Sunday, December 27, 2015

So what’s one more New Year among friends?

Appropriately enough, I guess, I am learning Masechet Rosh HaShanah in my daily Gemara learning. In the Jewish calendar there are four recognized new years, occurring in the months of Nisan, Elul, Tishrei and Shevat. In the discussions that appear in the Talmud it is suggested that there may be as much as six new years – for a variety of reasons including the official calendar of kings, for the fruits of the trees, for accounting of all that we have and for judgment for all that we are. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – clearly the most well known of the new years in the Jewish calendar is what is focused on in this aptly named section of Talmud, called after Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the year of human accounting.

The Rabbis discuss how often we are called to account for what we do by God, our Creator. Various options are again presented (you know the joke, two Rabbis, three opinions… well, we see its origins in the Gemara!) with no less than the notion presented that actually we are called to account for our actions every minute of every day. It is known that Jewish communities come to God asking for forgiveness for our missteps on Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment; but we would do well to remember that actually in the daily prayer that we say three times each day – the Amidah, we constantly ask God to forgive us for such slights we have committed in the various daily dealings of our lives. I actually feel so comforted that God is always listening to and attentive to our deeds and I guess that is a huge part of what it means to be a person of faith.

A Rabbi in our community shared that automatically it occurred to this community leader to wish people who were observing Christmas a Happy Erev Christmas! I love it… Jewish mindset and accepting and cherishing of others wrapped up in one heartfelt greeting. Another Rabbi indicated in the shul calendar that we have two Federal Holidays this week. How true! We as Americans are embraced by (or caught, depending on one’s predisposition) the joyful time of another faith community and culture that is so much a part of the country that accepts us all.

So what is my ritual at this time? I start practicing writing 2016 – I actually am so good at it this year, I mistakenly used 2016 on documents I have signed when it is still 2015. Oops! But more importantly, what will be my greeting to everyone I meet this week? Of course, it will be Happy New Year! Why not? I know that not all in our faith community of observant Jews agree with this. But I think it is indeed something to celebrate – that we live in this world as free people of faith, enjoying more and more inclusiveness on so many levels and the other fruits of democracy and the free-thinking world. Of course, we must also fully acknowledge and be accountable for the fact that this is clearly not the case for all citizens of the world. So here comes our prayers – to make us more caring, more embracing, and closer to the ideal people of faith we are all enjoined to be, whatever Higher Being we hold to be ours.

So what would the Rabbis in the pages of my Gemara learning think about that? One of the distinctions that is often made is between kings and the kingship of the Jewish nation and those of the nations of the world. So, let’s consider that for a moment. As our calendar turns from 2015 to 2016 this coming Thursday night, let us pray for ALL nations and people of faith of our world that this year will bring more understanding, less pain and conflict and more acceptance of the need for all of us to live together. Is that worthy of yet another New Year? I believe it is… so from my own mindset of Jewish values and thinking, I wish you all a heartfelt HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What is YOUR normal?

As part of my preparations for a conference I am planning for the Orthodox Jewish population of the Greater Philadelphia area on February 28, 2016 which is entitled, Halacha and Community: Challenges and Approaches, I am reading a lot of materials these days about potentially marginalized groups whom we are obligated by Torah as much as our own ethical standards to include in our community. This has taken me to a reading prepared by a colleague of mine from many years of being part of a wonderful national community of Jewish educators, Rabbi Elliot Dorff. In his piece, “Meshanah HaBeriot” he envisions a new approach to thinking about disabilities and limitations. He imagines a world where the disabled or limited person is not the marginalized individual, but rather we all see ourselves as “temporarily abled” and bound to become disabled at some point. He talks about how we should accept and include everyone with his/her/their differences. I highly recommend this thoughtful piece which can be found here (

Rabbi Dorff entitles his paper with the words one says when one blesses God for making different people when we see someone who is visibly different. Yes, we bless God for our differences, our abilities, our disabilities, all of it! What a concept! What a different world this would be if we could be so aware of all of us, that no one would be disadvantaged because of disabilities or differences, but all would be included and embraced for their value and potential contributions to the collective. Yes, it’s a bit idealistic, in fact, a lot, and this, too, is acknowledged by my colleague!

Nonetheless, I was reminded of dear friends of ours from years ago, Ari and Stacy Goldberg, whose daughter Rina z’l, suffered from chronic health problems due to mitochondrial disease. Her theme was B+ (that is Be Positive!) and this young girl was a teacher to all who included her and accommodated her needs. Not only are we obligated to include all members in our community, we stand to learn so much about abilities, the challenges of disabilities, the resilience of spirit well placed, and the many blessings we have no matter what the challenges may be. Ari spoke so beautifully at Rina’s funeral about expecting to take one ride (a normal one, perhaps) with their daughter when Rina came into their lives; but ultimately finding a new and different normal when her various challenges presented. It is hard to continually be mindful of this, but we all know so many stories of HEROES who have shown us the way, precisely through their addressing of whatever disabilities, or different abilities, they may have.

Is it NORMAL to expect that there will not be deficits, impairments, weaknesses and such in our bodies and as we progress through life? Of course not! It is here that Rabbi Dorff challenges us to think of ourselves, when appropriate as “temporarily abled.” This turns the table on disabilities in a powerful psychological way. He also addresses the obvious financial and logistical dynamics of what it would take to truly build such a society. Earlier this year, Knoxville, Tennessee made the news by becoming an official “dementia-friendly community,” so that people with various memory impairment conditions (e.g. Alzheimer’s, etc.) could function in a safe and supportive environment. Having recently dealt with my own parents’ decline during the past several years, I was particularly touched by this notion and wonder if it is indeed feasible for us to engage in more such efforts.

What is normal? Last night I was enjoying a reunion with some friends from different stages in my life. During our lovely dinner, it was pointed out to me that another person from my past was sitting several tables away. I would never have recognized her as she has had serious health problems due to a hemorrhagic stroke. My friend at the table was describing her recent wedding to her new husband and what an amazing experience it was to be there. Clearly, this is yet another example of considering a different normal. I hope that the future will give me a chance be in touch with this person and continue to feel the power of the blessing of having her and her family in my life in much younger years, when we were all able… and to continue to learn from her different “ableness.”

We are completing the cycle of the Torah readings of Bereshit, the book of Genesis at this season in the Jewish calendar. When I teach about the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and their family members, I DO focus on what their deficits and disabilities are. Sometimes, I am asked why THESE PEOPLE are our role models and my answer is that is precisely because of their being touched and feeling the full impact of the human condition that they are apt role models. We may lose our sight as Yitzchak, lose our physical strength as Yaakov, not be as strong mentally, spiritually or in other ways as people around us in our lives and so on. That being said, if we think of ourselves as “temporarily able” maybe, just maybe, we will be cognizant of the blessings we have and be more attentive to the many more we learn from each other as we all work through our assigned challenges.

May 2016 bring healing to all who need it and remind all of us to think of as many different types of normal as possible.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Lessons of Hannukah: A Little Bit of Oil Goes a Long Way

On Sunday, immediately after returning home from Israel, I attended and taught at a conference entitled Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Global Warming. The connection to the fact that on this very day we were all awaiting the onset of Hannukah, when we celebrate the miracle of a little bit of oil was not lost on me.

Hanukah has always struck me as a funny holiday in some ways – acknowledging the notion that a little bit of resources lasted for so long, both in terms of human resources in the Maccabbees and with respect to natural resources regarding the small flask of oil that lit the way for eight days; while so defined too often in our world today by excesses and wastefulness, including excessive packaging of too many gifts that we too often don’t even need. One could make a strong case that Hannukah is more about measuring and using our human and natural resources carefully and intentionally even though this is often the furthest thing from people’s minds. No doubt this is due in no small part to the influence of our larger commercial culture. Interestingly enough, I have heard many devout Christians also lament that the true meaning of their own days of observance at this season has lost traction in our materialistic world.

So, allow me for a moment to take a different look at some of the compelling lessons of Hannukah and really just about every moment in our Jewish lives in reminding us of our ongoing relationship with our world and Earth as well as our responsibility to care for it and use our resources appropriately.

Look at these texts carefully:

“When you besiege a city… do not destroy (lo tashchit) any of its trees…” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

Rav Zutra said: “Whoever covers an oil lamp, or uncovers a naphtha lamp, transgresses the law of bal tashchit.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 67b)

“Righteous people … do not waste in this world even a mustard seed. They become sorrowful with every wasteful and destructive act that they see, and if they can, they use all their strength to save everything possible from destruction. But the wicked … rejoice in the destruction of the world, just as they destroy themselves.” (Sefer HaChinuch 529; 13th Century)

Clearly, we are taught here and in so many other texts to not be wasteful and to respect all facets of Creation at all times, including conflict, use of resources, and protection of our planet. This is more than relevant and profoundly necessary at this point in our human narrative. The practice of conservation and the notion that our resources are not limitless are well-established truths from long ago and frame the basic Jewish practice to not be wasteful, observing the body of laws known as Bal Tashchit.

Taking into account the notion that there is an increasing divide between the haves and the have nots in our world and the proliferation of initiatives of “giving back” during this holiday season so that those of us who have so much can show gratitude and share our bounty with others, what if we were all to give these lessons as gifts to those we love?

For many years, while my children were growing up, we participated in a wonderful program called Christian Children’s Fund and sent our monthly checks to support a family in Uganda. Every Hannukah I had a deal with my children. Whatever I would spend on them, we also spent on Beth Nikalanda, the child we sponsored and her family. We would send a check to CCF and then get letters back about how the same amount of money that supported our American Girl dolls (which are now parented by my daughter’s girls) bought lambs, blankets, grain and other supplies that supported this entire family. This, I believe was one of the lessons of gratitude and feeling the blessings of our lives for my children. This was most likely the most important Hannukah gift I gave them. We also came to have a great deal of respect for Beth in being so self-sufficient and skilled in working the land and helping her family to survive and thrive in their reality, where they HAD to be careful and mindful and intentional with their limited resources.

