Who’s This Korach Guy?

This week’s Torah portion is named “Korach.”  This is surprising because the rabbis – who created the system of dividing the Torah into portions and naming them – considered him a demagogue or a rabble-rouser.  Yet, not only is his story preserved in our Torah, but through the way that the rabbis divided up the Torah, a Torah portion is named for him and his story gets read more often than some other sections of the Torah because the opening verses of a portion are read on weekdays also.

Why did the rabbis do this?  Was it an accident?

I think that the rabbis want to remind us of how important it is to challenge even our most dearly-held assumptions.  After all, Korach was willing to challenge Moshe – the man who brought God’s plagues to Egypt, who led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, and who brought the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai.

It seems to me, now that we are nearly two decades into the 21st Century, that we need to re-examine some of our most closely-held assumptions about Jewish life and what will enable Judaism to survive and thrive for the rest of this century.

For example, synagogues have always assumed that if we throw up a building and hold services at the right times, OF COURSE the Jews will come.  That may have been true for a number of generations, but it may no longer be true.  While Jews seem to be as spiritual today as Jews of previous generations, that does not necessarily translate into synagogue attendance.

For decades, we assumed that when Jews intermarried it was because they were leaving their Judaism behind.  However, it is clear today that people who feel extremely connected to their Judaism also sometimes fall in love with non-Jews.

When I first became a rabbi, the measures of success for a synagogue were membership units and Saturday morning attendance.  I’m not sure those are the right metrics today.  Does it take into account everyone we reach through educational or community service programs?  Does it include the people who are connected electronically?

The truth is that this kind of re-assessment is going on in society at large as well.  Our assumptions about government, political parties and society as a whole are all being challenged.  There are many “Korachs” demanding many answers.  Will the established ways win out?  Or will the challengers?  No one knows.

However, there is one interesting exchange among God, Moshe and Aaron – the establishment – after Korach issued his challenge.  God threatened to annihilate Korach and his followers without any kind of trial or hearing (see Num. 16:21).  Moshe and Aaron begged God to be merciful and not to do it.  They still cared about Korach and thought of him as a fellow member of their community even if they disagreed with him.  God relented.

So, let’s all continue challenging assumptions and looking for better ways to do things.  However, let’s also remember that it’s possible to do so without dehumanizing those with whom we disagree.


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How Long Does It Take?

The major league draft is over and Luke Heimlich was not drafted. “Big deal,” you might be thinking, “neither was I!”

However, unlike Luke Heimlich, you were not the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year the past two years, a lefty with a 26-2 record during those two seasons. Over 1,200 players were drafted by baseball’s 30 major league teams and he was not one of them.

So, what gives?

Seven years ago, at the age of fifteen, Heimlich pleaded guilty to sexually abusing his six-year-old niece. Because of confidentiality rules designed to protect the victim, neither his high school coach nor his college coach knew about the case until an article was published in The Oregonian last June.

Heimlich fulfilled the terms of his probation including drug testing, monitoring his internet use, writing a letter of apology to the victim and two years of counseling. After five years of following the terms of his plea agreement, his record was expunged. He no longer has to register as a sex offender.

However, he now claims that he didn’t actually touch his niece, but he pled guilty because he wanted to protect his niece from testifying and because he was advised to do so. Did he enter a guilty plea for a crime he did not commit? It wouldn’t be the first time that happened. Is he simply in denial because he wishes he hadn’t done it? That’s also possible.

Either way, he did exactly what the court told him to do. It’s been seven years and there is no evidence of any further crime. And yet, no major league team will draft him despite the fact that he’s among the very best pitchers in college baseball.

Is this simply justice at work? A convicted sexual offender has no right to a career in major league baseball. Or is this double jeopardy? A convicted sexual offender accepted his punishment, but keeps getting punished over and over.

I don’t know the answer.

The Jewish tradition certainly believes in the possibility of repentance and a return to God’s ways. However, Luke Heimlich does not sound penitent or contrite. It’s awfully hard to offer atonement when the person in question does not seem to be asking for it. He wants us to pretend the whole thing never happened – which is very different than forgiving.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses sent twelve scouts out to survey the Promised Land. Ten of them returned with false negative reports that frightened the Israelites and convinced them that they would not be able to enter the Promised Land.

God was very angry at those ten scouts and the people who believed them. So, God offered to wipe out the Israelites and start all over again with just Moses and his family. Moses talked God out of that plan by arguing that it would make God look small in the eyes in the of world.

