Balak had a problem. He was the King of Moab and he saw that more than half a million able-bodied Israelites were about to enter his territory. He was terrified that they would wipe away his resources and pose a military threat to his rule. Naturally, he hired a prophet, Balaam, to come and put a curse on them. (Isn't that what you would do?):
"Now, please go and curse these people for me, for they are too strong for me. Then, perhaps, I will prevail, strike them down, and drive them from the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed." (Numbers 22:6)
As you probably know, this plan backfired badly for Balak. From the beginning, Balaam told him that he could only say the words that God put in his mouth. The prophecy that Balaam spoke upon Israel was not a curse, but a blessing.
So here's a question: If you had a prophet in your employ whom you believed had the power to bless and curse effectively, would you ask that prophet to curse your enemies, or would you ask the prophet to bless you?
A commentary on this week's Torah portion (Balak
) asks just this question. "Would it not have made more sense for Balak to ask Balaam to bless Moab with victory in battle?" asks the commentary of Beit Ramah. "We learn from this that the essential intention of Israel’s enemies is not to seek their own benefit, but to harm Israel. Their anger at Israel does not flow from love of their own people, but hatred of Israel." (Itturei Torah,
Vol. 5, p. 141).
I will leave it to you, dear reader, to evaluate how well that observation reflects the history of antisemitism and the current situation of the State of Israel. You may believe that Beit Ramah has a keen insight about Israel's antagonists in the past and in the present. However, I want to consider instead what this commentary says about each of us.
Who would you rather be — a person who puts energy into building up his or her own self, or a person who puts energy into tearing others down? Are you a person whose primary motivation comes from the desire to create love and connection in your own life, or a person who is primarily interested in knocking down opponents?
We all have a place within us that would rather draw on the energy created by our animosities than the energy of our better natures. We all have an impulse to spend our time in conflict with the people and things that trouble us, instead of investing that time in building connections to people we care about and developing our strengths. Each of us, sometimes, lets the cursing impulse rule us.
At such times, though, we usually fail to notice that the choice to pursue conflict almost always backfires. Think about the last time you put your energy into fighting against someone or something you defined as your "enemy." Was the outcome what you had hoped for? Did the problem go away, or did it just reappear in another form? Did the experience create joy in your life, or did it just make you feel angrier?
In contrast, when we put our focus on blessing instead of curse, we become more connected, compassionate and happier. When we face conflicts by looking inward for the ability to deal with difficult situations, we may find that resolution comes more easily than when we begin by assuming the worst about others. It also makes us feel better about ourselves and helps us to find unexpected solutions. I don't think there is any guarantee that this will happen every time, but it usually works.
Personally, I find this to be true when I face difficult classroom management situations as a teacher. Instead of assuming that misbehaving students are malicious brats, I try to focus instead on myself. I ask questions about my behavior as a teacher: Am I giving students material that is appropriate for them? Are they misbehaving because I am not meeting their needs? Because I am not recognizing their abilities and limitations? Am I boring them? By seeking the blessing of being a better teacher — instead of cursing the bad behavior of the students — I find greater fulfillment and greater success in the classroom.
It is easy for adult teachers to see children in a classroom as innocents, unworthy of our anger. Harder situations come when we feel like we are being treated badly or that we are being taken advantage of in a business setting or the realm of politics. There are times when we really can believe that we are in conflict with people who do not respect us and who do not wish us well. I will argue, though, that even in those situations, we are better off when we focus on blessing and not curse.
This is not because there aren't real causes for conflict in life and it is not because there are no real enemies. However, when we fight against enemies, real or imagined, our fuel is our fear and our anger. When we draw energy from those feelings, they begin to define us. An unremitting focus on conflict and enmity tends to turn us into the very thing we find fearful and enraging in others. Our anger makes us contentious, belligerent, unfriendly, unkind, unyielding and unhappy.
