Response to Surfside

        There are some things for which there are no words. On Thursday I did two funerals where I spoke about why we thank God at times of tragedy-because when we feel vulnerable, that the world has slipped out from underneath our footsteps, we need to find some rock to anchor ourselves, and that rock with a capital R is God. However, how can we thank God in the midst of a tragedy: the structural collapse of the Champlain Towers South Building? How can we be thankful when people are missing and all that might remain of them are DNA traces under the rubble? How can we be grateful when so many don’t know if their loved ones are alive or dead?

        Unlike in my lengthy Israel sermon last week, this week I have very little to say. A presumed 99 victims in the middle of the night, unaware that the ground beneath their feet was crumbling. A community that I best knew for its kosher scene, especially Mendel’s Backyard BBQ, now in one of the most gripping, horrific and terrible tragedies our country has ever seen.

        In an emergency rabbi meeting on Thursday evening, Rabbi Jonathan Berkun spoke about the importance of being present at these moments. He had flown out to Pittsburgh where he father, Alvin Berkun, served as rabbi of Tree of Life Congregation. He was at Surfside Thursday along with Rabbi Fred Klein and countless others, seeing what they could do in a pastoral role. While my Thursday and Friday schedules preclude me from going, I plan to be at Surfside after Sunday minyan. The 17th of Tammuz is the date on which we remember the beginning of the end of the Second Temple, with the Romans breaking through the walls of Jerusalem. It is certainly an appropriate day to respond pastorally to those who have undergone such a horrific tragedy-the destruction of their homes or the homes of their loved ones.

        In times of trauma, all one can do is listen and be present. I do not know what I will find tomorrow at Surfside. All I know is that just as it was my job as a rabbi to be in Israel after trauma so too is it my job to be at Surfside without an agenda, just to see who needs a listening ear. It is our job to help however we can. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation has a centralized fund for which they will use the monies collected to help meet the specific needs of those who lost their homes and who are currently living in two hotels in the area.

        I pray for those affected by this traumatic tragedy and that I can do my small part to attend to their needs. Often people have good intentions but don’t respond in the way most needed. Sometimes all that is needed is to be present and listen to one person rather than bringing in a truckload of food and clothes. I trust the Federation with the latter and I will engage in the former.

South Florida Mission to Israel

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Healing, resilience, hopeful. Those are the three words I’d use to describe the South Florida Rabbis Solidarity Mission to Israel. Thanks are due to Jacob Solomon, who got Miami rabbis a scholarship to attend, and who enabled us to meet with President Elect Herzog; to Rabbis Fred Klein and Josh Broide who did countless hours of legwork within two weeks to make our trip a reality; and to Rabbi Jeremy Barras whose passion and inspiration dreamed our trip into being.

It goes without saying that Israel is much safer than the media portrays in on a daily basis. We saw one of the incendiary balloons as we left Kibbutz Kfar Azza on Tuesday June 15, one hour before the flag march began. It certainly gave us sympathy for what the communities in the envelope of the Galil go through, yet it never impacted our feeling safe in Israel. We attended Shavua HaSefer at the old train station one block from our hotel in Jerusalem, heard Idan Raichel playing a live concert when we were dining at a restaurant in Yemin Moshe, and spent an evening in the vibey Mahane Yehuda-certainly not the Shuk I remember from even 5 and a half years ago. We recognized that one month earlier we would have felt different running for our lives to shelter, yet the extent of the disproportionate negative coverage was obvious to us, just as it was obvious to me my first Israel Trip with AMHSI during the Second Intifada.

Parshat Hukkat is the perfect segway into describing our trip. The law of the red heifer, a three-year-old, unblemished calf whose ashes are sprinkled into mixture to purify one who came into contact with a corpse, is the least rational law that we have. Similarly, the ways in which the conflict has progressed between Israel and the Palestinians is irrational at its core. From it I will give 3 takeaways from our trip.

