Tag Archives: Aaron

Moving Forward, Looking Back

This is text version of remarks I made at Beth El Memorial Park at our annual Memorial Service –

     The Torah reading for Yom Kippur day comes from the 16th chapter of the Book of Leviticus, and offers a description of the ancient ritual of the scapegoat that was enacted by the High Priest on Yom Kippur at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The text is filled with detailed information about the ritual – what clothes the High Priest wore, precisely how the scapegoat was chosen, how the sacrifices were to be performed, how the blood from the animals was to be sprinkled on the altar.  It is more textbook than text, more instruction manual than narrative.

     But there is one detail in the reading that is deeply personal.  It comes in the very first verse of the chapter, which reads as follows:  וידבר ה׳ אל משה אחרי מות שני בני אהרון – and it was after the death of Aaron’s two sons when God spoke to Moses.  There is no connection between Aaron’s terrible loss and his unspoken grief and the Yom Kippur ritual.  Aaron’s loss is private, his struggle with grief is an internal struggle.  But the ritual of the scapegoat is public, performed before the assembled people, and on their behalf.  So I’ve often wondered why the Torah text includes that detail about the death of Aaron’s sons.

     I do know that there is a temptation to carry our losses with us wherever we go.  The tradition tries to discourage us from doing that.  Each stage of grief is finite, marked by the counting of a set number of days.  The shiva ends and the mourner is pushed out of the shiva house, asked to walk through the doorway and back out into the world.  The sheloshim – the thirty day period – is counted and concluded.  There is a limit placed on the recitation of the kaddish prayer, which should be recited no longer than 11 months.  But the journey from loss back to life, from a broken heart to one that has become whole again, is a difficult journey.  People tell me that the last day of their kaddish is highly emotional, knowing it is the last time they will stand.  It is hard to let go of grief, it is hard to reenter the world after a loss.  It is tempting to stay in the place and to hold on to the sadness, because in doing so, in a way, we also hold on to the people we’ve lost.

     And it is in part the everyday, the simple living of life, that draws us back into the world after loss.  Going back to work, meeting a friend for lunch, coming to shul, going shopping, picking up the clothes at the dry cleaners, sweeping the floor and doing the laundry, spending time with the people that we love, watching a football game, reading a book.  The fabric of life.  Its substance, its day to day.  The sun sets and rises, the world still turns, I have a role to play, and slowly but surely I reenter that world.  I carry the losses with me always, I feel the grief everyday, but in the vast world around me, in my simple busyness, in my work and my friends, in all the tasks I must take care of, it is a smaller thing, my grief, more bearable, less intensely painful.  

     That may be the example that Aaron the High Priest sets for us on Yom Kippur day.  Still suffering from the loss of his sons, he was needed, there was work to be done, others were looking to him for help and guidance and wisdom.  He might have preferred to sit alone, to ponder what had happened, to spend long hours thinking about his sons.  But he was pulled away from his loss, back into the world around him with all of its tumult and responsibility.  And so it often is for us as the days and weeks and months go by.  As Shiva and Shelosim end, as our kaddish period comes to a close, as we immerse in the day to day and return to the world.

     But there are moments when the tradition calls us back to our losses and to the profound sadness that is always just underneath the surface.  When the tradition, after pushing us out of the shiva house, after ending our kaddish, reminds us of how deep the wounds are, how fresh the feelings, how profound the loss, whether we are here today honoring someone who is gone for weeks or months or years.  Yizkor is one of those moments.  This Memorial service is as well.  When we set aside the everyday tasks, when we leave the world that is all around us with its hustle and bustle, and we visit the cemetery, and say the ancient words, and remember, once again opening our hearts fully both to the losses we’ve had, and also to the lives that we cherished and remember today.  

     May those memories comfort us in this season of memory, and throughout the new year that is beginning.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, Yizkor, Yom Kippur

Tweets and Coffee

     Well, if you follow the news at all you probably know it has been a tough week for Roseanne Barr, the actress and comedienne.  She had been riding high.  The reboot of her mega-hit sitcom was at the top of the ratings, and had just been renewed for a second season.  Roseanne seemed to be as popular as she was during the mid-90s, when her original show was pulling down huge ratings.  But as is true in many areas of life, everything can change in a single instant, or in her case with a single tweet.  And after sending that tweet – that many read as racist – a crude comment about an African American woman named Valerie Jarrett – Roseanne suddenly found the rug pulled out from under her.  Within a few hours ABC had cancelled her show, and she faced a firestorm of criticism, much of it coming at her on that same Twitter platform that got her in trouble in the first place.