That is the lesson that the State of Israel has learned in dealing with its sometimes belligerent neighbors. It is better to focus on taking care of ourselves and our loved ones than to waste breath on cursing and fearing those whose opinions and behaviors we cannot change. If we must fight, let's fight for
ourselves, not against
As Balak learned, God does not always respond well when we seek to curse our enemies. However, when we take the time and energy to look inward, to redefine the problem in a way that includes our own behavior, and to confront our own anger and fears, we find blessings where once before we only saw a curse.Other Posts on This Topic:Ki Tetze: Each of Us Fights a BattleBalak: Seeing God's Image in Our Enemies
Here is a snippet of a memory from my childhood.
Our family was getting ready for a vacation and it had taken the better part of the morning to get the last-minute packing done. Expectations of an early departure were frustrated and my parents were looking at each other with anger and blame. While they struggled with and against each other to get our family out of our New York City apartment, into the car, and out onto the road, the emotional temperature was rising.
I remember sitting in the back seat of our 1963 Mercury Comet sedan, illegally parked on the corner of East 82nd and Madison, with all the luggage finally stowed in the trunk. My father was in the driver's seat, my sister sitting next to me, and we were waiting for my mother to emerge from the apartment building so we could begin the long drive. It was hot, early summer. The traffic was noisy. My father — usually a calm and quiet man — was starting to fume with impatience. After ten minutes of waiting, finally…
My father slammed his hand on the horn at the center of the steering wheel. It blasted. Unexpectedly, though, it didn't stop when he lifted his hand. In his anger, he had broken the horn and it just kept going in one, long, loud drone. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
At first, my sister and I were terrified. We had never seen our father so angry, and we imagined that the blaring horn would only make him angrier. Only, that didn't happen. We were surprised — and relieved — when our father started to laugh. Somehow, he had enough presence in that moment to recognize the ridiculousness of the situation.
I still remember that day sometimes when I face stressful situations. I remember how just surrendering to the absurdity of my mounting frustration can help me release tension and escape the vicious circle of anger that feeds on itself. I remember also, though, the terror I felt that day when I saw my father lose control.
There is a moment in this week's Torah portion (Chukat
) that feels similar to me. Moses had spent months listening to the Israelites' unending griping. They complained about how much they missed Egypt, the land where they had been slaves. They whined about how Moses told them what to do all the time, even though they knew that God spoke directly to him. They even muttered against the miraculous manna that fell from the sky and kept them alive. On top of all of the stress generated by all the complaining, Moses also was grieving for the loss of his sister Miriam who had just died.
You can sense in the story that Moses was about to lose his cool. When the Israelites came to him complaining, once again, about the lack of water, something in Moses just went…snap.
God had told Moses to talk to a certain rock and command it to give water. The water, God said, would slake the Israelites' thirst. But Moses didn't do that. Instead of speaking to the rock, he let his anger show and he spoke derisively to the Israelites. He said, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10). Moses then slammed the rock twice with his rod. The water flowed and did not stop until every Israelite and every animal belonging to them was satisfied. The people were relieved and the muttering campaign against Moses was stifled for the moment, but something else was broken.
After the incident at the rock, God spoke to Moses and told him, "
Because you did not have faith in Me to sanctity Me in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them" (Numbers 20:12). God did not like the way that Moses lost his temper in front of the Israelites and the consequences for Moses were severe. God told Moses that he would not enter the land of Israel, even after leading the Israelites there for forty years.
It seems odd to me that God said that Moses did not show faith. In what way could that be true? Is losing self-control in anger a form of "losing faith"?
The science of psychology teaches us that human beings have far more control over their emotional impulses than any other creature. Our brains' huge frontal lobes allow us to see beyond the present moment and to plan for the future. That includes the ability to find better solutions for frustrating situations than aggressive, angry behavior.
Using our ability for impulse control is, in many ways, what Jewish law is all about. We practice impulse control over our appetites through the laws of kashrut
. We discipline our impulse toward greed through acts of tzedakah
. We moderate our impulse to anger by practicing patience, compassion toward others, and self-compassion. If we show our faith in God by adhering to dietary laws and the laws that command generosity to those in need, certainly, we also keep the faith by exercising restraint in our anger.
Proverbs teaches, "It is better to be slow to anger than to be mighty, and one who has self-control is better than one who conquers a city" (16:32). The real might is self-discipline. The real conquest is the conquest over oneself.