The first is that the words we use to communicate matter. For example, Shirin, who runs an Arab school in Lod, referred to the garinei Torah, Jews who came to Judaize Lod, as settlers. Many of them are not from Judea and Samaria, yet she perceived them as coming to take over her homeland-not so different from how many Conservative Rabbis (not me) feel when a new Chabad House opens in their backyard. The word settler clearly means different things to different people. Another example is Al Aqsa. When her students, studying to become engineers, were asked what they want, they said “Give us Al Aqsa.” I thought they meant the mosque but in reality, they mean the entire Temple Mount. As Rabbi Eliezer Wolf said, that’s like saying “You can have the apartment complex except the penthouse.” Precise definitions of words matter, and we need to engage in radical listening from a standpoint of curiosity.

Secondly, we are dealing with real people as opposed to strictly positions or ideologies. It’s far too easy and destructive to label people based on a particular view they hold. There were so many times I could have labeled and judged people I met, whether Arab or Jew, as naive, misguide, a hawk, a hooligan, a terrorist rather than looking at the deeper story, framework or worldview. We need the space to see the people in all their complexity, not just their stance on one particular issue.

My final point is that like the red heifer, some things are only known by God. WE heard multiple conflicting stories about Lod and Sheikh Jarrah (the neighborhood known to Jewish residents as Shimon HaTzaddik and which I had walked around in during my year in Israel). Our heads were spinning-we tried to question the veracity of stories of the Jewish, Arab and coexistence people we meet with; each one seemed sincere. Maybe the truth is in the middle; perhaps it is more on one side than the other. Only God knows. Like the red heifer, some things we must accept on faith rather than by reason.

I will conclude with some Torah taught by my roommate, Chabad Rabbi Eliezer Wolf. In building the Tabernacle, we needed numerous animal skins, including the Tahash. According to Midrash, the Tahash was a multicolored animal only seen in biblical times. The Tahash skin was place above the goat skin, meaning no one entering the Tabernacle (Mishkan) could see it. Only one could see it-God looking down from the heavens.

Each of us has a limited lens through which we see the world. We’re often overconfident that we have the answer “if only they’ll see things my way.” May we have the humility to understand that there’s only one who sees the big picture: God. May God help us bring peace not only to Israel and the entire world but also to Bet Shira Congregation.

The Talking Donkey

          We love the expression “talking head” even if we don’t like the person it represents. We often portray such a person as a fool. In this week’s portion, however, the ass, or donkey becomes the wise one and the prophet becomes the fool.

          The donkey saw an angel with a drawn sword,[1] an image that only appears in the Bible in one other place; the Book of Genesis, with the angel blocking the entrance to the Garden of Eden.[2] As Rashi points out, “ותרא האתון AND THE SHE-ASS SAW [THE ANGEL] — but he did not see him, for the Holy One, blessed be He, gave an animal power to see more than the man, for just because he possesses sense his mind would become perturbed if he sees noxious beings.”[3] Balaam shows his true colors when he beats his donkey, not once or twice but three times. The donkey rightly challenges him, proclaiming “What have I done to you that you have beaten me three times?”[4] Balaam responds with a fiery rage, proclaiming “if I had a sword, I would kill you!”[5] To violate צער בעלי חיים, poorly treating one’s animals, is bad enough.  Again, like with Adam and Eve, Balaam’s eyes are opened, and he sees the angel with the sword. The angel tells Balaam, “If your donkey had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.”[6]

          There are so many lessons to draw from this story. First, there is often more present than meets the eyes. If we are frustrated or upset by what appears to be an injustice done to us, perhaps we don’t see the entire picture. Maybe God has not opened our eyes to what will truly be coming down the pike, or maybe there is a blessing in disguise. Secondly, rather than immediately react, we need to take a step back and thoughtfully respond. If we have issues controlling our temper like Balaam did, perhaps we need to take a step back and reevaluate our situation. Third and most importantly, we need to recognize that the one who sees may be a lower form of being than us, and that’s ok. Sometimes dogs or cats can sense things that we cannot and when they act strange, rather than hitting them or getting angry, we need to recognize that they might be doing so for a reason of which we are unaware.