     It seemed more than coincidental that all of this happened the very same week that Starbucks closed its stores – almost 8,000 of them across the US, so that its 175,000 employees could engage in a conversation about race, and could participate in a training program that was designed to help the workers be more sensitive to people of different racial backgrounds.  This was Starbucks’ response to an incident that occurred in one of its Philadelphia coffee shops, where staff called the Police on two African American men because they were sitting in the store and had not yet ordered.  In a moving and beautifully worded letter about the closure Howard Schultz, the founder of the company – who is Jewish by the way – wrote about the angst that he felt that something of this nature had happened in one of his stores, and about the plan the company had put together to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

     Many of you know that I grew up in the Reform movement, and I remember to this day one of the lines in the Reform Mahzor we used in my shul on the HHDs.  It was in that list of sins that we recite on YK, and the reason I remember it so well is that it had a word in it that I didn’t understand as a boy – it said this:  on the sin we have sinned, because of xenophobia.  Xenophobia, I thought as a boy?  How could any word that sounds so strange and seems so complicated be describing a sin?  It was only later that I found out – probably when I was studying vocabulary words for my SATs – that xenophobia meant fear of the other.  The word comes from two ancient Greek words – xenos, meaning ‘strange,’ or ‘foreigner.’  And the second word we all know – phobos, which means fear.  Fear of the stranger, of the other, of what you are not.

     Certainly as Jews we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that kind of fear.  I am reading the second volume in Simon Schama’s new history of the Jewish people.  It begins time wise in the mid 1400s, and location wise in Spain where Jews were being forcibly converted to Christianity by the thousands.  As we know many of these Jews – called Marannos – continued to live Jewish lives in secret.  But one of the things that struck me about Schama’s description of the period was that even when the Jews converted, and even the Jews who converted who lived faithful Christian lives – they were always under suspicion, they were always viewed as being other, different, suspicious, strange, even dangerous, and they were never fully accepted.  

     It may be that the natural human tendency to view ‘the stranger’ – those who are not like you – with suspicion is as old as human history.  It certainly is as old as the Bible, and that sense of xenophobia that seems so present in our society today is at the heart of a troubling story that appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  It is a difficult time for the Israelites as they begin their journey through the wilderness, a journey that will last for forty years.  And it is an even more difficult time for Moses, who has to deal with the people’s complaining, and a variety of rebellions along the way.  But I suspect the most difficult moment of the entire journey for Moses occurs in this morning’s reading because it is personal, it is his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, who are publicly speaking out against him.  And what is their complaint?  כי אישה כושית לקח – they complain that their brother has married a Cushite woman.  That is to say, he has married a foreigner, someone who is a stranger.  So Aaron and Miriam, two of the greatest figures in the Torah, fall prey to the sin of xenophobia.

     And if it can happen to Aaron and Moses, it can happen to any of us.  Particularly in these difficult times, when political discourse has become so strained and even conversation between friends can be so difficult.   I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like that natural human tendency to fear the other is as strong as it has been in a long, long time.  Which is one of the reasons why police are called when young black men are innocently sitting in a Starbucks.  And it is also one of the reasons, by the way, why anti-Semitism is on the rise.  The old saying is ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’  But the opposite is also true.  Xenophobia, racism, hatred, fear, mistrust of the other will not only affect a single group.  It will not only be directed at African Americans, or Muslims, or immigrants, or Jews – it will ultimately be directed at every minority group, and as that happens, it brings us all down, coarsening our society and our culture and diminishing our values.

     So in Roseanne’s tweet, you saw one reaction to what is going on, and that was to buy into it and to contribute to it.  To give in, either to the fear that she felt, or the distrust, or the racism, or maybe a combination of all of those things.  But in Howard Schultz’s letter, you saw a different reaction.  Not only the apology, the sincere regret, but also the determination to actually do something about it, to create something through his stores that would help, even if in a small way, to make our society more tolerant, more open, and more accepting.  So that, as he wrote in his letter, a Starbucks store will be a place where everyone feels welcome, regardless of where they’ve come from, what language they speak, what color their skin is, or what faith they believe in.  Don’t we need more places in America like that?