And here is another reason for practicing self-restraint. Moments of uncontrolled anger can be powerfully destructive. We do not need the example of Moses who lost his chance to enter the Land of Israel. Our prisons are filled with people who did something terrible in a fit of rage. When we begin to see red, we shut off our frontal lobes and lose the ability to see beyond the present moment. The hurt and harm we can do in such a moment can last forever with terrifying consequences.
We can find greater joy and fulfillment in life by developing the techniques of channeling our anger. Doing so does not require that we become all-forgiving saints or emotionless Vulcans. It just requires practicing some proven techniques — deep breaths when the temperature starts to rise, clear statements about what we are feeling and what we want, walking away from a difficult situation before we blow our top, and even, as my father taught me, the ability to laugh at oneself.
We sanctify God and we sanctify our own lives when we learn to be the masters of our own minds. The happiness we find in controlling our own impulses is more satisfying and more lasting than any momentary satisfaction we might feel when we snap in explosive anger.Other Posts on This Topic:Vayetze: Righteous AngerKi Tisa: Moses, Anger and Parenting
Korach is the Torah's premiere rebel with a cause.
Korach has a bad reputation. But that reputation is all about the way he ended up, not the way he started.
I want to sing the song of Korach, that rebel of all rebels who opposed Moses and was punished with fire from God and swallowed up by the earth. I want to remember him with some fondness and remember that we all have a little Korach in us. It is a spirit that we need to develop and nurture lovingly.
Korach appears in this week's Torah portion (which is named, appropriately, Korach
) as a member of the tribe of Levi who complained about Moses' leadership. Accompanied by 250 prominent Israelites, Korach told Moses and Aaron, "You have gone too far, for all of the community — all of them! — are holy and Adonai is in their midst. So, why should you elevate yourselves over the community of Adonai!" (Numbers 16:3).
You have to admit, it's a powerful argument. It is even a democratic argument.
Korach held that there was no good reason why Moses and Aaron alone should be in charge of the whole Israelite community — dictating the laws, deciding how they would be enforced, and appointing the heads of each tribe and clan. Korach held that it was wrong for Moses to assume the exclusive right to decree God's will. Korach declared that God was not the exclusive possession of any one person — no matter how wise or pious — and that each Israelite should be recognized as having his or her own sacred relationship with God.
Moses appeared to see the virtue of the argument, too. The first thing he did when he heard Korach's charge was to fall to the ground with his face down. In the culture of the Ancient Near East, that gesture had a clearly understood meaning. Falling on ones face was an acknowledgment of another person's superiority and a sign of humility. Moses understood that he was being chastised for a personal failing he had known about for a long time.
Before the Israelites had even received the Ten Commandments, Moses' father-in-law, Yitro, had warned Moses about his tendency to accumulate power to himself. He told Moses, "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit alone and make the people stand before you from morning to night? … What you are doing is no good. You are going to wear yourself out and this people along with you, for this responsibility is too heavy for you to bear alone" (Exodus 18:14,17-18). Moses was something of a control freak, to put it in modern parlance, and Korach was calling him on it. Moses needed to let go.
But before we psychoanalyze Moses' need to control things, let's look at Korach. What kind of personality might we attribute to a person who recognizes when an authority figure has gone too far? What could we say about someone who challenges power run amok? We could say that Korach himself was power hungry and he used Moses' personality flaw as a point of leverage to attack him and to attract other Israelites to follow him. That is possible. It is also possible that Korach had a strong sense of fair play and the courage to stand up against injustice — even against a very powerful foe.
Who would you be rooting for in this narrative if it were happening today? Would you side with the man who says he uniquely speaks for God and has the unilateral authority to set laws over you? Or, would you root for the man who challenges the established order and declares that power should be shared by all?
Unlike James Dean's character in Hollywood's Rebel Without a Cause,
Korach is a rebel with
a cause. Korach does not fight aimlessly against a meaningless universe. Oh, no. Korach's cause is either to aggrandize himself, or it is to affirm the divinity within everyone. Either way, he believes in something. He believes that there is a need for order that is different from the current order.
That is a spirit to be nurtured. We need people who passionately want to change the world.
