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Snakes, Symbols and Study

About two weeks ago, there was a news report in New York that a man in his 60’s was bitten by a poisonous snake in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. He was taken to Jacobi Hospital, and then was well enough to be released. So, how does a poisonous snake come to an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen? Apparently, this man had been keeping it there as a pet. I think there may be an eviction notice in his future. . . Perhaps he would do well with some psychotherapy as well!

As it happens, poisonous snakes are among the topics in our Torah portion this very week. Virtually all through our reading of the Book of Numbers we hear nothing but bitter complaining from our ancestors in the Wilderness. They have no faith in God’s power to save them, and rebel against the leadership of Moses, as God’s appointee. To punish them, here in Parashat Chukat, God sends poisonous serpents to bite them, and many of them die. But then, Moses offers them a lifeline: not a real serpent (nachash), but a serpent made of copper (n’choshet). Moses was to mount this copper serpent (nachash han’choshet) on a pole, and raise it above the people. If those who had been bitten raised their eyes and looked upon it, they would be cured and they would live.

Really? Looking at a piece of copper on pole—a cure for snake bite? Sounds just about as ridiculous as keeping a poisonous snake as a pet in an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen in New York! But according to our sidra, it worked, and the people were cured.

Of course, the whole thing smacks of idolatry, forbidden to the People of Israel. Yet snake-like figures were found throughout Israel at what had been idolatrous Canaanite shrines, and also, early Israelite shrines. There was even a god-like figure called N’chushtan, taking the idolatry of the copper serpent to its logical, though idolatrous conclusion. King Hezekiah campaigned against these figures, and did his best to abolish them from Israelite practice.

The Rabbis understood the problem here, and, as always, tried to put a more favorable spin on this strange story in the Torah. An interpretation in the Talmud posits that the people actually looked past the nachash han’choshet, and upward toward God: “When the Jewish people turned their eyes upward, and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed; but if not, they rotted from their snakebites.” (Rosh Hashanah 29a)

In its beginnings, Reform Judaism bent over backwards not to assign magical powers to objects and amulets, or to make ritual items in our tradition objects of idolatry. A perfect example is the Torah Scroll. As you know, it is customary before our Reading of the Torah, to march through the congregation holding the Torah—a ritual known as the hakafah—and for people to extend a tallit, a book, or simply their hand, and kiss the Torah. The early Reformers eschewed this ritual, because, in their eyes, it smacked of idolatry, and risked making our sacred Scripture an object of magical power. Nevertheless, during the past generation or so, the Reform Movement has taken back the ritual of the hakafah. It has proven to evoke an emotional connection between the people and our sacred Scripture, particularly as we reach out to kiss the scroll. The hope is that through making an emotional connection during this ritual, we will be inspired to study the contents of the Torah, and perform the mitzvot—the commandments—that will help us to live out and practice the values of Jewish tradition.

As thoughtful, modern Jews, we are constantly re-thinking and re-evaluating our relationship with and practice of the array of rituals within our tradition. The aim is to promote our knowledge and practice of the values of our tradition, as the rituals enhance our affective experience of Jewish life.

Addendum:

I wrote the D’var Torah above before we left for Israel on Monday. But as we sat in Kennedy Airport waiting for our flight, we tried to absorb the impact of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to abrogate the agreement regarding the Egalitarian Platform at the Kotel, the Western Wall. After some five years in the making, the agreement was finally reached, or so we thought, in February of 2016, with plans underway for the construction of a beautiful area designated for egalitarian, pluralistic prayer. One of the primary brokers of this deal was Natan Scharansky, head of the Jewish Agency. Now, in an obvious move to kowtow to the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel, Mr. Netanyahu has double-crossed Mr. Scharansky, and non-Orthodox Jews all over Israel and all over the world, in nullifying this agreement.

From the moment our feet hit the ground on Tuesday, our e-mail server was bombarded with statements of protest from virtually every fair-minded person and organization we know, protesting this cowardly move on the part of the Prime Minister. I would encourage you to access the statements of ARZA, the WUPJ, Women of the Wall, and Natan Scharansky. But since we are preparing to begin our studies next week at the Shalom Hartman Institute, I will insert this particular link for responses by Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute, and Hartman faculty member and journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi.

Read Donniel Hartman’s complete article in Times of Israel.
Read Yossi Klein Halevi’s complete article in Times of Israel.

A Prayer for Jerusalem, and for our People

Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem

Our Torah portion focuses on Korach, a member of the tribe of Levi. In fact the portion itself bears his name. Korach foments rebellion among the people, because he resents Moses’s leadership, which of course, was assigned by God. Korach is the paradigmatic troublemaker, because he deliberately tries to break the unity of the Children of Israel. His reward, along with the 250 who joined him in his rebellion, is to be swallowed up within the earth, and die in ignominy.

