeing; your liberation is bound up in mine. If all is one, then we rise and fall together. 

As King T’Challa said in Black Panther, “Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth. More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one, single tribe.”

Building bridges with and looking out for one another as a single tribe means that just as my fellow Jews must forge friendships and concern ourselves with others across boundaries and beyond borders, it is incumbent on each and every one of you to reach out to and build relationships with your Jewish neighbors. Connect with the local Jewish community in Richmond and learn more about our tradition and rich culture. You all have an open invitation to come to my synagogue any time – to sit in on a class about Judaism, to observe a Shabbat service, or simply to chat. Our doors are always open to you. Open your doors to us, too. Invite us to break bread with you, to get to know you better, and to learn more about your heritage and culture, whatever it may be; not to convert us, but to befriend us. 

As we befriend one another, we will come to better understand how to stand in solidarity with one another, to become better allies for one another, and to work hand in hand for our collective liberation. In practice, that means just as Jewish people must strive to understand how racism and white supremacy manifest in our society and commit to partnering with communities of color to dismantle those oppressive structures, so too must you seek to understand antisemitism and commit to partnering with my people to recognize, call out, and combat antisemitism, as well as working with us to repair the world. 

I want to conclude by sharing one of my favorite Jewish stories. It’s attributed to the 19th century hasidic master, Rabbi Hayyim of Zans:

A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a person approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,“ he thought to himself. When they neared one another, he asked, “Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering about in this forest for several days.” Said the other to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. Instead, let us look for a new way out – together.”

So it is with us. These are difficult times. Our world is broken. I don’t know about you, but to me it sometimes feels like each of us is lost in some forest, wandering about alone and afraid, desperately looking for a way out. I don’t know how to escape. But here’s what I do know: what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked; and alone, we are lost. Our only hope is to find our way together. 

Thank you so much for allowing me to share this space with you today. May we be blessed with friendship and peace. Shalom.

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Up Close and Far Away: Parashat Bo 5782

Photo by Una Laurencic on Pexels.com

Whenever I talk to or run into someone I haven’t spoken to or seen in a while, and they say something like, “I love seeing pictures of your family on social media; your kids always look so happy and well-behaved. I don’t know how you and Adira do it!” I can’t help but laugh. Clearly, I think (and sometimes say), they’ve never met my kids! 

That’s the thing about social media, of course – what we choose to post and what we see of others is, to use a sports metaphor, a highlight reel, snapshots of the events of our lives we most want others to see, rather than a play-by-play, a running chronicle of each and every moment, most of which are at best uninteresting, and many of which would reveal the chaotic hot mess of our lives that we desperately want to hide from the rest of the world, lest anyone see how little we actually have it all together. 

But that’s just the truth, isn’t it? Everyone looks better from far away. Up close, it’s easier to see our flaws, our more subtle imperfections, the clutter and the chaos of our lives. In fact, like a Monet painting, when looking close up, the mess may be all we are able to see, whether of others or ourselves. Only when stepping back and beholding the whole canvass from a distance can we clearly see the full, beautiful image.

Something similar is at work in this week’s Torah portion. In Parashat Bo, we read that the Children of Israel, at long last, cast off the shackles of enslavement and leave Egypt for good. It’s a story with which many of us are quite familiar. But our familiarity with the Exodus story can sometimes lead us to miss subtle details in the text itself, including the fact that the Torah appears to tell two separate stories in Exodus Chapter 12. 

Of course, the Torah doesn’t present these stories as distinct from one another, isolating or identifying one narrative as “story one” and another as “story two.” Rather, the Torah combines these two stories into one, weaving them together so that, to the untrained eye, they read as one story. 

But when read carefully, the text seems to go back and forth between verses that describe a chaotic Exodus, and passages that depict it as practiced and purposeful. 

If we separate the verses that describe a frenzied Exodus from the verses that describe an orderly Exodus, we end up with two internally coherent Exodus stories.

In one telling, after the devastating tenth and final plague, the Egyptian people come to believe the continued presence of the Israelites in Egypt poses a clear and present danger to their own lives, and hurriedly chase them out of their country, freely giving them their possessions and valuables as if to say, “Just take anything you want and go! Whatever it takes to get you out of Egypt as quickly as possible!” In this telling, the Children of Israel are made to leave in such a rush that they don’t even have time to prepare food for their flight into the wilderness, quickly baking unleavened dough into flat cakes “since they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay” (Ex. 12:39). 

The second story is distinct. In this telling, the Israelites are prepared for the Exodus. According to chapter 12, verse 42, the Children of Israel observed the night of the tenth plague as a leil shimurim, “a night of vigil,” or preparedness. As Moses commands them, each household sacrifices a lamb, painting its blood on their lintels and doorposts to keep the plague from their homes, before roasting and eating it with unleavened bread, which they make deliberately as part of this ritual meal (12:8). Moreover, the Israelites are to eat this meal in a very particular way – “mat’neikhem hagurkhem, na’aleikhem b’ragleikhem, u’malkeikhem b’yad’khem / your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand;” in other words, they were to be fully prepared to leave Egypt as they consume the paschal meal (12:11). 

Revealingly, the two versions of the Exodus describe the Israelites in profoundly different ways. In the first, more chaotic, story, the Children of Israel are described as leaving Egypt with an erev rav (12:38). That term, erev rav, is usually rendered into English as a “mixed multitude,” following the classical rabbinic commentators, who suggest that a group of people of diverse nationalities and ethnicities decide to leave Egypt with the Israelites. 

