What Does It Mean to Be “The Stranger?” 

Have you ever felt like a stranger? When do you feel this way? Parshat Devarim contains one of the 36 references to treating the stranger equally to an Israelite. It states, “Hear out your fellow man and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger.”[1] Is this really practical to do? While we preach impartiality, we all have built-in biases that would likely favor someone like us over someone different than us. Can we really judge someone from a different race, ethnicity or religion as we would judge one who looks like us and who practices Judaism?

I remember one time when I was a stranger. I worked for a Muslim organization in inner-city Chicago (a Jew working with Muslims on criminal justice reform for African American Christians) and being the only white person who got off the subway at 63rd street on the orange L line. I would at times get stares, a white Jew wearing a kippah, but I felt accepted by the community. I came to learn a number of the similarities between Judaism and Islam. When I returned every night to my north shore suburban apartment, I discovered that knowledge assuages much of one’s fears and concerns.

I also spent a Shabbat at an Israelite Hebrew synagogue on the south side of Chicago, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken with Rabbi Capers Funnye (Michelle Obama’s first cousin). I was amazed by the passion and enthusiasm that people had for saying the prayers in Hebrew, reminding me of the gospel choir in Keeping the Faith. Everyone read their own Aliyah and I gave a sermon, often hearing a resounding “Amen Brother!” after a sentence. I was also amazed by how people spent Shabbat afternoon at the synagogue in classes studying Torah. True it was not up to my standards (there was what looked to me to be non-kosher fried chicken for Kiddush) but I appreciated the opportunity to be part of a community so different from my own.

In Jericho I do not feel like a stranger. After all I see the same people on a regular basis, whether in shul or in a walk around the neighborhood. I’m sure, however, that not everyone has my level of privilege in being a rabbi and that there are those who feel like a stranger in our community, not having friends or family here.

What can we do to ensure that no one in our community feels like a stranger? We should warmly welcome people in, like our synagogue does so well. Also we need to respect people who have different opinions than us, much easier said than done in today’s world. I think of Ann Coulter being denied to speak at UC-Berkeley, numerous speakers being shouted down upon ascending to the podium, or the gay and lesbian group being denied recognition at Hampton University. The amount of people who believe “everyone’s entitled to MY opinion” or that others should not be given a podium only seeks to further marginalize people in their own personal ivory towers. Respect might entail challenging someone’s opinion but it requires it to be held in esteem as long as it is not encouraging harm.

We must remember that we ultimately are descendants of one person yet we are also unique. The Talmud teaches that “The first man was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, so that no one could say to another, ‘My ancestor was greater than yours.’” [2]  It goes on to teach, “The Holy One, blessed be G-d, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow.”[3] We are all created in G-d’s image yet each of us has unique qualities and characteristics. When we look at one another, we should see one of the innumerable faces of God rather than a liberal or a conservative.

In addition, we must recognize that our desire to welcome the stranger is based on a wide variety of Jewish text and traditions. Our people have been known for their hospitality ever since Abraham, the first Jew, welcomed in the three men of Genesis 18. Through showing understanding and compassion to people different than ourselves, we are fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah of being an אור לגוים “a light unto the nations.”[4]

When Rabbi Capers Funnye addressed me at a Jewish Council on Urban Affairs event, he said, “Never give up on dialogue or you’ll leave a lot of room for misunderstanding.”  He also mentioned that when he sees an injustice he speaks to the person first before calling in a third party. These made me think about how we communicate with people who are different from us and whose perspectives we might not understand.  Even if someone is a stranger to you, having grown up in a different milieu, with opinions that oppose yours, trying to foster understanding and treating that person as an equal is of paramount importance.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, a holiday where we remember that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred between Jews, we must take this lesson to heart. Let us work on connecting with others and understanding their situation-for only by empathizing with the perspective of others can we work together as partners to do tikkun olam, making the world into a better place.

[1] Deuteronomy 1:16

[2] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

[3] Ibid.

[4] Isaiah 42:6

Zealous for G-d

When we think of the term “zealous”, it doesn’t always have a positive connotation. Often it can mean pursuit of one goal at the expense of everything else. However, what if the cause for which one is zealous is serving G-d? After all, one of the terms used by Chabad Shlichim to describe themselves is צבאות ה, the army of G-d. G-d also refers to Himself as קנא, an impassioned or zealous G-d, so being zealous is an act of imitatio Dei.