As the Jewish People has evolved throughout history, we have come to understand that unity does not mean uniformity. History has taught us that our people can maintain our ties with one another, even across continents, while at the same time, tolerating and even embracing our differences with one another. This holds true with regard to theological perspectives, ethnic expressions, political positions, and diversity of all kinds. The modern description for this embrace of difference is pluralism: one people, different approaches.

This coming Monday, Steve and I are heading to Israel for our regular study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Last year was a highlight for us, as I became a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Institute. After the intensity of the three-year program, I will rejoin the wider Rabbinic gathering for a shorter, but still quite intense program. For two weeks every summer, some 170 rabbis of all denominations gather in the Beit Midrash – the study hall – of the Hartman Institute, literally elbow-to-elbow, to study from morning to night with the finest scholars in Israel, and with each other as well. The Hartman Institute is devoted to promoting pluralism within unity as the ideal for the Jewish State, and indeed, for the Jewish People around the world.

We at Union Temple have studied with some of the Hartman scholars through the iEngage series. We also have met and heard from a few of them in person at the Brownstone Brooklyn synagogues, including our own. Those of us who traveled together to Israel in 2015 visited the Hartman Institute and spent a remarkable hour with Tal Becker, one of the luminaries of the Hartman faculty. Learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Before any trip we make to Israel, I remember the beautiful poetry of Psalm 122 as it resounds in my mind and in my heart. It is a prayer for those going up to Jerusalem, and for the city of Jerusalem itself. So, as we prepare for our journey this summer, I offer the words of Psalm 122 – “A Song of Ascents.”

א שִׁיר הַֽמַּֽעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד שׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְהֹוָה נֵלֵֽךְ: ב עֹמְדוֹת הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ יְרֽוּשָׁלָֽם: ג יְרֽוּשָׁלַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה־לָּהּ יַחְדָּֽו: ד שֶׁשָּׁם עָלוּ שְׁבָטִים שִׁבְטֵי־יָהּ עֵדוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל לְהֹדוֹת לְשֵׁם יְהֹוָֽה: ה כִּי שָׁמָּה ׀ יָשְׁבוּ כִסְאוֹת לְמִשְׁפָּט כִּסְאוֹת לְבֵית דָּוִֽד: ו שַֽׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרֽוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹֽהֲבָֽיִךְ: ז יְהִֽי־שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ שַׁלְוָה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ: ח לְמַֽעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּֽךְ: ט לְמַעַן בֵּֽית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָֽךְ:

A Song of Ascents. Of David.

I rejoiced when they said to me, “We are going to the House of the LORD.” Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem built up, a city knit together, to which tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of the LORD, as was enjoined upon Israel – to praise the name of the LORD. There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.” For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good.

To Wrap Ourselves in Fringes

Our Torah portion this week contains the commandment concerning the wearing of tzitzit—fringes.

Numbers Chapter 15:
37) The Eternal said to Moses, as follows: 38) Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. 39) That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. 40) Thus, you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and be holy to your God. 41) I the Eternal am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Eternal your God.

These verses are included in the traditional recitation of the Shema at services. (In the Reform Prayer Book we omit verses 37-39.) The tzitzit are the fringes on the bottom of a tallit, and practically speaking, the tallit is the very garment that enables the wearing of the tzitzit. The purpose of the tzitzit is to remind us of the mitzvot—commandmentswhen we look upon them. For this reason, the tallit is generally only worn at morning synagogue services because the light of the morning enables us to see them. The exception is Kol Nidre, when it is customary to wear a tallit even though it is at night. However, it is also customary for the rabbi, cantor, or leader of prayer to wear a tallit at all services to distinguish him/herself as the Sheliach/Shelichat Tzibbur, the Leader of Prayer. That is why you see the cantor and myself wearing tallitot at all services that we are conducting, both morning and evening.

Virtually from its inception, and then for many years to come, the Reform Movement rejected the wearing of the tallit. Aside from a dismissal of the custom as “fetishism,” the early Reformers believed that one should not need outward reminders of spirituality and one’s loyalty to Jewish teaching. But within the past 40 years or so, the wearing of the tallit, though still optional in most Reform congregations, nevertheless has become fairly standard across the Movement.

And perhaps more significant even than the wearing of tallitot by Reform Jewish men, is the adoption of this custom by Reform Jewish women, and subsequently, Conservative and Reconstructionist women as well. Initially the mitzvah of wearing the fringes was restricted to men. But in the expansion of the tradition, and the equalization of roles within the liberal movements of Judaism, the tallit became standard for women as well. The same holds true for tefillin—phylacteriesthough this is far less common within the Reform Movement.

