Mythic History, Actual History, and a New Future: On Thanksgiving

Sometimes when I teach about the origins of Judaism, I draw the distinction between “actual history” and “mythic history.”

The mythic history is what we are reading right now in the Torah cycle: the stories of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, who journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan. Their grandson Jacob moves the family down to Egypt after his son Joseph becomes an official in the Egyptian government. Their descendants become enslaved by the Egyptian pharaoh until they are liberated by Moses, who leads the people first to Mount Sinai, where the Torah is revealed to them, and then on a 40-year journey through the wilderness until arriving at (or returning to) and conquering Canaan.

The actual history is different. In short, what we can know, is that a disparate set of tribes grew and consolidated in the region, eventually forming a kingdom. That kingdom split in two, the northern kingdom of Israel was then overrun by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The southern kingdom of Judah held on until 586 BCE when it was overrun by the Babylonians. The population was exiled to Babylonia, and only allowed to return in 538 BCE when the Persians conquered the Babylonians. During exile, the people had collected a variety of texts and oral traditions into the Torah.

Which is true? They both are, and as Jews we embrace them both in their complexity. Both are ripe for study, interpretation, challenge, and meaning-making. The two are not at odds, they don’t cancel each other out, but rather they work together. Each narrative contains challenge and promise.

I think about this as we approach the American civil holiday of Thanksgiving. It too has a mythic history and an actual history.

The mythic history is tied up in the problematic story of a shared feast between colonialists and the indigenous residents of the land. Regardless of the events that underlie the story–even mythic history will have some actual history behind it–the story at best paints a false picture of that time and relations between people and at worst deliberately covers up genocide and violence. Thanksgiving is a time to therefore reckon with this history, challenge the narrative, and continue to write a new story.

The actual history of the national holiday is rooted in the Civil War. While states and presidents had declared days of thanksgiving, it was Abraham Lincoln who, after a very public lobbying campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, in 1863 set the foundation for an annual holiday. His proclamation reads in part:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

This was delivered in the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. In the wake of a destructive war, Lincoln is imploring the people not only to offer gratitude for all that is good, but to also focus on healing divisions and caring for those who have suffered and lost. Of course, this too can be examined and put into context of the complexity of the Civil War and its history.

So which is true? Again, they both are, and we embrace them both in their complexity. Taken together they form a narrative of our values and past in this country, and lay the foundation for interpretation and a different future. Here too each narrative contains challenge and promise.

As we sit around our tables, both the mythic history and actual history of Thanksgiving should be on our minds. As Jews, we are familiar with the practice of reading historical stories as a source for learning and growth. Indeed, those stories which challenge us, which upset us, which conflict with our values, are the greatest teachers. And holidays are important ways we connect with these stories and give us the opportunity–by setting aside times, by ordaining rituals and traditions–to examine, question, learn, and change.

For me, this year, I am very aware that we are seeing a rise in hate-filled violence and rhetoric, especially antisemitism. Classic tropes of anti-Jewish rhetoric are gaining new audiences and given new sanction. And we have seen how in general in our civic discourse division and hate speech has led to devastating physical violence against people and property.

This Thanksgiving, I am reminded once again that our country is no stranger to hatred, violence, dehumanization, and conquest. We must remember and reexamine the mythic narratives that this holiday perpetuates. And Thanksgiving reminds us that through that honest and critical reexamination, and through the commitment to gratitude and compassion and mutual responsibility as expressed by Lincoln, healing is possible.

The past, both mythic and actual, can give way to a new future.

Overcoming Overwhelm (Kol Nidre 5783)

Do you remember the Highland Park shooting?

I would not be surprised if you didn’t recall the details, considering that there are so many shootings that take place in our country on a regular basis.

The Highland Park shooting, in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, took place this past Fourth of July during an Independence Day parade. As the parade wound its way through the streets of downtown Highland Park, at 10:15 in the morning local time, a shooter climbed atop a roof-top of a building and shot down into the crowd with an assault rifle. By the time it was over he had shot 83 rounds, killed 7 and wounded 48.

I’m not sure what it was about this mass shooting that sunk so deeply in my soul. Perhaps it was the fact that Highland Park is a very Jewish suburb, though authorities don’t ascribe any specific anti-Semitic motives to the shooter. Maybe it was the fact that it took place during a parade, a very public and outdoor setting. Maybe it was the fact that it took place on the Fourth of July, this communal day of celebration and the irony of that day, with the movement for individual rights impeding on the safety of a community.

