the way of peace

I gave this d’var Torah on July 1, 2016, in East Jerusalem as part of an Encounter program. 

When Erica called me earlier this week to ask me to give the d’var Torah today, I answered the phone from Nabi Saleh, a small village in the West Bank about 30 minutes northwest of Ramallah. I was standing on the rooftop deck of an unfinished and abandoned mansion, looking out over a vast landscape that included a nearby settlement, while a 20-year-old boy pointed to different houses belonging to friends and family: “This one is under demolition order, and this one, and this one, and this one . . .” When I asked him what he hopes for the future, he said, “A free Palestine,” and then gestured towards the west: “On a clear day you can see Tel Aviv from here. I’d like to go there someday.”

This week’s parshah, Korach, includes the story of the uprising of the eponymous villain against Moshe and Aharon. Korach challenges their leadership: He, too, is a Levite, and their first cousin — and therefore equally entitled to the priesthood. His charge of nepotism and dramatic protest actions are unsuccessful, to say the least, and he and his followers are either swallowed up by the earth or consumed by a fire.

hollyhocks at ocha in east jerusalem; photo by salem pearce

The Netivot Shalom, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, a contemporary Hasidic commentator, offers an interesting diagnosis of Korach. I’ll just note that I am excited to share one of his teachings, as he is a favorite of my mentor and the rabbi at the shul at which I am the rabbinic intern. Our learning each week almost always centers on the Rebbe’s Torah commentary, and I’ve missed it this summer. Netivot Shalom means “ways of peace” — an orientation that feels especially relevant today.

The Netivot Shalom says that Korach has too much yeshut, too much sense of his own existence. He notes:

A person who is in the aspect of yesh, “existence,” who takes up space in his own eyes — it seems to him that his fellow is bothering him and standing in his way. Even if the friend has not done any harm to him in any way, because of his trait of yeshut, he has the feeling that his friend is bothering him and taking up his place, and out of this he comes into conflict.

Korach felt that Moshe and Aharon had what he should have. They were occupying his space, standing in his way, bothering him by their very existence — all because he felt too strongly the importance of his own self.

But the way of peace, the Netivot Shalom says, is the breaking down of the ego and the submission to something greater than oneself. Then we can know that no one is standing in our way, that this other person is not bothering us. Then we are at peace in the world.

The Torah makes clear that Korach’s attitude and action had deadly consequences for himself, his fellow mutineers, and for the whole community of Israel, many of whom are later struck down by a plague. But the Talmud alludes also to a different kind of damage that he did to himself. The rabbis puzzle over the strange grammar of the beginning of the parshah, ויקח קרח, “Korach took,” with no direct object. What? What did he take? the rabbis ask. They end up reading the words as an indication that Korach made a bad “purchase” (מקח) for himself. Refusing to step aside, to push our ego to the side, means becoming stuck. The world keeps moving around us, but we can’t join that movement.

Looking out over that vast landscape from the highest point in Nabi Saleh, a tiny village of 600 people, what flickered across my thoughts was, “There’s enough.” In addition to a problem of ego, Korach seems to me to be, not unrelatedly, reacting to a fear of scarcity, that there wasn’t going to be a place for him. But we know from the beginning of Bemidbar that each person was counted in the census, that the tribes were all arranged around the mishkan, and that there were land provisions made for everyone. Korach’s sense of his own importance, combined with erroneous analysis of his own position, leads to the tragedy described in this week’s parshah.

My hope for us today is an orientation of abundance, that we have enough capacity and compassion to hear what is said. That we can put away our own sense of importance and our fear that there is not enough, in order to be moved, even just a little. And so may we all be blessed with the peace that can result from this shift.

disagreement for the sake of heaven

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on February 12, 2016. I share it today, the 9th of Adar on the Hebrew calendar, for reasons that are explained below.

A mishnah in Pirkei Avot tells us:

Every disagreement that is for the sake of heaven will continue to exist, but one that is not for the sake of heaven will not continue to exist.  Which is the [kind of] disagreement that is for the sake of heaven? Such as was the disagreement between Hillel and Shammai; and which is the [kind of] disagreement that is not for the sake of heaven? Such as was the disagreement of Korah and his entire congregation.

Today begins the Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict, so designated because of the holiday that falls in the middle of it, a Jewish holiday you’ve probably never heard of, on the 9th of Adar. One source tells us that the rabbis declared the 9th of Adar a fast day, because on that day several millennia ago, a longstanding, healthy disagreement turned destructive.

The mishnah records the divide between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. They disagreed about almost everything — but, the mishnah notes, they engaged in these debates in a healthy and constructive manner, via machloket l’shem shamayim, or “disagreement for the sake of heaven.”

Ironically enough — or perhaps completely fittingly — our sources disagree about what exactly happened on the 9th of Adar: Some say it was simply that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed in a way they hadn’t before, in an unproductive manner, while others report that they actually came to blows, and thousands died. One rabbi says he has never even heard of the fast. And then, alternate dates are offered for these events: the 3rd of Adar, the 4th of Adar, the 7th of Adar. It turns out, we can’t even agree on the details of this famous disagreement.

But the prevalence of the Hillel and Shammai debates throughout the mishnah attests the depth of their disagreement. Nonetheless, the mishnah  calls their relationship illustrative of machloket l’shem shamayim, “disagreement for the sake of heaven.”

Frustratingly, the mishnah never spells out the characteristics that made the Hillel and Shammai debate machloket l’shem shamayim. So later commentators hazard some guesses.

One notes that the houses of Hillel and Shammai maintained close relationships, their followers marrying each other and eating in each others’ houses. We’re also told that their motivations were beyond “winning” — they wanted to solve problems. And each listened to the other side and were open to admitting mistakes. Finally, it is said that each equally spoke “the words of the living Gd,” even though they held opposing views.

So this week, and especially the 9th of Adar, is dedicated to increasing public awareness around the values and skills of constructive conflict, modeled for us through the relationship of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai — both in its brilliant success over generations, and in its utter failure on one 9th of Adar.

Recently I joined the Community Hevre Kadisha of Greater Boston. Hevre Kadisha is generally translated as “Holy Society.” It’s a group of volunteers who are on call to prepare a deceased person for burial according to Jewish tradition. The Hevra Kadisha’s ultimate concern is to care for the deceased with respect and kindness. I have been privileged to assist a team of women a couple of times over the past month in what is called tahara. There are several principles involved in this purification ritual that have felt deeply meaningful to me, and especially relevant to this week as I learn these ancient rites and commemorate this Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict.

The ritual of tahara begins and ends with the attendants asking forgiveness of the deceased person (meyta in Hebrew) for any indignity that we might inadvertently cause. We declare that all that is about to happen, or that has happened, is for the sake of her honor. A main consideration during tahara is not to turn our backs to the meyta, as well as not pass anything over her body, as we move around the room to prepare her for burial. All of these practices remind us that death has not diminished her essential value as a human being, as one created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of Gd.

As I recently stood at the head of a meyta — a position that is always meant to be occupied — I thought about applying these standards to our interactions with each other. What if we always attempted to engage each other with an intention of dignity? What if we strove never to turn our backs on each other? What if we tried never to pass each other over? What if we committed to remaining present with each other? What if we treated the living as we do the dead?

