Monday, June 29, 2020

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Friday, June 26, 2020

Between Korach and Eldad and Medad

Readers of Parshat Korach who live in democratic societies might find this Torah reading uncomfortable. Korach seems to be drawing on an egalitarian ethos when he says: “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” Isn't Korach's argument what democracy is all about?  Shouldn't one's leaders reflect the will of the people?

It is worth noting in this regard that there is a sharp contrast between Moshe's response to the complaints of Korach and his response to the episode of Eldad and Medad. In our Torah reading, Moshe responds with fury to Korach’s defiance. The Eldad and Medad narrative is also one of defiance, yet Moshe reacts very differently. Moshe had gathered a group of 70 to receive prophecy and work alongside him. And two men who have not been invited to join the group of 70, Eldad and Medad, become independent prophets. This is so shocking that Moshe's disciple Yehoshua wants to imprison them. Rashi adds an additional note: Eldad and Medad were predicting Moshe would die before entering the land of Israel. Eldad and Medad are no less defiant than Korach.

Yet what is Moshe's response? He says: “May it be that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!”

What accounts for the difference between these two reactions? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that the two sections are dealing with two aspects of Moshe's role. In the story of Eldad and Medad, we are discussing prophecy, a form of non-coercive influence. Prophecy is an inspiration that can be, and should be, shared widely. In this narrative, Korach wants to assume power in the place of Moshe. And that is impossible because two kings cannot wear one crown, and power must be united, not divided.

The difficulty with this position is that actually the 70 elders gathered to join Moshe are meant to be political leaders as well, helping Moshe lead the Jewish people; Moshe had just complained that he cannot lead the people on his own.

I would suggest a different approach. One verb that is shared between the two narratives is שא. However in each narrative it is used very differently, in its active and passive forms. In the narrative of Eldad and Medad the verb is used to connote lifting a burden, that leading the people is an act of sacrifice, as if the leaders needs to carry the nation on their back. In the narrative of Korach, he uses this verb as reference to being lifted up, as if the political leader is the one who is lifted, and the leader is the one who benefits from his relationship with the community.

I believe this is the key to Moshe's contrasting reactions. Edad and Medad are not searching for glory; they are simply finding inspiration and coming to offer support. That type of leadership is welcomed even when there are other leaders around. Korach however is in search of glory, and wants to be raised up by others. Ultimately, his thirst for glory would mean that Moshe would have to be deposed.

The ultimate difference between these two sections has to do with the attitude Korach on one hand, and Eldad and Medad on the other, take towards political leadership. When those with inspiration offer to help, then there is room even for the most defiant of voices; in this case, there is a common purpose and goal. When the leader sees themself as a servant, they are always happy to receive help. However, leaders like Korach who are focused on their own glory can be very destructive, because for them political power is a zero-sum game. 

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Friday, June 19, 2020

An Unusual Profile in Courage: The Ma'apilim

On November 25th, 1936, Chaim Weizmann offered his testimony to the Peel Commission. Weizman explained that for the millions of Jews left in Europe, "the world is divided into places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter."

It was in this context that Aliyah Bet was born. Initially, it was a matter of debate in Zionist movement. Ze'ev Jabotinsky wrote an essay entitled "On Adventurism" in 1932 chastising the Jewish Agency for following the British imposed rules. But in 1937, the Peel Commission handed down a recommendation to limit immigration to 12,000 Jews per year. In response to this draconian recommendation, the underground Mossad L'Aliyah Bet was established, to support “illegal immigration”. Actually, that is what the British called it; for Jews, returning to the Holy Land was not immigration, but rather a return home, and certainly not illegal, no matter what the Mandatory authorities called it. An estimated 100,000 Jews managed to enter Mandatory Palestine during the War and immediately afterwards.

Those who made the trip took on immense risks. On February 24, 1942 the Struma, a ship sailing from Romania with 800 Jewish refugees, was torpedoed in the Black Sea by a Soviet submarine. There was only one survivor.

Even those refugees that managed to get to mandatory Palestine were often jailed. Some were imprisoned in Atlit or Cyprus, while in 1940, nearly 1600 refugees were sent to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean; they spent nearly 5 years there.

Aliyah Bet is a heroic chapter in Jewish history. But what is fascinating is the Hebrew word given for the illegal immigrants: "ma'apilim".

This word comes from our Torah reading. After the sin of the spies and the decree that the Jews would spend 40 years in the desert, there is a group that decides on their own to enter the Land of Israel. The word used by the Torah to describe what they did is Vaya'apilu, which is translated by various commentaries such as Saadia Gaon, Seforno and Shadal as stubbornness, arrogance, and impulsiveness.

So how did this pejorative term, Vaya'apilu, end up being used for the courageous refugees of the pre-State era?

Rav Elchanan Samet grapples with this question in his second series of Iyunim b'Parshiyot HaTorah. But part of the answer would seem to be obvious. While the ma'apilim are defying God's command, they had also overcome a character failing the generation of the desert had. The ma’apilim are the first group in this generation to show courage, and that represents a significant transformation.