It is indeed a challenge to watch as less and less people have more and more and use their disproportionate amount of energy and resources while trying to be mindful of those in need and resources that are at risk. We are all so aware of the present work on Sustainable Development Goals in our world, various reports of climate change and global warming with 2015 taking its place as the hottest year on record. Yet, awareness is not enough; we have to carefully consider our own individual footprints and impact on these factors and how we can individually and collectively work to keep our world safe and protect the Creation, its light and all, that God entrusted to our care so long ago. This sensibility and the need for action is the most important gift we can give to those we love this Hannukah. Only then, will our small amount of oil go far enough for all to be sustained and live well. This is one important way we can perpetuate the miracle of Hannukah in our times.

If you are interested in more materials and resources, check these sites to learn more about this important aspect of our Chiyuv as protectors and workers of the planet.

Chag Urim Sameach – May the lights of the candles we look at this Hannukah remind us of the blessings in our lives and the need to hope for a better and more well used planet.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Dealing with Sobering Times….. Again

Shabbat is coming and we are having our monthly Kabbalat Shabbat (special service to welcome our day of rest, for my non-Jewish friends) Partnership Minyan at our house. We are leaving for Israel on Wednesday. My entire family will be together to help me celebrate my birthday in a few weeks. I am in the midst of planning two conferences on Inclusion and Acceptance of all members of our communities for different populations – one for Orthodox Jews and one for people of all faiths. All of these involvements are so uplifting to me and I am so filled with gratitude to be able to have all of these wonderful experiences and so many more blessings in my life. And yet, my heat is so heavy.

Here we are again! Paris, Marseille, Chad, Israel, Cameroon, Turkey, Nigeria, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iraq, Mali – these are just the most recent sites of the approximately 300 incidents in 2015 attributed to terrorism. On one hand, it makes one afraid to think of travel, going out about one’s normal day, and just living for fear of their loved ones, community members and the general devastation that comes from thinking about what is happening in our world.

Peace rallies, tributes, creation of places of memory and comfort and community gatherings, people reaching out to help each other, Moslems gathering in France and elsewhere to proclaim in so many languages “We are Moslems and against terrorism,” staying glued to the television, internet and every possible news source, and just trying to get through the day…. This is how we fight the terrorism that threatens ALL good people, innocent citizens and purposeful and heartening communities of faith.

We are told that we are to go about our lives and we try to do the best we can. Our fellow citizens of the world in Paris and Marseille are showing us how to do this now as Americans did after 9/11 and as the citizens of the cities and countries listed above are doing and as the good people in the lands most threatened and vulnerable do every day. We KNOW not to take each other and our many blessings for granted, but this reminds us in such a palpable way to do so. How do we, as my daughter, Yoella, and I were discussing (as we often do) this week, continue to live and hold onto our values and our ethics and not let them be compromised by those who are responsible for these breaches in our daily lives and the well being of the masses? How can we not?

This week’s Torah reading in the Jewish cycle of weekly portions is about Yaakov (Jacob) and his isolation when he has been sent from his home because of his mother Rivkah’s (Rebeccah) concern for the well-being of both of her sons. As she states in our Torah narrative, “Shall I lose both of my sons?” Yaakov and Esau are very different, there has not been honesty amongst them, and there is now an irreconcilable rift, which Rivkah feels can only be avoided, not healed. So that is, we are told by some of our commentaries, both classic and more modern, the reason that she separates her sons, forgoing her own motherly instincts to keep her children as close as possible.

As a mother, I know all too well that desire to keep all safe – our family, my children, their children, their friends, our community, our world! Golda Meir often spoke about how she led Israel when she was Prime Minister with the mindset of a mother. As a mother and as a woman, I totally get this as I am sure so many of us do. How do we protect ALL innocent citizens?

Golda Meir poignantly stated that she was angry with those who killed her children, the Israelis, but she was more angry and distraught who forced her children, the Israelis to kill others. This sentiment is clearly from the mindset of one who values life – the life of all of God’s human beings. Let us hold onto this notion that we want to protect all innocent life and now the challenge is how do we do this in the face of the threats that are facing ALL of us no matter where we are? How do we help the Syrian refugees? How do we continue to engage in initiatives that bring together Palestinians and Israelis in so many successful ventures, ranging from concern for the environment to sharing circus arts, to living room dialogue groups and so much more? How do we NOT judge each other by how we look and the association of that appearance with those who use a similar one to act in the name of terrorism, nothing else!

Terrorists are NOT acting within the context of a religious framework, but rather taking the faith that so many of us believe in so fervently and corrupting it, offending all believers in our communities of faith. I was horrified by the murder of Shira Banki z’l by an extremist who was NOT acting within a Jewish context and others like him, and am now equally horrified by those who are perverting what Islam teaches. May we all find a way to live together and support each other so that our only response is not to have to send “the other” away from us – My prayer is that we continue to work together so that it is so clear that there are many more masses of people who are peaceful people of faith and NOT terrorists.

May this be a peaceful Shabbat and Sabbath for all.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How Do We Normalize the Conversation about Inclusion in our Faith Communities?

In 1951 a man by the name of Maurice Ogden wrote a terrifying poem called The Hangman using a pseudonym. It was first published in 1954. I have used this poem in my teaching often through the years. It is about a hangman who comes to town and one by one hangs all of the citizens. If you want to hear a dramatic reading of it, go to

It is about community on an extremely important level, namely when community does NOT function as community and then people within that community are isolated, maligned, ignored, not included, and eventually destroyed. In Ogden’s poem, the destruction comes from the “stranger who came to our town.” However, what about those in our community upon whom we depend for support, love, validation and so much else?

These days, so much of my work is about just that – inclusion of all within our community. In this case, it is about including LGBTQ community members in our communities of faith. This includes the general Jewish community, the Orthodox Jewish community specifically and all communities of faith in my work with our area’s Multi-Faith Council. I approach this work thoughtfully and ever so intentionally, trying to convey that this is NOT about politics, grandstanding or making any large social statements. Rather, it is just about being…. who we are and who God made us to be. As you know by now, for me this has always been part of my hardwiring – this is the way God made me to be – an Ally for the inclusion of all members of our community. Yet, we cannot be so naïve as to think that this is not a huge leap for too many in our various communities of faith. So how do I approach this conversation?

I try to normalize it! Let us look back and consider that ever so long ago, the Talmud with its accepted Jewish authority as a seminal text is quite clear about how left-handed people only have qualified inclusion in our community. However, no one would question that in spite of centuries of thinking left-handed people to be sinister and of other such non-normative status; long ago, in fact in the Talmud itself, we acknowledge that we found a way to accept this variation in God’s created beings and accept those who are left-handed.

Women were definitely at a clear disadvantage and not included in so much of social gatherings, which is still a problem in too much of our world today. Even Jewish texts from so long ago speak to the need to meet the needs of this fully one half of our population. Other faith communities have definitely lived through many chapters of coming to terms with acceptance and provision of as full as possible inclusion of women in as many situations as possible. We in our civilized world acknowledge that we have found a way to validate that half of God’s created beings are women and accept them; while separating ourselves from societies who have not yet figured this out. Parenthetically, there are still needed steps to insure this equality but we would generally agree in this learning circle of which we are part that this must be on our agenda and that ways of consideration and inclusion have definitely been found and utilized..

In the Jewish community’s observant sectors, agunot (women whose husbands will not grant them a needed divorce) have had their share of challenges and in some communities become nothing s>hort of pariahs. This has hit families who could not be ignored as time has gone on, and here too, we are finding ways to deal with this challenge and to facilitate a process by which these women can move on with their lives. To not have done so would be oppositional to some of the most basic of Foundational Torah concepts, so we must find a way.

Members of our community who are hearing impaired also have limitations placed on them by the strictest and most basic reading of our Torah text and codes of law. Yet, we know all too well that due to hearing aids, cochlear implants, use of sign language and other strategies, our community members with hearing deficits can and do function fully as members of our community. In terms of Jewish law, ways have been found to validate and adapt this process so that full participation is granted in our religious as well as judicial spheres. The same challenge has been presented for the visually impaired, the physically limited, and other groupings. As a side comment, I find it ever so interesting that it is Israeli doctors and medical centers that are disproportionately so present in the field of creation of adaptive devices to allow such full participation and involvement. Yes, we have learned here too that where there is a will, there is a way.

Not so many years ago, children and members of our community who are learning disabled were excluded, not acknowledged, put away and families were ashamed because of the fear that such children meant that someone must have done something wrong. We have come to learn the incredible gifts that these children and the adults they grow into bring into our community. PTACH and other organizations with a similar mission have taught us all too well that EVERY Jewish child should be included and educated. There was a will, so a way was found.

And now, here we are on the cusp of an amazing time of growth, discussion, deliberations and consideration of how we fully include and validate the members of our Jewish community and other faith communities who are LGBTQ. Will there be religious challenges requiring creative and thoughtful and intentional approaches? No doubt there will be, but haven’t we done exactly that in so many different cases through the years? That is precisely what I mean by “normalizing the conversation.” We ask for no more and no less for our LGBTQ members than our left-handed members, women, our agunot, community members with various impairments, limitations, different learning needs and so many others. Where there is a will and a thoughtful intentional consideration of what it means to be fully human, we have seen in so many instances in the past that there is a way. May it always continue to be so.

So what is my ultimate goal in this work? Ogden ends each stanza of his chilling and horrifying poem with the execution of yet another not-to-be-accepted community member and fear regarding who would be next on his scaffold. My hope is that we will end each chapter in our own history of our faith communities by showing ourselves able to come to terms with the approach of “who do we include” by considering how we find a way that is reasonable and compassionate so that all are protected from whatever Hangman and cloak that may come by. That to me is normalizing the conversation – using those tools and strategies we have already learned for our beloved community members, whatever their differences may be.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Siyyum: Masechet Sukkah - In Memory of my parents, Hannah and Kenneth Sterling

Note: I must begin this posting with Hakarat HaTov (a personal and profound statement of gratitude) to Mekor HaBeracha and Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch for allowing me to actually have a Siyyum celebration in honor of the memory of my parents on the occasion of the completion of Shloshim after they have both completed their sojourn in this world. Please know that there are Orthodox spaces in which women can participate actively in appropriate ways and how much these spaces and their spiritual leaders are appreciated. And now I begin…

I never stop to be amazed by the so-called magic of timing. As I often say, “A coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous or making us think we have some sense of agency in our lives.” We have just completed the cycle of fall Hagim, with its centerpiece of the observance of Sukkot. Simultaneously, I completed my learning of Masechet Sukkah in which I have been involved for the past few months. Additionally during this season of reflection, observance and celebration that is inaugurated with the advent of the month of Elul, both of my parents completed their sojourn on this earth, my dad leaving on Rosh Hodesh Elul and my mom on Shabbat Shuva. So how do we bring all of this together? No problem – Ribbonu shel Olam made it easy.