This week, parshat T’rumah seems to encourage just that. It describes the ideal of being truly present for one another and hints at how to achieve this presence. We find this model deep within the detailed instructions for building the mishkan, or tabernacle, which the Israelites built at the beginning of their journey in the desert and that would come to be the meeting place between them and Gd. Amidst directions for the poles and the curtains and the rings and the clasps, there is the blueprint for the golden keruvim, the winged creatures that are meant to sit on the cover of the ark. Their wings shield the cover of the ark, and they are placed, we are told, p’neyhem ish el achiv, that is, with “their faces toward one another.”

Rabbi David Jaffe, whom I had the opportunity to learn from a few weeks ago, teaches this about the keruvim: Their wings spread over their heads and almost touch at the top. From the space between the wings, Gd says to Moshe, “I will be known to you there and will speak with you…” (Exodus 25:22). A place of knowing and being truly known stands at the center of this structure. This ark is the centerpiece of the mishkan and central to achieving a connection with the divine. Gd speaks from above the keruvim, who face each other in a gesture of genuine relationship.

The rabbis pick up on this powerful metaphor. They teach that the keruvim faced each other when the Israelites behaved well — and turned away from each other when idolatry and oppression reigned. The implication is that it’s only when the keruvim are p’neyhem ish el achiv, “their faces towards one another,” when the Israelites are in productive relationship with each other, that Gd can speak.

Millennia ago, Hillel and Shammai were sitting in the beit midrash p’neyhem ish el achiv, “their faces towards one another,” and both spoke the words of the living Gd. In the following thousands of years, Jews have continued to observe the rites of tahara, its practitioners standing p’neyhem ish el achiv in relationship to the dead, and affording them a last and ultimate act of dignity. And this week in parshat T’rumah we read about the keruvim placed p’neyhem ish el achiv, allowing the presence of Gd into the midst of the Israelites.

During this election year, this ideal of constructive conflict can seem like a mere fantasy. Winning is most definitely the goal, and no one admits mistakes. And there are some candidates whose words are so repugnant that I don’t believe they could belong to any living Gd.

Speaking a little closer to home, I feel similarly when the larger Jewish community tries to talk about Israel/Palestine, or questions of personal status, or the role of women in ritual, or the many other things about which we disagree. So maybe we can’t realistically hold the American political system to this high standard — but I believe we can start this work in our own communities. And that constructive conflict can have ripple effects.

The turned faces of the keruvim on top of the ark are a beautiful metaphor for the conditions of both intimacy and estrangement. This idea has powerful implications for our connections with people and with the divine. When we face each other in relationship, we allow the divine to speak.

of superheroes and soothsayers

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on December 11, 2015.

Over Thanksgiving I was able to go home, to Texas, where all of my family lives. The most precious time was with my two nephews and my niece. The day after Thanksgiving, Archer, the four-year-old, pulled me upstairs to play. He decided he wanted to wear his Halloween costume, and so he showed me the basket for his dress-up clothes. He begin pulling out his pink tutu, cowboy hat, green dress, etc. He finally got to his firefighter costume. He carefully donned the hat and coat and asked me what I thought. When I suggested he might need shoes to be a firefighter, he obligingly strapped on his pink sandals. Ready? I said. Not yet, he replied. He pulled out of the pocket of his coat a laminated card with four illustrations. Okay, he announced. This is what we have to do. These are the different things that can happen, he said, pointing to the card. And so we went from room to room, first putting out a house fire; then a forest fire that spread from a campfire; and finally a kitchen fire that started from a pot left on the stove. And then we rescued a cat in a tree. What else can we do?, I asked. That’s all there is, he replied. Let’s do them again!

My brother is an engineer — and my grandfather was an engineer — and Archer has certainly inherited their exactitude and penchant for following directions precisely. So I know that it’s not just a child’s assurance of safety that encompasses his approach to make-believe. For Archer, the card that comes with the jacket tells you what to do. These, and only these, are the threats that firefighters face. They are circumscribed, and they are predictable.

I came to Texas for Thanksgiving with the heavy weight of the brokenness of the world. I continue to be sickened by the terrorist attacks at home and abroad, whether by knife-wielders in Jerusalem — where many of my classmates are now studying — or gun-toters here. The sense of insecurity that I feel on a daily basis is profound, and as I took part in Archer’s highly circumscribed set of crises, I wondered whether I will be able to give him — and my other nephew and niece — anything other than a world of out-of-control unpredictability.

I felt this again on Wednesday night, when a small group of us from Nehar Shalom went together to the Boston Candlelight Vigil Against Gun Violence, part of a week of similar events nationwide. The event took place in what I assume was the small sanctuary of the very large First Church of Boston in Back Bay.

There was a modest crowd, at least in comparison to my expectations — which provided a marked contrast to the number of victims of gun violence who were remembered. A candle was lit for each of the victims of gun violence this year in the Boston area. And then attendees were invited to light candles for their own loved ones who had been victims of gun violence. And then the pastor lit a candle for each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia while the number of victims of gun violence in each place were read aloud. I worried we might burn the church down with all of that fire. (And this was not one of the scenarios on Archer’s card!) Even the presence of the large Boston police officer who spoke briefly was diminished in the shadow of the flames. Before and after the service, on a large screen at the front of the sanctuary, a tribute video played, with pictures of victims of gun violence — a name, date, and location with each. The dates ranged back as far as 1990, with the dead all over the country. The enormity of what we face overwhelmed me, and I felt helpless and scared. I don’t mean to criticize the organizers of this important event — I mean only to share my experience.

In that moment, sitting in a small chapel memorializing the victims of this seemingly unending, volatile scourge, what we call “Gun Violence in the United States,” I flashed to an episode of my favorite TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Yes, you can laugh. What, you thought I was going to say the parshah? Themes of Chanukah? Words from our venerable rabbinic tradition? In my world, there are at least two Torahs, and one of them is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show is about a superhero in Southern California who fights the forces of darkness — but on a metaphorical level, it’s also about what we do as human beings when the monsters come. In Buffy’s world, as in ours, the monsters always come. Of course, in Buffy’s case, it’s because the town of Sunnydale also happens to sit on the hellmouth.

The episode “The Wish” explores an alternate reality: What would the town be like if Buffy weren’t there? The vampires have taken over, but most of its human residents have adjusted to the constant fear. They have curfews, avoid the bright clothing that attracts vampires, and have weekly memorial services for the ever-accumulating dead. They can’t take on the vampires directly. Horrific death is a matter of when, not if. This is just how things are.

Throughout the episode, we see Buffy’s would-be mentor begin to realize that they’re living in an parallel universe. He came to the town to help Buffy, but she never showed up. And in the meantime, the town of Sunnydale surrendered to the darkness. He finally figures out that this reality is the result of a magical spell — and that he can break the spell by destroying the amulet that was used to cast it. As he prepares to smash it, the demon who cast the spell taunts him: How does he know the other world is any better than this one? “Because it has to be,” he says. With that leap of faith, he rights the world — monsters still exist, but does the person who fights those monsters.

Sitting in that sanctuary, I felt like the residents of Sunnydale. I don’t want for us Americans to accept gun violence as they do vampires — but we don’t have a superhero, and we don’t have a magic amulet. We do, however, have an example in the Jewish tradition. (Yes, now we’re getting to that Torah!)

Parshat Miketz also contains a looming menace that threatens death. In this part of Genesis we see the long-forgotten Yosef finally remembered by Paro’s cupbearer and called to interpret Paro’s dreams of fat and lean cows and of full and withered ears of grain. Like Archer’s firefighter card that precisely delineates scenarios, Yosef accurately predicts seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. And then he recommends preparation. The job is given to Yosef himself, who successfully executes his task — and then some, as he’s ultimately able during the famine to feed more than just the people of Egypt because of his careful planning.

