What does your faith offer religiously-unaffiliated Americans?

The beauty of Judaism is that there is something for everyone in it. Judaism’s belief, as illustrated in Pirkei Avot, is to that all is in Torah. There are Jewish teachings on how to conduct oneself in business, how to create sacred relationships with those around you and even on how to fulfill your partner’s sexual needs.

While many are not religious, most are searching for meaning in life as well as belonging to a community. These are universal desires which are at the center of what Judaism is about. At the same time, Judaism recognizes that there are seventy faces to Torah; there are multiple interpretations as to what texts mean and that we should strive to find the one most personally meaningful to our life.

One of the highest Jewish values is k’vod habriyot, to treat every human with dignity and respect. This is true regardless of one’s gender, age, religion or sexual orientation. My goal is to foster positive experiences with those around me, bringing empathy and a listening ear into every encounter.

At the Jericho Jewish Center, we offer Hiking and Halacha, an opportunity to enjoy nature while sharing in a short teaching on spirituality. We also have Shabbat at Theodore Roosevelt Beach as an opportunity to engage in community in a beautiful, family-centered environment while the sun is setting. In addition, we have a Friday Night Live musical Shabbat service led by both children and adults. Our goal is to foster meaningful and engaging relationships, both inside and outside the synagogue walls.

Advertisements

The Canaanite King of Arad

There’s a bizarre passage between Aaron’s death and the Israelites’ journey towards Edom. Numbers Chapter 21 verses 1-3 read “When the Canaanite, king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by way of the Atarim, he engaged Israel in battle and took some Israelites as captive. Israel made a vow to God, saying ‘If you deliver this people into our hand, we will proscribe their towns.’ God agrees to do so, delivering the Canaanites, and they and their cities were proscribed. That place was named Hormah.”

What does Hormah mean? It comes from the root herem, which many have heard as “excommunication.” The biblical meaning of herem, however, is a complete conquest, with no survivors, and with all the property consecrated to God. Our ancestors were instructed to kill all of the Canaanites, as they were one of the seven nations whose land Israel was to inherit. According to Numbers 21, they did just that.

This text has a very different outcome than that from two weeks ago, immediately following the incident of the spies, when we read in Numbers Chapter 14 Verse 45: “The Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in the hill country came down and dealt them (the Israelites) a shattering blow at Hormah.” Why the discrepancy between the two texts? Why in one is Israel triumphant whereas in the other they are defeated?

Both texts begin with the Canaanites attacking Israel: the ending, however, is different. Rashi, the biblical commentator par excellence, who lived in the 11th century and who also worked as a vintner, references Tractate Rosh Hashnah in the Babylonian Talmud, which states that the Canaanite King heard that Aaron had died and that therefore the cloud of God’s presence was no longer on the Jewish people. Without their spiritual leader, our ancestors lost sight of God and were vulnerable to attack. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson who lived in 12th century France, points out that Israel came “by way of the Atarim” and if one removes the letter “aleph” you get “tarim,” one of the names for the spies. In other words, the spies who said “the enemies are too big and numerous for us” receive their worst nightmare-those very enemies come after them, taking captives. Hayim ben Moshe ibn Attar, an 18th century Moroccan commentator who made Aliyah, points out what a major test this was for our ancestors, for if Israelites were being taken captive outside of the land of Israel, who knows what would happen when they reached the promised land?

Unlike the incident with the spies, however, the Israelites turned to God this time. They vowed to destroy all that was the Canaanites, as they had been commanded, if God delivered the Canaanites into their hands. God heard their voice and fulfilled his end of the bargain, delivering the Canaanites into the Israelites’ hands. The Israelites likewise fulfilled their vow, destroying the Canaanites.

What lessons can this section of the portion teach us? One is that our outlook often leads to the result that we achieve. The spies caused the Israelites not to believe they could succeed against the people of the land of Canaan-and so they got routed by the Canaanites. In contrast, two portions later the Israelites have learned their lesson: to have trust and faith in God. As a result, this time they succeed in defeating the Canaanites.