Jewish tradition teaches that the way the world is right now is not the way that God intends it to be. We are living in a broken world, either because of a cosmic catastrophe (as Lurianic Kabbalah
teaches), because the link between heaven and earth was broken by the destruction of the Temple, or simply because error and sin are the nature of imperfect human beings. The world is in need of repair, tikkun olam,
and human beings are needed to make it right.
Yet, the story of Korach shows that having a passion for change is not enough. Korach may have started out with the right idea, but it got twisted at some point that made him more of a threat to the world than a solution to its problems. We can actually find that moment right in the story.
Moses challenged Korach and his followers to an odd cosmic duel. Moses tested Korach's assumption that all the Israelites were equals before God. He told Korach, "You and all of your followers will be before Adonai tomorrow — you, they and Aaron. Each of you will take his firepan and place incense upon it and offer it before Adonai" (Numbers 16:16-17). It was as if Moses challenged Korach by saying, "If you think that you deserve the privilege of serving God as much as Aaron, the High Priest, then let's see what God thinks of your offering compared to his."
Korach didn't notice the paradox of Moses' challenge. He did not see that being a leader should not be about having special privileges; it should be about having the humility to serve selflessly. Moses offered the bait and Korach swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Korach took the firepan that belonged to someone else and was burned when "fire went out from Adonai and ate up the 250 men offering the incense" (Numbers 16:35). The burning bodies of Korach and his followers, according to rabbinic interpretation, were also among those that were buried when "The ground gaped open beneath them and the earth's mouth opened and swallowed them" (Numbers 16:31-32).
Korach had been at his best when he declared that his rebellion against Moses was not about himself. He had said, "All of the community — all of them! — are holy." Now, however, it was Moses' turn to recognize Korach's personality flaw and use it against him. If Korach had answered the challenge differently, the story would have ended differently. If he had said, "No, Moses. It is not for me to take up God's offering, or even for my 250 followers to do so. It is the right of every Israelite, for they are all members of a nation of priests," then he would have had a strong moral basis to continue his challenge.
But he didn't. Korach's ego was too invested in everything he did. He may have been sincere about wanting to create a more democratic and just society, but Moses demonstrated that Korach also really wanted power for himself. The greatest distinction between the personality of Korach and the personality of Moses is that, when challenged, Moses threw himself to the ground in humble admission of his flaws. Korach, in contrast, lifted his ego up and claimed the right to assume the highest honor.
Korach saw something that was truly wrong — even Moses knew that it was wrong — and he wanted to do something about it. So, let us sing some praises for Korach! Let us recognize that there is a part of us also that does not just want to complain about injustice of the world, but actually wants to change it. We need more people like that … but only up to a point.
The spirit of defiance needs to be carefully tempered with humility. We need to develop the courage within ourselves to fight for what is right, but we need to kindle and build that fire with great awareness of the ways in which it can burn us. We know too well how easily righteousness can become self-righteous. We know that successful crusaders for justice, once they have become powerful themselves, can turn into leaders who are even more cruel than the tyrants they overthrew.
That is why Korach met his fate of fire and earth. It was not because his ideas of justice and equality were wrong; it was because he could not get out of the way of his own ego. When he was offered the opportunity to step aside from power, he could not do it. As flawed a leader as Moses might have been — and we are all flawed — Korach would have been far worse. The fire for change that burned within him was also the fire of selfish greed. To make that clear, he had to be burned by the fire of heaven and he had to be humbled by being devoured into the mouth of the earth.Other Posts on This Topic:
Vayikra: The Joy of ContritionVa'eira: Playing God?Beha'alotecha: Eldad and Medad
Before entering the land that God has promised them, the Israelites sent twelve scouts over the Jordan River to determine the wealth of the land and its fortifications. All twelve returned with reports of a land that was abundant and fertile. They found grapes, pomegranates and figs to delight the senses.
Ten of the scouts, though, gave a report that focussed on the might of the inhabitants of the land: "The people who live in the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. Moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the southern region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country. Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the Jordan” (Numbers 13:27-29). The place, they said, was swarming with enemies.