As an activist, there is so much that I like about this story. I think we can see it as the beginning of community organizing in Jewish tradition. After the cosmology of the story of creation at the beginning of Genesis, the Torah focuses narrowly on family narrative: Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya’akov, Rachel, Leah. When Yosef’s brothers sell him into slavery down into Egypt, the scope begins to widen. With Yosef’s eventual rise to power, the actions of our ancestors begin to have national and historical implications. What we do matters to others.

Importantly, Yosef doesn’t just tell Paro what his dreams predict: He proposes a solution. And the solution, significantly, does not assume deliverance: Gd may have enabled Yosef to know what was coming, but Yosef suggests what to do about it.  The text attributes the idea for action to Yosef — not Gd. לֵאלֹהִים פִּתְרֹנִים, “interpretations belong to Gd,” Yosef says — but the story shows that action belongs to human beings.

I imagine that the prospect of famine, of the potential starvation of the people of Egypt, was quite frightening. Knowing the threat is coming doesn’t blunt fear. The famine looms, but Yosef isn’t cowered by it. He doesn’t accept it. He sees a different world, and he works to bring it into being.

Like Archer’s fires, and Buffy’s monsters, and Joseph’s famine, there are and will continue be destructive forces in the world. We create them in these fictional forms to manage our fear. We can also do it in this world. We can and we must end gun violence. Let’s change this era of daily gun deaths so radically as to make it seem like it was an alternate universe. I want our moral imagination in this area to be as vibrant as our creative imagination.

Like the Maccabees of old, who defied the culture of their time that said that destiny could not be changed and instead, jumped in to write a new story, my hope for us is that we dare to dream of a different world — and then work together to bring it about. It’s not a superhero or a soothsayer — we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

fight for 15

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on November 13, 2015.

On Tuesday afternoon, I skipped my halakha class in order to attend a “Fight for 15” rally downtown. This local effort was part of a nationwide day of action, a “March for Racial and Economic Justice,” aimed at increasing the minimum wage in our state to $15/hour. Outside of Faneuil Hall, we listened to a dozen plus speakers, and then we marched with our signs about a quarter of a mile to the state house, where we heard from state Sen. Dan Wolf about a bill that would mandate a $15/hour wage for fast food and big box store employees. The bill has moved out of committee and now heads to the full Senate. If implemented, the policy would effect more than 200,000 workers in the state, many of whom now make less than $10/hour.

My friend and classmate Ben and I at the "Fight for 15" rally in downtown Boston. photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

my friend and classmate ben and i at the “fight for 15” rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I learned about the event through an organizing class that I’m taking this semester: The local group JOIN for Justice is pioneering an online course called “Don’t Kvetch! Organize!” The class has participants from all over the country. At the rally I met up with several of my Boston-area classmates, as well as a few JOIN staff members. The action was meant to be a way to put into practice, or at least witness, some of what we’ve learned so far.

The speakers at the rally represented a wide variety of workers: All people of color — and more than a few undocumented immigrants — they included students, home health care workers, fast food employees, adjunct college professors, and child care providers. One woman spoke about her eldest daughter, the first in the family to get into college — and then told of her sadness at the family’s not being able to afford that college. A fast food employee testified that he was striking that day — for the 11th time in three years — for $15/hour and the right to unionize at the McDonald’s where he works. The adjunct compared her insufficient full-time salary, and the paltry wages of the university’s staff, to that of her college president, who makes $3 million/year. They had in common long hours, exhausting work, job insecurity, lack of benefits, and painful choices around spending because of their paltry compensation.

I am proud to report the robust Jewish presence at the rally. Besides the JOIN students and staff, also represented were the New England Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, Moishe Kavod House, and the Boston Workmen’s Circle, plus just some individual, good old fashioned Jewish activists — some of whom are part our community here in JP and at Nehar Shalom. And this is just here in Boston: All over our country, from L.A. to Chicago to Miami, on Tuesday Jews marched for racial and economic justice.

This demonstration of our commitment to justice as Jews got me started thinking about the Jewish values that underpin that commitment. I’ve learned — and will teach as a rabbi — lots of texts that speak directly to those values and that commitment. But this week, as I learned part of our parshah to chant tomorrow morning, I wondered about workers’ issues in relation to Toledot.

This week’s parshah, as so many in Genesis, is filled with the continuing family drama of the Abrahamic line. Rivka gives birth to twins Esav and Ya’akov, who spend their lives at odds with each other, starting in utero. The tension between them, the text explains, stems from their differences.

Esav is a character derided by the Jewish tradition. Depicted as a brute, unintelligent, and powerful man of the field, Esav is often seen as the opposite of the rabbinic ideal of his brother Ya’akov. Rashi even sees a religious difference between them: He claims that at bar mitzvah age, Ya’akov went to yeshiva, and Esav turned to idol worship. But before being swindled out of his birthright over a bowl of lentil stew, Esav comes home from working in the field all day. The Torah makes a point of noting that he was עָיֵ֖ף, “tired.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains the significance of this verse: “Esau came tired from all his accomplishments and all his conquests. He was exhausted and disappointed . . . [And so the verse says], Esau came from the field and he was tired . . . Focused solely on physical success, Esau finished his day existentially exhausted: unfulfilled, demoralized, and disappointed.”

Before I explore this further, I want to note that this interpretation of Ya’akov and Esav is uniquely Jewish. Growing up a Protestant, I learned the story of the warring twin sons of Yitzhak quite differently: I was taught to strive to be like Esav, not Ya’akov, who in my tradition was regarded with great suspicion because of his dishonesty. The difference in Jewish and Christian traditions in their interpretations of this story continues to be one of my most surprising experiences as a convert.

emily and helen, with signs from interfath worker justice, at "fight for 15" rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce

emily and helen, with signs from interfaith worker justice, at the “fight for 15” rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce

As a Christian I learned to valorize Esav’s unvarnished physicality, and I saw a bit of this value in the clergy invocation offered at the beginning of the rally on Tuesday. The Christian pastor prayed for workers’ continued mobility and physical stamina, that with Gd’s help they might have the strength to get up each day and run, and that we at the march might continue the walk to justice. I have to say — as a future rabbi who hopes someday to be asked to give an invocation at the beginning of a rally — I was disappointed at the ableist language that he used. And yet asking Gd for vigor wasn’t totally out of place. It’s physically draining to be a fast food worker, or a child care provider, or a home health aide in way that it’s just not to be, say, a rabbinical student. The pastor recognized that and prayed for the need he saw in the workers at the rally. To bring the metaphor back to our parshah, he identified them with Esav.

As I mentioned earlier, tomorrow morning I’ll be chanting Torah here, and since we’re in the third year of the triennial cycle of Torah reading, we’ll be looking at the end of parshat Toledot. As I practiced the leyning, I found myself quite moved by Esav’s distress at the discovery Ya’akov’s deception of their father Yitzchak. Incredulous, he wails, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” And then וַיִּשָּׂ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו קֹל֖וֹ וַיֵּֽבְךְּ: “Esav raised his voice and wept.” We’re also told that he cried a great and bitter cry, וַיִּצְעַ֣ק צְעָקָ֔ה גְּדֹלָ֥ה וּמָרָ֖ה. Much of this vocabulary will later appear at the beginning of the book of Exodus, when the pain of the Israelites reaches Gd’s ears. It’s hard not to see some anticipation of the slavery in Egypt in Esav’s reaction. So even though traditional commentators have been quite harsh with Esav, I see points of strong poignancy in the text with regard to him.