God responded with two (Hebrew) words: “I forgive, according to your words – סלחתי כדבריך (Num. 14:20).” We recite these words as part of the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur. However, God also said that the Israelites would have to wait forty years before entering the Promised Land. In other words, it would take time for the relationship to heal. It would take time for things to return to the way they were before this incident.

It seems to me that Luke Heimlich is in a similar position. Perhaps, he’s paid for his crime. Perhaps, he can be forgiven. But if he wants things to be as they were before this incident, it’s going to take more time.

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Real Wolves

We are all familiar with the story of the boy who cried, ‘Wolf.’ It was probably an old story when Aesop wrote it down over 2,500 years ago. A bored shepherd boy looking after the village’s sheep decided to call out, “Wolf!” in order to see what the response of the rest of the community would be. They all came running, only find out that there was no wolf.

The boy did it again because it was so much fun the first time, and again the people came running. When a wolf actually did come and threaten the sheep, and the boy called out, “Wolf!” no one came to his aid. The moral of the story is: Even when liars tell the truth, they are not believed.

But let’s imagine that the story played out a little differently. Let’s say that the young boy never falsely called out the word, “Wolf!” Let’s imagine that the first time he saw a wolf was the first time that he actually cried “Wolf!” And now, let’s imagine that the townsfolk responded by saying that a wolf is not really a threat to the sheep. Wolves are misunderstood creatures. Then, they told the boy that he was perpetuating a stereotype about wolves that is harmful to them. And then, without any help from the townsfolk, the wolf was able to kill two of the sheep.

Perhaps, the moral of this new fable might be, “It’s better to take a potential threat seriously and remain safe rather than ignore a threat and be harmed.”

It’s pretty clear to me that most of the world treats Israel like the boy in the original fable. Israel is perpetually under threat from her neighbors. There are “wolves” on every border. Hizbullah is in Lebanon. Hamas is in Gaza. Syria is a complete disaster. And yet, most of the world seems to think that Israel is crying “Wolf!” without justification.

In truth, Israel is the boy in our new version of the fable. The threats are very real. Fortunately, Israel is in a position to deal with those threats from a military perspective, but then Israel takes a beating in the court of public opinion. It’s as if the world is saying that unless Israel allows Hamas to kill some Israelis, the military response is “disproportionate.” Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) sent over 100 rockets and mortars into Israel and the world is silent. It’s only because of Israel’s investment in shelters and defense that no one was killed. Israel would be foolish to ignore the threats from her neighbors.

In this week’s Torah portion, it is Moshe who cried out, “Wolf!” to God. After listening to all of the Israelites whining and complaining, wanting to go back to Egypt, Moshe said to God, “I cannot carry this entire people by myself, for it is too much for me. If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You! And let me see no more of my wretchedness.”

God could have responded in a bunch of different ways. God could have said, “They’re not so bad.” God could have said, “I can’t believe you just said that about my people! How dare you!” God could have said, “OK – I’ll kill you.” But God did not say any of those things. God took Moshe’s words very seriously. God realized that there was a threat.

So, what did God do? First God established the council of seventy elders to relieve Moshe of some of his burdens. God then provided additional food (i.e., the quail) to satisfy the people. In other words, God believed Moshe that there was a “wolf” and God agreed that the “wolf” was a real threat. As a result, Moshe felt some relief and the people felt that their needs had been addressed. The Israelites could now make their successful journey across the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Today, Israel is not crying “wolf” because it’s a cute game. Israel is crying “wolf” because there are multiple “wolves” at her border. It’s a shame that the world doesn’t seem to care or understand.


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Sharing the Blessing

It’s just about Memorial Day weekend and this is the Torah Portion that has the Priestly Blessing in it. That makes me think of weddings. Apparently the JTA (which is the Jewish version of the AP or Reuters) was thinking about weddings today as well.

In an article that was posted yesterday, the JTA explored how Judaism’s Conservative Movement responds to intermarriage. Needless to say, it’s an issue that I think about quite often.

What this article does NOT state, but is an important part of the equation is this: officiating at an intermarriage is one of the few things a Conservative rabbi can do to be kicked out of the movement. The Rabbinical Assembly – the international organization of Conservative rabbis – has started a conversation about re-examining this policy. But, for now, it’s the policy. So, any Conservative rabbi who is interested in remaining a Conservative rabbi simply cannot officiate at an intermarriage.

That being said, a lot of things happen before a wedding day as well as afterwards. I know that saying “no” to a wedding is painful to a couple no matter how gently I say it. However, I hope that, over time, I will have the opportunity to show that couple that I value them and that I wish them much happiness.