     The Torah would suggest the answer to that question is yes.  One thing Judaism is quite clear about is that God created all people, and that all people are equal in God’s eyes.  One faith tradition is not better than another, one skin color is not better than another, one ethnic identity is not better than another.  Our job is to always remember that.  If we are able to do that, if we are able to remember it, we will be living more authentically Jewish lives.  We will also, one conversation at a time, one interaction at a time, one friendship at a time, rise up together on a tide that draws us closer to one another, and to God.

may that be God’s will, may that be our work, and may we do it together – 

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Goodness in the Wilderness

This is a text version of my sermon from this past Shabbat, 5/18/18 –

     We began reading this morning the fourth book of the Torah, called in Hebrew Bamidbar, and in English the Book of Numbers.  The book is primarily concerned with the wanderings of the Israelites through the wilderness in the course of their forty year journey to the Promised Land.  By and large it does not paint a pretty picture.  The Israelites are, to use a technical term, ‘kvetchy.’  They complain frequently to Moses, about just about everything, from the difficulty of the journey, to the quality of the food, to the qualifications of Moses to be their leader.  That complaining is a theme that runs throughout the entire book.

     And the brief snippets of narrative that the Book of Numbers offers are no better, and in fact might even be worse.  It is in Numbers where we find the disastrous episode of the quail, where God gets so angry at the people for not being satisfied with manna that God gives them so much quail to eat that they all become sick.  It is also in Numbers where we will read about the rebellion of Korah, a communal agitator who challenges the leadership of Moses.  And Numbers contains the infamous episode of the spies, who go to scout out the land, bring a bad report back to the people, and cause God to decide that none of the Israelites who left Egypt will ever get to see the Promised Land.  Or if you want to read about a family squabble you can look at Numbers 12, which describes Aaron and Miriam challenging the authority of their brother Moses, and then as punishment Miriam’s public shaming.  Last but not least it is in Numbers where Moses will strike the rock, and will be forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land.

     Not a pretty picture, by any means.

     And I’ve always wondered, wasn’t there anything good going on when the Israelites were wandering for all those long years?  If you think about it, there must have been!  It was forty years!  There must have been weddings.  And after the weddings, babies were born.  Friendships were formed.  I am sure there were countless acts of gemilut hasadim, of loving kindness, of one person helping another.  I imagine there were many sacred moments, celebrations of holidays, brises, and probably there were people who were gravely ill, and recovered, and their family felt tremendous gratitude.  There must have been hundreds and hundreds of good things that happened to the people as they wandered towards the Promised Land, but the Torah doesn’t describe any of it.

     On the one hand, I understand.  In any dramatic narrative you have to have tension.  That is what is interesting.  That is what catches people’s attention.  Imagine if you went to a movie, and the plot was as follows:  two people are married, they have two children, they get up each morning and go to work, they are successful in their jobs, they come home each night, have dinner as a family, the kids tell the parents they are getting straight ‘As’ in school, the parents put the children to bed, watch an episode of a Netflix show, and then get into bed themselves, kissing each other good night before they fall asleep. Who would watch that?  It would be boring!

     But still, reading through the Book of Numbers, you can’t help thinking you’d like a little bit of that ‘boring.’  It can feel like an unrelenting tale of woe and misfortune, as if nothing good ever happens, or ever will.  As if the only thing the people know how to do is complain.  As if there is no goodness at work in the community, no good people going about their day to day lives and doing the best they can to live with kindness, compassion and mercy.

     If you think about it, it is not unlike the way Israel is often portrayed in the news media and the international community.  It has been a difficult week for Israel.  I am sure almost everyone in the room is aware of the terrible situation at the Gaza border crossing earlier in the week, and if you pay any attention to the news you know that some 60 Palestinians were killed, and many others wounded, as they demonstrated and attempted to break through the border fence.  

     At this point there have been thousands upon thousands of words written about what happened.  Much of the debate tends to fall along political lines, between left and right, the left tending to blame Israel for what happened, the right tending to blame the Palestinians, particularly Hamas.  We know for certain that there were Hamas fighters at the border, and we know that Hamas incites violence, and that it has a stated goal of destroying the State of Israel.  That we know.  