The other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, offered a more reassuring message about the land of Israel. They told the people, "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it" (Numbers 13:30). But that is exactly when the first ten spies made the idea of conquering the land seem utterly impossible. They give a description that sounded more like a scene from a horror movie than a sober military assessment:
"The country that we traveled and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size. We saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Numbers 13:32-33).
Why did the message of the ten scouts change after Joshua and Caleb offered their positive assessment? Perhaps they wanted to make sure that their advice would be followed. To ensure that, they made the situation sound worse than it was. Maybe they were scared of dying in battle, so they painted a picture that would scare anyone. Perhaps they understood that when people are frightened by enemies, they will believe any horrible description of them.
What is more, people sometimes will believe anything about their own weakness in the face of an enemy they fear. They even will believe that they are grasshoppers.
This is an important lesson for us in this week's Torah portion (Shelach Lecha). We should be wary when we begin to believe that the forces that oppose us are giants. We should be skeptical when we are told that we are helpless in the face of an immense evil. We need to distinguish between the real challenges we face and the fears that we project into the monsters of our imagination.
How often has this happened to us in recent history? Manuel Noriega, Radovan Karadžić, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden each had his turn as the "villain du jour." Each was exaggerated out of proportion as a fearful giant who made us feel like vulnerable grasshoppers. Where are they now? Were all of our fears justified? In our fear, did we make errors in judgment? What will we do the next time someone tells us there are giants looming?
It is all too easy for us to be frightened into believing that we are grasshoppers. When we do, we forget that, with faith in ourselves and devotion to our ideals, we can be powerful beyond all adversity. That is what Caleb and Joshua tried to tell the Israelites — "Have no fear … the Lord is with us" (Numbers 14:9).
Other Posts on This Topic:
You, no doubt, have noticed that life is not one uninterrupted ascent toward fulfillment and success. I'm stating the obvious here.
We don't live in straight lines. Rather, our journey in life tends to be a series of triumphs and defeats, advances and retreats, stumbles and awkward moments of brushing the dust off our bruised knees and resuming. That's how life works for me. You, too?
There is a Jewish word for this entire process of failing and trying again. We call it t'shuvah. It is a word that we associate with seeking forgiveness on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and we usually translate it as "atonement." But the Hebrew word has a slightly different nuance than the English. T'shuvah literally means "returning." We have fallen down, or gotten diverted onto the wrong path, we have recognized our error, made our amends, and returned to the right way. That is t'shuvah.
But life's stumbles are not always because of our errors, mistakes and sins. Sometimes — as the saying might go — "stuff happens." There are those moments when our lives go skidding off the road, not because of our poor driving, but because the road itself is hazardous. Surely, those are the moments when we can cry up to heaven and declare, "It's not my fault!" Right?
On the other hand, what good would that do?
When fate and the world conspire against us, and we fail as a result, the process is largely the same as it is when we are at fault. Instead of screaming, we recognize what has happened, we acknowledge any portion of the fault that is ours, and we return back to the path.
That is the process described in this week's Torah portion (Beha'alotecha) for people who, through no fault of their own, were not able to participate in the Passover ritual. In the time when the Temple stood, a person had to be in a state of ritual purity in order to offer the Paschal lamb and partake in the meal. A person who was in a state of ritual impurity because of contact with a dead body, was not permitted to perform this central ritual of the holiday.
This is what the Torah says about such a person:
There were people who were impure because of contact with a human corpse and they could not offer the Paschal sacrifice on that day. They appeared that day before Moses and Aaron. Those people said to them, "We are impure because of contact with a human corpse. Why must we be banned from presenting Adonai's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?" Moses said to them, "Stand by, and I will hear what Adonai commands about you." Adonai said to Moses, "Tell the Israelites that anyone who is made impure by a human corpse, or who is on a distant journey at the time of making the Paschal sacrifice to Adonai, or if any of your future generations are in such circumstances, you shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. You shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs." (Numbers 9:6-11).
There are a number of things interesting about this passage that offers a "do over" for people who missed Passover through no fault of their own. First of all, it required a petition from those affected to establish the rule. When life throws you a setback, it is okay to advocate your cause and seek an equitable solution. But also notice that Moses asks the petitioners to wait — Moses literally tells them to "stand" while he seeks an answer to their question — and they obey in silence. Being wronged by circumstances does not excuse impatience or self-pitying complaint.
