The Excess of Zealotry

“God spoke to Moses, saying: “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the kohen [priest], turned away My wrath from the children of Israel with his zealotry for My sake . . . Therefore . . . I shall grant him My covenant of peace . . .” [Numbers 25:11–12].

I find myself highly distracted this week by the events in Israel.  We have family living there about whom we worry; friends and colleagues who are there for various study and travel, hundreds of kids from Reform congregations on their trip of a lifetime to Israel, to connect with and understand their own personal connection to our homeland.  I am worried, troubled, angry, frustrated, feeling helpless.  My prayers are also with the Fraenkel, Shaer, Yifrach, and Abu Khdeir families.

Zealotry is defined as fanatical devotion. Pinchas’ deed evokes many associations—courage, decisiveness and religious passion are several that come to mind—but peace hardly seems one of them.

The zealot often covers his own weaknesses and self-doubt by attacking others. That is why the people of Israel questioned the motives of Pinchas in killing Zimri.  Pinchas is protected because God grants him a covenant of peace. Why does God call for this? I struggle so much with this story, this episode in Torah. It doesn’t matter how much the commentaries try to massage the text and find a reason, a lesson, an explanation…

No matter the reasoning, I can’t get my head around why God would call for this. Isn’t there another solution? This is one of the times when I look at Torah and think that this moment is to challenge us to think differently, perhaps to learn and discern when to disagree with what is taught to us. That is just as important a life skill as learning from positive models of behavior and understanding. It is all I can think about.

[Pinchas 2014]



Creating Holy Space

Moving is easy – said no one, ever.

Moving is stressful and time-consuming. While I have continued to contemplate the teachings and messages of the Torah portions of the past couple of weeks, it was more than I could accomplish to actually sit down and put thought to paper.

But this week – words of blessing abound, their offering unintended. I could not pass up making the time to reflect upon this, as this week I enter a new community that is welcoming me with great love and blessing. The fairly well-known verse from this Torah portion that has made its way into our daily liturgy: “Ma Tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” [Numbers 24: 5]– ‘How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel’ – are unintended words of blessing uttered by the Aramean seer Balaam, as he aims to place a curse upon the Israelites on behalf of Balak, the Moabite king.

I am blessed with an amazing opportunity in my new role, a new leader in a congregation. As a cantor, my job is to employ the weaving of music and language to set the foundation for an atmosphere of kedusha – sacred space and intention. I am now blessed to work with a colleague who not only gives me the space and empowerment to do so, but he does it in partnership with me, a journey of leadership and prayer which we now undertake together in service of our congregation.

Ma Tovu – words of blessing of space, of generations. Balaam knows in the end that even if he wanted to curse the Israelites, “…even if Balak gives me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of the Lord to do either good or evil on my own; only what the Lord speaks can I speak.” (Numbers 24:13) Balaam intention is transformed upon his encounters with our God – the Holy One of Blessing. The words become transformed by the intention and power of blessing.

As I move into a new space – a new office, a new sanctuary, a new home, a new town, a new state, what I believe will infuse kedusha into my days is not the inherent qualities in each of these places, but what I bring to it, what I say and do in each of those spaces. While we will place a mezuzah upon the doorway of our new home, uttering words that invoke the transformation of intention, it is how I behave inside the walls of my house that will it a home.

In Exodus 25:8, we read of God’s instructions for the building of the desert tabernacle, the purpose of which was to ‘…Build for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’ To dwell among the people. The holy space is not for God to live, but for us to experience the Divine Presence. Hence, the purpose of the space becomes what we bring to it, that we actually create the space, and through our actions and intentions as we enter into a space we make it holy and can therefore experience God. Through word – touching our intellect, inspiring the mind, and through aesthetic – art, music, color, sound – each piece open channels of holiness that go beyond the intellect to the heart.

Ma Tovu – This blessing in Torah reminds us that the spaces in which we dwell can be filled with blessing because of who we are and what we do there. The words spoken, the music sung, the intention with which we create an atmosphere of prayer is what makes the walls of a sanctuary come alive with kedusha, with that spark of the sacred. Ma Tovu – How beautiful are our tents, O Jacob, our dwelling places O Israel, when we speak and act, sing and pray in those places in ways with the kavanah – the inner direction – that invites God to dwell among us. For me, I pray that I bring blessing to each new place and space that I inhabit.