This lesson hit too close to home with the recent shooting of nine individuals at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This atrocity would lead most people to want the perpetrator, Dylan Roof, to be given a swift execution. Interestingly, however, the families and friends of the victims had a different message: they wanted Dylan to repent and put his faith in God! One even told Dylan that he’s welcome back to the Bible study at any time! These responses are difficult for us to understand. After all, we are the people who never forget the atrocities that have befallen our people-and rightly so. Perhaps the worshippers of Emmanuel AME have a lesson to teach us: we cannot control what comes our way but our challenge is to continue to have faith in God when atrocities occur. That does not mean that we do not seek justice but rather that we do not let the tragedies that come our way shatter our faith. My prayer for us on this Shabbat is that we remain steadfast and confident in our beliefs as to who we are and what our mission is in this world and that we do not allow anything to shake that core. In that way we will be victorious like our ancestors were. As it states in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “Who is strong? One who controls his/her inclinations.” May we use all our thoughts and actions for good, and may they strengthen our faith in God, in ourselves and in one another-for each of us is made in the image of God. Shabbat Shalom.

Forgiveness: What We Can Learn from the Emmanuel AME Church

What does forgiveness mean? Merriam-Websters Dictionary defines forgiveness as “to stop feeling anger towards.” From this definition, I think we can learn a great deal about the responses of the bereaved from the Emmanuel AME Church towards Dylan Roof.

A congregant spoke with me about the difference between how the friends and family of the Emmanuel AME Church victims responded versus how we as Jews would respond. As Jews we are commanded to remember the actions of Amalek, how they attacked us from behind. We are commanded to blot them out with the words “Do not forget.” We have two holidays that focus on remembrance: Our Holocaust Remembrance Day (יום השואה) and our Israeli Soldier Memorial Day (יום הזכרון). In particular regarding the Holocaust, we say NEVER AGAIN or We Shall Never Forget. We do this with good reason, for as George Santayana pointed out, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In contrast we have the bereaved from the Emmanuel AME Church whose main refrain to Mr Roof was “I forgive you.” One even said to him “You’re welcome to our Bible study next Wednesday night.” Why would they embrace a murderer rather than attacking him?

I believe Webster’s definition of forgiveness demonstrates this. Too often we associate forgiveness with forgetting, and this is not the case. The bereaved will NEVER forget the atrocities that Mr. Roof did. One specifically said to him. “You took someone dear to me. I can never call her again, talk to her again.” This was followed by “I forgive you and may God have mercy on your soul.” What this woman was doing, in my opinion, was to say to Mr. Roof ‘There are some things you cannot take away from me-one of which is my ability to forgive, to let go of the anger, rage and hatred that I feel for you and for those like you.’ No matter what happens to us, no matter what we cannot control, forgiveness is in our power. We have the opportunity to let go of the legitimate hurt, anger and hatred that we feel and not let them bring us down. These victims recognized that they could not “let hate win.”

A couple years ago I saw a video where a man was complaining to his father about something done to him by another 10 years ago. He went on and on describing the situation. The father finally said, “How much rent are you charging him?” Taken aback the son replied “What do you mean? I haven’t seen him in years!” The father replied, “He’s still in your head.”

The lesson I learned from the members of the Emmanuel AME Church is the importance of letting go of negative emotions, no matter how difficult and how much pain we feel. This is not a one-step process or something that can occur overnight. However, by doing so, we are empowered to act in a way that lets love and community win out. I don’t think I could have acted in the way that the members of Emmanuel AME did and I commend them for their courage. At the same time, I’ve learned that when I feel negative emotions that I strive to let go of them and take them out of my head, putting in their place love and devotion.

Pidyon HaBen

What does true freedom mean to you? For some it is being able to do whatever you want. For others freedom is the abdication of responsibility. For me, true freedom is represented by a Jewish ceremony mentioned in today’s Torah portion I’ve only been to twice. I do not remember the first time I attended, as I was only 31 days old. The second time was at my former congregation two years ago. The ceremony is pidyon haben, the redemption of the firstborn son.

What is the ceremony of pidyon haben about? Originally, the first born males were supposed to serve G-d in the Temple. However, as enumerated in Tractate Megillah of the Jerusalem Talmud, the firstborn men rushed to sacrifice to the golden calf. As a result, the Levites were appointed to serve in the Temple instead. There were more firstborn males than Levites, and these extra firstborn were redeemed at five shekels apiece, which was given to Aaron and his sons. Five shekalim was a lot of money in Temple times, perhaps a penalty to increase the firstborns’ remorse for turning away from G-d.