At a Siyyum of a Talmudic body of literature it is appropriate to learn the final section, so lets begin there. As we read on 56b in Masechet Sukkah,

[THE WATCH OF] BILGAH ALWAYS DIVIDED [THE LECHEM HAPANIM] IN THE SOUTH. Our Rabbis taught, It happened that Miriam the daughter of Bilgah apostatized and married an officer of the Greek kings. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary,she stamped with her sandal upon the altar, crying out, ‘Lukos! Lukos! How long wilt thou consume Israel's money! And yet thou dost not stand by them in the time of oppression!’ And when the Sages heard of the incident, they made her ring immovable and blocked up her alcove. Some however, say that the watch [of Bilgah] was dilatory in coming and [that of] Jeshebeab his brother, entered with him and served in their stead… [after the imposition of the penalty, the course of] Bilgah always divided their shares in the south, while that of his brother Jeshebeab did it in the north. It is well according to him who stated that his course was dilatory in coming, since for this reason the whole course might well be penalized; but according to him who stated that it was Miriam the daughter of Bilgah who apostatized, do we [it may be objected] penalize [even a] father on account of his daughter? Yes, replied Abaye, as the proverb has it, ‘The talk of the child in the market-place, is either that of his father or of his mother’. May we then penalize the whole course on account of her father or mother? — ‘Woe’, replied Abaye ,’to the wicked, woe to his neighbour; it is well with the righteous and well with his neighbour; as it is said, Say ye of the righteous, that it shall be well with him, for they shall eat the fruit of their doings’.

Too often, I have been at a Siyyum where connections made to life and to the rest of the text are tenuous at best, so I would like to insure that the connection I intend to explain is successfully communicated. First a few details to provide context for the text are in order. This last part of the Tractate occurs within a larger discussion regarding extremely elaborate stage directions regarding the coming to and leaving of the watches, the families of Kohanim who were invested with the supervision and offering of sacrifices. The rotation of those who served the needs of the community is ever so carefully explained, as are the locations for various involvements. Bilgah was in the 15th of the 24 watches that were used in the rotation for the various worship and celebratory needs, specifically here the dividing of the Lechem HaPanim (ceremonial breads). For his watch, the dividing of the Lechem HaPanim was always to be in the south and not follow the normative rotations of this ritual practice, depending on whether one was beginning their watch in the North or ending their duties in the South, where they would exit. Further, each family of Kohanim had their own designated ring and storage for knives with which to offer their sacrifices, which were permanently closed for Bilgah. Why are these unusual arrangements, which were punitive, indicated?

Two explanations are offered in our Baraita to explain these indignities for Bilgah and his family. One is the lackidaisical manner in which some members of his family showed up, or did not, for their duties. When they were exceedingly late, other Priestly families had to take double shifts to make up for their lack of respect and regard. The second explanation for this shaming of the family of Bilgah is the action of daughter Miriam bat Bilgah who abandoned her religion, community and family and went off to marry a Greek officer. Further, when she returned to the Beit HaMikdash, she had only what appeared to be negative words of reproach and rejection for it.

If we are to understand that the children of Bilgah were not serious about their priestly duties, then the punishment, according to our sages, is appropriate as indicated, for they did not show themselves worthy of maintaining the honor of their watch. However, if all of this is due to the actions of one member of the family and her apostasy, then we have a problem. Namely, how do we come to terms with the entire family suffering due to the misdeeds of one member?

At this point as we try to get a handle on this, we want to look at three texts, two from the Hameshet Humshei Torah and one from Nevi’im (Prophets), each exhibiting a model of how to approach this dilemma:

Yechezkiel (Ezekiel) 18: 19 – 20 VaYikra (Leviticus)14: 33 – 47 Shemot (Exodus) 20: 1 – 4

If you want to find and read these texts, go to

So what have we here? On one hand, an individual’s actions should stand on their own, but on the other hand, we are told that for a misdeed no less than apostasy the punishment should be pervasive, extending for generations. In these texts, we have three approaches:

1. Yechezkiel’s model shows that each is rewarded or punished for his or her deeds. This is a fairly straightforward approach, though as we know, life is too often messy and complicated and not exactly straightforward or so neat and ordered.

2. In the text from VaYikra which Rashi uses to make his view known here in the Gemara, we see that an uncleanliness that is associated with serious mideeds can tarnish and have an impact that spreads aggressively. We know all too well how such problems as leprosy can spread and affect others. Anyone who just got a flu shot did so to avoid such spreading of disease. There are no questions here about the notion that one cannot drill a hole in his cabin in a boat and claim that it does not have an impact on others who are elsewhere on the boat.

3. In Shemot, as we look at the first Mitzvot of the Aseret HaDibrot, we are reminded the ramifications of denouncing God and not serving God’s purpose. Clearly this would appear to make sense as generations are affected by the wayward deeds and practices of one member of a family. Turning away from God hardly has to be addressed as a question of impact in our day and age in terms of the collateral damage for those around the person in their own generation and in those to come.

So which of these references help us understand the text at hand? Is it so clear how we should react to the actions of the sons of Bilgah who did not take their privileged station seriously or to his daughter Miriam on deserting her people? Is it ever such a simple and isolated dynamic? Clearly not!

The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests, in what many consider to be a somewhat radical approach, that Miriam could be seen as basically “every Jew” who is Jewish and concerned for her people no matter how far away she may move from the observance and practice of her youth and upbringing. Here is a woman who apparently rejects the teachings of her family and marries a Greek, becomes Hellenized and returns to the Temple with what are clearly harsh words. But wait: are these words of blasphemy or words of reproach, not all that different than the Prophets who claim that the offerings and sacrifices from the most “devout” of Jews meant nothing if there was not proper treatment and concern for others? In this reading, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is teaching that her words and actions could be regarded as follows, as reflected by Rabbi Chaim Jachter.

Her actions are explained as examples of how, fundamentally, every Jew is committed to Torah and the Jewish people on some level. Hashem loves and cherishes every one of us, and we must remember that this connection is not so easily severed. It may indeed appear that she gave up everything, walked away from all that her people held dear; and that she’s now a Hellenist and married to an officer of the army that defiles the Beit HaMikdash.

But then when she reaches the sacrificial altar, something hits a raw nerve, she sees her fellow Jews suffering, and her deep pain and empathic nature could be what is exposed. It is in this moment of bitterness she cries out: “Wolf, wolf! You consume the Jewish people’s wealth, but you don’t answer them in their time of need!” She could be as distressed as was Hannah in front of Eli and cries “Hashem, how are You letting this happen that I cannot have a child?!” The Rebbe wants us to ask if this pain and response are that of rebellion or does it stress just how very connected she really was to Hashem and the Jews? She perhaps cannot bear what she perceives to be HaShem’s silence in the midst of such suffering, as we have seen in so many other generations of Jewish suffering.

Some would have us believe that Miriam bat Bilgah may very well have viewed herself as no longer Jewish, not interested in Hashem, intermarried with the enemy, Hellenized, a pagan. But in reality, this may have been but a superficial layer masking her true identity, as we have seen with Esther in the Persian palace. The Jewish soul can indeed be bound to Hashem regardless of its outer appearance.

Is Miriam bat Bilgah turning the mirror on us, on the hypocrisy of the observance of the ritual without commitment to its underlying principles, ethics and morals that are foundational to their practice? Could she be criticizing the lack of proper respect she found in her own family, through the disregard shown in their relaxed attitude towards their duties? These are, according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, fair and necessary questions to ask.

Now, in thinking about the statement that ‘The talk of the child in the market-place, is either that of his father or of his mother,’ more questions abound. Do we realize that our actions do in fact represent our families, those who have reared and taught us? We know from elsewhere in our teachings, that Chazal discuss whether or not the student’s misunderstanding of what is taught him is the responsibility of the one who taught him or not. We consistently see instances in our lives today of individuals acting radically and inappropriately as a result of what they were taught or saw. What is our response to them? The Rebbe would have us practice the dictum of זכות לכף דן that is to “judge the other favorably.”

That being said, we do feel the impact of others and must acknowledge how we do the same to those whom we influence. Is it fair to say that a product of a household does act in a way that is reflective of what the teachers of that household taught that person? Are we as the teachers of that household aware of our own power and the responsibility that comes with that power as we influence those who look to us for guidance?

As I have gone through the season of the Yomim Noraim and its self-reflection as well as the joyfulness of the season of Chagim and its constant reminder of our connectedness to each other, I am exceedingly aware of this balance and how we are the reflection of those who have taught us and in turn will become reflected in the actions and involvements of those we teach and parent. It is in this context that I think of my own parents who I know have taught me and all members of our family so many lessons of humility, honesty, respect and regard, accountability to ourselves, each other and God, and so much else. Most important I have learned and communicated to my children that there is no conflict between religious or ritual practice as such and how we go in the world. HALACHA is HALICHA – our Jewish law is reflected in the daily dealings and actions with which we walk around. Each one informs that other and one without the other is not, I believe, what God intended for us. It is these teachings that I hope all members of my family will continue to spread to all those with whom we come in contact and through the deeds in which we are involved. May we all be so blessed and may the watch of Bilgah and his family be healed, whatever the misdeeds of his family members were.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Lessons from the Men who married Wise Women and their own Legacies of Wisdom

Note: This writing was actually begun this past spring. However, given too many events in our lives, I never got back to it…. And now we are officially in the fall of 2015. And now, I will attempt to go back to the seeds that begin, well, everything!