What I hope for us is that seeing the story of Esav through the lens of the struggles today of hourly workers might engender some understanding — and maybe even some righteous indignation — about the situation of both. The vitriol that I see directed at Esav by traditional sources is quite troublesome to me: He is almost universally condemned as wicked, a adulterer, and a despiser of Gd — predicted to be — and later accused of being — a murderer. I see in the rabbis’ attitudes toward Esav a parallel to some of the unflattering narratives that our society creates around the working poor.

But I think the Torah actually creates sympathy for Esav’s plight by comparing his pain to that of the later, enslaved Israelites. And like many workers today, Esav is completely depleted by his work. Like many workers today, Esav suffers because of others’ perception of scarce resources. Like many workers today, Esav is forced into painful tradeoffs for basic necessities. We can and should feel compassion for people in these situations. The jobs that the workers at the rally describe are generally not ones that we do want or would want for ourselves and our loved ones.

I marched on Tuesday because I believe that low pay is not worthy of the dignity of human beings. I see the racism that underpins the fact that low-paying hourly jobs in service industries are often filled by people of color. It’s not good for our communities when families struggle to make ends meet. And even though as a rabbi I don’t expect to make a comparable hourly wage, I think that our obligation as Jews is to act boldly for the common good — and that our real birthright — available to us all, not just the firstborn or his trickster younger brother — is our commitment to this kind of everyday revolution.

king of salem

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on October 24, 2015, Shabbat Lech Lecha. I originally wrote it as an assignment for my homiletics class. (If you want citations — not here because this text was for preaching — let me know!)

As a Jew and as a rabbi-to-be, I believe one of my main goals, both personal and professional, is to make meaning of Torah today — to ask, how is this relevant to my life and the lives of others? Put another way, my job is to find myself — and to find us — in Torah.

There are times when this job is harder than others, as in parshat Nasso, when we read the deeply misogynistic text of the Sotah, or on Yom Kippur, when we read laws of purity that have been distorted to justify homophobia.

And there are times when it’s just handed to me on a silver platter, as in this week’s parshah, Lech Lecha, with the appearance of King Malchitzedek of Salem.

This little known figure shows up in our text shortly after Avram and Lot split ways: Uncle and nephew decide to go in opposite directions to avoid competing for resources in the land of Canaan. But soon after, they are reunited, when Avram rescues Lot and his family, taken as prisoners of war in an puzzling episode known as “the battle of the kings.”

This short incident in Genesis 14 has only a tenuous connection to the previous narrative of Avram’s wanderings. Indeed, this chapter has often been noted as unique. It associates the patriarch Avram — not yet Avraham — with pseudo-historical events and presents him as a shrewd and revered military leader, a role unattested for him elsewhere in Torah. The story is of four kings who wage war against five others; after Avram’s successful campaign to recover Lot and his family, he declines the proffer of the defeated king of Sodom.

But the visit of the king of Sodom is interrupted by a brief interlude. He comes out to greet Avram, but the rest of their interaction is postponed by the interpolation of three short verses (Gen. 14:18-20) — about yet a tenth king not mentioned as part of any of the preceding battles.

.וּמַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן; וְהוּא כֹהֵן, לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן
And Malchitzedek, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine; and he was a priest of God the Most High.

.וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ, וַיֹּאמַר:  בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ
And he blessed [Avram], and said: “Blessed be Avram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth.”

.בָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר-מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ; וַיִּתֶּן-לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל
“And blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Avram] gave him a tenth of everything.

Only then, after these three verses, does the narrative of King Sodom resume.

Malchitzedek as priest -- with Abel and lamb and Abraham and Isaac. Mosaic at Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

Malchitzedek as priest — with Abel and lamb and Abraham and Isaac. Mosaic at Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

King Malchitzedek appears out of nowhere, both textually and contextually. I’ve long been interested in this mysterious figure, most obviously for his provenance. Most translations, including the JPS that I just quoted, render מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם as “king of Salem.” As you might expect, “Salem” is understood as a name for Jerusalem.

Underscoring the peculiarity of the Malchitzedek story is the fact that the verse in Genesis is the only place in Torah to refer to Jerusalem by name. No other patriarch is connected with Jerusalem. We are told of many places where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob build altars — “but,” says one Biblical scholar, “there is no association with the one place that was later to monopolize the Judean cult.” As central as Jerusalem becomes in the development of Judaism, the city as such has almost no role in Torah.

As it turns out, it is the invocation of this king in Christian scripture that is the source of my name. In the book of Hebrews, Jesus is repeatedly compared to Malchitzedek. A verse explains, “His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is the king of Salem, that is, ‘the king of peace’” (Heb. 7:2). This inspired my parents, and they hoped for a peaceful child, my mom says. As a regular confounder of expectations, I am not sure that is always what I have given her.

And lest you doubt that the universe has a sense of irony, it is pointed out in the Jewish Annotated New Testament that the Letter to the Hebrews, the source of my name, has the dubious distinction of “the New Testament’s most anti-Jewish text.”

Beside the fact of him as my namesake, I’ve also been drawn to Malchitzedek for another reason. As a convert, I sometimes struggle with the idea of Jewish ancestry. Officially I am Rachel Tzippora bat Avraham v’Sarah — but neither of those two of our ancestors particularly resonates with me. When I say the amidah, I include Bilhah and Zilpah — the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, respectively, and the mothers of four of the later tribes of Israel — because often feel that I relate more to women not native to the Abrahamic line. Though Malchitzedek does not explicitly express belief in Avram’s monotheism, tradition identifies him as a priest of the Hebrew Gd — making him, in Nahum Sarna’s words, “an example of the biblical idea of individual non-Hebrews who acknowledge the one God. Such a one was Jethro; another, Balaam; a third, Job. Melchizedek thus belongs to this category.” In this way, he is sort of proto-convert. One commentator even declares unequivocally that he is Avram’s convert.

A mentor once suggested, as I worked on framing my Jewish journey for a “story of self” for activist work, that Malchitzedek might be a source of inspiration and identification. And so I wondered, is there more than etymology and provenance to recommend this “king of righteousness, king of Salem” to me? Who is this strange figure? What does the Torah mean by including such a singular character in the Abrahamic cycle?

Malchitzedek really comes to life only in rabbinic and later literature, where he is almost universally identified as Shem, one of the sons of Noah. We know almost nothing about him from Tanakh. Besides the passage in Genesis, Malchitzedek only mentioned elsewhere in Psalm 110 (v. 4), where Gd is said to swear:

אַתָּה-כֹהֵן לְעוֹלָם עַל-דִּבְרָתִי מַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק
“You are a priest forever, in the order of Malchitzedek.”

This psalm refers to a royal priesthood: Noting that this hymn has the epigraph לְדָוִד מִזְמוֹר, “a psalm of David,” the rabbis explain that the Shem/Malchitzedek character was a progenitor of the Davidic monarchy, which descended from Judah and Tamar, a daughter (or sometimes granddaughter) of Shem. Also in the line of David? Ruth, the Tanakh’s most famous convert. This convert king, whose convert descendant was the great-grandmother of דָוִד המֶּלֶך, might indeed be a good ancestor for me.

Interestingly, the Christian tradition understands this verse from Psalm 110 as an allusion to Jesus, with its references to the offices of king and priest in one man. All the more reason to recommend him to my Christian parents!