[Balak 2014]

What You Get  Is What You See

Subjectivity. The Webster’s Dictionary definition of subjective is “relating to the way a person experiences things in his or her own mind, based on feeling or opinions, rather than facts.”  This week’s Torah portion deals with the nature of subjectivity.  Chapter 13 of the Book of Numbers contains the narrative of the scouts sent out by Moses to scout out the Land of Canaan, the land already promised by God to the Israelites.  That, in and of itself, is a test of the subjective, for what is it that they are scouting?  It is not whether or not to go, but rather to discern what it is that they see in a place to which they are already committed to live and grow.

The adage ‘What you see is what you get’ is often meant in the context of there being no hidden agenda to something, that what is visible is all that there is.  In this case, it becomes much more than that; the facts of what things are is not disputed, but the way we interpret them and value them, how we see things play out in our own lives….that is in fact what we get.  The same circumstances/facts/details with each person seeing them differently – we each respond to them differently and therefore end up with different results.

Life is all about how we see things.  And, how we see things affects how others who rely on us understand a situation.  The scouts each had their own perspective –ten of them saw the people there as giants and even presumed that they saw us as if ‘we were like grasshoppers.’ Their own perspective of themselves clouded the truth in front of them.  Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, saw the same circumstances, the same situation – but they saw possibility, they saw the hope of today, they saw the promise of tomorrow.  Caleb and Joshua succeed and endure because of their faith in how they were to view and understand what they saw before them.

Especially at this time for me, all that I am dealing with is primarily about my own perspective.  Moving, new job, new surroundings, planting roots in a new community – that can be fraught with anxiety and tension, or with promise and hope, all depending on how I see and encounter each step that I have to take to get there.  Like the Israelites, each of my days now are filled with steps both ‘away from’ and ‘toward’.  While my move is not one away from oppression as it was for the Israelites, the definition of a journey implies not merely movement, but movement with directionality and purpose.  My journey now is scouting out what is ahead so I can be best prepared for what lies ahead, seeing things in a positive light, a new chapter of life, with new possibilities.  Whether through a large transition or in the unfolding of a day, what you get is what you are willing and able to see.

[Sh’lach L’cha 2014]

Never Too Late

As I began to write this week, it is in the hours when Jews around the world are preparing for Shavuot – one of our three main festivals, which marks a moment in our history extending through time.  It is the time for us to virtually stand [once again] around the foot of Mt. Sinai, recalling the experience of the Israelite people receiving the Torah in the wilderness.  This is a fascinating approach to so many of our holidays: beyond merely recalling history, we are meant to step back in time to be present in the past as if we were there. However, we are not to live in the past, but rather to draw that experience back into our present lives.  Talk about standing in many worlds and in many times!

To make it more confusing, here in this week’s Torah portion is a passage about the second Passover – Pesach Sheini.   Initially, a year after the Exodus, God instructed the people of Israel to bring the Passover offering on the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nisan [the first month], and to eat it that evening, roasted over the fire, together with matzah and bitter herbs, as they had done the previous year just before they left Egypt. “There were, however, certain persons who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and could not, therefore, prepare the Passover offering on that day. They approached Moses and Aaron…and they said: ‘…Why should we be deprived, and not be able to present God’s offering in its time, amongst the children of Israel?’” (Numbers 9:6–7). In response to their plea, God established the 14th of Iyar [the second month] as a “Second Passover” (Pesach Sheni) for anyone who was unable to bring the offering on its appointed time in the first/designated month.

Virtually all of the mitzvot of the Torah, including those governing rare and unforeseeable circumstances, were of unilateral origin: from God to the people. This law of the Second Passover was instituted in response to the outcry of those who protested being deprived of being able to observe Pesach in its appointed time.  There is no other mitzvah in Torah that, if unable to be fulfilled, has an out-clause and the ability to fulfill it in another way. It is a remarkable notion, and embodies great foresight: like values and principles of Reform Judaism, it is with great kavanah and understanding of the mitzvah that there becomes latitude granted in the fulfillment of the mitzvah.