We symbolically remember this redemption through continuing the ceremony of pidyon haben. The qualifications for redemption are that the child is male, the first issue of the womb, a natural birth and not descended from a Kohen or Levi on either side. These restrictions are what makes it so rare for this ceremony to be done. The ceremony occurs when the child is 31 days old except on a Shabbat or Festival, in which case it is pushed to the next date. At the ceremony, the parents bring their child to the Kohen, who says “Which is your preference: to give me your firstborn son, the first issue of his mother, or to redeem him for five shekalim, as you are obligated according to the Torah?” I have never heard of a parent choosing to give their 31 day old son to the Kohen! For redemption, five silver coins are given to the Kohen and are held over the baby boy’s head, indicating that this child is redeemed. If one was not redeemed as a child, Tractate Kiddushin in the Babylonian Talmud states that he must redeem himself as an adult. An example of this occurred two years ago, when a member of my former congregation redeemed himself at a pidyon haben.

What does this have to do with us? After all we now live in a post-Temple, egalitarian age. Some find pidyon haben to be sexist and have created pidyon habat ceremonies to symbolically redeem their first-born daughter. While the ceremony of pidyon haben might seem outdated or exclusive, a vestige of years past, I would argue that the principles behind it have everything to do with who and what we are. The first commandment is that G-d redeemed us from Egypt, a commandment which pervades the entire Torah. This demonstrates that before we could be free to worship the one true G-d, we needed to be redeemed from slavery. Similarly, there is merit to continuing the tradition of pidyon haben, acknowledging that true freedom must begin with redemption. May we actualize the teachings of pidyon haben to truly feel free to serve G-d and to lead our community? To crystallize this teaching through prayer, I ask that you turn with me to the reading Teach Us True Freedom and continue responsively.

Prophecy

Our tradition teaches that Moses was the best prophet ever and there was no one like him. However, this week’s parsha demonstrates that there were other prophets in Moses’ time, if only for “bit parts.” When everyone left the camp, two men named Eldad and Medad stayed inside and began to prophesy. Joshua get upset on Moses’ behalf, as here were two men taking over Moses’ role. He told Moses “STOP THEM!” to which Moses almost laughed, saying “Are you jealous on my behalf? Would that all people be prophets that G-d would put His voice inside them.”

This is a radical statement for Moses to make! After all, if everyone claimed to have the “word of G-d” there would be chaos! We also don’t look to highly upon our “street-corner prophets” proclaiming the “will of G-d.” It seems, however, that Moses was imparting an important message: not everyone was dependent on him for the words of G-d. If we passively wait for one person to impart G-d’s message onto us, we lose valuable opportunities to do good in the world and actively find the words of G-d. Each of us, like Eldad and Medad, needs to seek out the word of G-d through our personal supplications and our heartfelt prayers. It is easy to rally behind your leader and dangerous to get others involved. However, as a great leader, Moses understood that he could not do it all on his own, and that he needed to take the risk of having others feeling free to prophesy.

There’s another lesson here: Moses had the self-confidence necessary to allow others to connect with G-d independently from him. He did not feel the need to be the sole intermediary between the people and G-d. This required Moses to take a risk, as others could have easily turned away from him and followed Eldad and Medad. However, instead of being jealous of the attention that Eldad and Medad received, Moses was strong enough to embrace it and “let it be.”

I think this concept strongly ties into a marriage. Marriage is a give-and-take between leading and following. It is a blend between at times doing things the way you want and at other times following the will of your partner or creating a compromise. This not only takes hard work but it also requires each person to have the level of confidence necessary to meet the needs of the other without viewing it as a diminishment of oneself. Knowing Rebecca and Matt for the short duration of time that I have, I know that you have a high level of mutual respect and will give one another time to shine. You will support one another through the highs and lows of life and raise each other up to new heights. You will recognize, as Moses did, that the ideal is for both parties in the relationship to be strong and at their best.

Similarly, each of us has the opportunity to personally connect with G-d independently from someone serving as an intermediary. We do not need a Rabbi or Cantor to be our direct link to G-d: rather, each of us can form our own, personal connection to G-d through prayer and study. I cannot see a better time to do this work than right now, as we recently celebrated the giving of the Torah and the holiday of Shavuot. Let us follow the examples of Eldad and Medad and strive to develop a strong, personal relationship with our Creator. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so. Shabbat Shalom.