Indeed, in many early Christian traditions, Malchitzedek is Jesus. In one Gnostic text, the king lives, preaches, dies, and is resurrected. The book of Hebrews makes essentially the same point, focusing on the divinity of Jesus, when it claims that Malchitzedek is “without father, without mother, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of Gd . . .” (Heb. 7:3).

Jewish tradition gets similarly carried away: In various sources, Malchitzedek is the son of a virgin who is already dead at the time of his birth; the teacher of Torah to the patriarchs before it was given at Sinai; and is spirited by the archangel Gabriel to Gan Eden to escape Noah’s flood. The rich variety of lore that arose around this enigmatic character speaks to how compelling those three short verses in Lech Lecha have been through the ages and through traditions.

These interpretations are indeed fascinating — and they actually go on and on and on — but I think meaning for us may first be found simply in the placement of the Malchitzedek incident, obviously interposed into the interaction of the King of Sodom with Avram. Abarbanel claims that, in doing so, the text is trying to show the striking contrast between the behavior of the king of Sodom and the king of Salem. Drawing on conventions of war, the Or HaHayyim explains further:

The interpolation regarding Malchitzedek is introduced to reflect credit on the righteous and show the difference between them and the wicked. The king of Sodom went forth to welcome Avraham empty-handed, though he was under obligation to repay him generously. The wicked went empty-handed, whereas Malchitzedek the righteous, with no obligation, behaved generously and welcomed him with bread and wine.

This understanding has much to recommend it: That the king of Sodom acts inhospitably foreshadows the destruction of the city of Sodom a few chapters later.

Though both of these commentators focus on what the incident suggests about the king of Sodom, I am interested in what the incident suggests about the king of Salem: What we do know about Malchitzedek from Torah is that he lives up to his name as a righteous man. Without prelude or pretext, Malchitzedek offers Avram a meal and blesses him — and then blesses their shared Gd, as creator of heaven and earth. Simply and humbly, Malchitzedek honors Avram.

The Yalkut Shimoni draws on the tradition of Malchitzedek as Shem, the son of Noah, to make even more explicit what his interaction with Avram means. The midrash imagines a longer conversation, after the flood:

[Avraham] said to Malchitzedek, “How was it that you [merited] to go out of the ark?”

[Malchitzedek] replied, “Because of the tzedakah that we did there.”

[Avraham] said, “What tzedekah did you do in the ark? Were there poor people there? Isn’t it the case that there was only Noah and his children there? So, for whom did you do tzedakah?”

[Malchitzedek] said, “For the cattle and the animals and the birds. We didn’t sleep for tending to this one or that one.”

Then Avraham said, “Had they not done tzedakah for the cattle and animals and birds, they would not have [merited] to go out of the ark! It was because they did this tzedakah that they went out. If I do so for human beings, who are in the image of Gd, how much more will I [merit]!

And then, we’re told, Avraham acts: Consistent with our understanding of this patriarch as the paradigm of hospitality, he opens an inn for needy travelers, providing them with food, drink, and funeral escort. It’s the king of Salem who first models for Avram this particular act of righteousness, when Malchitzedek acts with unfettered generosity towards a virtual stranger. And, as the midrash teaches us, Avram does the same in turn.

I don’t know that my parents are deep readers of Biblical text: In the church I attended as a child, I was taught that there was always one, literal meaning of any part of scripture. But I can’t believe that King Malchitzedek, King of Salem, King of Righteousness, my namesake, came into my life by accident. This border crosser, this convert, this mysterious figure claimed by both Jewish and Christian tradition, this king of Salem — Malchitzedek is a character that I can see myself in.

This deeper understanding of my name has made me start to think about the markers that our parents set out for us, knowingly and unknowingly. My parents definitely did not anticipate that I would find a spiritual, intellectual, and activist home in Judaism — but in naming me for Malchitzedek, they did bless me with the hope of peace and righteousness. Ultimately, they gave me what I needed to find my own way.

In parshat Lech Lecha, we generally focus on Avram’s call from Gd and his leap of faith.

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
“Go forth from your country, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.”

Avram, we usually say, began his pioneering journey of monotheism, as the first Jew, by literally setting out on a new and unknown path.

But last week, at the very end of parshat Noach, we’re told that it’s actually Terach, Avram’s father, who begins the journey by setting out with his family from אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים. Does Terach know what is in store for Avram? Is Terach helping Avram by initiating the first stage of his wanderings in a new land? We can only guess. Knowingly or unknowingly, like my parents, Terach acts in a way that allows his child to find his own path and identity. Avram develops a relationship with the one Gd and becomes Avraham — and later, Avraham Avinu, the father of us all.

I wonder if Avraham ever realized what Terach had done for him. I like to think he did. I like to think that somewhere along the way Avraham acknowledged that he didn’t actually become who he became through his actions alone. It was Terach, in leaving his home, who first blessed him with the model of fearlessness and faith. I like to think that Avraham spent his life trying to live up to that blessing — as I will strive to do with my parents’ blessing of naming me for King Malchitzedek, King of Righteousness, King of Peace, King of Salem.

it’s not in heaven

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on Friday, September 11, 2015 (and then again the next morning), on my first Shabbat as the rabbinic intern.

Today is September 11.

Long before that date came to stand for national tragedy, as the twin towers that long stood over the New York skyline crumbled, it was the birthday of my favorite aunt; she long stood as a positive example for me in childhood.

She and my uncle divorced when my cousin, who is close to my age, was very young, and I watched my aunt step bravely into the role of, essentially, single mother to a grade schooler. She took a position as an English teacher at a prestigious college prep school and later became head of the English department. She eventually left as the head of the upper school, to take a position of head of school at another institution.

I recently recommended to my aunt a podcast called “Mystery Show,” which I’ve been enjoying. Each episode, the host solves a different puzzle, and in the most recent one I listened to, she investigates a license plate she saw years before while standing at a red light: It read “I-L-U-V-9-1-1” — “I love 9/11.”

The host is shocked — and then determined to find out the story behind a plate that is probably not owned by a terrorist, as an initial reading might suggest. I won’t give away the ending, but I knew it was something that my aunt would also enjoy.

And the truth is, I love 9/11. September 11 is the anniversary of my conversion. Six years ago, I was standing in the mikveh and made brachot while several rabbis stood nearby as witnesses. I emerged a Jew.

And in a strange turn of events, today is also the day that my divorce becomes official. It’s just a fluke — a combination of court bureaucracy that scheduled the hearing and state law that requires the judgment entered that day to be final some months hence. Last spring, I stood before a judge and averred that my marriage had irretrievably broken down.

This date stands for
The towers stood above
My aunt stood as
The car stood at the light
I was standing in the mikveh
The rabbis stood over me
I stood up in court.

In this week’s parshah, Nitzavim, we stand as the people Israel to enter into the covenant with Gd. אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים, the parshah begins: “You are standing.” And it is most definitely we, the people in this room, who are standing.

The covenant that Gd makes is with those who were there in that moment in the distant Biblical past — but also with us, the people who were not there that day: וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם. And my standing in the mikveh all those years ago affirmed that I, too, stood with all of them and with all of you.

The Torah emphasizes the breadth of the covenant by enumerating a list of the different sorts of people that stood that day to accept the covenant: the leaders of the tribes, the elders, the officers, children, women, the strangers in the camp.

Also mentioned are two other groups: the woodchoppers and the waterdrawers. I love this strange, ordinary detail. We’ve already been told that everyone is there: כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. Why are these two random professions mentioned at the end of the long list of, let’s face it, more distinguished groups of people?