          In beating the ass, Balaam truly becomes the ass. By the time his eyes are opened, it is too late. He has lusted after the important second group of messengers Balak sent his way, despite God commanding him not to go with them, and now he has to pay a price. While he does bless Israel, it is clear from the text’s perspective that Balaam was in such a rush to get to Israel to curse them that his donkey becomes a hindrance that must immediately be punished.

          Those who are talking heads, saying immediately what comes to their minds, are in danger of becoming talking asses, making a fool of themselves. They have tunnel vision or wing things rather than being thoughtful and introspective. The lesson for us is to avoid being like Balaam and if something strange happens, rather than reacting, finding a way to respond constructively to it. In so doing may we fulfill a blessing of Rosh Hashanah: that we shall always be the head rather than the tail.

[1]Numbers 22:23

[2] Genesis 3:24. It is also the only other section with a talking animal.

[3] Rashi on Genesis 3:24

[4] Numbers:28

[5] Numbers 22:29

[6] Numbers 22:33

Mah Tovu: How Good It Is

          When entering a synagogue, or a wedding, the leader sings words from a non-Jewish prophet מה טובו אהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places Israel.”[1] These words come from Balaam, sent to curse Israel, who winds up instead blessing them.

          Why does Israel get blessed? Rashi quotes the Talmud, asserting that Israel’s tents were not facing each other, allowing for privacy.[2] Ovadiah Sforno comments that it refers to synagogues and study houses of the Jewish people, which not only benefit them but the entire world. He continues that the very name יעקב also contains such a dual meaning. On the one hand it appears to have a negative connotation, but it also symbolizes עקב a heel, something at the tail end of matters, meaning after everything else has already disappeared the עקב still remains, endures.[3]

          Most rabbis wrote at a time of Jewish persecution when Jews were at the mercy of foreign powers. At those times it could be easy to have a negative outlook and say that the tents of Jacob were no longer so strong. However, as Sforno points out, the Jewish way of life will continue to endure, outlasting any nation who tries to destroy us. That is truly the power of Jacob.

          In times when we feel vulnerable and that it isn’t so good to be Jewish, we need to remember Balaam’s blessing. It enables us to begin every service and celebration with a positive outlook: how good it is to be alive and to be present here, at this very moment! I hope that Balaam’s words do not become ones said by rote but rather that we take the time each moment we are in to appreciate where we are-that we are able to gather in synagogue and to marry freely, without threat of persecution. Thank you God for establishing secure dwelling places for Israel and for enabling us to endure in spite of those who have stood in our way.

[1] Numbers 28:5

[2] Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 60a;

[3] Sforno on Numbers 28:5

Looking Up: The Copper Serpent

When the Children of Israel complained, after not being able to cross through the land of Edom, God sent snakes to bite them. The cure for the snakebites was the creation of a copper serpent for the people who were bitten to look up at to cure them of their snakebites.[1] In the 2nd Book of Kings, it teaches however, that this copper serpent had become an idolatrous figure. As a result, “He (Hezekiah) removed the high places, shattered the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake that Moses made, for until then the Israelites were burning incense to it. It was called Nehushtan.”[2]

          What is this story all about? Ramban (Nahmanides) teaches that “God did not tell Moses to make a ‘serpent’ but a ‘seraph figure’”-in other words an angelic figure which was represented by a fiery serpent. He points out that the seraph “removes the damage by way of the damager” and that it demonstrates “that it is God who ‘deals death and gives life.’”[3] In other words, the point of the story is not the mythology but that only God can give or take life. Rashsbam expands on this, saying that anyone bitten by the snakes needed to look at the copper seraph, “thereby looking up, towards heaven.”[4] By turning towards God, the sinner would repent and be healed from the snakebite.