Whatever it was, it was after this event unlike others where I felt this heaviness in my soul, and this resignation to the fact that to live in this country, means that you can be shot and killed by anyone, at any time, in any place. It just rested there , it’s simply a fact of life in this time, in this place. Schools, workplaces, concerts, synagogues, walking on the street. A few weeks ago I was the object of a road rager after I found myself on an unfamiliar exit off of I5 because I needed to get gas, and inadvertently cut them off when I was trying to get into the right lane to get back into the highway. I wasn’t familiar with this exit. They revved their engine, drew close behind me, then went around me and sped up, acted very aggressively. And the thought passed through my mind that this person, like many others, could be armed, and that an incident such has this can easily erupt into something more violent or even deadly.

This is message tonight about gun violence, or about the proliferation of guns in our society, though there is plenty to say on the subject. No, what I want to talk about was that feeling, that deep resignation. It was a moment surprising to me that my anger and sadness over the event became in that moment acceptance and contentment—it is what it is. What it is is not good, but it is, and it is not going to change.

This deep resignation and heaviness that things as bad as they are, are not going to change.

And I was surprised to realize over these past few months of study and reflection, that this attitude is found in our Torah, in our sacred text.

 At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites are enslaved. Their pleas for freedom are heard by God, who selects Moses to be the messenger of freedom and who, with his brother Aaron and Miriam, will challenge Pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelites. Moses demurs in this task, God assures him of divine support, and finally Moses takes the mantle of leader and liberator. This fundamental story that we tell again and again and celebrate around the Passover table is the basis for our faith, our covenant, our Jewish identity.

Now Moses and Aaron’s initial plea for emancipation are not only pushed aside by Pharaoh, but they are punished for them. Pharaoh demands that the Israelites make bricks without straw and does not lower the daily quota of bricks to be made.

This of course does not sit well with the Israelites, who are thus oppressed even more, and blame Moses and Aaron for bringing about their latest troubles. Moses then complains to God, essentially saying, why have you chosen me, can’t you see that Pharaoh is not going to listen, and that things are just going to be worse?

God responds to Moses with a beautiful, lofty speech:

“I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am God. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, Adonai, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I am God.”

A rousing speech.

And how did the Israelites react to this grand, inspiring, lofty speech when Moses conveyed it to them? They ignore it. They ignore it. We read in the text:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃ {פ}
But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage.

This is such a potent and powerful verse of our Torah. And when I read it it felt so relatable, and not because we may imagine ourselves like Moses as we do sometimes, telling people what to do, trying to inspire, to organize for change, only to have it ignored, our message fall flat. No, I think this is relatable because we are often like the Israelites, so overwhelmed and our spirits crushed that we can not even hear the message of change, the promise of redemption. It’s not that the Israelites ignored it, but that they just couldn’t hear it.

This phrase in the Hebrew, lo shamu, is even more nuanced than this translation, “would not listen,” implies. “Would not listen” implies an active choice, that they ignore, like when we speak to our kids sometime—selective listening. Another way to understand this is that they just could not hear. That word Shema, the first wold of our most sacred prayer, speaks not just about hearing or listening but understanding, and integrating. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad—Understand, Israel, that you are a part of a sacred unity, a oneness of all things. This is our most sacred prayer. When it says that the enslaved Israelites could not shema, could not shemu, even if they heard the words, they could not understand what Moses was telling them.

And the phrase in the Hebrew that is translated as “spirits crushed” is “kotzer ruach” which when literally translated means shortness of breath. Kotzer from the root k.tz.r, or short, and ruach, a noun that means spirit, yes, but can also mean wind or breath. The Israelites would not, could not understand Moses, because they had shortness of breath.

And what does this mean? If we turn to our  traditional biblical commentators, we turn to Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, the preeminent Torah commentator who lived in France in the 11th century, who wrote in an explanation of this verse: “If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths.” Meaning that the verse is describing a physical condition of exhaustion and pain, and that when one is in pain they tend to be short of breath. And since they were out of breath, they could not hear what was being said to them.

Another commentator Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, who lived in 13th century Spain, said about this verse “…they paid no attention to his words because of impatience of spirit, as a person whose soul is grieved on account of their misery and who does not want to live another moment in their suffering even though they know that they will be relieved later. The “impatience of spirit” was their fear that Pharaoh would put them to death, as their officers said to Moses,47 and the “cruel bondage” was the pressure, for the taskmasters pressed upon them and hurried them [in their daily task],48 which gave them no chance to hear anything and consider it.” In other words, the Israelites were “short of breath” because they were operating from a place of fear, fear of punishment, fear of death at the hands of Pharaoh and the Egyptian taskmasters.

And still a third commentator, Sforno, the 15th century in Italy commentator wrote, “for it did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their heart could not assimilate such a promise.” In this case, their shortness of breath was not fear, but disbelief.