My family belonged to a Modern Orthodox shul across the street from Stuyvesant Town, where I grew up. One of the things I wished in my heart all the time I was growing up was to be able to wear a tallit, and extend it to kiss the Torah as it came around. I could not do either of those, of course, because women and girls had to sit upstairs, and played no part in the service at all, except to sit and talk to each other; and occasionally, to pray as well. Thankfully, halfway through college, I found my way to the Reform Movement, which by that time had embraced women’s equality head on. Nevertheless, when I first entered Rabbinic School, and went through the year in Israel with my class, I was reticent about putting on a tallit. It wasn’t particularly about being a woman, but more that I was conflicted about taking on some of the traditionalism I had intentionally left behind when I became a Reform Jew. I felt as though I had progressed too far, and putting on a tallit just didn’t feel right. In fact during my entire five years of study at HUC, I was one of the few “holdouts” in my class who never wore a tallit. Only on the day of my ordination did I wear an atarah—a tapered tallit—over my ordination robe. My mom had bought it for me, and I still wear it from time to time when I wear a robe. In fact I wore it just last week at an interfaith Pride service at a local church. All the time I have been at Union Temple, however, I have been completely comfortable with wrapping myself in the fringes, and by extension, in Jewish tradition. As my connection with Jewish women around the world, particularly in Israel, has broadened, I have come to love it. And as you probably have noticed, I am lucky enough to have built up an array of tallitot, all different, but all beautiful and meaningful in their own ways.

This of course brings us to what we might call the politics of the tallit. As you know, I am a member of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wallwomen of all denominations, feminists of all backgrounds, who assemble each month on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month, to pray together at the Kotel—the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Aside from women’s voices raised in prayer and in the reading of the Torah, perhaps the most identifying marker of Nashot Hakotel is the tallit. Women’s tallitot are generally smaller, and shaped a bit differently from men’sfor obvious reasons. And, they have taken on the broad array of colors of the spectrum, just as women can celebrate being different from one another, even as we come together in unity. There are several “official” tallitot of Nashot Hakotel, two of which I own and wear frequently during services.

In this spirit, I would remind the women of our congregationand men as wellthat the wearing of a tallit is a privilege for which we have had to fight for a very long time. I would never try to force it on anyone. Remember, as I said, I went all through Rabbinic School without one, even as most of my classmates donned them. But if you are at morning services at temple, every so often, try one on. It is a symbol of the embrace of our tradition. I have grown to love it. Perhaps you will as well.

Israeli artist Michal Gavrieli made this for me last summer in Israel. (See photo.) It was a gift from Steve upon my graduation as a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Mutual Responsibility of Freedom

We open the Torah this week on our ancestors out in the Wilderness. They are in crisis. They are wandering, without much sense of where they are headed. They are hungry, without much assurance that they will find sustenance. They are frightened, without much confidence that they will be comforted. They complain to Moses. He has stood up to the Pharaoh, and led the people from Egypt to this Wilderness. But now even Moses is at his wit’s end. He doesn’t know how to comfort the people, and cries out to God in utter frustration: Did I give birth to this people. . . that they whine and complain to me? I cannot carry this people, for it is too much for me! (Numbers 11.12-14) God’s advice? Don’t try to do this alone. Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them: they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone. (Numbers 11.16)

The Israelites had been enslaved and beaten down by ruthless tyrants for 400 years. Now they were free, but they still had no sense of what that meant. They didn’t understand that with freedom comes another set of burdens—of responsibility, of sacrifice, of thoughtfulness and creativity, of working with leadership to form a consensus. In this exchange between Moses and God, our Torah seeks to convey this message of personal responsibility and group responsibility, if indeed, we want to exercise our freedom responsibly.

My thoughts this week, and perhaps some of yours, have focused upon the 49th anniversary of the assassination of NY Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in the Ambassador Hotel of Los Angeles, as he inched closer to the Democratic nomination for President. Bobby Kennedy evolved dramatically over his life, particularly in the five years between his brother John’s death and his own. He understood more deeply the pain in this country, and how he believed he could help us to rise up as a nation, to try to alleviate it together. While there are many statements he made that are particularly apt in this regard, perhaps this one is particularly emblematic. Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed on June 6, 1968.

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Lift Us Up

Our Torah portion this week is Naso. In the context of this episode, Moses and Aaron are told to take a census in the wilderness. The census of last week’s portion was for the purpose of counting up the male Israelites of age 20 or older who were able to bear arms. The census in this chapter, however, is to count up specifically the members of the tribe of Levi between the ages of 30 and 50, for the purpose of serving the sacred tasks of worship within the Tabernacle, to assist the Kohanim (priests).