It gets even more interesting. After the people complain to Moses that they might be excluded from the mitzvah of Passover, Moses waits to give them God’s response, which institutes this Pesach Sheini not only in the case of a person who been “contaminated by death” but adds this alternative observance for someone who is “on a distant journey, whether among you or in future generations” (Numbers 9:10).  In this response, God now grants that anyone who couldn’t do what they had to do because they were touched by death or out of range of the community could have a second go at it every year, one month after Passover, for one day only. Thus, the Pesach Sheinu, the second Passover represents the power of teshuvah — the power of repentance and return; more than just turning a new leaf and achieving forgiveness for past sins, it is the power to go back in time and redefine the past.

The Torah, wishing to include all Israelites in the significant ritual of Pesach, demonstrates here the need to assess circumstances in the application of law and, sometimes, to give us humans a second chance. Here, weighing the exclusion of Israelites from a “perfect” ritual against the accommodation of less-than-ideal circumstances by adapting the ritual in a somewhat inelegant manner (commemorating the Exodus on a day other than its actual anniversary) Torah advocates for adaptation. In other words, in this second Pesach account, we see preference for the acceptance and understanding of human reality over and above the perfect and pristine performance of ritual duties. Here, God is compassionate and understanding. And as we are all made in the image of God—a compassionate God crafting divine rituals around the realities of human life and ensuring the inclusion of all – that is certainly the image we should try to emulate.

[Beha’alot’cha 2014]

Numbering Our Days

Math is not my favorite subject. But these days, I am very focused on counting – the number of boxes I need to pack up my books; the number of Bar Mitzvah students I need to schedule; the number of days until we move; the amount of time I need to get through my to-do list.  In the period of our Jewish tradition, we are in the midst of counting the Days of the Omer.  And then, this week in Torah, we begin the Book of Numbers – Bemidbar, which literally means ‘in the desert’; it opens with a census-taking, a counting of the Israelites. I am counting up, counting down, and needing to count on many pieces falling into place in the weeks ahead.

This time of year is especially busy for cantors and rabbis who are getting ready to begin new jobs; I find it personally interesting this year to note that this transition coincides in our Torah cycle with the Israelites sojourn in the wilderness. For myself, I am once again facing that wilderness, that place and time of transition. The last time I faced this (17 years ago), I remember trying to allay the concerns of my young daughters with some Jewish context for our move; I explained that just like the Israelites made it through the wilderness to the Promised Land, so we would, too, with patience and time. Now, with more years behind me and a great deal more life experience, I find myself wondering about the perspective of seeing the wilderness just as ‘something to get through’ in order to get to something better.

I am finding that I need to bring that same perspective to the counting of the Omer. Each night, as I recite the blessing to count the day of the Omer, I remind myself of the spiritual practice connected to the counting of the Omer. Meant to be more than just numbering the day, each day is connected to meditation upon a personal spiritual trait; what I do with each day, step-by-step, daily work built into our tradition to move us spiritually from the enslavement of Pesach to be ready to receive Torah at Shavuot. It is not about what we have to do, but how we have to be. Merely counting is not enough. Psalm 90 reminds us: “Teach us to number our days, so that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” Our counting has to bring us to a place of learning and growth.

As I reflect upon this week’s words of Torah, counting up to Shavuot, counting down to our move across the country, and counting on our family, our friends and our new community that awaits our arrival, my own spiritual work is to remain grounded in the present, striving for the perspective and growth that is embodied in the full measuring of time.

[Bemidbar 2014]

The Path We Walk

I am quite reliant on the navigation system in my car for driving around Los Angeles – I have named her Sylvia – and she gets me from place to place.  Often, as I type in my destination, Sylvia will give me different route options, based on time and traffic.  It is up to me to choose my route, based on what I know about the road conditions and my preference for driving.  There are always consequences and outcomes, for better or worse, with whichever path I choose.