     We also know that no Jew who cherishes the values of our tradition feels proud of what happened at that border this week.  There has been tremendous angst, both in Israel, and in the Jewish community abroad, about the loss of life on the Palestinian side, and this is something we should be proud of!  That we value life that highly, even the lives of those opposed to us, even the lives of those whose stated goal is to destroy Israel, that we feel guilty, and we worry, and we wonder if something could have been done differently so that fewer lives would have been lost.  

     This is not to say that Israel is perfect.  There is no perfect country in the world.  The United States is not perfect.  Israel also is not perfect.  But Israel is not all bad, the way it is all too often painted in the news.  Sometimes you can read the news about Israel and it is like reading the book of Numbers.  All that you find are descriptions of the tragedies and the deaths and the condemnations and the UN votes.  One grim narrative after another after another.  That is the Book of Numbers.  

     So sometimes, and maybe particularly when Israel has had a difficult week, we need to remember what goodness has come into the world because Israel has existed for 70 years.  We should remember that Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East where equal rights for men and women are upheld, where freedom of the press is respected, and where religious diversity is allowed.  We need to remember that Israel is a nation of learning with great universities, libraries, and museums.  Since Israel’s founding 10 Nobel prizes have been awarded to Israeli scientists, more per capita than any other country in the world.  Their discoveries have been shared with every nation, and the entire world has benefitted from them.  This week it might be good to remember  that Israel is a country with state of the art medical facilities where Jew or Arab, Christian or Muslim is cared for.  We should remember that Israeli agricultural innovations are used all over the world, from South Africa to Columbia to Nigeria to India, and help feed thousands and thousands of people.  Even though we ask you to turn your phones off in shul, we should remember that there are cell phone and computer technologies that are relied on across the globe that were created in Israel.  And we should recall – in a week that has been hard for Israel – that the first ingestible video camera was invented there, that other medical technologies, invented in Israel, are used all over the world, and are saving lives every day.

     Israel is not perfect, that is true.  And it has been a hard week.  That is also true.  But Israel and her people are constantly striving to do better, to be better, and to make the world itself a better place.  May they continue to strive for those goals, and for the greatest goal of all, peace, in the years ahead – 

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The King’s Speech

You may know that Rabbi Saroken and I spent a good part of the week at the Pearlstone Center in Westminster at the annual Rabbinic Training Institute.  Every January some 70 Conservative rabbis from around the country gather to study, talk, pray, eat, even drink a little bit – and of course sing karaoke.  I will simply say after the Wednesday night session, if you haven’t seen a bunch of rabbis singing karaoke than you haven’t really lived!

One of the morning text classes I took was a Bible class that focused on characters in the text who struggle with disabilities.  The idea behind the course was that if we can see disabilities in some of our biblical heroes than our communities and synagogues will be more open and welcoming to people in the disabled community.  With close textual reading our teacher, Dr. Ora Prouser, showed us how Esau could be seen as a person struggling with ADHD.  Jacob, Esau’s brother, lives most of his life with a significant limp.  And perhaps most famously of all, we poured through texts describing Moses, thinking about the disability that he struggled with throughout his life, which is?  Yes, his speech.  Although the text is unclear as to what exactly Moses’ problem is – it has been suggested that perhaps he stuttered, or had a severe speech impediment –  it is absolutely clear that Moses had trouble talking.

There are multiple occasions where Moses reminds God of his difficulty with speaking, one of them in this morning’s Torah portion.  When God tells Moses to bring a message to Pharaoh, Moses responds by saying “אני ערל שפתים ואיך ישמע אלי פרעה – I am of impeded speech, how will Pharaoh hear me?!”  Almost implying that his speech is unintelligible.  God at first seems to pay no heed, but the truth is if you look a bit closer God seems to agree – how do we know this?  God says to Moses “OK, I’ll speak to you, you speak to Aaron, your brother, and then Aaron will be the one to speak to Pharaoh and the people.”  We can presume that Aaron, being Moses’ brother, can understand him, just as a parent of a child learning to speak can understand what the child is saying even thought to everyone else it sounds like gibberish.