I think it’s because this point really paints a picture of the day: That day, the last day of Moshe’s life, the day that would come to be known as the one on which the people of Israel accepted our covenant with Gd, a woodchopper gets up and begins to go about his day.

He exchanges words of affection with his family. He eats his manna. He talks with his neighbors. He walks to the woodpile. He picks up his axe and begins to swing. And then Moshe summons everyone . . .

כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל is abstract. It’s hard to picture. It’s when we’re told just a small, specific detail about one of the people that stood with everyone else that we can begin to see the scene.

So too with the death toll of the attack on the World Trade Center. It can be hard to comprehend the number 3,000. In his review of the 9/11 memorial in New York City, which stands now where the towers once stood, New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik writes about the power of the spontaneous memorials that emerged right after the attack:

“In truth, the simplest memorials of the first days after the disaster, those xeroxed handbills with ‘Missing’ emblazoned on them and the photographs and descriptions of the lost below, still move us more than any other remembrance. ‘MISSING One World Trade Center, 100th Floor, Roger Mark Rasweiler’ ‘We’re looking for Kevin M. Williams, 104th Fl. WTC’ — these signs were made with the foreknowledge that the missing were in truth dead. There’s a wall of them within the museum. They voiced a refusal to accept their passing without protest and insistence: he died here, not some office worker. (Since we take pictures of the ones we love mostly on holiday, some bore apologetic inscriptions: ‘Was not wearing sunglasses on Tuesday.’)

The handbills still move us so because they touch so entirely on a central truth: these people came together one morning with no common purpose beyond making a living, and were killed by people whose evil lay in the belief that without a common purpose life has no meaning. The lesson of these handbills is simple: that life is tragic and precious and fragile, that there is an irreducible core of violence in the world, and of fanatics in love with it, and that we failed once in our responsibility to protect ourselves from them, and from it.”

as beautiful as this cap cod sky is -- the torah is not there; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא: as beautiful as this cape cod sky is — the torah is not there; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In parshat Nitzavim, we are given our common purpose as we stand together as a people before Gd: Torah.

I go back to the mikveh each year to commemorate my conversion. I say shehecheyanu, thanking Gd for another year as a Jew. It’s also my tradition to say during these annual visits the blessing over Gd as giver of Torah, Baruch ata Hashem noteyn ha Torah. Torah is what brought me to Judaism and what now sustains my Jewish identity. It is my belief that I have a stake in our sacred book that made me want to be a rabbi.

Indeed, we are given that most wonderful of gifts in parshat Nitzavim, when Gd tells us לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא — the Torah “is not in heaven.” It continues: כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ — “Rather, it is very close to you: it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.”

It’s in this last statement that the pronouns change: When we are told that “you are standing,” it’s אַתֶּם, the “you” plural. Y’all. But when we are told that Torah is “in your mouth and in your heart,” it’s “you” singular. In the midst of the crowd of Israelites standing in the desert, Gd gives Torah to each one of us, individually, down to the humble watercarrier and woodchopper.

Parshat Nitzavim reminds us what we have always known: that there is power in standing, just as 9/11 brought home for us the devastating lesson that there is equal power when what once stood falls.

I had to stand before a judge to make the oath dissolving my relationship with my husband — and we all had to stand together to make the oath formalizing our relationship with Gd. These big moments in our life require nothing less than that we rise to meet them. In so doing we indicate our commitment, our intentionality, our seriousness, our authenticity. We stand in order to say: “We know what is at stake.”

Right now, we are all now standing at the gates of repentance. Rosh Hashanah, the new year, begins on Sunday evening. The gates open then, and they close again on Yom Kippur. My blessing for all of us is that we rise to meet Gd, the giver of judgment, just as we rose to meet Gd, the giver of Torah: together, all of us present.

I want for all of us to know that even as we take responsibility for our individual shortcomings and make atonement for our individual mistakes, that we do so as one people, standing before the Gd of the covenant, whose greatest gift to us was accountability on a human, not divine, scale. Gd gave Torah to us, to our mouths, to our hearts. It is not in heaven. It is right here.

standing divorcing at sinai

This year my husband and I split up, an extraordinarily painful process. And because Gd has a (brutal) sense of humor, this past semester I got to take a Lifecycle Seminar class that focused primarily on weddings. This is my final reflection for that class. (I was mercifully excused from having to write a wedding drasha for a ceremony.)

Rabbi Avi Weiss, drawing on a longstanding Jewish tradition of Shavuot as the occasion of the wedding between Gd and Israel, writes:

At Sinai, God and the people of Israel stood at the base of the mountain be-tahtit ha-har (Exodus 19:17). Commenting on the word be-tahtit, the Midrash concludes that we, the Jewish people, were literally standing beneath the mountain — much like bride and groom stand under the huppah, the bridal canopy during the wedding ceremony.

But there’s another, less felicitous, interpretation of the standing be-tahtit ha-har. Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes:

According to the traditional interpretation of this strange biblical locution, God uproots Mount Sinai from the ground and holds it over the people, saying, “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here shall be your grave” (Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 2b). The implication seems to be that the Jews accepted Torah only through coercion.

Though not unique in Jewish tradition, for one passage to have such divergent interpretation is not insignificant. What does it mean for a symbol of a wedding to also be understood a sign of duress? These are not the happy thoughts that might typically spring to mind when considering the Jewish marriage ritual, but this Shavuot the Israelites’ committing themselves to Gd has had a particular resonance for me.

I attended my divorce hearing the morning of May 11. Because of unexpected circumstances, my soon-to-be ex-husband was not present. He was represented by his lawyer, who submitted a notarized statement on his behalf. The judge asked me to aver both that “the marriage has irretrievably broken down” and that “there is no chance of reconciliation.” I hesitated for just the slightest second. I know she was looking for just a spoken affirmation of the statements; indeed, the process for our uncontested divorce was highly ritualistic, since we had already submitted a written, notarized separation agreement when we requested a hearing two months earlier.

But it seems to me that those two statements are not actually able to be answered with any kind of certainty. “Irretrievable”? “No chance”? I consider the resuscitation of our relationship highly unlikely, but I can’t know what the future holds. And I felt similarly when we got married. Though I was not asked during the ceremony to affirm any unrealistic statements (such as the traditional Christian vow of “until death do us part”), the specter of “forever” was nonetheless present. Again, even under the huppah I considered the dissolution of our relationship unlikely, but I couldn’t know what the future held.

Both at the beginning and at the end of my marriage I said what I was expected to say. But I wonder if in so doing I was back at Sinai along with all of the other Israelites chanting na’aseh v’nishma (“we will do, and we will understand”) — traditionally interpreted as a sign of our deep commitment to Torah. We are the people who first promise to observe the laws of Torah and only then to study them. We say this before revelation, according to the rabbis, and this is how they the solve the problem of the appearance of coercion that one of those Midrashim creates: We may have been threatened by Gd, but we had already accepted Gd’s conditions.

The nature of this acceptance of Torah speaks to my experience of the institution of marriage. I never felt the weight of the change in my legal status in entering into it as I have in leaving it; it’s been in the dissolution of the relationship have I’ve really understood its weight. Maybe it’s the same with Torah: It’s easy to accept but hard to keep. And the comparison could go even further: Even if the Israelites had decided to understand Torah first, they most likely would have never gotten to the acceptance. They might not have had time — after all, we spend our lives struggling with how Torah speaks to us — or they might have decided against it — after all, we are warned against overwhelming converts with too much Torah.