Sometime during the early summer the following was written: I walked outside last week for the first time after being “confined to quarters” due to asthma and horrible allergies. I immediately noticed our house is at its prettiest time of the year, with all of the azaleas, tulips and other flowers beginning to bloom, while new annuals are planted. And then my mind turns to where it always does at such times…

We all have those adults in our lives who make indelible impressions on us and inform so much of our thinking. My Uncle Ben, my mother’s brother-in-law was just this person. He owned a grass and vegetable seed company and I remember well the stories in our family about how he would over calibrate the amount of seeds in each packet so that the customer would always receive what he paid for and never feel cheated. That is to say, if the package indicated that four ounces were contained, it would in fact be 4.x ounces of product.

When asked why he observed this practice, he gave an answer that has always stayed with me. He indicated that the seeds were put here by God as was everything and that it was up to us to always go the extra mile, so to speak, in practicing the dictated Mitzvah of “honest weights and measures.”

(And now I pick up and continue this writing.) In Masechet Berachot in our Talmud we learn that whatever one enjoys in any way must be blessed and acknowledged, for to do so is as if we are stealing from God, for all that we have, down to the little seeds that begin all types of life, come ultimately from God. We know all too well how basic it is to say blessings over our food, and over all things that come from the ground as well as all other phenomena in our lives. The Bracha (blessing) we say is this verbal acknowledgement. My Uncle Ben’s practice was our acknowledgement through deed, in this case in the very business through which he supported his family. What a wise man. Perhaps it is appropriate at this point to explain the title of this post. You see, the maiden name of my mother and her sister was Wise – so Uncle Ben married my Aunt Becky (nee Wise), while my dad married my mom, Hannah (nee Wise) – hence the Wise Women.

In our lives as we are too often so surrounded in our lives by news of people that are dishonest and do not accept that they are accountable to others, I often think of this simple practice as well as those of my dad, the accountant. My dad was always faultlessly honest, at times to his own detriment. If there was ever a question about a deduction, he would err on the side of paying the government, going above and beyond what others would do with such accounts. He did not ever want anyone to claim that he had taken what was not his to take; and he followed this practice for his clients as well as himself and his family. He died this past Rosh Hodesh Elul and my mom joined him on Shabbat Shuva. Throughout the intervening weeks we read about leadership, honest practices and scrupulous behavior in our weekly Torah portions. My dad and mom and Aunt Becky and Uncle Ben were important and pivotal role models in my life and that of our entire family regarding how we behave in our worldly and daily lives and how this is as much, many would say (and I would agree) more, important in how we conduct our lives outside of our place of worship then in our ritual observance.

Our Torah, our Prophets, our Rabbis and our teachers through the ages teach that it is hypocrisy to claim to be so blemish free in our ritual observance and to not care for those who need our caring, to not thank God for the many blessings God has bestowed upon us, and to not be profoundly appreciative for our very lives, showing appropriate gratitude. This GRATITUDE is a word that we often hear from our children and I am often struck how this is the most important legacy my parents and the other adults in their generation who had such a profound impact upon us left for us to continue. Thank you, Mom and Dad.

Most of us probably know some iteration of the story where several men go on a boat. One takes all of his money; one takes all of his jewels; the third man takes all of his material treasures, while the fourth does not take any material goods. The others are curious about this fourth man on the boat and ask what he brought. He replies, “The wisdom and teachings I have acquired during my life.” There is a terrible storm and the boat sinks and all of the men are fighting for their lives. At the end, the one who brought his money does not have it; the one who valued his jewels lost them, and the one who brought his most treasured material belongings has also been stripped of what he most valued. Only the passenger with his wisdom and teachings leaves the boat with what he came.

I know that the men who married the WISE women were wise themselves as well and it is this wisdom that stays with me and all in my family now that none of these important people in our lives share our earth with us any longer. Yes, Aunt Becky and Uncle Ben and Mom and Dad (and Aunt Mary and Uncle Melvin as well), we will all continue the important wisdom and legacy of your teachings that we still have with us and pass them on to our children. Thank you for this unsinkable gift of wisdom!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

So Many Blessings to Remember in Sadness

I am sad! It’s okay to be sad. We buried both of my parents, the people with whom God cooperated to give me life, to bring my siblings and me into this world within five weeks, between mid-August and mid- September. In their lives well lived, they birthed a tiny dynasty of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and of course, the nieces, nephews, great-nieces and nephews; great-great-nieces and nephews and the teachings and the example of the lives they lived…. which will continue to sustain and guide us and all with whom we come into contact (with the help of Aunt Sandy, officially the only remaining matriarch of the family).

As I shared at my mom’s funeral service, she died on Parshat VaYelech, when Moshe/Moses begins by explaining to the children of Israel that he has lived his life, he is now 120 years old, not able to come and go like he did and that they will continue on without him. He will hand the reins of leadership over to Joshua and a new generation. His teachings will always be with the children of Israel and as we now know, so many generations later, the many children of children of children to come. So may it be with the memory of my parents and those of us in whom they instilled their teachings.

As I try to reconfigure my world, and think about what this means for myself and my siblings and cousins in terms of taking on those reins of leadership for our children, their children and generations to come, I realize how profoundly I am blessed. While the end of my mom’s and dad’s lives were quite difficult and challenging, I need to look past that and remember… Our son Brian and I were talking a few days ago and he asked how I think people appear in the next world after death, old or young or… My response was I think that they appear as the best that they became in their lives.

We are truly blessed indeed to have had my parents in our lives until this point, each of them dying at 91 (dad) and 92 (mom) when their bodies just had had enough. We are blessed with so many memories – funny ones, spiritual ones, family gathering stories, teachings from their own experiences, and so much more. We are blessed when we consider that these two people, with profound challenges in each of their lives, found each other and gave each other the gift of a live well lived together. I consider it a blessing that they are no longer suffering and are at peace, as Moshe must have been after his life. I know it’s a blessing that just because they are no longer physically with us, they are very much here still guiding us in so many ways. All we have to do is listen to our hearts. As the Rabbi who officiated said, they were together in life and now they have not even been separated by death. That too is a blessing.

At both funerals, all of us who spoke wove these beautiful tapestries of the meaning of their lives, the lessons of plowing through the challenges that confronted them, and the “take-away” of having been blessed to have them in our lives. I was struck at both ceremonies about what it means to truly leave a legacy and to make an impact on this world. I have already found myself thinking, “Mom you would find this funny” or “Dad, you would really enjoy this story.” Yes, they are still here within the beings they brought into this world and we will continue to be sure they are around our Shabbat table, in our Sukkah and present in each and every way possible as we continue this journey called life.

Strangely enough, in addition to these transitions in our lives, this is a very sobering time for all of us in our family as we have several friends and close people to us who are so ill. We all have these people so dear to us in our minds and are wishing them a Refuah Shelemah (full recovery). May their bodies heal, their spirits soar and the legacy they are building continue to have its impact.

As we begin the Chag/holiday of Sukkot, I constantly run the verse through my head of how God spreads the tent (the Sukkah) of peace and well-being over all of us. May it continue to be so.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Erev Rosh Hashanah and 9/11/15 (with thanks to JP)

A very dear friend (one of our dearest!) sent the following piece to me to read. I now pass it on for all of us to read.

This was taken from the following website:

…”When I proposed the theory of relativity, very few understood me, and what I will reveal now to transmit to mankind will also collide with the misunderstanding and prejudice in the world. I ask you to guard the letters as long as necessary, years, decades, until society is advanced enough to accept what I will explain below. There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others, and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us.

This universal force is LOVE. When scientists looked for a unified theory of the universe they forgot the most powerful unseen force.

Love is Light, that enlightens those who give and receive it. Love is gravity, because it makes some people feel attracted to others. Love is power, because it multiplies the best we have, and allows humanity not to be extinguished in their blind selfishness. Love unfolds and reveals.

For love we live and die. Love is God and God is Love.

This force explains everything and gives meaning to life. This is the variable that we have ignored for too long, maybe because we are afraid of love because it is the only energy in the universe that man has not learned to drive at will.

To give visibility to love, I made a simple substitution in my most famous equation. If instead of E = mc2, we accept that the energy to heal the world can be obtained through love multiplied by the speed of light squared, we arrive at the conclusion that love is the most powerful force there is, because it has no limits. After the failure of humanity in the use and control of the other forces of the universe that have turned against us, it is urgent that we nourish ourselves with another kind of energy…

If we want our species to survive, if we are to find meaning in life, if we want to save the world and every sentient being that inhabits it, love is the one and only answer. Perhaps we are not yet ready to make a bomb of love, a device powerful enough to entirely destroy the hate, selfishness and greed that devastate the planet.

However, each individual carries within them a small but powerful generator of love whose energy is waiting to be released. When we learn to give and receive this universal energy, dear Lieserl, we will have affirmed that love conquers all, is able to transcend everything and anything, because love is the quintessence of life. I deeply regret not having been able to express what is in my heart, which has quietly beaten for you all my life. Maybe it’s too late to apologize, but as time is relative, I need to tell you that I love you and thanks to you I have reached the ultimate answer! “.

Your father Albert Einstein

Of course, there is a great deal of questioning as to whether Einstein wrote these words, but in the spirit of the message, let us agree with those who say he did.

Today, on September 11, 2015, this remembrance of what is worst about mankind, and as we consider how we each strive to be the best, especially those of us in the Jewish community preparing for the aptly named Days of Awe, let us all remember that it was through LOVE that God created our universe and all in it and it is this LOVE that we are commanded to share with and show each other when we are taught, actually COMMANDED to remember that WE MUST EACH LOVE THE OTHER AS MUCH AS OUR OWN BEING. It is in fact the utilization of this quality and the initiatives and intentions it inspires that allow us to best emulate God as well as show our gratitude in cherishing all that God has created.

May the memory of those who perished in 9/11 and all victims of violence that appears all too often to be a by-product of extremist beliefs inspire all of us to tap into that energy force of LOVE that is at the very root of who we are as humans.