I always knew about these passages, and the truth is most people, if you ask them, will be familiar with the idea that Moses has trouble speaking.  But what I had never really thought about before was that Moses carried this struggle throughout his life.  If you take out conversations that Moses has with God, which are already something different, and if you take out the book of Deuteronomy, which is also a book that is distinct in the Torah, and if you just look at the Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, you’ll find a Moses who struggles to speak.  There are a few short speeches here and there, but for the most part Moses speaks in short spurts, a few words at a time, and by and large seems to speak as little as possible.

You may be thinking of the movie The King’s Speech, which tells the story of King George VI.  I don’t want to get into all of the palace intrigue, and the abdication of the throne by the older brother, but if you know the story you know that when King George came to the throne he had a terrible stuttering problem.  The movie follows his efforts to defeat that difficulty, and with the help of a speech therapist he is ultimately able to address his people, both on the radio and in person, with moving words during some of Britain’s darkest days, helping them maintain faith and hope for a better future.

The parallels between our Torah narrative and Moses, and the story about the King are clear.  Both are the leaders of their people, both have deep misgivings about whether they are suited to the roles they have been called to, and of course, both struggle with their ability to speak.  But there is one distinct difference.  The King overcomes his speech difficulties, but Moses never does.  Imagine the pressure he felt walking in to Pharaoh’s throne room knowing how hard it would be to get his words out properly.  Or the humiliation he might have felt having to whisper God’s laws into Aaron’s ear, who would then proclaim them to the people.  But despite this challenge, Moses persists and, if you’ll excuse the expression, carries on.  He never again brings up the fact that it is hard for him to properly speak.  He goes about his business, using Aaron when he needs to, sometimes speaking for himself when there is no other recourse.  Despite his difficulty with speech, he is able to lead his people to freedom.

Now I have a sense  – mostly from my own work – of how difficult it can be to speak properly, even when you DON’T have a speech impediment.  As a leader, your words carry real weight, and what you say makes a difference.  People want to hear from you, they want to know what is on your mind, what you think about issue x,y, or z.  The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope.  The wrong words can have the opposite effect – they can break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or large scale, into a country.

Judaism was always sensitive to the power of words.  It is no accident that God creates the universe at the beginning of the Torah by using words.  That is an illustration of the power of words to create and bring goodness into the world.  But our tradition was well aware that the opposite side of the coin is also true, and that words can destroy, damage and hurt.  I imagine most of us are familiar with the concept of לשון הרע, commonly translated as gossip, but literally meaning ‘evil speech.’  This concept is considered so important in Jewish thought that the Chafetz Hayim, one of the great rabbis of the 19th century, wrote an entire book about the subject that he called שמירת הלשון, the Guarding of Language.

But this morning I would like to bring to your attention another Jewish concept about proper speech, less well known than לשון הרע , a concept called לשון נקי, which literally translated would mean ‘clean language.’  It is a simple and straight forward idea – when we speak, we should strive to elevate our language, to speak to our fellow human beings – or to speak about them – in the same way we might try to speak to or about God.  And that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse, or yell, when we rant and rave, we diminish others, but even more so we diminish ourselves.

That is a lesson we should all remember, in every interaction we have, whether with friends or family, whether at work or standing in line at the food store, whether we are a rabbi, an accountant, a teacher, whether Moses or the King of England, or even the President of the United States.  Hateful words, especially from leaders, will build a hateful world.  But clean language – לשון נקי – elevated language – will help us all to rise.  God willing in the months ahead we will figure out a way to leave the hate behind, and to rise together to build a more hopeful, peaceful, tolerant world for all.

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Miriam and Wonder Woman

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/10/17

Many of you know that I grew up reading and collecting comic books, and my fondness for the heroes and villains of those fantastical stories has stayed with me ever since.  I rarely read a comic book these days, but I still generally will go out to the theater to see the newest super hero movie that comes to town.  And there are plenty of movies to choose from – Batman vs. Superman, Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, Spiderman, X -Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie industry has long ago learned that these movies, particularly when made well, are profitable, and that they also generate RETURN business – that is to say, there is often a second, third, and sometimes even fourth installment in the series.