In the end, revelation and marriage are acts of faith. There are simply no guarantees in entering new relationships, and especially in formalizing them, even when both parties know each other pretty well. Gd and the Israelites had generations of monogamy, to put monotheism in human relational terms, before matan Torah. And many disappointments were to follow it.

This is (perhaps) a dour read of marriage. And I acknowledge that it is informed by where I am right now in relation to my divorce and to the institution of marriage. I doubt that I will be asked to perform an weddings anytime soon — but I couldn’t do it responsibly right now even if I were. I am too cynical about “happily ever after,” and I can’t stand the undimmed excitement of betrothed couples. Maybe my attitude will change radically with time. More likely, I hope I’ll be able to incorporate some of my current views into useful pastoral perspective. I can imagine that it might be helpful for some couples to have marriage taken off the pedestal and put in a more realistic context.

So maybe I am back at Sinai again, saying na’aseh v’nishma. I’m doing the process of healing with the faith that it will lead me to understanding.

forfeiting the right to worship gd

I originally gave a version of this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on January 18, 2015, on the Shabbat of MLK Weekend. It also appeared on jewschool.

“We forfeit the right to worship Gd as long as we continue to humiliate Negros.”

Using the language of his time, so said Abraham Joshua Heschel in a telegram to Pres. John F. Kennedy, just before their meeting. Heschel was talking about the structural racism of the 1960s: He had just met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King at a conference and was getting more involved in the civil rights movement. With this message, he signaled his desire to move the religious community to take action and make personal sacrifice in solidarity with the black community. “Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent . . .The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spirituality audacity.”

Heschel was a poet as well as a rabbi and a scholar, and even though — or maybe because — his medium was a telegram, I know he chose his words carefully when he made this radical statement.

On the one hand, “forfeit” can have an active connotation of relinquishing, or letting go. In this sense, “forfeiting” means you surrender a claim: When you plead guilty to a crime, you forfeit trial by jury.

On the other hand, “forfeit” can have a more passive connotation, of something being taken. In this sense, you are deprived without your assent: When you are convicted of a crime, you forfeit your freedom.

I think Heschel wanted to say both. Moral action is a prerequisite to relationship with Gd. For Heschel, racism means that we are saying no to Gd. And it also means that Gd is saying no to us.

Parshat Vaera, which we just read, is dominated by the story of the many plagues on Egypt and the grand confrontation between Gd and Pharaoh. It’s easy to overlook that what sets the stage for the high drama is actually the Israelites. Gd promises to Moshe the people’s liberation and its inheritance of land, but when Moshe tells the Israelites of the promise, he is rebuffed (Exodus 6:9):

.וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

This is usually translated as something like: “And Moses said so to the children of Israel, and they did not listen to Moses, from anguish of spirit and from cruel oppression.”

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

Literally, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, translated above as “anguish of spirit”, means “shortness of breath.” It’s the only such occurrence of the phrase in Tanakh. Everett Fox renders it “shortness of spirit.” Ramban wants to suggest that that the Israelites were “impatient” for their salvation. It is no doubt hard to hear a promise of redemption while waiting for freedom. We can hardly look to the future while we’re focused on the present.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה: What we learn is the Israelites were weary in soul and body. But it’s the spiritual bondage מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ that is forefronted. It is the principle problem.

Alternatively, we can understand רוּחַ – spirit, breath — as the divine, as in the primordial force of creation, the רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים/spirit of God that hovered over the chaotic universe (Genesis 1:2).

So the Torah then is making a very specific theological statement here: Gd is in short supply. Gd is as limited a resource as the straw that the Israelites no longer have to make the bricks that they are still expected to produce. That in fact the Israelites are cut off from Gd.

In the Exodus story, it’s a given that Pharaoh and the Egyptians aren’t in relationship with Gd. Indeed, Gd says on more than one occasion that what is happening is so that Egypt will know that Gd is Gd. But it turns out that the Israelites are in no better of a state.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ: The Israelites are cut off from Gd. The Israelites have forfeited their relationship with Gd.

Both King and Heschel would appreciate the coincidence of this parshah and this holiday. They both saw the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt as powerful metaphor for the civil rights struggle. Sometimes we celebrate this holiday as if the work is done. We like to think that we abolished slavery in this country in 1863. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with Jim Crow laws that established systemic segregation in public resources. And we like to think that we struck down Jim Crow in this country in 1965. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with a criminal justice system that functions to enact racialized social control.

Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, there has been a call in this country for recognition of the fact that black lives matter. The killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and the nearly 1,000 other black people since then have only intensified the call for an end to the state violence that seeks to control black bodies and souls.

This summer I worked at an organization that was part of several coalitions working to end the use of solitary confinement in New York jails and prisons. As if our penal institutions aren’t bad enough. We put human beings in cages. And then within those cages, we put those human beings into other, smaller cages.

I had the privilege this summer of working with two formerly incarcerated men who spent time in solitary confinement. They survived, and and they now spend their days trying to make sure no one else has to. The other, who was a teenager behind bars: “I felt isolated, sad, helpless. I remember crying a lot. When I was 16, I couldn’t identify these emotions a lot of times. My default emotion was anger, which led to aggressive behavior like lashing out, overcompensating, and violence. Prison itself, not just solitary confinement, is an attack on your soul.”

We, they, the free, the incarcerated, the criminals, the police, the oppressors, the oppressed, the Israelites, the Egyptians, everyone. We are all “cut off from Gd.” We have forfeited the right to worship Gd.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hold in state control — behind bars, on probation, or on parole — seven million Americans, or one in every 31 adults today.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we disproportionately incarcerate black folks, when 13% of the population constitutes 40% of people behind bars.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we kill a black person every 28 hours.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fail to hold accountable a man who kills a teenage boy walking home from the grocery store with Skittles and iced tea in his hoodie.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we sentence a black woman to 20 years for availing herself of the same Stand Your Ground laws that excused the killer of that teenage boy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we leave a black man’s body in the street for 4.5 hours after we kill him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we can offer black transgender women an average life expectancy of only 35 years.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fatally shoot a 12-year-old black kid with a BB gun in a park seconds after spotting him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we text a union representative after a police shooting instead of calling an ambulance.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that require a 24-year-old to spend life in prison for three marijuana sales, a decision that the sentencing judge calls “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we have been so derelict in indigent defense that our American Bar Association says, “The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hide behind a slogan of “tough on crime” a system that can only be described as a tool to maintain white supremacy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when, for selling loose cigarettes, we strangulate a black man on the street, his last words, “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner was מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ.

When we can’t breathe, we forfeit the right to worship Gd.

Every year on this Shabbat, we talk about Heschel and King. We tell how Heschel marched with King in Selma. We show the picture of the wild haired, bearded rabbi linking arms with the cooly quaffed reverend, the whole group festooned with leis. And we reflect on Heschel’s words: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Heschel is our way into the work that King did. We can celebrate the extraordinary impact that King had on this country because we were part of it. Heschel’s commitment to King’s work is illustrative of the Jewish community’s solidarity with people of color.

We’ve got to stop telling that story. That was half a century ago. If after 50 years, we don’t have anything else, we’ve forfeited the right to tell that story.

I think we may have something else. I see it in the arrests of Jews on New York’s Upper West Side last month in response to a call to action by communities of color with whom Jewish racial justice organizations are in relationship. I see it in the active participation by young Jews last month in a meeting in Boston’s Jamaica Plain for white racial justice organizers, following black leadership. I see it in the Chanukah action organized last month by the Boston Jewish community, which many in my community attended. I see it in the fact that you are reading this now.