One of the zealots for G-d is mentioned at the beginning of this morning’s Torah portion as well as at the start of every ברית מילה, or bris. “Pinhas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the Kohen has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me so that I did not wipe out the Israelites in my passion. Say therefore ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his G-d, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’”[1] Why is it this act that ensures that Aaron’s line will remain Kohanim forever? A Kohen as a servant of G-d is responsible for maintaining the dignity of our holy sites. It is therefore no surprise that the Kohanim are the most zealous in defending our G-d when He is disgraced by idolatry and inappropriate relations. Similarly, it was a family of Kohanim, the Maccabees, who stood up for G-d and Judaism through defeat of the Syrian Greeks. By beginning each Brit Milah with these words from our tradition, we are imploring each Jewish boy to continuing this fight for G-d, even when those around him are disregarding our Torah and our traditions.

In both our parsha and the story of Hanukkah, those who fought for G-d emerged victorious, perhaps because of their passion to perpetuate G-d’s will in the face of others. The Sicari, a group of Jewish zealots who began the Great Revolt against Rome, also had noble intentions. As Josephus chronicles in his book The Jewish War, they revolted after Roman governor Florus stole great amounts of silver from the Temple in Jerusalem. The Sicari were at first greatly successful, defeating the Roman garrison in Jerusalem as well as the governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus. Unfortunately, their success could not continue forever, as the Romans poured more and more troops into Judea. Jews engaged in mass suicide, the most famous of which was Masada after the destruction of the Temple. The Sicari had pure motives, but whereas Pinchas acquired everlasting priesthood for his descendants, their action led to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of Jews from the lands of Judea.

The lesson we learn from Pinchas is that some things are so wrong, going against the core of what we believe, that we MUST take action against them. Fornicating in front of the Holy of Holies was one of these actions that needed to be responded to immediately in that moment. On one hand, we do not want to be zealous about every issue because then we become known as engaging in histrionics and are not taken seriously. On the other hand, we do not want to be zealous for nothing because that means we have no boundaries, that anything goes for us. What we need to do is find times when we take up the torch, as Pinhas did, to show that there are absolutes and lines which we cannot cross. At the same time, we want to look ahead to the end outcome of what we are doing. We do not want to be so zealous that we begin a revolt that we have no chance of winning, like the Sicari did against the Roman Empire.

As we engage in these three weeks of communal mourning, let us think about what we are so passionate for that we would put our lives on the line versus where we are dissatisfied but could live with the status quo rather than undertaking an act of zealotry. It is often difficult to determine this boundary in our daily living; I find it easier to go with the flow, yet at the same time I recognize the dangers in doing so and the importance of taking principled stances. Let us work together on this to ensure that what we stand for makes sense for us and for our community.

We have an example today of one who has stood up for what he believes in, choosing to affirm his beliefs in Judaism and deciding of his own free will to join the Jewish people. Dave-your growth in Jewish observance, your analytic thinking in how to incorporate more aspects of Judaism into your life and your excitement about embracing our faith is some of what we are celebrating today. It has not always been easy for you. First I mentioned to you about needing to talk to your parents and letting them know that you were choosing to embrace Judaism. Then I told you about hatafat dam brit, the three rabbis you would be standing before at the Beit Din and your need to immerse in a mikveh. The way we are supposed to refuse a convert is to say to them “Do you know that Israel in this time is oppressed and afflicted, and trouble comes to them?!”[2] but I felt that telling you about hatafat dam might function as enough of a deterrent. You thought about this and decided it was the path you wanted to follow.

We studied Jewish history, a topic that you love, as well as the Siddur, Kashrut, Shabbat, life cycle events, Tzedakah and the Jewish holidays as they occurred. You also learned how to read Hebrew and now have your own Siddur to continue practicing reading as well as to bring to shul at Syracuse. Nofar attended most of the classes with you, which I loved because it enabled her to continue her Jewish learning and to see where you were at in Hebrew and help you in between lessons. You have gone through all of the steps and are now a Jew, able to count in the minyan, receive an aliyah (as you did for the first time today) while wearing a tallit and to more fully observe Shabbat (which you started doing this month by no longer doing Saturday tutoring). In your example you have truly shown that you are zealous for G-d in all the right ways.