The second interesting thing here is that Moses does not know the answer to the petitioners' question. He has to ask God. According to a classical midrash (Sifre Shelach 113), this is one of the four occasions on which Moses' mastery of the law failed him and he had to consult with God for an answer. (The other incidents are concerning the inheritance of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:5, the man who gathered wood on the Sabbath in Numbers 15:34-35, and the blasphemy of the son of Shelomith in Leviticus 24:12). There is something about faultless suffering that is hidden from human understanding. Only God knows why innocent people are punished by unfortunate circumstances, and only God can provide a solution to their plight.
I also am struck by the way that God's answer includes a situation not included in the question. The problem presented by the petitioners and by Moses only concerned people who missed the Passover offering because they were in a state of ritual impurity. God's solution, though, also includes people who were on distant journeys. God does not want us to think only about our own unfortunate circumstance, but also to have compassion for people who face different hardships. We should not plead our own case without considering those who face other difficulties.
Finally, it is interesting that the people who have been forced to miss Passover by an act of God have only one limited opportunity to make up for it. We might have expected God and Moses to say that they could offer their Paschal do-over as soon as they returned to a state of ritual purity, but that is not the case. They only can make the offering on one specific day, called Pesach Sheini
, the "Second Passover," that falls exactly one month after the first day of Passover.
What could this teach us? Perhaps it reminds us that we do not get to make up our own rules when we perceive that the rules have failed us. Life is not always fair, but that does not excuse us from acknowledging that we still have an obligation to live within boundaries.
We do get second chances in life. The Torah recognizes that, whether we are at fault or not, we all need to be able to brush ourselves off when we hit setbacks, and to try again. Even more, we should not hesitate to seek a fair resolution when life treats us unfairly. Yet, the Torah also insists that life's setbacks should not dampen our resolve to act with patience, acceptance, compassion, integrity and self-discipline. Even a do-over must be done well.
Other Posts on This Topic:You are What You Choose to BeNew Year Resolutions
Adult B'nei Mitzvah students make the blessing for putting on tallit before Shabbat morning services last week. (photo: Steve Rozansky)
Tonight begins the forty-ninth day of the Counting of the Omer, seven weeks. It is the day of the divine quality of Malchut within Malchut, Nobility within Nobility.
This is the last of the forty-nine gates we must pass through before entering Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. It is the day that asks us to confront the most deeply held questions about our identities: Are you living a life in which you constantly strive to take the next step in your own growth? Are you the champion of your own life?
It seems deeply appropriate to me that this week has been bookended by people who show the qualities of intentional growth and heartfelt conviction. Last Shabbat morning, twelve adult men and women from Temple Beit HaYam stood before the congregation as b'nei mitzvah—adult children of our tradition. This coming Friday night, ten young people will lead our congregation's service at their Confirmation. I have worked with both groups over the course of the last year. Although the two groups are separated by a lot of years, and by significantly different motivations, they have in common the quality that I call Jewish heroism.
A Jewish hero is not necessarily a person who scores the winning point or who runs into a burning building to save a life. In Jewish tradition, a hero is, most importantly, a person of conviction—a person who lives his or her life with dedication to doing what is right and with deep understanding that a meaningful life is spent in service to something beyond self. A Jewish hero is a person who becomes the champion of his or her own life. This is the quality of the last day of the Counting of the Omer, and it is the quality I have seen in our adult B'nei Mitzvah students and in our Confirmation students.
That's what I heard on Saturday morning as one man described how becoming a bar mitzvah was a way of fulfilling a promise he had made to himself decades earlier, when he felt inadequate to the task of saying Kaddish for his father. It is what I heard when a woman in our class talked about her grief after the murder of her son, how she was not able to recover until she learned to let go of anger and rediscover faith.
It is what our congregation will hear this Friday night from our Confirmation students. Each of them will stand before the congregation with personal statements that announce what it is they intend to confirm about themselves. Here is a small preview:
• "I would like to confirm that I will stay true to the Jewish dream. I will not let anyone tell me or make me do something that I don’t wish to."