As we read the conclusion of the Book of Leviticus this week, we are confronted with the consequences of our ancient choices as a new nation.  I don’t feel that I am merely explaining away the literal reading of the text, which seems to indicate God as vengeful or puppet-master-like – that is that God responds with human emotion to our deeds, rewarding good and punishing bad.  I don’t believe that it is God that brings this upon us – it is presumptuous and even egotistical to think that God is somehow watching each move that we make and responding to each person’s actions in the world.  This is the God that perhaps made some sense to our ancestors, a God so powerful and strong, that could destroy the most powerful enemy without hesitation, without remorse. But is that really God’s purpose, God’s role in the world?

I say not.  However, when we choose well, we will live well; when we choose poorly, we will bring the difficulties and challenges upon ourselves.  When the Torah says that if we violate the covenant, God will “scorn” us (Leviticus 26:30) it is a statement not about God but about us. It means that our unethical and unspiritual behaviors will come between us and God. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, these actions will “have separated between you and your God” (Isaiah 58:2). The result of that separation will be that we are no longer be connected to the blessings that result from walking the path of “acting justly, loving kindness and walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). The quality of our live comes from the path that we walk.  God remains constant and God’s love for us abides; it is we who distance ourselves from God. It is for each of us to choose to act in a way that either connects us to God or that separates us from God.

The iconic Hasidic master, Menachem Mendel Morganstern, the Kotzker Rebbe (late 18th Century), was sitting with some of his younger disciples, studying Talmud. One of the students looked up and said, “With all due respect, Rebbe, we study day in and day out. Yet at times I feel a great despair. Rebbe, where is God?” The Kotzker Rebbe stopped and pondered the student’s question. After a moment, he smiled and said, “God is whenever we let God in.” God is always there, waiting for us with love and acceptance as we choose our path; this Divine presence has the power to heal the soul and to move along our path with us so that we can know that we are not alone.

[Bechukotai 2014]

Proclaim Liberty Throughout The Land

Merriam Webster defines liberty as: ‘the quality or state of being free; the power to do as one pleases; the positive enjoyment of various social, political or economic rights and privileges; the power of choice.’

Growing up in the Northeast, I have a fondness for our country’s early history; it was so easy to visit so many of the sites that held memories and relics of the historic movement of our nation’s founders to embrace a new life based on important principles and ideals.  I loved visiting Philadelphia, and my favorite stop would be at the Liberty Bell.  I remember how proud I was as an eight year-old when I discovered that the powerful quote on the Liberty Bell was from Torah, in this week’s Torah portion: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all of its inhabitants.” (Leviticus chapter 25, verse 10). One’s liberty cannot infringe on another person’s rights.

Consider the fact that when William Penn created Pennsylvania’s government, he allowed citizens to take part in making laws and gave them the right to choose the religion they wanted.  We need to remain cognizant of the values that Penn was conveying.  The colonists were proud of the religious freedom that Penn granted; it is a hallmark of our nation’s founding must continue to remain a steadfast principle.

Praying is universal; people of all faith traditions pray, in their own ways and words. Our country embraced the notion that liberty is universal, even as it took time and conflict to resolve and embody. Freedom of prayer, in prayer is exactly about the universality of prayer. The Founders of our country were fled their old lives in order to find freedom in prayer.  And our Jewish tradition reminds us over and over again that we are to remember what it was like to be enslaved, exactly so that we will not perpetrate that on anyone else.  How ironic that this week, with these words from Torah in our hearts, the United States Supreme Court upheld the practice of public prayer before local-government meetings, rejecting arguments that overwhelmingly Christian invocations violate the constitutional bar on the establishment of an official religion. The Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism condemned the ruling:

The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution is meant to guarantee that while we can be a religious country and people, the particulars of each individual belief will not find their way into an individual’s participation in politics and government. By allowing specific religious practices to be infused into the political fabric of our country with the Greece vs. Galloway ruling, under the cover of pursuing ‘religious freedom’, is a destructive interpretation of the Establishment Clause.  The liberty that I believe was intended by the inscription on this iconic symbol of freedom does not state that one person’s pursuit of liberty can be at the expense of another.  Let us continue to work and speak out for a nation that perpetuates a system of religious liberty that has proved to be generally fair and effective, one in which religion and the state flourish best when they are separate, allowing and valuing the religious beliefs of each citizen separate from governance.

[Behar 2014]

Previous Older Entries


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.