There are many ways that we are doing this already in our community. Non-Jewish parents participate fully in the naming ceremonies of their Jewish children. Non-Jewish parents stand next to the Torah with their spouses and children as their children chant from the Torah to become B’nai Mitzvah. Non-Jewish parents are called in front of the open Ark as their children are blessed on that special day. Non-Jewish members of our community receive certain High Holiday honors and serve on the committees that help run our synagogue.

In our schools, we make no distinction between those families with one Jewish parent and those with two. We are doing a lot of things well, but of course we can always be better.

In a social media exchange about this issue earlier today, I shared the following thoughts — We are clearly not in the same place as the Reform movement. However, we are moving in the right direction. Part of this process is figuring out how to express our genuine desire to welcome Jews who intermarry and their partners while still wrestling with the boundaries of our legal system as we understand it. The “yes” of the Reform movement will always sound better than our “yes, but…” However, I hope that the strength of our relationships can help us overcome that natural disadvantage. Just like people aren’t 100% consistent, religious systems created and maintained by those inconsistent people are unsurprisingly inconsistent. But, we do the best we can within our own limitations and the limitations of our system.

I hope that all families that identify as Jewish – even if every member of the family is not Jewish – realize that our congregation is a place they can turn to in order to add meaning, spirituality and community to their lives. And if anyone is not sure, I hope that they will come and talk to me about it.

As I mentioned earlier, this Shabbat, we will read the words of the Priestly Blessing: “May Adonai bless you and keep you; may Adonai show you favor and be gracious to you; may Adonai show you kindness and bless you with peace (Numbers 6:22-27).” The instructions to the Priests regarding these words are as follows: “V’samu et sh’mi al b’nai Yisrael”– translated as: “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel.” A more literal translation of those words would be: “Place/put MY name on the people of Israel.”

Today, when we bless our children with these words – Friday nights, B’nai Mitzvah and weddings – we place our hands on their heads or shoulders to physically transmit the blessing from one generation to the next. Indeed, what is the sign of the Kohanim (Priests) that we still see on the gravestones of Priestly families to this day? Two hands in the formation made famous by Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, reaching out to the people whom they were blessing.

That is the ultimate purpose of Judaism – reaching out to people, bringing God’s name to them and sharing God’s blessing with them. Neither the people on the reaching end nor the people on the receiving end are perfect, but we are all deserving of God’s blessing.


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You Count!

How many were peaceful? How many were members of terrorist organizations? How many were armed? How many were shot? How many were injured? How many were warned but came anyway? How many were tricked into going by Hamas?

How many condemned Israel? How many believed that Israel did the best it could under challenging circumstances? How many ignored Hamas’ role in the attempted infiltration of Israel?

We’ve been doing a lot of counting this week just as we turned our attention to the fourth book of the Torah – Bemidbar, which is typically called the Book of Numbers in English (even though the word “Bemidbar” means “in the wilderness”). The English name is probably derived from the ancient rabbis’ name for the fourth book of the Torah – “Sefer Pekudim,” which means “The Book of Countings.”

We call it the Book of Numbers because it opens with a census. This census helped determine which tribes were considered powerful. It also indicated how many males over the age of 20 were available for military service in anticipation of the Israelites’ arrival in the Promised Land.

Despite the importance of this census, Judaism developed an aversion to counting people. It was considered bad luck to be enumerated. Attaching a number to people made it easier for the “Evil Eye” or the “Angel of Death” to find them. This became so ingrained that when counting the ten people necessary for public prayer – the Minyan – one is not supposed to use numbers. Instead, we use a ten-word phrase (like the first two lines of the Ashrei) or we say, “Not one, not two, not three….”

It’s more than a little ironic. We need ten people to pray together, but we’re not supposed to count them. So, we find a way to stand up and be counted anyway.

As Israel and Hamas were facing off at the border between Israel and Gaza, there was never much question as to how the tactical battle would end. Israel’s military superiority was never in doubt. However, the media war was a completely different story. Hamas successfully positioned themselves so that Israel could either allow a breach of its border (which would have been a victory for Hamas) or it could defend its border using its military superiority (which was a PR victory for Hamas). It was win-win for Hamas and lose-lose for Israel.

Even though 53 of the 60 people killed on Monday turned out to be members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Israel still lost the war of the media. They never bothered counting.

It’s at moments like these that those of us who love Israel must stand up and be counted. We may have an aversion to being counted. We may not like conflict. We may not even agree with each and every decision made by the Israeli government. But, we can all agree that we want Israel to exist. We can all agree that Israel deserves fair coverage in the media and a fair hearing in the court of public opinion.