• "I would like to confirm my place is in not just in the Jewish community, but the world. I wish to change things."
• "I am a Jew, and all of Jewish history is part of my identity. By learning our history, I confirm myself. This is who I am."
These fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds are heroes, too. They are a model for us all of living a life of conviction and spirit. As we await the giving of the Torah tomorrow night, we are encouraged to take up the challenge, as they have, to live as the heroes of our own lives.Other Posts on This Topic:Counting from Freedom to Covenant: NobilityKi Tetze: Each of Us Fights a Battle
Tonight begins the forty-eighth day of the Counting of the Omer, six weeks and six days. It is the day of the divine quality of Yesod within Malchut, Foundation within Nobility. Leadership should be an experience that connects one person to another. Does your authority over others keep you distant from them, or does your authority continue to emerge from connection to others?
Tonight begins the forty-seventh day of the Counting of the Omer, six weeks and five days. It is the day of the divine quality of Hod within Malchut, Humility within Nobility. It is difficult to remember to lower your ego when you're in charge, but it is what makes for good leaders and good leadership decisions. Do you allow authority to feed your arrogance, or are you humbled by the responsibilities of leadership?
This is the sermon I gave tonight at Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, Florida.
Tonight's service is joyful and full. I don't want to prolong it unnecessarily, but there is something I have to talk about tonight because of what happened in Israel this morning. It was an event that marks an important shift for Israel, and perhaps for the Jewish people.
If you have ever stood at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, you know it is a place that has an intense, quiet power. Standing in front of those immense stones, some of which date back more than two thousand years to the days of the Second Temple, one feels awed. We recognize that the Wall marks a place where Jews have come to seek the closest presence of God since the time of King Solomon, three thousand years ago.
The Western Wall belongs to the Jewish people. It might, actually, be more accurate to say that every Jew belongs to what the Western Wall represents—our history, our tradition, and our search for the God who, in turn, seeks us. In all the diversity of the Jewish people — religious and secular; Reform, Conservative, Orthodox; Jews by Birth and Jews by Choice — there is not one Jew who does not share in that heritage and spiritual connection.
You probably know that the Western Wall, which should be a place that unites the Jewish people, instead has been a focus for controversy and division within the Jewish people. This morning in Jerusalem, the Western Wall again became a center of controversy as 500 women from the organization Women of the Wall came to pray at the Wall, and more than 5,000 Ultra-Orthodox Jews came to protest their presence.
First, a little history:
In 1967, Israel took control of the Western Wall during the Six Day War. Soon afterwards, A transformation began in the Wall's meaning and use. A permanent mechitza was put up to divide male and female visitors who came to Kotel, as it is called in Hebrew. Slowly, the Kotel was changed from an area of national gathering into a de facto Orthodox synagogue. A dress code was enforced at the Kotel to ensure that all men kept their heads covered and that women showed no bear shoulders. The Kotel was turned into a place where non-Orthodox Jews had to conform to somebody else’s idea of being Jewish.
Since 1988, Women of the Wall has sought to allow women to pray aloud together, read from the Torah and wear tallit at the Kotel. They do this out of conviction that they are demanding nothing less than their rights as Jewish women who live in a free society, and that they should be free to worship on sacred ground on the same equal basis as Jewish men.
For its part, the Orthodox establishment in Israel has strenuously opposed Women of the Wall, decrying that the group is primarily motivated by political opposition to the rabbinate, and not by any sincere desire to pray to God, to fulfill their religious duty, or to seek spiritual nourishment.
The conflict has made its way into debates at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and has prompted two decisions from the Israeli Supreme Court. In 2003, the Court gave a ruling that was interpreted as a ban on women reading from a Torah scroll or wearing tallit and tefilin if these practices constituted a threat to public safety and order. The ruling stipulated that the government should create a separate space at the nearby Robinson’s Arch, which is also part of the ancient Temple platform, at which Women of the Wall could pray.
Women of the Wall rejected that ruling, saying that it granted women only a second-class status at Judaism’s holiest site. Since then, Women of the Wall has gathered at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh, the holiday that marks the beginning of each Jewish month, to worship together, to read publicly from the Torah and to wear talit, just as Jewish men do at the Kotel every day.