But despite the abundance – or some might say over abundance – of super hero films, it is rare to see one of these movies garner the kind of attention that the new Wonder Woman movie has received.  The movie has not only been a rousing success – it has already sold over 300 million dollars in tickets – it has also been a critical success, receiving an impressive score of 92% on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.  And in addition to all of that, the movie has been notable for two other reasons, one from a feminist perspective, one from a Jewish perspective.  Let me talk about the Jewish perspective first.

It was announced early on that the role of Wonder Woman would be played by an Israeli woman named Gal Gadot.  As an 18 year old Ms. Godot won the Miss Israel contest in 2004, and then spent time as a professional model.  Her acting career has really only taken off recently, and with the Wonder Woman film she has truly arrived.  Without question the biggest role ever played by an Israeli actor, and Jews around the world have been scheping nahas, proud of the success of a native Sabra who served in the Israeli army.

Becky and Josh and Merav and I went to see the movie Tuesday night.  We knew going in that Gal Gadot was Israeli, but we were all surprised at HOW Israeli she was.  Throughout the film she speaks with an obvious Israeli accent, and her mannerisms are completely Israeli as well.  If you close your eyes and listen to her voice you can easily imagine you are on Ben Yehuda St in Jerusalem sitting at one of the outdoor cafes, sipping a coffee.  The second thing that struck me about the movie Jewishly is that it is set during the first World War, and the villains are mostly German soldiers.  And there are a series of scenes where Wonder Woman almost single handedly defeats entire regiments of the German army.  And when you are Jewish, and you know that the woman playing this character is Israeli, and she is defeating the Germans, it just has a certain resonance to it.  The movie itself is fine – it is well done, it has terrific special effects – but at the end of the day it is a super hero movie – but if you are Jewish, it is worthwhile going to see it, just for these two reasons.

But it is also worthwhile going to see because of the national conversation it is generating about women, women’s roles, and equality in the workplace and elsewhere.   Women have been flocking to this movie – in fact, a phenomenon has developed where groups of women will go together to see the film.  Or women are going with their daughters, and in many cases reporting that the experience of watching a film with the central character of a woman who is stronger than any man, self assured, brilliant, and courageous – who is truly the hero and does not need to be rescued by a man –  is a powerful experience, one they can’t ever remember having in their lives.

A couple of observations.

The first is that men should also go see Wonder Woman for this very same reason.  In metaphoric terms it addresses, in a profound way, the power imbalance that still exists in our society between men and women.  I don’t have to go through all of the statistics because I imagine you are familiar with them – that woman get paid lower salaries when working the same job a male counterpart is working, that the vast majority of CEO roles in Fortune 500 companies are filled by men – about %95.  That women are treated differently in the work place, have different expectations to fulfill, the list goes on and on.  And the simple truth is we men are not as sensitive to these issues as we should be.  This movie will not resolve any of these problems, but it will  – in fact it is – helping to raise awareness about them.

The second thing is  – lucky for me – the movie ties in very well to this week’s Torah portion.  Gal Gadot is not the first strong Jewish woman, even if she is the first to play the lead in a super hero movie.  It has always been fascinating to me that the Torah, a text that is close to 2500 years old at this point, is filled with examples of women who are strong, courageous, and filled with a love of their tradition.  You might very well expect the opposite, given that the Torah comes from a world that was almost entirely dominated by men.  But you would never know that reading the stories of our ancestors.    Sarah and Rebecca are powerful figures in the Torah, who in many ways orchestrate the dynamics of their families, making key decisions about how the tradition will be transmitted to the next generation despite the wishes of their husbands.  Rachel is no slouch herself, neither is Leah.

And neither is Miriam, Moses’ sister who plays a central role in this week’s reading.  We know Miriam well from her adventures in the book of Exodus, the woman who manages to save her brother Moses, get him into the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter, and then to work out a way for him to be taken care of by his own mother, no mean feat.  She is called a prophet, the only woman so called in the entire Torah, and she leads the Israelite women in their own musical celebration after the crossing of the sea.

In this week’s portion her role is more complicated.  She and Aaron speak out against their brother Moses, and God becomes angry at them because of it.  God calls them out and scolds them, ‘how did you not shrink from speaking out against my servant Moses?!’  And then God punishes – Miriam.  Only Miriam.  For some reason, Aaron escapes scot free, but Miriam is afflicted with white scales that cover her body.  And I’ve always wondered – why isn’t Aaron punished?  Why only Miriam?

