May 2011


The Book of Numbers tells the story of the transition of the Israelites from freed slaves into a people capable of conquering and settling the land of Israel. After the ideal has been presented in Leviticus (and in the chapters on the construction of the Tabernacle in the second half of Exodus), Numbers continues and concludes this narrative for two and a half more Torah portions–and then it wades into the murky areas where the ideal is tested by the real. We will get to that story in due course. But for the moment, we can indulge for another week or two in the hopeful state of idealism.

The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) asks what is taught by the Hebrew name of Numbers, Bamidbar, from the opening words of the book: “And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.”

Why the wilderness (midbar)? From here the Sages taught that the Torah was given in three ways: fire, water, and wilderness. Fire: ‘And Mount Sinai was full of smoke’ (Ex. 19:18);  water: ‘the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water’ (Judges 5:4);  wilderness: ‘And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.’ And why was it given in these three ways? Just as these three are free and available to all, so too are the words of Torah, as it is said, ‘Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters’ (Is. 55:1). Another teaching: ‘And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.’ One who fails to make himself ownerless like the wilderness is unable to purchase wisdom and Torah.

Elaborating on one of the concluding themes of Leviticus (“For the earth is Mine”), the Midrash here focuses our attention on the act of surrender conveyed in the notion of wilderness. It partakes of something like the idea of national park land–but even more so. It is a place outside of and beyond civilization, a place defined in opposition to the domain where our lives take place. The wilderness is the place we send the scapegoat on Yom Kippur. The midbar is a place devoid of ownership.

And thus the midrash presents us with a paradox: only in giving up the posture of ownership can we purchase wisdom and Torah. Fire, water, wilderness: these are goods no one can lay claim to. They are open and available for all. Water and fire are rather obvious in this respect: they can simultaneously be tools for great good and great destruction. The wilderness, however, is not a force but a place, and perhaps more so a state of mind. It is the place we resist, the place we try to overcome as we erect the structures of civilization–not only physical structures, but the structures of language and thinking which make the world inhabitable for us. It is in this sense that the Sefas Emes writes of the Midbar, which shares the same letters as midaber–to speak: The wilderness, the midbar, is the place we unlearn and relearn our speech, the place we come to to reformulate our ideas of the world.

This then is the paradox of Torah: to lay claim to it we must surrender our claims. To hear what it has to say, we have to allow ourselves to forget what we thought we knew. This, of course, is an ideal. It will encounter the reality of the world in the coming weeks. But as the holiday of Shavuot approaches, as it always does when we read Bamidbar, we linger for a few more moments in this place where we can unlearn and learn anew, the wilderness.

Shabbat Shalom.

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At the heart of the concept of covenant is a conundrum: Is God’s promise conditional or unconditional? On its face, the idea of covenant would imply that two parties mutually agree to perform certain acts. As the opening of this week’s parasha states, “If you walk in My laws and obey My statutes,” (Lev. 26:3) then “I will walk among you, and I will be God to you, and you will be a people to me” (26:12). Likewise, “If you do not listen to me, and do not do all these commandments” (26:14) then “I will scatter you among the nations” (26:33), and punish you severely. The agreement here is conditional: obey the commandments and be rewarded, disobey and be punished.

Yet if we go back to the original moment of Covenant-making with Abram, we find the situation is not quite so clear: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18). While Rashi interprets this promise as conditional on the Israelites’ continued offering of sacrifices (as symbolized in the sacrifice Abram offers at this moment), Ramban reads it as an unconditional promise: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, made the covenant that they would inherit the land in any case,” even if, for instance, the Canaanites repented (Ramban Gen. 15:7-8). In Ramban’s reading, God’s promise is unconditional: no matter what, this is your home.

This dialectic of conditional and unconditional comes through in God’s words in Bechukotai: “If they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors… then I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land… For their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord” (Lev. 26:40-45). God leaves an opening here, the opening of teshuva, of coming back home. The promise is conditional—you can only stay at home under certain conditions—but it is also unconditional: this will always be your home, whether you are there or not, and you can always come back.