May the year of 5776 bring healing and comfort and lessons of love to us all.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lessons I Learned From My Father, Kenneth Gordon Sterling z’l

On Rosh Hodesh Elul (August 16, 2015) my beloved father, Kenneth Gordon Sterling left this earth after living a full life of more than 91 years. As I said when I spoke at his funeral (it still indeed feels weird and disorienting to think or say this), this was sad and our hearts are broken, but my father was truly blessed to have lived a full and meaningful life and we were all blessed to have him as part of our own journeys on this earth. Part of what I will share here is a distillation of what I said to honor him as we tried to celebrate his life filled with so many lessons. So much of the life he lived seems remarkable and yet so much is what too many of us have experienced in our own way, as we consider lives that seem simultaneously extraordinary and normal in their own right.

I will begin with a miracle that happened on May 28, 1924. As my family is presently praying for and involved with friends who have a baby who was born three months pre-mature, I am reminded of my dad who was born two months premature at about seven months of gestation 91 years ago. Those babies simply did not survive, but my dad did! He struggled his whole life with asthma and various health challenges and subscribed to the philosophy I often state that if one does not take the air one breathes for granted, there is not a lot in this life one will take for granted. My dad was always acutely aware of his blessings, willing to quietly work through the obstacles that confronted him; and I learned how to maintain this balance in my own life from him.

My dad always stated that he was not religious; that it was my mom who was the observant Jew in our family. Nonetheless, when I was going through various challenges in my own young life and asked my dad about God, he responded as follows: Every morning when I wake up in the morning I thank God for the day to be lived and every night when I go to sleep I thank God for a day well lived. I remember thinking and still do that my dad’s spirituality and relationship to God runs so deep, it is to be admired and remembered, as too many of us tend to get lost sometimes in the too many words of our prayers and lives as scripted.

My dad fought in World War II and LIED to get IN to the army. Now, that is a shift in how things usually go! He had bad asthma his entire life, had permanent damage in his arm and as our daughter Yoella said when she spoke at the funeral, “There are reasons that people who have asthma and can’t throw grenades are not supposed to be in the army.” Yet, with all of these legitimate reasons for not being so, my dad would never accept any as excuses (in his mind) to not serve in the American army and fight what he recognized at the time (in spite of so many who minimized this) what was a world-wide threat of Nazi Germany. So, he LIED about his health and his age, and off he went to do his part for Jews, Americans and the citizens of the world.

My dad was a gentle soul who used few words but always acted quietly and behind the scenes. He stated several times to me during the last year or so that he wanted to live one minute longer than my mom so that he would always be there to take care of her. When I was young and suffered from asthma (Thanks, Dad!) it was him that I wanted to watch me at night when I was afraid that I would suffocate and die in my sleep because I figured if he could do it, so could I.

Many people thought that my dad never talked. He would not take up room in a space where there were people, but if you would sit with him and be willing to listen, there was so much to learn. He was intelligent, competent and well-informed about so many aspects of life; practicing the words of Mishlei (Proverbs) of “say little and do much” throughout his life. We learned so much from him about gratitude, a word that my children often use and when they speak of this thankfulness, I always think back to my dad, who was thankful for all that he had and that God gave him beyond words; maybe that’s why he did not need so many of them. During this month of Elul, whenever I hear the Shofar I think of my dad and his unassuming way of sending forth such an effect of healing and calling to God in his own way.

I watched him be a loving husband to my mom, always the love of his life. He was a proud father, a doting grandfather and great-grandfather and showed that same boundless love for nieces, nephews, friends and all those who were part of his life. Until the end, he always remembered and loved his own sister whom he also left here and his brother and sister-in-law who died years ago. I loved when he would tell stories of his youth and show his mischievous side a bit. I learned so much from him about American history, values, and loyalty.

I guess he would be considered just a man who lived his life the best he could. For him, this was more than enough. For me and for so many, he was so much more than that. There is a story that I often use for its educational value – that of Reb Zusya, who dies and is worried he will be asked by God if he was as good as Avraham, Moshe, King David or any of the other giants of Jewish history. In fact, God wants to know if he was the best Zusya possible.

I know that Kenneth Gordon Sterling, the miracle baby from 1924 who was the patriarch of a family of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, great-nephews, great-nieces and more was indeed the best he could be and I have no doubt that he is thanking God right now for his life well lived. Dad, you will always remain a constant presence in my heart.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

What does it mean to be a Rodeph Shalom in our fractured world?

Since I last wrote, we now all know that tragically Shira Banki, the 16 year old stabbed at the LGBTQ Parade, has died. Shira was a Rodeph/et Shalom, that is one who actively pursued peace and well-being for all! There has been mourning throughout the world for this young lady and the ideals she stood for. Shira was at the parade out of support for the notion that all Israelis, indeed all of humanity, should be able to live with dignity and safely. The sadness amongst my circles as families with members of the larger Jewish LGBTQ community in our lives, as a member of the larger Jewish community and as a human being is palpable and inescapable. I will defer to two others who have spoken eloquently about this horrible set of circumstances.

When Rabbi Benny Lau spoke this past week, he began with a reference to Devarim (21: 1 - 9) in which we learn that the Israelites were to perform a ritual when a dead traveler was found in a field within their region. The elders of the nearest town would proclaim: ’Our hands did not shed this blood.’ This was done specifically to take accountability for every life in every space possible; and by the power of words, to insure that in fact no one was complicit in this loss of life. No town and no individuals were exempt from concern for the other and from trying to insure the safety of the entire collective.

“It is not possible to sit and say ‘our hands did not spill this blood,'” Rabbi Lau stated. “Anyone who has ever been at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer game, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”

We know the role of those who see such dangers and do nothing. It is these bystanders throughout history who enable the deeds of evil to take their toll. Once again, here we are asking ourselves, are we teaching correctly? Are we properly using the texts and sources that provide the foundation for who and what we are as Jews to truly live in the way intended?

Tomes have been written this past week, asking these and other soul-searching questions. There are too many who want to reduce what has happened to “one crazy person” here or there; but this is not the point. In a culture and religious context in which we espouse the idea of “Kol Yisrael Eruvim Zeh LaZeh,” – All members of Israel/community are connected to and responsible for each other – we cannot abdicate our responsibility for the lessons we teach, the words we use and the ideas we convey.

Rabbi Adam Scheier of Montreal wrote as follows:

“As Jerusalem’s Rabbi Benny Lau pointed out, in what upside-down world are the Bankis considered secular and the murderer, Yishai Shlissel, considered religious? The Talmud teaches, “Always let the left hand thrust away and the right hand draw near” (Sotah 47). In other words, we should embrace with greater strength than we reject. Shira’s last moments were spent embracing others; Shlissel, tragically, chose rejection and violence….”

“Shira’s family wasn’t religious, but she lived a life of holiness; it’s a life that our religious communities should honor, remember, and aspire to emulate.”

As a local Orthodox Rabbi stated, let us pray for the souls and families that have been impacted and let the perpetrators be punished to the fullest extent of the law. As for the rest of us, let us be very careful what messages we share with each other and how we speak about those with whom we disagree. Let us do all of this within the context of the Jewish teachings that Shira Banki z”l and so many others represent. Let us be those who engage in Rodeph Shalom – the pursuing of peace! May the memory of Shira Banki be for a blessing for all!

Friday, July 31, 2015

And then there were the events of this past week in Israel… living with more Sinat Hinam on Tu B’Av

As we all decompress from the intensity of Tisha B’Av and the weeks that led up to it, here we sit Erev Shabbat on TU B’AV, the day of thinking about loving relationships and our connections to each other. Instead of finding comfort in thinking about these wonderful relationships in our lives, we are reeling from this past week in Israel – one self identified religious individual stabbed several people at the Gay Pride March in Jerusalem and other self identified religious individuals killed a Palestinian baby as a so-called “payback” action.

So in my last post I addressed that embezzling is clearly against Jewish law. SO IS MURDER AND PURPOSELY ENDANGERING THE LIFE OF ANOTHER. So much so that we are taught that protection of life and saving a person from even the potential of danger trumps so many of our ritual practices. For those who cannot fast for medical reasons, their observance of Tisha B’Av and other fast days is not in any way compromised. If a baby boy born to the most religiously observant family has health complications that preclude having a Brit Milah, you save that baby first! If you are walking on Shabbat and you see a fallen building and there might be a person caught in it to save, you go and try to save them – Jew or non-Jew, of any age!

From where do those who commit such despicable acts of violence get their sense that this action or taking or threatening life is acceptable in any way according to Halacha? Seriously, I would love to try to understand this because it makes no sense – not in terms of Halacha and Jewish observance as I know and live it. As I read the various opinion and reporting pieces about the parade in Jerusalem that was respectful, did not go to any sites that are considered controversial and so forth, I could not help but think of the writings that occurred after Yigal Amir killed Yitzchak Rabin z’l. After the act, Rabbis and leaders were talking about the harm of Sinat Hinam (causeless hatred) and how we have to be careful not to teach this in our synagogues, in our schools and other educational settings as well as homes and larger communities.

Where are the Rabbis and leaders of these communities now? Where is their outrage? What is being taught to their students and their community members? I want to be very clear that I am NOT maligning entire communities; I am respectfully asking WHO and WHERE are the teachers and leaders who are engendering this sense of self-righteous indignation in their charges? It is a fair question. It is a question that Jewish law DEMANDS that we ask as we are taught that students who carry out their teachers’ incorrect or damaging teachings bring shame not only to themselves but to those responsible for such misleading messages.

As a Jewish educator, I have heard too many times “Oh there is no bullying in our wonderful religious Jewish community or school or camp.” And, surprise, there is. I know because I am closely involved and invested in too many lives that were subjected to such bullying, including words, spitting, Lashon Hara, hitting, being thrown to the ground, beaten up and so on. This is NOT a matter of “boys will be boys” or girls will be …. I know families who have moved out of religious communities because of these problems that are not being addressed. It is just wrong and EVERY SYNAGOGUE, SCHOOL, CAMP, ETC. THAT CONSIDERS ITSELF a religious educating institution of Jews of ALL ages MUST convey this message loud and clear and take serious steps regarding corrective actions and discipline!