So, now is the time to stand up and be counted. We all need to write letters to the editor and post tweets to journalists who get the facts wrong. We all need to post accurate information on social media and call out our friends who are sharing mistruths.
There are two battlefronts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We may not be able to help Israel in her military endeavors. However, we can stand up and be counted in the battle of information.


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Holy ____________!

Holy Smokes!

Holy Cow!

Holy Mackerel!

Holy Moly!

Holy Contributing to the Delinquency of Minors, Batman! (Yes, Robin really said that.)

The final nine chapters of Leviticus are often referred to as the Holiness Code. We read from the final two chapters this week – Parashat Behukotai. This section opens with God’s words to us: “Kedoshim tihyu – You shall be holy (Lev. 19:1).” What does it mean to be kadosh – to be holy?

This word may sound familiar to us from the prayer we use to usher in the Shabbat or a holiday – the Kiddush – or the prayer we recite to honor our deceased loved ones – the Kaddish. This three letter Hebrew root – קדש – means pure, clean, sacred, separate, dedicated or forbidden. How can we be all that?

Martin Buber – an early 20th century philosopher/thinker – wrote that being holy is recognizing the latent divinity in other people just as God recognizes the divinity in each of us. So, in Buber’s definition of holiness, the challenge is not to raise ourselves up – at the expense of others, perhaps. Rather, we must strive to raise others while teaching them to raise still others.

Buber distinguished between what he called “I-It” relationships and “I-Thou” relationships. In an “I-It” relationship, we see others as objects that can be manipulated to our benefit or for our convenience. In an “I-Thou” relationship, we see others as equals with whom we give and take.

One of the most difficult stories of this past week was the fall of Eric Schneiderman, the now-former Attorney General of New York. He was charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the law is upheld and that those who do not follow the law are brought to justice. He was supposed to protect people who were treated as objects and see to it that they were treated as human beings. This is a sacred task in the Jewish tradition – a system based on laws.

Instead, we now know, he was (allegedly) treating the women in his life as objects without any regard for their humanity. It is the exact opposite of holiness. Fortunately, he quickly resigned from his position and he will likely face criminal charges. However, it is a sad reminder that there are likely other powerful people in government who see the people around them as objects (I-It) and not as fellow human beings (I-Thou). Perhaps, it will always be so.

Nonetheless, at the very least, we can accept the Torah’s challenge for ourselves: : “Kedoshim tihyu – You shall be holy.”


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With the calendar flipping to May and the temperature markedly rising these last few days, we might finally be able to say goodbye to the winter that wouldn’t go away. While we always expect a certain amount of harsh weather each winter, this year many of us were forced to become more familiar with the calculations and machinations that go into setting a school calendar.

As a result of having more snow days than anyone was expecting, many school districts eliminated a day (or more!) of their spring breaks. In addition, many school districts had to add an extra day of learning at the end of the school year.

The same people who were celebrating school closings in January and February were fuming about the additional days in April and June. It begs the question: are all days equal? Do all days count the same?

Is an unexpected day off in February worth an unexpected day on in June?

Right now, on the Jewish calendar, we are in the middle of a seven-week countdown that takes us from the 2nd night of Pesach (Passover) to the Festival of Shavuot (Weeks). It is called “The Omer.” From a historical perspective, these seven weeks took our agrarian ancestors from the very first spring harvest in the Land of Israel to the summer harvest. From a Biblical perspective, these seven weeks take us from the Exodus from Egypt to the receiving of the Torah at Sinai – two of the most significant events in the history of our People.

Originally, every day was counted the same — #1 through #49. Our Torah portion tells us: “You shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” While Passover and Shauot have special status, there is no indication that any of the intervening days was better, but at some point, that changed.

Perhaps it had something to do with the disciples of Rabbi Akiva as described in the Talmud. Perhaps it was connected to the Bar Kochba Revolt – the last gasp of Israel’s resistance against Rome. Or perhaps, it has something to do with Lemuralia – a Roman holiday that was observed at about this time of year. No one can say authoritatively why it changed, but one day out of the seven complete weeks was raised up over all the others. And that day is called Lag B’Omer – the 33rd day of the Omer – which just happens to be TODAY! It is a day of celebration in the middle of these seven weeks that are typically NOT celebratory.

The truth is that all days are NOT created equal. A birthday is different than the other 364 days of the year. A first day on the job is different than all the others. And a day that was supposed to be a regular day that becomes a vacation day is magical, while a vacation day that turns into a regular day is, well, not.

But, when that happens, we can turn to the Book of Psalms which reminds us that no matter what kind of day this was supposed to be and no matter what kind of day it turned out to be – “This is the day that God has made; let’s celebrate and be happy in it (Ps. 118:24).”

Happy Lag B’Omer!


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