The traditional answer to that question is that Miriam was the instigator, that she led the charge, and Aaron was just tagging along.  So she was punished, while he was simply scolded.  But maybe there is another reason – perhaps, in a world dominated by men, there was a general discomfort with the idea that a woman would publicly challenge a man.  For Aaron it was considered to be OK to confront his brother Moses, but for Miriam – a woman – unacceptable.  So she was punished, while Aaron escaped unscathed.

We might say the more things change the more they stay the same.  Far too often, and for too long, women’s voices have been silenced or ignored.  The new Wonder Woman film with its Israeli star reminds us that we’ve come a long way in this regard.  But at the very same time it reminds us we still have a long ways to go.

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The Courage to Quit

a text version of this past Shabbat’s sermon – 

     It is with some trepidation that I begin my remarks this morning by talking about a NY Yankees player, namely Derek Jeter, the shortstop who announced this week that he will be playing his last season this year.  Orioles fans may breath a sigh of relief at the news actually, because Jeter has tormented the Orioles over the years, among many other teams in the league, and I think that there is no question that as soon as he is eligible he will be elected to the baseball hall of fame.  

     And I bring this up this morning not because I am a Yankees fan, which I am not, but rather because of the straight forward and yet at the same time poignant statement that Jeter released this week in which he announced his impending retirement.  The statement is elegant and beautifully done, very humble, and worth reading if you are interested in such things, but it was this particular paragraph that caught my attention:

 

“Last year was a tough one for me. As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle. The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward.”

 

     The realization is one thing.  Understanding that you are just not at the top of your game anymore, that you can’t do it the way you used to be able to do it, and maybe it is time to hang up the spikes. I think people have those realizations all the time.  But acting on the realization is a totally different matter, and commonly instead of letting go, people try to hang on.  Jeter not only realized it was time to go – he actually followed up on it, he acted on it.  He had what my friend Chuck Schevitz calls ‘the courage to quit.’

     On the surface that might sound like a term that is oxymoronic.  Because normally we associate quitting with the opposite of courage.  Courage is about sticking it out, courage is about hanging tough in the face of adversity.  Courage is the can do spirit, the Miracle on Ice, facing up to something when the odds are stacked against us.  It is a value that is woven into our society – the one thing we would never want to be called is a quitter.  I remember my high school soccer coach saying to us ‘it is much worse to be a quitter than a loser.’  

     But the truth is, sometimes it takes more courage to admit defeat, to step away – to quit – than it does to keep plowing forward.  Not that tenacity isn’t an important value – it is!  Where would Jews be without tenacity?  But it shouldn’t be the only value.  And I think you could make the argument that knowing when to quit is as crucial a life skill as tenacity is, or determination, or ‘sticktuitiveness.’  And not just in terms of sports, but in many areas of life.  Knowing when to step away from a job, or knowing when to get out of a relationship, or make a change in a college major, or deciding as you get older that it is time to move from weekly basketball games to weekly golf games.  You’ve got to know when to quit, and then you’ve got to have the courage to do it.

     This week we are reading from the Torah Parshat Ki Tissa, the portion that records the events of the Sin of the Golden Calf.  It is a story that we all know quite well – Moses is on top of the mountain for 40 days and nights, as God is communicating to him the laws of the Torah.  Because Moses is gone for such a long time the people begin to get nervous – they haven’t heard from him, or seen him, they don’t know what has happened to him.  They go to Aaron, Aaron facilitates the building of an idol, the people worship the idol, the Golden Calf.  On top of the mountain God realizes what is going on, tells Moses, and Moses rushes down the mountain holding the tablets of the law in his hands.  He reaches the camp, sees the people dancing around the idol, and then וישלח מידיו את הלוחות וישבר אתם תחת ההר – Moses threw the tablets from his hands, and he shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

     Commentators have struggled for thousands of years to understand how Moses could have done what he did.  Rashi, the classic biblical commentator says that Moses saw the people sinning, and he said to himself how can I give the Torah, something that is holy, to people who are sinners, who are ‘unholy’.  But the simplest explanation is in the text itself – Moses was angry, so upset that he was in a rage, not thinking of what he was doing, like a person who is angry and slams their hand against the wall.  He simply lost his head, and in his anger he broke the tablets.  