Today, I want us to begin a new story, a story of how we recognized this moment in history for what it is, and we could not be silent, and we could not be still; a story in which we bore witness to the degradation and violence that we sanction every day; a story in which we acknowledged that until we are right with each other, we cannot be right with Gd.

I want us to tell that story to our children.

don’t go near a woman

This post originally appeared on Mayyim Hayyim’s blog, The Mikveh Lady Has Left the Building.

mayyim hayyim nametag; photo by salem pearce via instagram

mayyim hayyim nametag; photo by salem pearce via instagram

This semester, as part of my rabbinic education, I am taking a class on the book of Exodus. Recently, we’ve been studying the account of the revelation at Sinai.  In the complicated choreography of Moses (and others) going up and down the mountain in chapters 19 and 24, a question arises regarding Moses’ instructions to the Israelites about preparations for receiving the Torah.

In Ex. 19:10-11, God tells Moses that the people should wash their clothes in order to be ready for God’s appearance on Sinai. In verse 14, we’re told that the people have done so, but in the next verse Moses makes his own addition to God’s instructions: אַל-תִּגְשו אֶל-אִשָּׁה, “Do not go near a woman.”

In the hetero-normative world of Torah, it would seem that Moses is now speaking to the men encamped at the base of the mountain. But God’s previous instructions were more inclusive. In verse 3, God tells Moses: “So you will say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel.” Concerned about the potential redundancy in “house of Jacob” and “sons of Israel,” Rashi identifies the first group as referring to women and the second, to men.

By comparison, the acceptance of the covenant in the last installation of the chumash (Five Books of Moses), in parshat Nitzavim, explicitly includes men, women, and children, both at that time and in the future (Deut. 29: 9-10).

It’s not at all clear what Moses intends with those four words; “Don’t go near a woman.” In all likelihood he is forbidding sexual intercourse. Indeed, this is how the phrase is almost universally understood.

The reason for the prohibition, following Rashi, is similarly widely accepted. Rashi believes that the abstinence is in order that the women may immerse themselves (in a mikveh) on the third day and be pure (spiritually ready) to receive the Torah. The idea being, that if any of the women in the camp had recently had intercourse, she would need three days to be considered ready for immersion, and in this case, ready for the revelation (Rashi on Exodus 19:15). Rashi, then, is bringing women back into the picture with Moses’ directive— and is also introducing the idea of mikveh.

This is an incredibly powerful idea in and of itself: Women have an equal share in the giving of Torah, and they are required to be in a state of ritual purity to receive it. In a text that has so far seen women’s value as principally procreative (especially in Genesis), to be full participants in the foundational Jewish narrative is near revolutionary. And we’re doing so through the mitzvah of mikveh.

But what’s more, the text demonstrates the primacy of mikveh itself. This might be the first allusion to the mitzvah in Torah. We don’t see the patriarchs immersing, and while we do have midrashim about the matriarchs’ practicing niddah, there is nothing as strongly suggestive in the Torah to this point as Moses’ charge to the Israelites at Sinai.

In preparation for the peak moment of the Israelites’ relationship with God, women visit the mikveh. A holy teaching for a sanctified people. And yet another reason to immerse, in remembrance of this transformational moment.

a fall fast, and a fast fall

The High Holidays just wrapped up this weekend, and I will admit that I am a bit relieved. I had a job at a synagogue in Revere, reading Torah for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; it was my first time both chanting these parts of the Torah and using the special melody for the High Holidays. I spent a lot of time this summer, and even more these last few weeks, preparing and practicing. Plus, I was nervous. So the Yamim Nora’im didn’t afford me much chance for the reflection and repentance that typically characterize this time of the year.

Song of Songs IV by Marc Chagall

Song of Songs IV, by Marc Chagall

Luckily, the Jewish calendar also provides time for spiritual preparation for the New Year and the Day of Repentance during the month of Elul, which precedes the month of Tishrei, in which both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall. The rabbis say that Elul is in fact (in Hebrew) an acronym representing the famous line from Song of Songs: ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” This teaching is a reminder that the soul-searching we do this month is towards the greater end of self-care, intimacy with ourselves, and, potentially, drawing closer to Gd. The work of Elul should be a labor of love. Elul practices include blowing of the shofar, saying Psalm 27, and reciting selichot, special penitential prayers.

I did a lot of soul work during Elul, which began, fortuitously, on my 36th birthday. According to gematria — a mystical tradition that assigns a numerological value to Hebrew letters — the letters het (ח) and yud (י) add up to the number 18: The het has a value of 8 and the yud has a value of 10. Put together, the letters spell the word for “life” (חי). As a result, 18 is an important number in Judaism; many give to charity in multiples of 18, for example. Thus this birthday marks my double-chai year. (I guess technically this is my 37th year, but I’m going to go with the numeral, not the ordinal.)

My dear friend Rabbi Jordan Braunig sent daily prompts during Elul, and I took 15-20 minutes each day to write in my journal in response, a practice I’ve never undertaken in any regular way. I’ll share one prompt here as an example:

For those of us in the States this day after Labor Day has become a day with great symbolic significance. This is the day when we return, not in the teshuvah sense of the word, but more in the begrudgingly dragging ourselves back to the routines of daily life sense of the word. In many ways this is a return to the same; not to the changed or transformed, but to the frustratingly fixed. This is a type of return that we must flee.

Though we might take some solace in the fact that now not every piece of correspondence we send will be met with an away message, during Elul we would be wise to aspire to maintain that summer-like distance from our habits and routines. How might we hold on to a sense of being away, and communicate that state of being to the world?

Prompt:For today’s piece of reflective writing, I invite you to write an away message/out-of-office reply for this season of the year. Where are you? What are you doing? Who will you be upon your return? Can we expect to hear from you?

I was amazed at how elucidating the practice of daily writing actually was. I was able to articulate my regrets and my fears from the past year, my hopes and my goals for the coming year. And since there are afoot some big changes in my life right now, the work felt nourishing and healing.

fall leaves

fall is nigh in jp; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

During Elul I also decided to undertake a month-long, sunrise-to-sunset fast, a practice that was also completely new to me. I was inspired by a conversation I had with a Muslim woman I worked with this summer in New York: For her, fasting during Ramadan is a significant spiritual experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or even if I could actually do it (especially in the absence of a community with the same practice, which seems to me a key component of Ramadan). But I decided to try: I fasted (no food or drink) from sunrise to sunset, from August 27 through September 24, excluding Shabbats. Each day I got up about 30 minutes before sunrise and gulped a cup of tea and as much water as I could stomach, as well as at least a small amount of food; come sunset, I would again down a bottle of Gatorade, along with lots of water, and also eat a bigger, more leisurely meal.

It wasn’t as hard as I imagined it might be. My body adjusted pretty easily to the pace of food intake, and I noticed that I seemed to have more time during the day. Food preparation and consumption take up so much energy and thought, particularly since my school location and schedule aren’t conducive to eating out; if I am to eat lunch during the weekday, I have to bring it with me. I often spent my lunch break responding to Jordan’s writing prompts, and I think I had sharper focus in class because I wasn’t snacking. Even more significantly, I had a keen awareness of the changing season: I got email notifications from My Zmanim for the times of sunrise and sunset, and though the differences from day-to-day were just minutes on each end, the cumulative effect over a month was almost two hours less of daylight. I’ve never had such an acute sense of how quickly summer transitions into fall.

Sukkot begins tonight. The holiday is known as z‘man simchateinu, “the time of our rejoicing.” I am looking forward to the full force of fall, my favorite season.