This is one of the great conceptual contributions of the Jewish people, the idea that one can be at home but not be at home at the same time. We both feel at home and are compelled to reaffirm our sense of home, because home is not something static, something we can take for granted. It must be earned and renewed on a constant basis. This is an expression of the paradoxical reality that provides the taproot of Jewish life: the notion that we are at home and are strangers at the same time. “You were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is the memory we are to carry with us all the time, even when we are at home in our own land. We are to be strangers, and yet be at home, at the same time.

Shabbat shalom.

I had a powerful conversation with a student yesterday, the kind of conversation that reshapes things whose form has long felt static, and connects things that have been separate. Our conversation centered around what I’ve come to feel is the she’elah ha-she’elot, the question of questions: Where do you feel at home?

We had been talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the idea of immanence and transcendence: Is God in the world or apart from it? When and how do we sense the presence of God? And if God is separate from the world, how do we have an intuition of God’s being in it?

As we explored the question and shared our personal stories about moments when we experienced an awareness of the divine, I observed that for me many of these questions revolve around the idea of home. Regular readers of know that I often reflect on the way in which we draw boundaries, deciding what is in and what is out, what is same and what is different. And I find that the boundaries we draw are the thresholds of home.

My student (I’m not sharing his name because I have not had a chance to talk with him about sharing his story) observed that he has a deep attachment to the economically depressed, rust-belt big city where he comes from, even though he grew up in the suburbs. “I’m proud of the city,” he said, “but I often wonder whether I really can claim to represent it. I didn’t grow up in the city and I don’t live there. Someone who is a real resident can turn to me and say, ‘You’re a fake. You’re not really one of us.’ But I’m proud of the city. I’ve worked there, I’m committed to it, I stand up for it all the time. Am I at home in it?”

From here we made a critical move, observing that his relationship with Judaism was very similar: he feels proud to be Jewish, he identifies as Jewish, but he doesn’t feel like he has the education or level of commitment to really be called Jewish. In short, he doesn’t feel Jewish enough. And then we both observed that by reflecting on his Jewish identity through the lens of his urban/suburban identity, we hit on an entirely new understanding of the term “suburban Jew”—someone who feels attachment to Judaism and the Jewish people, but is still at a remove from it, without skin in the game.

Parshat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) weaves together the people of Israel, the land of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and God the Creator in a powerful way. “When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord.” (Lev. 25:2) Rashi observes that the Shabbat spoken of here “is like the Shabbat of Creation.” The institution of the sabbatical and Jubilee years is an elaboration of the Shabbat that informs our whole orientation to time and space, “the culmination of the creation of heaven and earth,” as we call it in the Friday evening prayer service.

Shabbat, the sabbatical year, and the Jubilee year all point us toward God’s own words: “For the earth is mine, and you are dwellers and sojourners with Me” (25:23) and its analog, “For the children of Israel belong to me. They are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt” (25:55). Our land, our bodies, our beings are of the earth but separate from it, immanent and transcendent at the same time—an image of God.

The great question for both God and humans, from Creation onwards, is, What is home? God seeks a home on earth: “And they shall make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8), a home that depends on us to create it. Likewise we humans need home, in space and time. Our notion of home is constantly being challenged, renewed, and remade as we leave home, long for home, come home, bring guests and new family members into home, and build homes together. Parshat Behar is a rich exploration of what it means to be at home in all these dimensions.

Shabbat shalom.

I’m spending a couple of days in Washington, DC at Hillel’s international headquarters for some very exciting discussions and planning sessions for the campus dialogue program I’ll be leading nationally this fall. So I haven’t had space to write my own reflections on this Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. But I want to share pieces by two other people that have moved me.

The first is by my Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who writes an important statement about the need for all Jews to have a relationship with Israel. “Israel is the single greatest project the Jewish people has going right now and, in the last two millennia, the most important arena that has ever been available to put our Jewish values to the test and our Jewish teachings into practice. We need it. And it needs us.” Eisen offers a thoughtful statement, and one well worth reading and acting on. The full piece is here.

The second is by my wife Natalie Blitt, which she posted on ChallahCrumbs and the iCenter website. I’m reposting it here in full. Chag Ha-Atzmaut Sameach – a happy Independence Day.