          The point of this story is that rather than complaining about the harshness of their journey through the desert, even though it was long and arduous, Israel needed to be reminded to maintain its faith in God. The serpent, just like in the example of Pharaoh’s court, is a reminder about who truly has power, and that Israel must always turn its eyes heavenward to be focused on the Divine. May this Shabbat remind us to do just that, to turn our eyes upward, finding gratitude, godliness, and positivity in everything we encounter rather than complaints, evil speech, and negativity.

[1] Numbers 21:9

[2] 2 Kings 18:4

[3] Ramban on Numbers 21:9. He quotes 1 Samuel 2:6 at the end of his comment.

[4] Rashbam on Numbers 21:8

When One Person Sins

          What type of God do we have? Is it one “who revisits the sins of the fathers onto the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation”[1] or is it one who asserts “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for his/her own sin.”[2] God at the time of Korach is more similar to the latter rather than the former. When Korach sins, God says “Stand back from the community that I may annihilate them in an instant!”[3] Moses replied, “When one man sins shall you be wrathful with the whole community?”[4] God takes Moses’ side, only punishing those directly involved in the rebellion.

          At times people feel collective punishment is the most effective deterrent for crime. For example, Israel blows up the homes of terrorists as a deterrent against terrorism. On the other hand, as a democratic people, we believe in innocent until proven guilty and that only those who have committed crimes should be punished. Which approach is correct? Like most things, it depends on the situation at hand. If one’s actions could lead to others taking the torch unless a severe punishment is meted out, then perhaps collective punishment makes sense. On the other hand, if one acted independently of others, they need to be punished but not at the expense of others. It’s like the school troublemaker to whom the teacher responds that the entire class must stay in during recess.

          We are not like God and do not know who has sinned and who has not. Therefore, we can only punish those who we know have done wrong and leave the others to God. As Parshat Nitzavim teaches, “Those things which are hidden (we leave) to God, but those things which are revealed are to us and our children (to handle) forever.”[5] Let us learn from Moses to stand up for those who are innocent while handling those who are guilty of wrongdoing.

[1] Exodus 34:7

[2] Deuteronomy 24:16

[3] Numbers 16:21

[4] Numbers 16:22

[5] Deuteronomy 29:28

The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend

As a student of History, I was always fascinated by the United States’ alliance with “Uncle Joe” Stalin against Hitler. Talk about strange bedfellows: a man who murdered twenty million of his own people, sent millions more to the gulags and professed a totalitarian system of government antithetical to western beliefs. Why form an alliance with Stalin? Simply because we faced a greater enemy (may his name be obliterated) who we needed to defeat.

I view the recent Israeli government coalition in this light. Three individuals who have little to nothing in common: Naftali Bennett of the far-right Yamina party, Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, and Mansoor Abbas of the Israeli Arab party Raam join together with five other parties in a coalition. A man who has said “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life and there’s no problem with that” is set to become Prime Minister in the first coalition to have an Israeli Arab party. Here’s a picture of a smiling Bennett next to Mansour Abbas.

May be an image of ‎5 people, including Ami Cohen and ‎text that says '‎لاعلا ي نواف النباري‎'‎‎

What gives? Simply, the desire to oust Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the longest serving Israeli Prime Minister ever. This is an example of where the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The hatred that one-time allies Bennett and Lieberman appear to have for Netanyahu, as well as strategic thinking on Bennett’s part, is what has led to this. 

‘Under the terms of the agreement, Bennett will be Prime Minister for the first two years with Lapid serving the next two. Only in Israel can one whose party was in 5th place, a mere 7 seats out of 120, become Prime Minister. However, the two have mutual control, as anything that Bennett wants to sign Lapid will be able to veto.  I just hope the government lasts long enough for Lapid to get his chance at being Prime Minister. We saw what happened with the Gantz-Netanyahu government last year which lasted a matter of mere months.

Strange bedfellows Bennett, Lapid and Abbas are striving to fell a common enemy. By June 14 we will know if they are able to do so or if Bibi, the ultimate survivor, can find a way out of this one as well.