The term “naso” is an interesting one in this context. While the meaning here is for counting, the more common meaning of the root is “to lift up.” One of the Hebrew terms for marriage is “nissuin,” because of the elevation in status of the woman as she becomes a wife, as it was viewed in the Talmudic period. In another form, the word becomes “nasi,” which means “prince,” or in modern vocabulary, “president.” The head of the Sanhedrin of the early Rabbinic period was the “Nasi.” The redactor of the Mishnah was Yehuda HaNasi, commonly translated as “Judah the Prince.” This great rabbinic leader wasn’t a royal prince, but rather, the rabbinic head of the Sanhedrin—President of the Sanhedrin, if you will. The Nasi of the State of Israel now is Reuven Rivlin. In Israeli government, he is less powerful than the Prime Minister, now Benjamin Netanyahu. But he is a head of government nonetheless, and often serves as the visible representative of Israel on the world stage.

This past week I have thought a great deal about this word “nasi,” as it pertains to our own country. Since the word comes from the root “to lift up,” the President of the United States holds the most elevated political status in our nation. While we do not assign royal or religious status to our presidents, we do ascribe to them an extra measure of respect and admiration—or at least that is our aspiration. Optimally, our president is an individual with superior intelligence and wisdom, whose obligation it is to protect and promote our interests, at home and around the world. I recall the words of the Union Prayer Book, which are rooted in many of our memories to this day. They were read just before the Torah was returned to the Ark:

Fervently we invoke Thy blessing upon our country and our nation. Guard them, O God, from calamity and injury; suffer not their adversaries to triumph over them, but let the glories of a just, righteous, and God-fearing people increase from age to age. Enlighten with Thy wisdom and sustain with Thy power those whom the people have set in authority, the President, his counselors and advisers, the judges, law-givers and executives, and all who are entrusted with our safety and with the guardianship of our rights and our liberties. (Union Prayer Book, p.148)

This past Memorial Day was a doubly auspicious observance, as we noted that it was the 100th anniversary of the birth of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, z”l.In his private life, as is now well known, of course, he was beset by physical and emotional frailties. Nevertheless, he had a brilliant mind and an expansive intellect. He had a profound appreciation and respect for history, and a deep understanding of how history needed to inform our decisions as a society. He understood the political process, and had significant personal experience within that process, as a Congressman and a Senator. He was a war hero, yet he demonstrated extraordinary restraint as he and his cabinet tried to keep us out of the potential nuclear conflagration that threatened the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He stood strong against the economic and political totalitarianism that the Soviet Union sought to impose upon the world. He and Jacqueline were patrons of the arts, and promoted the spark of human creativity in all areas of the arts. He had a vision for human progress. No, he was not a perfect person. Such a person does not exist. But as Americans, we were justified in looking up to him for those attributes that he did possess which were benevolent and admirable. We trusted him with our very lives, and his ability to grow was demonstrated even in the all too short time that he spent in the White House.

We now are witnessing a travesty that is being wrought upon our nation by the individual who currently holds this revered title, and it grows worse by the day. Our will as Americans to accord to the President respect, admiration, and even exaltation, has been completely dashed and pummeled. What an irony, that Russia once again looms so large in our national consciousness. No, it is no longer the Soviet Union. But its government rules with an iron fist, and its behavior on the world stage has been opportunistic and brutal. We have a “nasi” in our country who has promised to “make America great again.” Instead, the German chancellor, their “nasi,” has proclaimed in the wake of Trump’s recent visit, “Europe can no longer completely depend upon America.” Now our commitment to cleaning up and protecting our environment has been suspended. Mr. Trump has literally taken our lives, and the lives of future generations, into his hands, with reckless abandon and complete disregard of the reality that is staring us all in the face. While many of us look to 2018 to gain the upper hand in Congress, we can’t wait until then. There is much work to be done. One immediate step is to support a new alliance, formed as of today, by Governor Cuomo of New York, Governor Edmund Brown of California, and Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State. This is the United States Climate Alliance, to take aggressive action on climate change. If you would like to sign on as a supporter, you may do so here. Sign the petition now.

Our tradition teaches us to lift up our leaders, and accord them respect of their positions. But our leaders must earn and merit that respect. The office of President is a sacred trust between the one who holds it and American people. I have no faith in the will or ability of this “nasi” to uphold that trust. Now the welfare of our nation is in our hands. Our “nasi” is dragging us down. We must lift ourselves up, and not relent.