How many more tragedies will it take before our religious educating institutions will do a true taking of their own accountability seriously (Heshbon HaNefesh, if you will)? Once again, as we go into Shabbat we mourn the deaths and pain of those who are harmed by the hands of those who claim to do so in the name of what they believe. It is time, actually way past time, for their and our community leaders to stand up and unequivocally state that this is wrong and AGAINST Halacha on every level.

Shabbat Shalom and a reflective Tu B’Av to all!

Monday, July 20, 2015

So in case you were wondering, yes, embezzling IS against Jewish Law

This may sound like an absurd statement. So, let me share where it comes from. Many years ago, a dear friend of mine who was a Prison Chaplain at the time, told me the following story. He was tasked with insuring that the Jewish prisoners had their needs met. This friend is a Conservative ordained Rabbi and interestingly enough he was dealing with a good number of individuals who were Orthodox in his “prison congregation,” an entire problem in and of itself for too many reasons, which I hope are obvious. Some of them insisted on giving him a really hard time, because he was “only Conservative” and how could he meet the needs of these “good law-abiding” Orthodox Jews? So he asked one of these gentlemen what he was in prison for and the response was “Embezzling, but that’s not against the Torah!”

Really!!!!!! So, I have completed learning Masechet Shekalim (Talmud Yerushalmi) this past Friday and continue to be amazed at how holistic and expansive the system of Jewish law – properly followed – is! So, my first recommendation to this “congregant” of my friend from so long ago would be to learn this Tractate or any number of others. Masechet Shekalim is about the group participation of the entirety of the Jewish nation in giving shekalim for the upkeep of the Temple, the community needs and so much else.

As always, there are ongoing “side” conversations that are actually quite foundational and central to the discussion at hand. In this case, such great measures are taken to insure that all funds that are given are designated and used for the indicated purpose. There is to be NO co-mingling or misappropriation of funds and no taking from one designated fund for the use of another. One cannot designate funds for one purpose and then change his or her mind and use them for another purpose. There are many stopgaps put in place to insure that this is done properly and with no indication or even the slightest possibility of impropriety.

When the designated treasurer goes to withdraw funds, there is even a prescribed manner in which they must dress, e.g. no long hair, no flowing clothes, no shoes, etc. Why? So that they cannot hide monies from the designated funds and also so that they should not even appear to be able to do so or to have benefitted in any way personally from this task that is on behalf of the community. In short, these tasks are KADOSH, that is sanctified and when one is acting on behalf of others, this is a sanctified responsibility that is not to be misused or abused in any manner for personal gain or otherwise. There is a lovely statement on 14b of this Tractate that goes “ All is to minimize the honor of the person and to maximize the honor of G-d.” This is to say that when one acts on behalf of the community, this is a task where one is to subdue one’s ego, not inflate it. That alone would be a worthy mantra for too many of our leaders in so many ways.

When there is a question or doubt regarding the status of money found, such as when coins are found on the ground between the containers of the various funds, there is also a formula for where they are put. When people are late in giving their shekalim, or they come from far away and cannot meet the indicated deadline, there are specific instructions for that as well. In short, NOTHING is left to question or personal decision. Everything is ever so carefully dictated to insure that funds given are used for their indicated purpose, those entrusted with their distribution do not use any for personal gain, and the community trust is not compromised.

In this situation and only in this set of circumstances, does G-d bless the work of the community and its members and leaders! This is something for all of us to consider. How do we act in a KOSHER and acceptable manner in our business lives and when others trust us with their resources? Perhaps our schools and Yeshivot should focus more on this most important aspect of Jewish Law! Maybe then our population of Orthodox Jewish prisoners would not be as problematic!

Monday, July 13, 2015

More from My Grandfather’s Blessings and Secrets About Them

In my last writing, I shared some insights from Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. and her wonderful book My Grandfather’s Blessings. I have since finished reading the book and it is indeed a wonderful meditative flow of thoughts, lessons and yes, blessings, indeed. I highly recommend it.

This of course leads me to consider what are the blessings of my own grandfather? As it turns out, I carry the name of my mother’s father (ergo, my own grandfather), but as I grew up and wanted to know more about him, all I and the rest of the family was told was that he was a no-good-son-of… Rather upsetting, especially given that without being too obtuse, let’s just say that I did not have the warm fuzzy set of relationships in my nuclear family of birth one likes to think about fondly. In many ways, I had to “grow myself up,” as my mother apologetically said to me during one of our painful discussions before the lights began to flicker in her mind as Alzheimers’ and dementia began to take over.

Forgive me if some of this is a bit obtuse, but out of respect for my family and given that I have been able to effect my own healing with the help of the family I have created (thank you Ken and wonderful children of ours) and some very close friends (some of whom I actually refer to as “siblings of choice”) and amazing relatives, I will not spill all of the family secrets here. I just want to make a point. The narrative we were given about my mother’s father was, shall we say, not honorable and not positive. On the other hand, my mom could never stop talking (and still can’t) about the amazing relationship she had with her sister and her mother and she insists that there is not a better mother or sister on the earth. While mom does speak in hyperbole, and has for as long as I can remember, I feel it safe to say that this reported family dynamic is the truth for her, as she has known it. With one major exception!

Just a bit of back-story. As it turns out, my mother’s father came over by himself to the United States around 1915 to escape the Tzar’s army and then brought his daughter (my Aunt Becky z’l) and his wife, Pearl z’l over to the United States about seven or eight years later. My mother was born shortly after Shmuel (who had since became Sam – think Hester Street, for those of you who have seen the movie) was reunited with his family. Then, sadly, they did not live as a family according to census reports as of 1925 (as I found some years ago with the help of my dear Aunt Sandy (my dad’s sister); and there was a fractured relationship with him. I have since found that I did not have NO relatives, but that he had brothers and there are at least two first cousins that my mom and her sister had and so much else… This is what I have discovered during the last several months, because apparently, …

As it turns out, there is an up side to Alzheimer’s if you will! The filters are off and the secrets come spilling out. Here is the general gist of what I have learned in the past several months through talking with my mom, and by that, I mean mostly listening as she talks and shares her memories (which at times, is her present). She speaks to me as if I am Becky, z’l, her beloved older sister. She tells me that she will share some things, but I have to promise NOT to ever tell Mama because she will be angry. I promise as she asks in her frightened voice (as if I am Becky, which for the purpose of this conversation I am)!

She tells me (aka Becky) that she can’t hold in these secrets any more. It’s been too many years. She confides that she has been visiting Papa at his store every Wednesday after school and on Saturdays (the Sabbath) she would walk over to see him. He would give her ice cream and they would chat for a long time. She loved him very much and he loved her very much. She had to hide this relationship from her sister and her mother because they were not the objects of his affection and would be angry with her. But, she tells me recently, this has been too much for her to hide, and over an hour or more, she recounts her life with and love for her father. But, she ends with - this MUST be a secret from Mama!

Mom breathes, cries a bit, and then is back in the present. I am Sunnie again. So I take my own deep breath and go for it. Mom, I ask, why did you name me after your dad? I was the first child, my dad’s mom had also died, but why did you choose to do this? I needed to know, being the child who in our family’s history and narrative was named for the no-good….

She looked at me and said something to this effect. “You have to understand, I LOVED Papa so much and he was never part of my family growing up. I NEEDED to have him as part of MY family!” So there you have it, I was BLESSED with my Grandfather’s name, the one that my mom loved so much and could not let anyone know. I received two blessings in this conversation. One, I now know that I was named for someone who my mother loved deeply; and two, the secret is no longer an albatross around the old narrative.

Shmuel aka Sam Weis aka Wise, I now know some of the things you did as a human being with failings and weaknesses. We are all human beings with failings and weaknesses. But I also now know how loved you were and how much you loved, and that I will always hold in my heart, and with your permission I will keep that a secret no longer. May your soul continue to rest with Ribbonu shel Olam and may the lessons learned in your life yield positive blessings for all.

Thursday, July 2, 2015


Scenario #1: This morning, we received a call from some guy at some bank wanting to speak with Ken about retirement. We chatted for a few moments since I was the one who answered the phone and I explained how we are both happy with what we are doing, and that retirement is not an immediate plan, though I got the sense he thought this may be the case. We are happy, productive, doing important things and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

Scenario #2: I am always learning, reading, preparing materials, writing, and … right, learning more! So I do like to keep a recreational read going as well. Last week, I went on the hunt through the thousands of books in our home to find such a book. I found an unlikely book (in the sense that this is so not what she reads) in my daughter Yoella’s room. Its title is My Grandfather’s Blessings and the author is Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000). To be honest, its really not my kind of book either – a collection of 103 (according to my count, minus introductions and occasional asides) two to three page pithy essays about life, blessings, healing and all that good stuff – all of which I fervently believe in; I just enjoy a book with “more depth.” Ah, what is it they say, do NOT judge a book by its cover (or its table of contents)! I have really enjoyed this book which is about the many blessings in our lives, many of which we do not see, ignore or walk right past without a thought.

I will share the content of one essay with you, called interestingly enough (right, you guessed) Pearls of Wisdom. Rachel (as she calls herself throughout the readings so I will as well) explains how an oyster is “soft, tender, and vulnerable.” Precisely because of this, the oyster is in its shell for protection, but must keep the shell open so it can breathe. Within the cycle of breathing, because the oyster is on the ocean floor, grains of sand will come inside the shell, causing the oyster great pain. However the ocean floor is the home of the oyster and it cannot thrive anywhere else. So what does it do with these painful grains of sand? It wraps it in “thin translucent layers” and Voila! You have a pearl! A beautiful and sensitive and pure pearl! We then learn from our teacher, Rachel, that sand as well as the pain it causes is the way of life of the oyster. There really are not other choices that are viable. So a beautiful thing of beauty comes from that which causes the oyster pain. She then explains that these places of pain “are the places where wisdom begins to grow in us. It begins with suffering that we do not avoid or rationalize or put behind us.” Our capacity to understand and accept this will contribute greatly to our lives. And all of this was stated in less than two pages. Hmmmm….