As a measure of our admiration for your accomplishments, it is my pleasure to present to you on behalf of the congregation a mezuzah with a kosher scroll inside for you to affix at your new home in Syracuse. Please also say the bracha for affixing a mezuzah before you do so. I am also pleased to give you a gift, Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BCE-1492 CE. This has also been made into a 5 part PBS series but I thought you’d appreciate reading the book first. Mazal Tov to Dave, Nofar and the entire family on reaching this joyous day! In order to crystallize the excitement that each of us feels, please turn to Page 841 and continue with me responsively.

[1] Numbers 25:11-13

[2] Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah Laws of Converts Chapter 148 Paragraph 2

Who Are These Men With You?

One of our core beliefs about God is the three “O’s”: Omniscience, Omnipresence and Omnipotence. A challenge with viewing G-d in these ways occurs when we encounter certain sections of the Torah. For example, after Bilam encounters Balak’s men, G-d appears before him and asks מי האנשים האלה עמך, “Who are these men with you?”[1] If G-d is omniscient and knows who the men are, why would He need to ask Bilam?

Ibn Ezra indicates that the question is used to begin a conversation, like when G-d asks Cain אי הבל אחיך, “where is Abel your brother?”[2] G-d was seeing how Bilam would respond to the inquiry. Rashi comments that Bilam’s arrogance stems from a belief that “there are times when not everything is revealed to Him. His knowledge is not always the same. I shall therefore find a time when I will be able to curse Israel, and He will not know.”[3] Rabbenu Bahya continues along that line of thinking, asserting that G-d is purposely asking a misleading question, desiring for Bilam to err in thinking there are things unknown to Him. He would therefore trip Bilam up, leading to him to think G-d was not omniscient when in fact He is.[4]

My favorite interpretation, as is often the case, is by Rabbi Ephraim of Lunshitz from his book Kli Yakar. He views this inquiry not as a question but rather a rhetorical statement to show G-d’s disgust with Bilam. This is as if to say “you think that the king’s messengers can bring you to curse Israel? They are actually lesser ones!” G-d is telling Bilam that there is only one king, the King of Kings.[5]

We know from English parlance that there are multiple ways in which one can ask a question. One cannot rely on the written word-rather s/he must examine the tone behind what is asked. Bilam does not understand that, instead answering G-d straightforwardly, בלק בן-צפור מלך מואב שלח אלי, “Balak son of Zipor King of Moav sent me.”[6] G-d, recognizing that Bilam did not get the hint, replies strongly לא תלך עמהם לא תאור את העם כי ברוך הוא, “Don’t go with them! Don’t curse this nation, for they are blessed.”[7] We know from later in the story that Bilam is hard-headed, not recognizing subtle signs or even things as direct as his own donkey stopping! While Bilam at first follows G-d’s demands, later he succumbs to going with Balak and his men to curse Israel. However, instead of cursing, he utters words of blessing on four occasions.

The lesson we learn is that we need to always take a moment and look at what’s behind the question that’s being asked. Sometimes things are not what they appear to be, and a superficial informational question can actually be much more complex and asked for a deeper reason. G-d wanted to see how Bilam would respond, to get him to check his temptation to go with Balak at the door and think about the higher purpose for which he was made a prophet. While Bilam did so at first, eventually the lure of more important messengers and riches got the better of him, and he arose early to curse Israel. I hope that in our daily lives we do not act like Bilam, giving in to temptation while forsaking our higher calling and greater purpose.

This depends in part on our role models and examples. Bodhi Violet Brown, you could not have found better people to emulate than your parents Jilliane and Joshua, grandparents Erv, Bonnie z”l, Bill and Sharon, great-grandparents Edward and Eva, great-aunts Rosalyn and Mindy, great-uncle Andrew, aunts Carly, Rebecca and Lori, uncles David, Douglas and Stu. You are named בלימע שרה after an incredible balabusta, Bonnie Hoffman z”l. Blima is Yiddish for the Hebrew Shoshana, a flower at times translated as “lily” or “rose.” Shir HaShirim contains one of my favorite expressions, כשושנה בין החוחים, like a flower amongst the thorns.[8] Bonnie definitely exemplified this persona, and I know Bodhi will as well, flowering not only in terms of beauty but also in developing a strong, independent personality.  Your middle name in English is also a flower, “violet.”

