The Strength of Zelophehad’s Daughters

         In Parshat Pinchas, we learn about the strength of women, specifically the five daughters of Zelophehad. We learned in Parshat Shelach Lecha that none of the men would survive entry into the Land of Israel except for Caleb son of Jephuneh and Joshua son of Nun because of the spies’ bad report showing their lack of faith in God. In Deuteronomy we learn that all of the men perished except for Moses, Caleb and Joshua. Rashi has an interesting comment there. He writes, “All the men but not all the women. The men said זכרנו את הדגה, ‘remember the fish we ate for free in Egypt,’[1] whereas the women said תנה לנו אחוזה, ‘give us an inheritance in the Land of Israel.’” [2]

         We often look at the fact that Zelophehad’s daughters wanted to inherit yet we overlook the importance of this inheritance being in the Land of Israel. In spite of the lack of water and meat, the rebellion of Korach, the battles with Sihon and Og, these women wanted to be in the Land of Israel. They were not part of the caravan that formed to go back to Egypt, nor were they part of the cultic worship of Baal Peor. Their desire to have a foothold in the Land was paramount.

         In life we have to look at our personal mission and keep our eye on the prize-our focus on our mission. It is far too easy to divert our eyes, to be taken in by all of the distractions and to be all over the place. The goal is to know what we are looking for, both individually and as a congregation and to not stop trying when the going gets tough. Rather than diverting our eyes or giving up at the first sign of difficulty, we need to be like the daughters of Zelophehad-knowing what we want and trying to get it, working strategically, with both patience and perseverance.

         There’s another equally compelling part of the Zelophehad narrative. After hearing the daughters’ request, Moses takes it to God, one of only a handful of times when he does so. God says כן בנות צלפחד דברות, “Yes, the plea of the daughters of Zelophehad is just.”[3] By taking the case to the Higher Power, Moses admits that he does not have all the answers. Equally important to being focused on one’s mission is not becoming an ideologue-when one recognizes that s/he doesn’t have the answer, the goal is not to make something up but having the courage to say, “I don’t know.” As such one’s mission can change with new information or new situations-as long as it does not change every time something (or someone) gets into one’s ear. Finding the balance is challenging; recognizing that there is a balance is crucial.

         As we continue in the three weeks of mourning, a time of intense soul searching, let us be mindful of reflecting on who we are and what we value most. May we have the strength to stay the course when that is required, while concurrently having the humility to admit that we don’t know everything, as well as the wisdom to see when someone else is right and we are wrong.

[1] Numbers 11:5

[2] Numbers 27:4

[3] Numbers 27:5

Things Beyond Reason

In my first interview to become rabbi at Mosaic Law Congregation, I mentioned that I would like to unite a congregation behind a common goal. Rabbi Moses, who was at the interview, asked me to say more about that. I said that for my first year I would set a goal behind connecting a topic, be it Torah, Israel, Social Action or something else, to the congregation through 4 dimensions, or if you’re kabbalistically inclined, through the four worlds.

My Hevruta Mitchell Chefitz taught me about the 4 worlds. The way I found this most constructive is when someone asks me a question from which world is it coming? Is it Asiyah, about constructive action, Yetzirah, emotional or feelings, Beriah, idea focused, or Atzilut, spiritual emanation.

Using Torah as an example, through Asiyah, the dimension/world of action, we would engage in Torah through physical engagement with Torah, be it a Torah roll out, interactive activities with our illuminated Torah, or allowing B’nai Mitzvah families to bring a Torah home the weekend before their Bar/Bat Mitzvah (liability insurance permitting). Through Yetzirah, the dimension/world of emotions, we would explore having Torah connect with our hearts through guided meditation/reiki practice (I’ve actually done a reiki Torah guided meditation), small group discussions about Torah teachings have entered our heart or our relationship with Torah. Through Beriah, the dimension/world of ideas, we can explore resources for giving a D’var Torah (luckily MLC has plenty of excellent darshanim), compelling adult education classes including but not limited to Shabbat Torah Study and connecting Torah to current events. If all three of these are done well than the fourth dimension/world, Atzilut, or spiritual emanation, takes care of itself.

         Why go through this list of possibilities? Because different people relate to torah differently. Those of us who are concrete, centering ourselves in the world of action, or intellectual, focusing on the world of ideation, both would struggle with this week’s portion. What logical rationale is there for someone declared “impure” to take a three-year-old, unblemished and unyoked red heifer, and have it sacrificed on your behalf, its ashes sprinkled upon you? Furthermore, the one who sprinkles the ashes becomes impure through carrying out this ritual. This is the ultimate Hok, law for which there is no rational explanation, which is likely why it commences Parshat Hukkat.