Scenario #3: Yesterday in my Gemara learning (Masechet Shekalim, actually from the Talmud Yerushalmi for those who wonder), I read something that I found rather amazing. There is a discussion about the use of community funds (shekalim – a coin of designated worth – and other offerings that are made as well) for the upkeep and needs of the community and its ritual as well as pragmatic functions. In the midst of this discussion it is posited that community funds should be designated for headstones for graves. Within the various concerns related to this need, it is suggested that the most pious and righteous teachers do not need headstones on their graves because we remember and honor and continue to learn from them through their words and teachings that their students and future generations of those who have learned from their wisdom teach us.

So here are my lessons from today:

1. Pearls of wisdom are found even in places we do not expect if we are open to learning from them; and in so doing we keep important people alive and their teachings relevant and part of our daily realities.

2. We are all obligated and enjoined to pass on our teachings and learnings and gleanings of what we have learned to others so that our legacy remains part of the world.

3. Maybe the reason Ken and I do not speak about retirement is because there is a sense of purpose in our lives daily from doing just this.

Truly we are blessed and these blessings come from paying attention closely and living ….. yup, you guessed it, INTENTIONALLY!

Monday, June 22, 2015

What Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz and Charles Kimball Teach us About Religion and our Leaders

In the most recent Orthodox Union magazine of Summer 5775, Jewish Action, a great deal of attention is devoted to a recent hurtful chapter of betrayal and abuse of Rabbinic power and authority in the life of North American Orthodox Jewry. The title of the article and the very issue is “When Leaders Fall.” The lead article was written by a scholar and Rav for whom I have great respect and is truly one of my favorite Jewish leaders today, not that I agree or have to agree with everything he says. Rabbi Breitowitz uses his unique and wonderful combination of scholarship, Jewish knowledge, erudite articulation, and most important compassion and maintaining a strong sense of humanity to explore what elements in our social and cultural context may lead our leaders to fail. He begins by advising us to not condemn the Torah and Jewish Law for the failings of mere mortals. As I often say, it is too easy, in this instance to throw the baby away with the bath water and we as individuals have to remain reasonable about who we all are as humans and what we can reasonably expect from leaders and when we have to take action in difficult situations.

A second point that he speaks about is how people may expect too much from their leaders; and how leaders can fall into the position of power that such expectations can engender. We must always work carefully and purposefully to protect ourselves from the failings of others – insuring that individuals are safe, spaces are not exclusive and individuals in positions of authority do not take on more power than is theirs to take. People who are harmed must be able to speak and not be intimidated by self-serving authority. It is our responsibility collectively to insure that no one individual’s safety is compromised for the sake of the position or authority of another.

Of course, all of this makes so much sense in terms of Jewish teachings, what we hold to be true as civilized human beings, and with respect to common sense! There is so much in Jewish Law that insures this safety and protection of the potentially vulnerable. Yet, unfortunately we too often hear about those who take advantage of women who cannot get a divorce, converts, and others in such positions. In Pesachim 114b there is a most curious teaching that converts and servants like each other, because they are both in a lowly position and do not expect much from each other. This is within the context of a larger discussion about honorable behaviors and those that are not so honorable and how leaders can think that they can “do it all” and it is these leaders that are to be avoided. Essentially, we would not want to use the least common denominator in our expectations of others; but rather, work so that we all try to be the best we can be and ask the same of others.

How do we as members of our community hold onto our own agency and act with confidence and expecting the most of each other possible; while simultaneously have a more realistic set of expectations regarding our leaders? How do we allow our leaders to lead but not abuse that leadership? This is indeed a tricky question that has sparked many conversations on the part of scholars, social scientists and all of us who are part of social and religious institutions. In a day and age where practically every authoritative religious agency or representatives of them are under scrutiny because of the misdeeds and abuse of position among others who have been found guilty, not to mention the terrible harm done to the victims of these abuses, one must wonder who is minding the store, so to speak, in these bodies?

Years ago I became an avid fan of Charles Kimball when I read his book When Religion Becomes Evil. He speaks at length about Absolute Truth Claims and Blind Obedience, two of his markers for when religion does not function in the protective, embracing, instructive and supportive way it is supposed to in our lives as human beings in need of the big answers (or approaches) to the big questions. It is these two characteristics, I believe, that are taken on by the Rav/Rabbi (or any comparable religious leader in any community) who says “Don’t question me; I KNOW the truth,” and the member of the community who is embarrassed by such chastisement and ends up blindly following for fear of sanction. What flawed person in this flawed collection of human beings is of such a level that they are not to be questioned by others! Even the most recently appointed Pope is loved for his humanity and his desire to engage in dialogue with others. When did religious leadership in ANY of our traditions become such an elevated position that one cannot challenge those in its ranks in any way? This is clearly NOT allowed in Jewish law on any level; and yet, we are still dealing with far too much collateral damage including generations of NCSY’ers who were victimized by their head; converts who were taken advantage of; students in Yeshivot who were sexually, physically or emotionally abused; agunot (women who cannot attain a divorce) because of complicit Batei Din (Rabbinic courts); children who are abused by parents and cannot complain because it would go against Shalom Bayit (a peaceful home) and so on. THIS IS NOT THE JUDAISM OF OUR TORAH AND OUR TREASURED HERITAGE and yet it is happening.

What can we do? So here is just one thought to consider in engaging this potentially ongoing discussion. We are taught Aseh Lecha Rav, or find for your self a Rabbi. In other words, we are to take responsibility for finding and designating a leader we can respect and is appropriate for us. Our leader that we go to is NOT dictated, but rather should be chosen by us.

I will draw a quick analogy. I have dealt with some ongoing health challenges throughout my life. I am blessed to have been successful in this endeavor and here is one of my secrets. At points when my health was compromised, I would ONLY go to a doctor I could respect, a doctor who would discuss options with me, one who would share the findings in the PDR with me, one who would allow and encourage, even ask, that I be a participating partner in my health care. In this fashion, I have been blessed with wonderful doctors along the way.

Years ago, the village where one lived was where one’s Rabbi was located. Maybe, we have to challenge this with so much that has changed in our lives. We must each CHOOSE intelligently and intentionally the one that we will go to as our Rabbinic authority. Maybe then, the voice of those that do use the humility that is to come with leadership will be heard more than those who claim to know all the truths and demand blind leadership. WE HAVE TO DO OUR PART in choosing wisely! Our tradition asks that of us; our humanity demands it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

So Let Me Tell You About My Daughter and Daughter-in-Law’s Amazing Wedding!!!!!

Where shall I begin? Many months ago when I wrote an article for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia about our daughter Rachie, her upcoming marriage to her beloved Liz, and her identity as an observant and knowledgeable Jewish woman who is, that is happens to be, gay, I received mostly amazing positive and validating feedback. One lone Rabbi, who does not know Rachie or us at all, wrote rather passionately about how wrong I was, how I should retract my statements, how I could not properly call myself Halachically observant and so on. At one point he asked what type of ceremony could there possibly be for my daughter and her fiancée as they joined their lives together?

No problem, I responded. We made up wonderful creative and intentional ceremonies for the coming of age of our three daughters, their B’not Mitzvah and once again, I would look at the spirit of who we are as Jews, figure out what foundational ideas and narratives we could use and go from there. With the help, creativity, Halachic knowledge, and guidance of my good friend and as Rachie calls him, Rav Steve, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, we did just that! And here is what happened at a lovely retreat called Woolman Hill in Deerfield, Massachusetts from June 5 – 7, 2015.

First of all, I must begin with Shabbat. We arrived after a very long drive (where it felt more like we walked through Connecticut than drove through it) somewhat frazzled but immediately taken by the bucolic environment of the retreat that would be home to the community we were about to be part of and have a hand in creating for the next 48 hours. Fairly quickly, we were introduced to members of the amazing community that our daughter Rachie, our soon-to-be daughter-in-law Liz, and another daughter Talie (Rachie’s twin sister as it happens to be) call their own. What a wonderful and warm and sincere group of relatively newly minted adults, generally in their third decade of doing and initiating ways of changing and repairing our world. Oh and yes, this is all intentional! They are kind, gentle, and just amazing. Shortly after arrival, one of our dear friends remarked, “I want to meet every one of these people.” I could not have agreed more with her!

So, let me describe a lovely and often forgotten piece of Jewish tradition and community practice. Years ago when two young people were ready to embark on their life together, the entire community would come out and work to make their simcha truly joyous and amazing. They were the original DIYers (Do It Yourself), an art we have generally lost! In our day where these matters are now turned over to caterers, professional wedding planners and others whom we meet at the point we are beginning to craft our events; this community of gifted, talented, caring adults pulled together to create a simcha in the way of our previous generations – a truly traditional way of celebrating and validating each other. They cooked and prepared food, designed and built the Chupah (wedding canopy), designed and printed the invitations, helped with and designed the breathtakingly beautiful Shtar Shitufim (Business Contract or Merger, if you will) that was used, and helped with every aspect of this weekend and the ceremony that would be its highlight! This weekend was a testimony to each and every one of these amazing young(ish?) adults!

Throughout Shabbat about 55 or more people from our lives, from the world of Liz’s family and from our daughters’ and daughter-in-law-to-be’s amazing community came together to relax, share space and celebrate Rachie and Liz, while observing Shabbat as a collective. The dovening for Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning was expertly and fully done and it was so clear that there are many Jewishly knowledgeable skilled and committed members of this community that is centered in the Boston area. There was a sensitivity to those who doven with a Mechitza and those who do not; there was respect all around! Beautiful Divrei Torah, soulful singing and Tefilot (prayers), and words of blessing for Rachie and Liz also added to the joy and spirituality of the group.

The meals were nothing short of amazing, with no less than thirteen members of this group working cooperatively for the previous week to “prepare massive amounts of food,” as articulated in the printed wedding program. There were board games, Frisbee, walks through beautiful nature, singing and music for those who wished to take part, and other activities which were available to those with a wider understanding of what their Yom Menucha (Day of Rest) could contain, as well as a Shiyur (lesson, learning experience) for those who wished to participate. People floated in and out of various options and we WERE truly a community of embracing, inclusive and clearly intentional Jewish practice.