But some contemporary experts disagree. Robert Alter translates the term as “motley throng,” or “riffraff,” suggesting that it does not refer to a mixed multitude of foreigners who join up with the Israelites but rather to the appearance of the Israelites themselves, a mass of men, women, and children who, along with their “sheep and cattle and very heavy livestock,” were frenziedly, frantically, fleeing Egypt en masse (Alter 263). 

The second story describes the Israelites quite differently. In this telling, as the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt by observing the orderly ritual of leil shimurim, the night of vigil, they are told that God will bring “et tziv’oteikhem / your battalions” out of Egypt. And, indeed, after the tenth plague, as they leave Egypt, the Israelites are referred to as “tziv’ot Adonai / the battalions of the Lord” (Alter 264). Like an organized and disciplined army marches out to battle in orderly formation, this version of the story describes the Israelites departing “al tziv’otam / in their battalions” (Alter 265), or “troop by troop” (JPS 12:51). In this radically different picture of the Exodus, organized battalions of Israelites marched out of Egypt in disciplined ranks. 

Interestingly, if you read these stories carefully, you’ll notice that the chaotic version of the Exodus story that describes the Israelites as a “motley throng” is conspicuously missing something, or more accurately, some one, that is quite present in the second story: God

God is very present in the second telling. In that story, God prescribes the orderly ritual of leil shimurim before the tenth plague. It is also God who, in chapter 12 verse 51, takes the Children of Israel out of Egypt “al tziv’otam / troop by troop.” And in this telling, it is not simply as battalions that the Israelites depart Egypt. Rather, the Israelites are identified as tziv’ot Adonai, the Lord’s battalions. 

Contrast this with the first telling, which scarcely mentions God at all. In that version of the story, human beings drive all the action. Following the tenth plague, it’s not God who takes the Israelites out of Egypt. Instead, it is Pharaoh who demands the Israelites leave, and the Egyptians who urge them out, giving them all their valuables for good measure. It’s not God who instructs the Israelites to prepare for their journey by making matzah. Instead, it is the Israelites who, seemingly on their own initiative, hurriedly prepare dough and flee before it has even had a chance to rise. And it’s not God who calls the Israelites to march forth like a general summoning his disciplined troops. Instead, it is the huddled mass of Israelites who set forth on foot from the Egyptian garrison city, Ramses, along with their flocks and herds. 

To recap, our parashah weaves together two distinct stories about the Exodus. The first, which doesn’t include God, describes a harried and hectic flight from Egypt. And the second, which does include God, depicts the Israelites purposefully preparing for the Exodus before God directs them to form ranks and file out of Egypt. 

But why does the Torah include both traditions when it could just as easily have chosen one and relegated the other to history’s dustbin? 

Perhaps the Torah is trying to convey that these aren’t two different stories at all. Perhaps, instead, the Torah is inviting us to see this as one story, but told at turns from two different vantage points, seeing the same events unfold at ground level and from a bird’s eye view, from close up and from far away, from our perspective – and from God’s. 

Up close, the Exodus was a mess, a “motley throng” of thousands of disorganized and disoriented liberated Israelites trying to figure out how to make their way out of Egypt. But that was just what it looked like on the ground. If the Israelites had been able to take a few steps back, to behold the scene, like a work of art, from a bit of a distance, it would have appeared entirely different. 

From far away, the Israelites wouldn’t have looked like a teeming horde but, rather, like a resplendent and regimented army – dignified, disciplined, and determined, ready in their ranks to march forward courageously and conquer their future confidently.

But here’s the truth – it’s the exact same collection of people, just beheld from different perspectives. By only mentioning God in the majestic narrative, our parashah implies that to God, the Israelites look like a magnificent myriad. The Israelites, on the other hand, are only able to see themselves and each other up close. And from that ground-level point of view, they appear to themselves as little more than a mixed-up multitude. Is it any wonder, then, that as the Exodus story continues to unfold, as the Israelites journey from Egypt and through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, they act more like a mixed-up multitude than a magnificent myriad? How we see ourselves always shapes how we behave, and who we become.  If only the Israelites of that generation could have seen themselves as God saw them! How different their fate might have been. 

We, however, can learn from our ancestors’ lack of vision. We can see that there is more than one way to behold ourselves and each other; not just close up, which is our default vantage point, but also far away, from God’s perspective. From far away, God sees the whole beautiful work of art that is each and every one of us, indeed that is all of us collectively, for what it truly is, for who we truly are. The question before us is: can we see ourselves and each other, as God sees us? And how would we live our lives differently and relate to one another if we saw ourselves and each other from God’s perspective?

At the same time, by fusing these two stories together, our parashah reminds us that whenever we see our own or each others’ flaws, imperfections, and failings, we are still looking at the same gorgeous canvas. It just looks different when examined up close. And moreover, we might recognize that the beautiful piece of art that we represent couldn’t look as it does without each individual imperfect brushstroke. The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but without the parts, the whole doesn’t exist. It is your mess that makes you you. It is our mess that makes us us. The whole may be more exquisite, but each of the parts, however unseemly they may be, are indivisible, invaluable – indeed, holy. 

Our tradition frequently refers to God as Adonai tz’va-ot, often translated as Lord of Hosts – “hosts” being a somewhat archaic synonym for armies, battalions, or legions. Though we may not realize it, in calling God by this name, we are affirming our parashah’s assertion about how God sees us. But another synonym for “host” is multitude, a heterogeneous collection of unique, imperfect, individuals. The army and the multitude are one and the same. It’s all a matter of perspective. 

It’s crucial to remember that the messiness of the multitude can also, from a different vantage point, appear as the beauty of a battalion. 

And we must also never forget that there is no beautiful battalion without the messy multitude. 

May we see ourselves and each other as the magnificent myriads we look like from afar, while never neglecting to embrace what we see in one another and ourselves up close.

Shabbat shalom.

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