The Piatzetzner Rebbe, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, writes in his instruction manual Derekh HaMelekh, “We understand that a Hukkah is a law beyond reason/understanding (שכל/sekhel). Rashi explained the derivation of this word from the phrase (see Numbers Rabbah 19:1): “I have decreed this decree [and you are not permitted to trespass my decree]”. This, then, has the sense of “a decree that shall never be trespassed” (Psalms 147:6). In the end, these interpretations are actually one. The command [a parent gives] their child according to some reason (שכל/sekhel) can be investigated by the child, seeking some reason. If it is appropriate, they will do it; otherwise, they will ask its reason. But that command which is given because it is a decree (חוקה/chukkah), because this is what the parent desires beyond explanation/reason is a “decree that shall never be trespassed”.[1] Let’s make this concrete with an example. You tell your child, “Don’t touch the stove!” You have a reason-you don’t want your child’s hand to get burnt. Your child may not understand the reason but does understand from the tone and volume of your voice how serious this is. The Piatzetzner concludes “God has indicated to us that every innovative interpretation [in Torah] that we express (“say”) from our mind (שכל/sekhel) is not “new” from our mind alone, but instead from the innerness of our soul, which is beyond our mind.”[2]

Some things we feel in our gut, our kishke, but we don’t have a rationalization for it. Think about our feelings, especially in relationships. I remember during my year in Israel I fell for a girl at the Hartman Institute who (I didn’t know at the time) didn’t share those feelings for me. After a few dates she said we can’t be together because I’m leaving Israel in 3 months. I tried to reason, saying “We still have 3 months together. Let’s see how it goes. If it works out, I could even come back over Winter Break.” However, logic is no substitute for what she emotionally felt. It is no substitute for what any of us feel, even if we can’t intuit exactly why we feel that way. Thankfully I later met Karina and the rest, as they say is history.

As different people connect with Torah in different ways, I plan to explore this year our engagement with Torah in all of these dimensions. Having opportunities to physically interact with the Torah scroll, emotionally connect with the teachings of Torah and intellectually relate to Torah are all important. It is my goal that in the year 5783 MLC will be united in our engagement in Torah. The goal is not reason alone but rather connecting with Torah in all its complexity. Mind you there is risk involved: one might begin a rationalist and emerge a mystic or an initiative planned to the T might flop. Yet it is our responsibility to continually find new ways to connect with Torah for God is המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית-the one who renews the acts of creation each and every day.

[1] Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, Derech HaMelech, Parshat Hukkat.

[2] Ibid.

Making Torah Fixed

         One aspect I love about Judaism is that the opinions of the minority are preserved in the text. Generally, the school of Hillel is victorious over the School of Shammai. However, the words of Shammai are preserved in the text. Shammai says the following in Avot: עשה תורתך קבע אמר מעט ועשה הרבה והוי מקבל את כל אדם בסבר פנים יפות “Make Torah a fixed practice, say little and do much and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.”[1] While the last statement might seem ironic given other stories, we know about Shammai, it’s the first that I want to focus on-making study of Torah fixed. The Gerer Rebbe from 19th century Poland, in his book Sefat Emet, writes ופי’ חקת כמ”ש עשה תורתך קבע. הפי’ להיות נקבע בגוף האדם ידיעת התורה כיתד שלא תמוט… Another explanation for “hukkat” is, as it says, “make your [study of the] Torah fixed” –meaning, knowledge of the Torah should become fixed in the body of a human being like a stake that will not move.[2] The statement from Pirkei Avot is usually interpreted to mean: “choose a regular study time and stick with it.” But the Sefat Emet interprets it rather to be an injunction to “fix” Torah–or to engrave Torah–within. The act of engraving here is linked to stabilizing. Internalizing Torah is a way of making it stay put, lodging it resolutely within. Like a stake planted firmly in the ground–maybe anchoring a tent for shelter, maybe asserting a territorial claim– “fixed” Torah is immovable.

How do we engrave Torah on our hearts and in our bodies, as a well that nourishes and/or as a stake that stabilizes? It’s easier said that done. We often view study of Torah as an intellectual exercise, yet for the Sefat Emet is talking about it as a physical and an emotional act. Tomorrow morning, I will speak about the four worlds: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, and how each and every one of them connects directly with immersion in Torah. It is my goal that Mosaic Law Congregation continues to be a community in which Torah is fixed-not only Torah Study but also where we explore our feelings of engagement with Torah, where we physically feel Torah in our bodies and where Torah helps us draw spiritually to the Holy One. It’s not an easy task yet perhaps this Shabbat can become a starting place through engagement with it.

[1] Mishnah Avot 1:15

[2] Sefat Emet on Parshat Hukkat

Creating a Holy Congregation

         Shabbat Shalom. It is so wonderful to be here at my first Shabbat as Rabbi of Mosaic Law Congregation. I look forward to many joyous Shabbatot spent together and to getting to know each and every one of you.

         As I did during my interview, I have included a cartoon called Keep on Truckin’. This was featured at my Institute for Jewish Spirituality training on Emunah, or trustworthiness. What could it possibly have to do with Judaism, you might ask? Judaism teaches us about always aspiring towards increased growth. When we feel stuck, depressed or unsure of what to do, we need to Keep on Truckin’.