Several members of Women of the Wall have been arrested at these worship services, some for doing things that appear to be within the bounds set by the Supreme Court ruling. In 2009, Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a talit under her coat and holding a Torah scroll. Anat Hoffman, the president of Women of the Wall, has been arrested, fingerprinted and interrogated several times for her participation in women-led services at the Kotel. She also has been fined thousands of shekels and banned from appearing at the Kotel for periods of time. In recent months, several other women have been arrested at Women of the Wall services, including two American rabbis.
At each of these events, ultra-orthodox protestors have appeared to shout down the Women of the Wall worshippers, to throw rocks at them, and to call them every vile name that is usually reserved for Israel's worst enemies. The police generally sided with the protestors, allowing their abuse while arresting members of the Women of the Wall.
One has to ask: Who in this conflict has lost track of what Jewish tradition teaches? Who are the righteous and who are the ones who are truly desecrating God’s name at Judaism’s holiest site?
Last month, however, there was a watershed moment for Women of the Wall. A Jerusalem district court ruled that there was nothing in the 2003 Supreme Court decision that prohibited the services led by Women of the Wall at the Kotel. The court ruled that the women had every right to worship and should not be arrested. Rather, the court ruled, the police had an obligation to restrain and, if necessary, to arrest ultra-orthodox protestors who harassed Women of the Wall worshippers.
This morning was the first time that ruling was put to the test. Five hundred Women of the Wall came for services to mark the beginning of the Jewish month of Sivan, which began last night at sundown. In anticipation, two ultra-orthodox leaders, one of them a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, called upon ultra-orthodox women to come to the Wall to block out Women of the Wall. While these leaders called for peaceful protest, the scene at the Kotel this morning was anything but peaceful. Protestors threw rocks and spit upon women praying in their talitot and reading from Torah.
This time, the police acted differently. They formed a human shield to keep back the protesters and to protect the Women of the Wall. When the protestors threw trash, water bottles and chairs at the women, three ultra-Orthodox men were arrested for disorderly conduct.
How does this all play out in Israeli society? It’s hard to say. Most secular Israelis don’t care one way or the other about who gets to pray at the Kotel or what they are allowed to wear. However, Israeli society seems to have reached a saturation point regarding the license the Orthodox rabbinate has enjoyed for 65 years to control the lives of the non-religious. Israelis are sick of a rabbinate that controls their weddings and funerals. Also, most Israelis are disgusted by the fact that ultra-orthodox men are exempt from army service on the pretext that they are serving the nation by studying Torah. Israelis are ready to change the power that the rabbinate and the ultra-orthodox have over them. The recent district court decision in favor of Women of the Wall likely is a result of the shift in power and greater public disapproval of the ultra-orthodox.
And what does this tell us about the way religious zealotry and liberty plays out in our American society? We, too, live in a country in which a minority claims the right to control the lives of others based on their fundamentalist religious beliefs. Whether it is over the issue of reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, or prayer in school, we, too, live in a society in which some people use their religion as a cudgel against others.
Perhaps we need to spread the message of Women of the Wall here. When others speak about promoting “religious views” on current social issues, we should be ready to say, “We are religious people, too, and our views are also ‘religious views.’” That is part of what it means to live in a free society.
Bravo to Women of the Wall for their courage in fighting for their religious rights and their rights as human beings at the Kotel, at the Western Wall. They stood up against a fundamentalist religious establishment and insisted that they are religious people, too, and they have the right to be the kind of Jews they want to be.
And bravo to us, too, when we stand up for our religion and insist that no one should tell us what we must believe or do to fulfill our obligations to God as we see them. We will keep saying that our vision of Judaism is strong. It commands us to see each person as being created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and it commands us to see men and women created as equals, with dignity and freedom for all.
Tonight begins the forty-sixth day of the Counting of the Omer, six weeks and four days. It is the day of the divine quality of Netzach within Malchut, Endurance within Nobility. The most important leadership we exercise in life is our leadership over our own lives. Be courageous! Strive unceasingly to reveal the highest within yourself!