Sura is Yiddish for Sarah, the first matriarch of our people. Of the four matriarchs, Sarah is the one who had it hardest. She had to join her husband Abraham in leaving everything she knew, going halfway across the Middle East to embark on the creation of a new nation. It’s much easier being a follower than a leader, and this pioneer woman deserves credit in being our first Hebrew heroine-long before Wonder Woman. Similarly, we know Bodhi will develop the leadership skills necessary to blaze her own trail, and in doing so she will make us proud.

You also have a baby cousin Shay just born a week and a half ago, and together you will form a beautiful friendship along with your big brother Milo, your cousin Lucy and your cousin-to-be who will come b’shaah tovah, at an appropriate time. How fortunate that you will be able to grow up together.

Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous and most beautiful day. To crystallize the joy of Bodhi receiving her Hebrew name, I’d like to call Jilianne, Joshua and Bodhi to the Bimah as we turn to Page 840 and continue responsively.

[1] Numbers 22:9

[2] Ibn Ezra on Numbers 22:9 ד”ה מי האנשים האלה

[3] Rashi on Numbers 22:9עמך   ד”ה מי האנשים האלה

[4] Rabbenu Bahya Numbers 22:9עמך   ד”ה ויאמר מי האנשים האלה

[5] Kli Yakar Numbers 22:9 Numbers 22:9 ד”ה מי האנשים האלה

[6] Numbers 22:10

[7] Numbers 22:12

[8] Song of Songs 2:2

Growing From Our Mistakes

In January I had just acquired a new IPhone 6 plus, after the LogicBoard of my phone stopped working. The following week I was in the Dominican Republic with Karina and Ariela. Karina went snorkeling while I played with Ariela. I had my phone in my swimsuit pocket to take pictures as I picked her up and put her down in the water. By the time I realized that my phone was there it has been immersed with salt water, and I had to take another trip to the Apple Store for a new phone.

Water gives us life yet it can also have a destructive impact. We see the latter in this week’s Torah portion. Miriam dies[1] and all of a sudden there is no water.  As a result, the Israelites say they wish they were dead; לו גוענו בגוע אחינו לפני ה.[2]  Moses takes their complaint to God, who tells him to take his rod, gather the Israelites and talk to a rock, which will bring forth water.  Instead of talking to the rock, he says to the Israelites שמעו    נא המורים המן הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים “Listen you rebels.  Shall we procure water from this rock?”[3] and hits the rock twice,[4] causing water to gush forth.  God’s reply to Moses is יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני “Because you did not believe in me to sanctify me, you shall not enter the Land of Israel.”[5] The bringing forth of water, which generally provides life, becomes for Moses a symbol of his impending death after the years of wandering.

Let’s go back to Miriam’s death.  In rabbinic tradition, Miriam is the source of all water for the Israelites.  Miriam is associated with water from the beginning of Exodus, when she ran after the basket which Baby Moses was in to see what would happen to him.  According to Midrash, she had a magical well which remained full throughout her life, supplying the Israelites with water.  It is only after she dies that the Israelites are without water.

It is also worth comparing this account with the first episode of Moses and the rock, Exodus 17.  The Israelites complain that there is no water and God tells Moses to hit a rock.  He does, and water comes out.  A key difference between that story and the one from this week’s parsha is that Miriam is omitted in Exodus 17, whereas in Numbers 20 her death directly leads to drought.

The fact that Exodus 17 does not involve Miriam, whereas Numbers 20 does, leads to a dramatically different result.  In Exodus 17, Moses is upset at the people’s complaint but he is able to temper his anger to follow God’s command.  In Numbers 20, however, Moses is mourning the loss of his sister.  He was no doubt very upset by this event as well as by the fact that the Israelites had by then been wandering for 38 years in the desert.  The Israelites’ complaint about water pushed Moses over the edge.  He calls the people rebels, which astounds the biblical commentator Ibn Ezra, who exclaims, “How can you use that term to describe the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”[6]  He is no doubt also outraged at God’s command to talk to the rock, as how could speaking to an inanimate object produce water?  Therefore, in a fury of anger, Moses hit the rock rather than talking to it.

Moses hitting the rock rather than talking to it represents resorting to violence rather than dialogue.  Often we are frustrated with the daily grind of activities and errands.  Our frustration can easily lead to anger and resentment, and as a result, when we are asked to add one more thing to our schedule, we lash out in violence rather than engaging in a conversation with the person as to why we are frustrated.  It can be more difficult to control our temper, relax and say what is on our mind.  From a psychological perspective, I can see Moses being under duress from leading the nation, the stress building little by little day by day until finally he releases it with some harsh words and a blow to the rock.