And that courage will make a permanent difference as well. Samet quotes an inspirational passage in Rav Tzadok's Tzidkat HaZaddik (46). Rav Tzadok talks about the chutzpah of the ma’apilim. He explains that Chutzpah will eventually be important, as the Talmud says it will be necessary in the times of the Messiah. And when the Torah says about the attempt by the Ma’apilim to enter the land, "והיא לא תצלח", “this effort will not succeed”, it hints that on another occasion in the future, a stubborn attempt to enter the Land of Israel will be successful.

Rav Tzadok, who died in 1900, was anticipating heroism that would happen decades after his death. He predicted there would be a time when the Jewish people would reverse the meekness of the spies with acts of bravery. And on overcrowded ships that were barely seaworthy, the descendents of the wandering slaves in the desert proved themselves worthy of their own home in their own homeland. Finally, the ma’apilim came home.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Parsha is that one must faith in God, but also have faith in our own God-given abilities. One might think it is more difficult to have faith in God; but the lesson of the spies is that both types of faith go hand in hand, and without courage, faith will crumble.

Faith combined with courage gives us the ability to face all of our challenges. May we be fortunate enough to find both during these trying times.

Rabbi Lau, Juneteenth, and the Bible

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Speak Up Nation

Thorstein Veblen was wrong.

The famed Sociologist, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”, wrote an analysis of Jews and Zionism in 1919. The article, entitled “The Intellectual Pre-Eminence of Jews in Modern Europe”, argued that the creative achievements of the Jews were due largely to their marginal status. It was renegade Jews with one foot in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world who were creative. They were "hyphenated" with two identities, neither of which they truly belonged to. And it was this marginalization, of being rejected by the larger society and rejecting their own roots, that gave them the "skeptical animus" that fueled their intellectual achievements.

Veblan thought that exile and persecution is the foundation of Jewish creativity, and marginalization was the foundation of Jewish intellectual achievement. And because of this, Veblan predicted that the establishment of a Jewish State would lead to a decline in Jewish creativity. A Jewish State would be filled with complacent, unoriginal Jews; no more Jewish renegades.

History has proven Veblen to be very wrong. But his thesis is reasonable. Like the Jews, other minority ethnic diasporas have a history of overachieving. Certainly the challenges of persecution and displacement can feed innovation; and as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, being cultural mediators brought out the creative best in Jews.

Veblen's mistake was in seeing exile as the single cause of Jewish creativity. But there are multiple other foundations of creativity, including one from our Parsha, which includes the verse:

וּמִ֨י יִתֵּ֜ן כָּל־עַ֤ם יְהוָה֙ נְבִיאִ֔ים
“May it be that all of God’s people were prophets!”

This is a statement Moshe makes in response to the words of Eldad and Meidad, who are prophesizing on their own, away from the tent at the center. According to Rashi, Eldad and Meidad were saying that “Moses will die and Joshua will bring Israel into the Land”. These renegade prophets were offering a message of chutzpah which challenged Moshe directly.

Yet Moshe refuses to interfere with Eldad and Meidad in any way. On the contrary, he makes it clear that everyone possible should be given the opportunity to experience revelation.

This is a revolutionary thought. Moshe is saying that outsiders can have a direct connection to God, and the rejected can still find inspiration. Leadership and insight doesn't belong to a select elite.

In a larger sense, this verse informs a culture that recognizes that the best ideas often come from outsiders. We want each individual to speak up and be heard; that is why we train our children to do so, starting with the Mah Nishtanah at the Pesach Seder. Anyone can come forward with their insight and inspiration.

Israel is a country where everyone speaks up, where everyone is a prophet; that can even be a headache at times. But it is the key to Israel’s creativity.

The magic of the start up nation is that everyone has an idea how to make things better; in the street you will get quick advice on how to carry your groceries and how to raise your children. But Israelis also have got better ideas for something other than unruly children, including cherry tomatoes, pillcams, mobileye, and Waze. Israeli innovations save lives every day, from ambucycles to emergency bandages and innovative therapeutics.

These innovations come from inventors who speak up even when others aren’t listening. One of Israel’s first major tech breakthroughs was drip irrigation. It was a system designed by Simcha Blass, who in the 1930’s saw an unusual tree, one that stood out in a field due to its unusual growth. He dug underneath the tree and found it was near a broken water pipe. Nearly 30 years later, with the advent of plastics, Simcha designed a drip irrigation system that yields more crops on only half the water. When he first showed this system to his colleagues, nobody listened. But he kept pushing forward, and eventually, in partnership with Kibbutz Hatzerim, brought this innovation to the world. Today drip irrigation is the best way to support farmers in semi-arid environments.

Israeli innovation is built on the ability to speak up. This has been part of our culture since this Parsha.

Next time you are in Israel (may it be soon!), and someone gives you unsolicited advice, don’t get annoyed; just remember that the start up nation began first as the speak up nation.