     But this morning I would like to propose a different explanation for Moses’ action.  I think at that moment he was faced with a choice.  The mission he had been on, which was to bring the people to God, had obviously failed.  And he knew it!  That moment, when he came down, and saw the people dancing around the golden calf, he knew it wasn’t working out the way it was supposed to work out.  So his choice was this:  either try to stick with the plan, which was symbolized by the tablets, or get rid of the tablets, go back to square one, go down and take care of the people, get things in order, and then maybe try it again.  In a way you might look at it like this – Moses had to choose between God, and the people.  God – God’s perfection, God’s wisdom, God’s Torah, God’s tablets – or the people, sinful, stubborn, imperfect and unwise.  When he threw down the tablets, Moses chose the people.  God would have to wait.  

     And I would argue in that choice Moses showed that he had the courage to quit.  It was time to give up on the plan as it had been conceived.  It wasn’t working – Moses knew it, and I think God knew it too.  But it was Moses who understood that he had to act on that knowledge.  You remember the old Kenny Rogers song about the Gambler – ‘you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.’  Moses knew it was time to walk away, and then he actually did it.

     We should be able to find the same wisdom in our own lives.  With the help and support of family and friends, with our own courage and strength, to recognize when the moments arrive in our own lives, and the time comes to let one door close, so that we can open another one.  I’ll conclude with these lines, from a poem by Edgar Albert Guest called ‘On Quitting:’

 

How much grit do you think you’ve got?

Can you turn from joys that you like a lot?

Have you ever tested yourself to know

How far with yourself your will can go?

If you want to know if you have grit,

Just pick out a joy that you like, and quit.

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Whither Moses?

There is an exquisite detail, oft overlooked, in this past week’s Torah portion:  Moses is missing.  The portion itself doesn’t really need Moses.  It is for the most part a detailed description of the priestly garments that were to be worn when the priests officiated at the sacrificial services in ancient times.  We know already that Moses will not serve the people in this way.  Instead, Aaron and his sons will minister over the formal rituals and rites of the Temple cult.  So why even bother to note that Moses does not appear in the portion, his name not even mentioned a single time?

The old adage is ‘silence speaks volumes,’ and so it is here.  For this is the only Torah portion, from the point Moses is first mentioned at the beginning of Exodus, where his name does not appear.  The only one.  That is to say in every Torah portion in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy you will find Moses’ name.  But not here, in Parshat T’tzaveh.

Perhaps those who view the world through a secular lens will write this off as mere coincidence, just simple chance in terms of how the portions were divided so long ago.  But the classical biblical commentators refuse to see the text that way.  If every verse, even every letter can have meaning, certainly there must be significance to this starkly visible disappearance.  Whither Moses?  And perhaps more importantly, why did he go?

One traditional explanation is that Moses is trying to make things easier for Aaron, his brother.  The portion focuses on those priestly garments, and were Moses a presence it would be distracting, taking the people’s attention (or perhaps the reader’s) from the High Priest and his high station.  Moses’ prophecy is a delicate thing, a genie in a bottle, difficult to control and predict and understand.  The priests, meanwhile, are entirely predictable.  Their ancient rites never vary, from day to day, month to month, year to year.  Moses knows that ultimately the people will need the security of repetitive ritual and not the sturm and drang of prophecy.  So he politely steps aside, out of the spotlight, thereby enabling a less dramatic but far more reliable and accessible religious system for the people.

I wonder.  There is the hint of a bitter-sweet wind in the air.  For all of his sacrifices, for all of his work, and despite his total loyalty to God and God’s mission, Moses will be cast aside.  Perhaps in the patterns of the priestly garments, in their weavings and colors and carvings, he sees that soon his time too will come.  And so to protect himself he begins to step away.  

The lyrics to one of my favorite Jackson Browne songs, My Opening Farewell, come to mind:

Suddenly it’s so hard to find
The sound of the words to speak her troubled mind
So I’m offering these to her as if to be kind:
There’s a train everyday leaving either way
There’s a world, you know
There’s a way to go
And you’ll soon be gone — that’s just as well
This is my opening farewell

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