And if we take all of these together, these three commentaries paint a deeper and more nuance picture of the condition of the Israelites at that moment. The point of this in depth textual analysis is to say that this phrase kotzer ruach has meaning both literal and figurative, within our tradition both out of breath, and impatient of spirit. Indeed, we can understand these two as not mutually exclusive: one who is so out of breath and overwhelmed because of their condition is then so aggrieved in their soul and fearful of what is or may be, that they can’t even imagine a way out. Their physical oppression led to a spiritual oppression as well. And the opposite is true, which I am sure we know from our own experience, when we are full of sadness, or fear, or grief, or despair, that we react physically. we feel it in our body. The trauma of that moment for the Israelites, and the trauma we carry, is both physical and spiritual. Kotzer ruach.

And how deep in kotzer ruach one must be to not even imagine that things can be different.

That moment last summer facing the reality of the ubiquitous presence of violence in our society was for me a moment of kotzer ruach. Of being so overwhelmed that I could not even imagine a way out. Of feeling physically trapped—did that person have a gun, did that person–which led to a spiritual malaise as well. We have lived through so many of these moment over these past few years:

The mass shootings like Highland Park, that make us feel that we live in a brutal, violent culture that devalues human life at the expense of ephemeral rights.

The reality of climate change, made manifest here in our area with the lingering effects of wildfire smoke and vast variations in temperature, that makes us feel that there is no way we will be able to control the devastation we have brought to this planet.

The persistence of white supremacy, institutionalized racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and transphobia, and and homophobia in this country, which feels so deeply ingrained in both the founding and the fabric of our nation, that its undoing feels sometimes beyond reach.

The assault on bodily autonomy through the curtailing of reproductive freedom. The lack of comprehensive solutions to address homelessness, or provide mental health support.

And on and on.

And we read that verse. “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” And we understand. We understand kotzer ruach.

I’m sure that you too have your moments, your own personal moments of kotzer ruach, when you too feel so overwhelmed that you can not hear: hear the advice and counsel of another, hear your inner voice telling you what to do, hear the voices of change telling you that there is a way forward. You can not understand that there may be another way.

Kotzer ruach.

And yet. And yet, is the thing: We know the end of the story.

The Israelites are liberated. They join Moses’s cause. It takes time, it takes the plagues—and note that the plagues were as much about convincing the Israelites as they were about convincing Pharaoh—but eventually the Israelites march out of Egypt and cross the Red Sea into freedom. We know how the story turns out, even knowing where the Israelites started.

And indeed, as I would suggest, they needed to be in that state of kotzer ruach in order to be liberated. Sometimes things need to get worse before they get better. Sometimes it’s the continued shortness of breath that forces us to say we can not take it anymore. That even though it is so hard to hear and understand the message of liberation, the cost of not listening is so much worse. That we keep falling until we say, another way must be possible.

So I want to share my state of kotzer ruach. I want to acknowledge your states of kotzer ruach. And I want to tell you, that there is a way out. We are not defined by your our actions and patterns, and that no matter how much you can’t imagine it in the moment, who you were is not who you can and will be.

That’s the meaning of this day.

If the defeat of spirit is literally “shortness of breath,” then the first step is just to catch our breath.

This is the beauty of meditation, when it was taught to me as a spiritual practice. That power to notice the breath simply entering and exiting the body, paying attention to this automatic and natural act. With the goal not being to clear one’s mind, but to focus on the breath. If a thought arises, acknowledge it and move on, thinking of our breath. It is so grounding, so slowing. It is such an accessible practice.

I’m not saying meditation will solve everything, but it’s a good start. Once we notice our breath, we can use it.

There is another teaching of the hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who teaches a variation of a meditation breathing practice, as it were. It’s called the krekhtz, or sigh. Each one of us has moments of kotzer ruach, and each one of us has the power of the krekhtz. When we imagine it, when we think of a sigh, it’s is an act of resignation. But in the eyes of Rebbe Nachman, it is the path to new life and redemption.

In his famous text Likutei Moharan, Rebbe Nachman writes, “See how precious is the sigh and groan [the krekhtz] of a person. It provides wholeness [in place] of the lack.” Why, because ruach, or breath, is the source of life. The world was created by the breath of God. Humans were created when God breathed into them. Ruach is life, according to Rebbe Nachman, and so the sighing is a sign of life.

Rebbe Nachman continues, “And sighing is the extension of the breath. It corresponds to erekh apayim (patience)—i.e., extended ruach. Therefore, when a person sighs over the lack and extends one’s ruach, one draws ruach-of-life to that which one is lacking. For the lack is in essence a departure of the ruach-of-life. Therefore, through the sigh, the lack is made whole.”

This is not to say that changing how we breathe can change the world, but rather the deeper understanding that the same forces that cause us to feel overwhelmed and unable to act, are the very same that will allow us to break free and act. And both of those are already an integral part of who we are, our very life force. That breath, which was the symbol for hopelessness, is now the symbol of hope as well.