Havdalah was a beautiful separation service between “Kodesh v’Hol” (that is between sanctified and secular), though I could not help thinking of it as between Kodesh and Kodesh (sanctified and sanctified), as the ceremony would be on Sunday and there was NOTHING regular or secular about this group and this community nor would there be about the celebration to come! The night ended with a lovely campfire, built by our son the Eagle Scout (go Brian!) with help from members of the community as is the nature of this wonderful group; and musical “singing around the campfire.”

The wedding the next day that affected marriage according to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the business and life partnership designed according to Jewish practice was beyond amazing. The community swelled to 150 as the guests all arrived. We began with a Tisch (table around which we all joined) where members of family and community showered Rachie and Liz with blessings and hopes for their future and the future of the community of which they are such an integral part. The ceremony reflected a beautiful acceptance of the reality of Halacha and what it can be expanded to include as well as accepted limits regarding what was not incorporated. The interfacing of these elements resulted in a nod to the special nature of this union and what it can be looked at within the constructs of Halachic reasoning with appropriate expansion. The language was different, the cadence was different, those standing under the Chupah were different, but the feeling and emotion were NOT all that different, perhaps elevated if anything! No one present felt that either Halacha was slighted nor was the couple being joined through an act of Kinyan (acknowledgement of a life partnership and shared space) and Nedarim (vows to attest to the former); rather all were awed (very appropriately used here) by the beautiful fusion of authentic Jewish expression and authentic love of two Jewish souls within a model true to itself.

Some of us cried of course, and obviously I shed those tears of joy. People did not want to leave. The dancing and joyful noise created by these 150 people was nothing short of amazing. The celebration went on for seven hours, including dancing to a music mix created by yet another member of the community when the band finished their part! Truly everything was thought of for this entire weekend and this showed!

Incidentally, several people remarked that they witnessed a completely circular rainbow around the sun during the ceremony and afterwards. My son explained to me that this is a Sun Halo, which is produced by light interacting with ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. He also tells me this is a rather rare phenomenon. So, how do we explain this? Rav Steve conducted this beautiful ceremony based on the narrative of the interaction and partnership of the sun and the moon and the need for equality between them – a fusion of shared respect and love to enhance their co-existence. Interestingly enough, the rainbow is the symbol of inclusion and equality for the LGBTQ Community. Was G-d giving us all some type of nod of approval by showing us this rainbow, which we know from Bereshit (Genesis) is a sign that God will always protect us and never destroy us again? Was G-d coming into our celebration in a “physical” way?

All I know is that the joy, love, celebration, validation and Jewish expression of the day was “over the moon,” so to speak. As Rav Steve explained, this was not just (or even primarily) a lesbian wedding; it was so much more – it was a joining of two Jewish souls! What more could a mother want for her beloved child!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

PARSHAT NASO 2015/5775

Please note that this was a Shabbat Drasha this past week but continues to be relevant as we move through the texts of BaYikra/Leviticus.

Throughout our Torah and the texts of our heritage we interact with various aspects of God’s persona, ranging from Rachmana (The Compassionate One) to Dayan HaEmet (The Judge of Truth) to aspects of what would be called in anthropology and mythology the Warrior God, the Creator of All, in our case, who is so zealous for all of those beings that God has created with a special place reserved for those members of the Jewish Nation with whom we are taught God has a special relationship. In thinking about our Compassionate and Protecting God, it is sometimes difficult to interface that set of characteristics with what we read in VaYikra, the middle of our Hameshet Humshei Torah that is dedicated to the particular stringencies of Jewish practice and to be sure, there are many. These are some of the most difficult texts to address on so many levels, yet once again I will try to do exactly that.

We will focus on the first set of instructions in our Parsha after the B’nai Yisrael are counted and accounted for as each and every one is important in and of themselves as well as to the community and as a Created Being of God. We read as follows in Chapter 5: 1 – 4:

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 'Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath any type of discharge, and whosoever is unclean by the dead; 3 both male and female shall ye put out…; that they defile not their camp, in the midst whereof I dwell.' 4 And the children of Israel did so, and put them out without the camp; as the LORD spoke unto Moses, so did the children of Israel

As we are so hyper-aware of exclusion of any kind, this text begs that we attend to it. What is going on here? What is being suggested that would be consistent with God as Rachmanah? In Masechet Pesachim, there is a lengthy discussion about what exactly occurred and whether people who needed to be pushed out of the camp were indeed forcibly removed; or did something else transpire?

First of all we need to understand the context of this situation. We are discussing the set up of the camp of the B’nai Yisrael and the entirety of the EDAH, the congregational grouping. The camps were set up in concentric circles with the Mishkan in the center serving as the focal point for the community and indicating the everlasting presence of God within the camp. Immediately around the Mishkan was the encampment circle of the Levites who were attending to the direct service of the Mishkan and all it entailed. Then finally the third circle was filled with all of the B’nai Yisrael, arranged by their tribal units.

This encampment brought together the people individually, tribally, their central focus of the Mishkan and the presence of God. It was in the full sense of the word a truly Holy Assembly, elevated in so many ways. So after this explanation, we come to the aforementioned exclusions.

1. Those with leprosy 2. Those with any type of bodily emission that would render them spiritually unclean. 3. Those who had been in contact with a corpse.

In Masechet Pesachim, we are taught that the individuals themselves exited from the main camp and were not forced out. In fact, this is correlated with the notion that for the Metzora to leave the camp is a positive commandment for them to observe. To be sure, there is a great deal of discussion of what is Tum’ah/ ritualistically impure and what is Tehorah/ ritualistically pure throughout Torah, Gemarah and so many sources. How do we understand what this means in a way that does not feel excessively restrictive or exclusive of one’s ability to participate? How do we discuss this without in any way detracting from the value and validation of individuals?

Rabbi Avi Weiss teaches as follows:

"The truth is that there are several terms in the Torah that have no suitable English equivalent. Such terms should not be translated. Leaving them in the original Hebrew makes the reader understand that a more detailed analysis of the word is necessary. Tumah is one of those words that cannot be perfectly translated and requires a deeper analysis. Rav Aharon Soloveichik suggested that the real meaning of tumah might be derived from the verse in Psalms, which says: "The fear of the Lord is tehorah, enduring forever." (Psalms 19:10) Taharah therefore means that which is everlasting and never deteriorates. Tumah, the antithesis of taharah, stands for mortality or finitude, that which withers away.

The point is that the skin of the one with leprosy will heal and then he or she, along with the one who has had an emission, can go to a Mikveh and be admitted to the camp. The waters literally revive the person and the soul after the Tumah is expunged. The corpse withers away and we are left with our memories of the one who has departed. Here too, through Tahara we “water the soul” of the one who has left us. We validate and protect the integrity of what is Tahor, that which is pure and everlasting; while we let go of Tumah, that which is finite and will leave us."

This notion that what is to be excluded from the camp is not the person per se but the Tumah – that which is NOT lasting – makes sense in that the Mishkan and the camp in its very formation celebrates and is based upon that which lasts forever, namely Ribbonu shel Olam.

Later in our Parsha we learn about the Nazir, the one who takes specific vows that separate that person from the general population. In this case, the individual is choosing to not be part of the collective and not celebrate nor participate in several aspects of communal life. We read as follows in Chapter 6: 1 - 8

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to consecrate himself unto the LORD, 3 he shall abstain from wine and strong drink: he shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat fresh grapes or dried…. 5 All the days of his vows … no razor shall come upon his head; until the days be fulfilled, in which he consecrates himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long. 6 All the days that he consecrates himself unto the LORD he shall not come near to a dead body. 7 He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die; because his consecration unto God is upon his head. 8 All the days of his Naziriteship he is (exclusively) holy unto the LORD

Here the individual is choosing a life of solitude, in which his dedication to God pre-empts any connection to other people. We learn very quickly that these periods are to be limited and that the Nazir is to bring very specific and particular offerings; to indicate that he will now embrace being part of the entirety of communal life that he has exited from during the period of this self-imposed seclusion. This is not meant to be permanent, nor is it set up as an ideal state in the context of Jewish living.

So here we have two types of exclusion – one that is required due to a condition of one’s present status and the second that is taken on by personal choice. In both cases, we are shown that this separation goes against the intended nature of community as taught by the maxim AL TIFROSH MIN HATZIBBUR (Do not separate oneself from the community) and that there are remedies for what is seen as a temporary condition.

Clearly, it is the community, that is, the collective, which is seen as lasting and permanent. Consider for example, the complicated instructions regarding offering of the Pesach sacrifice, which is incumbent upon all members of the B’nai Yisrael, both as individuals and as members of the group. There are two specific teachings in these sets of laws that are quite remarkable in their relevance to this topic. First, the Pesach offering is to be offered in CHABUROT, or in groups, in which individual members are to be registered. Secondly, the Pesach is to be offered in a state of TEHORAH and those who are individually Tamei can delay their involvement until Pesach Sheni. However, if the community as a whole or a reasonable number of members of the community are Tamei, then one insures that this is the case with the majority of the group, even going so far as to intentionally have an additional group member touch something that is Tamei; and then the offering is given with the majority in this state. Why? Because the importance of group participation trumps individual states of ritual purity. This is not to say that the latter is not important, just not so core as to invalidate participation of the masses.

There are many ways that we try to achieve this state of TAHARA, of ritual purity and raised spiritual existence. Jewish law gives us strategies to do so, though sometimes we get lost in the details and forget the ultimate goal. We have to remember that God as RACHMANA wants all of us to participate, to be counted, and to be able to reach our own spiritual heights. This is fundamental to the structure of Halacha and should not get lost in the details of how we work towards this goal. VaYikra gives us the parameters of what to do; it is up to us to figure out how and why through the use of CHAZAL and our own sense of purpose in trying to achieve that which is permanent and not subject to deterioration!

Shabbat Shalom.