God’s response to Moses appears to be self-explanatory.  Moses showed lack of belief in God by hitting the rock rather than talking to it.  However, our commentators suggest numerous possibilities as to how Moses showed lack of belief.

Rashbam, who lived in 12th century France and was the grandson of Rashi, states that Moses misunderstood God.  Rashbam asserted that since God said “take the rod” before he said “talk to the rock,” Moses thought he should take the rod in order to hit the rock, like he had done in Exodus 17.  He got the first part of the command correct, by taking the rod, but erred in the second part, hitting the rock instead of talking to it.[7]

Ibn Ezra, who lived in 12th century Spain and Italy, said the sin was that Moses hit the rock twice.[8]  He explains that the first time Moses hit the rock, water did not come out, so he therefore hit it a second time.  In doing so, Moses did not sanctify God, as it appeared to the Israelites that God could not bring water out of the rock.  It also indicates that God gave Moses a second chance, as when he saw that the water was not coming out, it was a reminder that he should talk to the rock rather than hit it.  Instead, Moses hit the rock a second time.

Most compelling to me is the comment of Rabbenu Hananel, who lived in 10th century North Africa.  Rabbenu Hananel says that the key mistake that Moses made was saying to the Israelites “shall WE bring forth water from this rock?”[9]  Moses neglected to mention G-d, the creator of the rock and the one who was going to bring forth the miracle.  Moses reduced the rock to an inanimate object which can do nothing without human intervention rather than acknowledging God as the one who will bring forth water from the rock.  Thus, the sin for Rabbenu Hananel is more than Moses not believing in God-it is his lack of sanctification of God as the one who sustains humanity with water.

These rabbinic teachings demonstrate multiple angles through which Moses fell short in striking the rock.  They range from not getting exactly correct what God was commanding to leaving God out of the picture altogether.  Each of them, however, can teach us something about how we relate to others.  Rashbam’s comment teaches us the importance of listening carefully to what someone else is requesting of you.  We cannot just listen to the first part of a request and tune out the rest, figuring that we know what to do, like Moses did by taking the rod and assuming he was supposed to hit the rock like before.  Rather, we need to actively listen to the entire request, just as Moses should have listened to the entire command from God.

Ibn Ezra’s comment demonstrates that when something does not go right to take a step back and figure out what went wrong.  When Moses hit the rock the first time and nothing came out, he should have realized he was making a mistake and paused.  He could have then changed his approach and talked to the rock.  Similarly, when we do something which does not seem right, we have an opportunity to take a step back and figure out how to change it.

Rabbenu Hananel’s comment teaches us the most important lesson: give credit where it is due.  If Moses had given credit to God as the one who brought forth water, rather than claiming that Aaron and he were doing so, the end result would have been different.  Similarly, if we remember to acknowledge all the people who have helped us finish a project or put together an event, we will be acting properly.

This week’s Torah portion teaches us the difficulties Moses faced being a leader, especially after his sister died and the people complained about a lack of water.  First we see the impact Miriam made as the sustainer of the Israelites with water.  Then, after her death, we see the difficulty of keeping one’s cool under intense pressure, like that which Moses experienced with the Israelites’ complaint.  In addition, we have examined three possible mistakes that Moses made during this stressful time and seen ways to avoid their occurrence in our own lives.  The beauty of seeing three rabbinic answers to the question of what was Moses’ mistake is that we see Moses’ actions from a variety of perspectives.  We can also see the rabbis’ attempt to humanize Moses, to admit that while he was our leader par excellence, he made a mistake.  May this Shabbat be an opportunity to reflect on our humanity, how like Moses we posses great qualities, yet we also fall short at times.  May we also learn from our mistakes and use them to help our personal development.  Ken yhi ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Numbers 20:1

[2] Numbers 20:3

[3] Numbers 20:10

[4] Numbers 20:11

[5] Numbers 20:12

[6] Ibn Ezra Numbers 20:10 ד”ה שמעו נא המורים

[7] Rashbam on Numbers 20:10 ד”ה המן הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים

[8] Ibn Ezra on Numbers 20:11 ד”ה פעמים

[9] Rabbenu Hananel on Numbers 20:10 ד”ה שמעו נא המורים