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about how to make Israel real in the lives of my children. Compared with most North American Jewish children, they have it easy — they’ve been to Israel, they have cousins there, parents who are committed. They attend a fantastic Jewish day school where Israel lives everywhere in the school — not just in the Judaics curriculum but all over the curriculum, and beyond the curriculum in the hallways and the staff and teachers. We have Hebrew books in our home and our kids one day will be fluent. And yet, Israel is still a far-away country.

This summer, we’ll be in Jerusalem for most of the summer and already I’ve found myself talking about it ad nauseum with the kids. If I had my way, they’d eat ice cream for breakfast every morning in Jerusalem so their idea of Israel is ice cream in the morning. It’s a false picture, I know. Even the summer will be false — we’ll be tourists, albeit in a rented apartment. We may buy groceries there, but the appliances and furniture aren’t ours, and we won’t truly be living there. In the real Israel, children don’t eat ice cream in the morning (at least, not most children). In Israel, there is a real life that we aren’t a part of.

I am a believer in telling the truth. But in this case, I’m happy with the subterfuge. Out here in America, far away from the reality of Israel, it’s hard to keep Israel in my children’s hearts and minds. The only thing that really does it, is me. My husband and I keep Israel alive because we talk about it and we share it with our kids. We plan our trips, we read books that take place in Israel, and we try hard, really hard, to help them fall in love.

Because one day, I hope they know the feeling of getting on a plane and feel like they are coming home. One day I hope they know the feeling of hearing the stories of those who lived through 1948 and get tears in their eyes. Last week my 8-year old told me Israel is turning 63 years old this year. He paused. “That’s older than Grandma!” he added with wonder. “Yes it is,” I said. And for now I left it there.

This year I am realizing that it’s not about what I say and do, but how I feel and how I share it. The first step in creating connection is being fueled by my passion. Once they get to Israel, they can make their own associations. They can learn that Israel is incredibly complicated, and it’s not always easy. They too will learn that paying bills in Israel is impossible, that traffic is terrible and the class and religious wars are enough to make you weep, never mind the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in order to care about all these things, they need to first fall in love. So I think this summer, it’ll be ice cream in the morning.

Parashat Emor continues the discussion of holiness that has preoccupied much of the book of Leviticus. Unlike last week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, it focuses not on a wide range of discrete subjects, but on a few large issues: relationships, sacrifices, and time. The parasha begins with the instruction to the priests that they are generally prohibited from coming into contact with a human corpse, but they may do so for immediate relations. It then discusses the physical completeness—perfection is an apt, but more loaded translation—necessary both for the priests and the animals offered as sacrifices. Finally the parasha takes up holiness in time, namely Shabbat, the festivals, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

What links all of these pieces together is the emphasis on kedusha, holiness or separateness. The Torah insists on kedusha in all of these dimensions: relationships, space, material objects, and time. On one level, this is a radical notion, that we can apply such a mental or spiritual construct throughout the Creation. There is nothing inherent in anything created that would suggest that it is different or special or holy. Kedusha is in the eye of the beholder—you have to believe it to see it. So when the Torah tells us that holiness applies across all elements of the world, we have to recognize what a bold claim that represents.

On the other hand, perhaps it isn’t so radical after all. As infants we begin to categorize and recognize along the lines of sameness and difference. All of language, the mental space within which we inhabit the world, is predicated on our ability to call something by a name. And our sense of awe or wonder is evoked when we reach the limits of that ability, when we encounter the ineffable, the unnamable, the holy. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that “we have a certainty without knowledge… In moments of sensing the ineffable, we are as certain about the value of the world as we are of its existence.” This is as basic to us as recognizing the people and objects in our lives, even if we have forgotten how to recognize such a moment itself. In Heschel’s telling, everyone is capable of experiencing radical amazement, of encountering kedusha—we simply have to open our eyes to it and nurture our ability to sense it.

Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, in his Pachad Yitzhak, teaches that the covenant of with Noah and the covenant of Sinai do not contradict one another. Sinai is rather an elaboration of the covenant with Noah, except in one respect—our relationship with time. Rav Hutner cites the verse, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22), and in particular its final words, lo yishbotu—here translated as “will not cease.” But he links these words with the Jewish legal prohibition to a non-Jew of fully observing Shabbat: lo yishbotu means, They may not make Shabbat. Thus when the commandment is given to the Israelites at Sinai to make Shabbat, an element of the previous covenant with Noah is overturned. This is distinct. While Noahides are enjoined not to murder, not to steal, not to practice idolatry—all items which are reaffirmed in the covenant at Sinai—in the area of time something fundamentally shifts at Sinai. The idea of kedusha, of sacredness in time, becomes a unique Jewish heritage.

In this lies one of the basic animating tensions of Jewish life, both today and throughout history: the extent to which our practices and rituals are rooted in basic human realities on the one hand, and are total innovations on the other. According to Heschel (and others like Rudolf Otto), holiness is a pre-cognitive truth of human life: all human beings can sense that which is beyond words, that which is holy. But for Rav Hutner (and, to be fair, for Heschel as well) there is a uniquely Jewish aspect to kedusha, particularly in time, but also in all the other dimensions to which it applies: space, relationships, the material world. Kedusha, in our holidays, in the land of Israel, in the city of Jerusalem, in our relationships with other Jews both within and beyond our immediate families, is the unique aspect of our language as Jews. As its name implies, it is what makes us unique and special—not better, but unique.

Shabbat shalom.

Dear Sara,

You wrote to me this morning asking for guidance about how to respond to the death of Osama bin Laden. I’m glad you asked this question, and I’m glad you have the moral sensitivity to engage it.

It’s important to remind ourselves of who Bin Laden was and what he sought to do. Bin Laden was a mass murderer on an enormous scale. He was a man of hate, and he caused untold death and destruction to human beings around the world, let alone to America itself. There is no eulogy for him.

So our first response is that of the Bible’s Book of Proverbs which states, “When the wicked perish there is song” (Prov. 11:10). To see wickedness removed from the earth, to see evil stopped, is a joyous thing. We are thrilled, just as the Jews were thrilled when Haman was stopped, just as Americans were thrilled on V-E and V-J day. Our response is one of thanks and gratitude and joy.

At the same time, as your question itself suggests, something feels weird about celebrating death. It feels somehow unseemly to many people, a violation of the spirit in which we removed the wine from the second cup at the seder just two weeks ago. As the midrash recounts, as the Israelites sang at the sea after the drowning of their Egyptian enemies, the angels were about to start singing when God reproved them saying that God’s own children were dying. This impulse evokes another line in the Book of Proverbs, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles” (Prov. 24:17).

Yet I think here it is important to remember two things. First, as a colleague of mine reminded me, the enemy in question in the verse may not be an Osama bin Laden type of person—it is more likely your neighbor with whom you bicker, or your roommate who you can’t get along with. Butchers of the variety of Bin Laden are in a different category. We can sing at their downfall.

Second, the standard of not singing recorded in the midrash is a standard for the angels, not for us. Neither God nor Moses gets angry with the Israelites for singing. Quite the opposite: Moses’s sister Miriam is the one who gathers the women and exhorts all the children of Israel to sing. The midrash is making a theological statement about a reality that may exist in the mind of God. But as the Rabbis state many times, the Torah speaks in the language of human beings. It responds to human realities and human emotions. God and the angels do not have to deal with death the way that humans do. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the death of those who seek to kill us.

Christianity has given us a radical conception of love, and I would refer you to my Christian colleagues about how their tradition shapes their response to Bin Laden’s death. Jewish tradition acknowledges that evil exists in the world, that evil people exist in the world, and that we must be unflinching in countering them. There is no room for moral paralysis when fighting a man like Bin Laden.

You point out that this news comes on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and you ask, rhetorically, what our reaction might have been to the death of Hitler. There is no question there. Bin Laden was not Hitler, but not for lack of ambition. We celebrate his end—not necessarily with parades and balloons, for his demise cannot bring back those whose lives he ended. But we are happy that a man who perpetrated such gruesome crimes against our nation, and sought to do so against our people and all of humanity, is no longer among the living.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Josh