         Korach is a common Shabbat for a rabbi to begin his/her tenure, as it often falls out at the beginning of July. In the past I have contrasted Korach to Yitro: Korach as the person who aligns people with different interests all of whom jump in to make accusations against Moses; Yitro as one who observes a situation, asks questions and speaks in a way that reflects Moses’ best interest. Two different types of leaders-one who is admonished and one who is praised. However, there is an equally valuable lesson that does not only reflect the leader but also the culture of a synagogue.

         In May I was at the concluding retreat for my JOIN for Justice Fellowship on Community Organizing when Meir Leikin taught me this fascinating piece of Torah, giving new insight as to what is wrong with Korach’s approach. At first blush it appears that Korach merely wants to democratize the leadership process, accusing Aaron and Moses for taking too much for themselves. However, in the spirit of egalitarianism he cleverly makes a problematic statement: כי כל העדה כלם קדושים-for the entire community is all holy.[1] Sounds good, right? The problem is that’s not what God told Moses דבר אל כל-עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם קדושים תהיו, “Speak to the entire community of Israel and tell them you should aspire to be holy.”[2] Israel is addressed in the future tense, not the present.

         Is this merely a matter of semantics? Not so. Meir quotes Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who said if you are already holy, you have the license to do anything. If you aspire to be holy, the work is not finished. That is the lesson God imparted to Israel-everyone needs to continue striving to be the best version of themselves, to learn from their mistakes and to grow each and every day. Holiness is a continuous process-not something which one reaches and then can rest on his/her laurels.

         An example of this is from Rebbe, the biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Joseph Telushkin, where someone tells the Rebbe that he is retiring. The Rebbe looks at him horrified and advises him to find something to do. Telushkin writes that, “for the Rebbe, retirement was premature death.”[3] Each of us has a mission to do in this world, and it is our task to continue to aspire both to better ourselves and to move ahead. In other words, to keep on truckin’, even, or perhaps especially, when we feel frozen or stuck.

         This lesson applies not only to each and every one of us as individuals but also to our congregation as a whole. Being and becoming a קהילה קדושה, a holy and a sacred community, is an ongoing process. It involves seeing people for who they truly are, learning their stories, discovering their talents and passions and increasingly bringing them into Mosaic Law Congregation to strengthen us. Believing that we are holy as is and that’s enough-that’s the Korach approach-settling for the status quo and being threatened by growth and development. Aspiring to be better each and every day-that’s the Godly approach. It’s a lot harder but it benefits us greatly in the long run. It also creates a culture of ownership, where each and every person is valued for what they are able to contribute to our congregation. For some that might be in religious services; for others social action; for some social programs; for others ways and means. Each person’s contribution is valuable as part of our קהילה קדושה, our sacred community. May we never forget that the work is never done and that each of us plays an integral role day after day in making both ourselves and our congregation holy.

[1] Numbers 16:3

[2] Leviticus 19:2

[3] See also

Lashon HaRa

         Shabbat Shalom. How wonderful to be with Mosaic Law Congregation for my first Shabbat-the first of Gd willing 30 years together, one day at a time 😊.

         I want to briefly tie last week’s portion into this weeks’. Miriam and Aaron spoke against the Cushite woman whom their brother Moses married. Miriam was stricken with tzaraat and Moses prayed for her healing. One can link Moses’ actions in Shelach Lecha with Korach. Because Moses’ own brother and sister spoke against him, it opened the door for Moses’ cousin Korach to “take others” who had different agendas and to bring them all together against Moses. Two people engaging in lashon hara created the opportunity for Korach, Datan, Aviram, On and 250 priests to conspire against him. Things left unchecked tend to snowball until it’s too late.

         Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ z”l has the following words about lashon hara. He writes “You should practice zero tolerance toward lashon hara. Allowing people to speak badly about one another will eventually destroy the integrity of the group. Evil speech generates negative energies. Within the group it sows the seeds of distrust and envy. Directed outside the group it can lead to arrogance, self-righteousness, racism and prejudice, all of which are fatal to the moral credibility of any team. Whether or not you are the leader of such a group, you must politely make it clear that you will have nothing to do with this kind of speech and that it has no place in your conversations.”[1]

         As your rabbi, I will have a zero-tolerance policy for lashon hara. Negative energy can increase exponentially, skyrocketing until it is out of control. We must distance ourselves from the behavior taken by Korach and his assembly. The Chofetz Chaim teaches that lashon hara is the most difficult commandments to avoid, [2]so we have to work extra scrupulously to avoid it. Let us do our part to be a Kehilah Kedoshah, a holy community, through watching what we say and treating each other with kindness and respect.

[1] Miriam and Lashon Hara (

[2] Chofetz Chaim, Introduction to the Laws of the Prohibition of Lashon Hara and Rechilut, Positive Commandments 13 (