All I can think about is Israel.  As a Jew, as one who has family and friends living there, as one who has lived there myself, as one who is connected to the life of our people that looks to the east – to our spiritual homeland – I am so troubled by the events in the Middle East.  The violence against innocents, the skewed news reporting, the insanity of hatred….on all sides. The flood of articles, of blogs, of emails, of Facebook posts all make it almost impossible to think clearly anymore.  I consider myself to be more passionate than eloquent on the subject, feeling that I must put something in writing here, to acknowledge the struggle and the pain of this time.  Even the struggle to somehow find meaning in this all through Torah feels like an overwhelming climb.

So I share here two things:

One is a link to an piece that resonates particularly well with me, and I am grateful to Rabbi Menachem Creditor for his thoughtful and inspiring, yet difficult words.

The other is my own simple prayer – that as we conclude the Book of Numbers this week, we will say together as a community as we do whenever we finish a book of Torah, ‘Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik’.  Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. This week, more than any other, may that be so.


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]