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Friday, June 05, 2020

Birkat Kohanim in the Times of the Corona

If you have not seen Birkat Kohanim at the Kotel you have not seen Birkat Kohanim.

Twice a year, on the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot, tens of thousands of people crowd into the plaza outside the Kotel; and they are joined by hundreds of kohanim, who in unison recite the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing.

This practice began 50 years ago, during the time of crisis. It was in the summer of 1970, at the height of the War of Attrition in the Sinai, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gefner began to think about prayers for peace and tranquility. He then reminded himself of a tradition from the Chasidei Ashkenaz in the late 12th century that:

ואם היו שלש מאות כהנים עומדים בהר הזיתים והיו אומרים ברכת כהנים היה בא משיח

“If three hundred Kohanim would stand on the Mount of Olives and say the priestly blessing, the Messiah would arrive.”

It was this tradition that inspired him to gather large groups of Kohanim to the Kotel; eventually, it became a yearly custom  on Chol Hamoed  Sukkot and Pesach, for people  to gather from around the world for this unique Birkat Kohanim.

Gefner was also inspired by a fascinating passage in the Midrash. The Mishnah in Sotah says:

"מיום שחרב בית המקדש, אין יום שאין בו קללה"

"From the day that the temple was destroyed, there is no day that does not have some element of curse."

But the Midrash Tehillim (7) responds to the Mishnah and offers a note of optimism:

"אמר רב אחא: אם כן בזכות מי אנו עומדים. בזכות ברכת כהנים".

“Rav Acha said: If so, by what merit do we remain standing? Through the merit of the blessing of the Kohanim.”

Even in the most cursed of times, there is a blessing that sustains us, the Birkat Kohanim. But what exactly is the unique power of Birkat Kohanim?

Part of the story can be told by how the fingers should be configured during Birkat Kohanim.

We are familiar with the custom mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch, one with "five windows".

But there are several other views of how this is done, and described at length by Prof. Daniel Sperber (Minhagei Yisrael, volume 6); one, from the Maharil, has the thumb and index finger of both hands come together to create a window.

But there is another view, found in the name of Rabbeinu Tam, that the fingers switch position during the three blessings, and in the first they are configured to look like a shin, the second a daled, the third like a yud, and together spell God's name Shin Daled Yud, Shadai.

It is this view that I want to focus on. What is the meaning of all of this finger choreography?

I believe by spelling out God's name the Kohen is making a radical statement: the divine blessing that he is conveying is actually in the hands of the Kohen. And this idea is already found in the Midrash and Rabbeniu Bachya.

But the thought itself seems almost heretical; do the hands of the Kohanim create blessing? I believe it is meant to open our eyes to a very different understanding of how Birkat Kohanim works.

The moment that the Kohanim turn to the congregation and bless them with love is a moment that draws God's divine presence into the community. The moment when the Kohanim and congregation meet each other face to face, and connect to each other with love, is a moment of true divine inspiration. God arrives to this special space of compassion and community to bring His blessings.

The blessing, built on the mutual connection between the Kohanim and the congregation, is a blessing that truly is our hands.

A few years ago there was a powerful article in Tablet by an American Oleh, Aaron Katz, about what he calls “a moving minyan”, on the train to Tel Aviv. He describes how as a Kohen, he makes his way to say the Birkat Kohanim on the train. He describes his feelings at that moment:

….as I recite the prayer each morning—on a moving train in the State of Israel—the words have taken on an entirely new meaning for me ….. On a train filled with the spectrum of Israeli society, I have a unique opportunity to provide the passengers, including the soldiers and police officers who risk their lives to defend the State of Israel, with a blessing of protection and peace.

The Talmud explains …. that Birkat Kohanim reaches out to the people “out in the fields” who are unable to be present during the recitation of the blessing. As we literally pass through the fields... of Ramla and Lod...during Birkat Kohanim, I.. smile at how literal the Talmudic saying has become in my own life. And I wonder, could the rabbis of the Talmud ever have imagined that an immigrant Kohen to Israel would be passing through the fields with a minyan while reciting the Birkat Kohanim and praying for peace?

This is what Birkat Kohanim is about: a connection between man and man that is more than the ordinary; a connection that truly is divine.

Our Parsha speaks of Birkat Kohanim, but in our current situation, none of us have the experience to hear them anymore. Even on Pesach,  due to the coronavirus crisis, there was a lonely group of 10 Kohanim who went to the Kotel and offered the blessing on television.  How can it be that in a time of too many curses that we don’t have the opportunity to hear these blessings?

But in actuality we do have Birkat Kohanim today.

We have high priests of holiness and kindness working in hospitals and helping the elderly and infirm.

We have high priests of education, caring for their students even when they are so far away. 

We have high priests of volunteering, chasing one opportunity after another to help others.

This blessing of Birkat Kohanim has never been more present in our community. These Kohanim may be partially hidden from sight, but they are all around us, bringing a unique divine energy into the world.

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