As Pema Chodron writes in her book When Things Fall Apart, “Everything that occurs is not only usable and workable but is actually the path itself. We can use everything that happens to us as the means for waking up. We can use everything that occurs—whether it’s our conflicting emotions and thoughts or our seemingly outer situation–to show us where we are asleep and how we can wake up completely, utterly, without reservations.” Or as she says, the “poison becomes the medicine.” That which holds us back is actually the source of liberation.

From shortness of breath, that prevented the Israelites from imagining freedom, to the extension of breath, that creates wholeness. Because extending our breath, is really about extending ourselves. And unlike the Israelites who in that moment who could not hear, when we extend ourselves, when we sigh as opposed to being in a state of kotzer ruach, then we can hear the sounds of change and liberation.

So again, where is your feeling of kotzer ruach? And where do you hear the sighs and the cries? What is calling out to you? What can you hear? The youth lamenting a less inhabitable planet in future generations? The family of another Black person killed by police? The asylum seeker punished for fleeing violence and seeking opportunity? Your own future self, promising that things will get better? What are the voices you are hearing? These very same forces that can lead to overwhelm are the same that can inspire us to rise and act, if only we stop and pay attention.

And this paying attention, this is a practice, this is practice this is a spiritual practice, like meditation. Meditation is the act of moving from the automatic to the mindful. It is a practice. So is stopping and paying attention. Shema. That’s a practice. Listening, understanding, internalizing. Change is a practice. Life is a practice.

I’ll close with these words from adrienne maree brown recently shared on the podcast On Being:

there’s so much awakening. So I always tell people that you’re always practicing things. So it’s not like you go from not practicing to practicing, but it’s, are you practicing things on purpose? Are you practicing things you would want to practice, or are you practicing what someone else has told you is the right way to do stuff? And once you start practicing on purpose, then you can actually practice liberation and justice and freedom and — then I think you begin to have this contentment that comes from practice. Like, I know that I won’t see total liberation in my lifetime, but I also feel very satisfied with how I’m practicing liberation every single day and in every relationship.

The Israelites in our Torah, once beaten down they could not hear Moses’s promise of redemption, eventually, over time were able to make that change. The pain itself became the source of growth. Our kotzer ruach can become a krekhtz. We too can overcome circumstance, history, and the forces of oppression to create a better world for us, and for each other, and for those yet to come.

We know what we need to do. We know we need to pay attention. We know we need to practice. And we know we have the power to do so.

So let’s take a deep breath, a big krekhtz, and we get to work.

We get to work.

“The Seven ‘Whys’ of Spiritual Community” (Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783)

I entered into these High Holidays with excitement, and also with some trepidation, with some curiosity. Because, I didn’t know what was going to happen tonight and the days to come. Years prior I knew what to expect, the hum of the sanctuary, the excitement of return, the convergence of all of us here in one space. When the pandemic began, then too, it was clear in a way: we all stayed home, turned on our computers and joined together in a new way. I reached out to you across the wavelengths and yet we were still together, still connected—it was a different type of excitement, and one that was no less potent. And last year we did the same, with a few more people in the sanctuary, again demonstrating that we are able to create community in new ways.

This year, with the doors of the building as well as the zoom room open, I really didn’t know what to expect. How many people would be in person, and how many on zoom. How can we maintain the same feeling if connectedness when we are not all in one place (for hybrid is different, whether in person or on zoom, previously we were all in one place.) But we are not going back, for we have learned that hybrid grants broader access and accessibility that we need to maintain and we will maintain.

When we started going hybrid a few months ago the numbers were weighted in favor of online attendance, and they have remained that way. Most people stayed on zoom. And I understand that—the pandemic is not over, we are not free from Covid. Our congregation developed a robust policy, a path to move forward, and we move forward from there.

One thing I need to keep reminding myself is that the how questions are different than the why question. That is, how we do spiritual community is changing, has been changing, over the past few years (if not longer, even before Covid.) It is—and this is the main source of my anxiety—unclear as to what that change is, and what spiritual community will look like moving forward. We are continuing to adjust, rethink, and tinker with the how. There is no going back, but I’m not really sure where we are going. Except for the fact to know that we are a community congregation.

On the other hand, the why question—why is spiritual community important—is a different. And those answers, I believe, are established even if they are not known. We don’t often think about the why of spiritual community. Perhaps it comes to us intuitively. Perhaps we are just not sure.

As I often have, I have come to you on Erev Rosh Hashanah with a list of lessons learned or insights gleaned over the past year. And this past year has been another one of navigating a pandemic and learning how to do things differently. It got so overwhelming for me this past year that I needed to take a step back, and I am so grateful to this community, for this congregation, for granting me a 6-week sabbatical so I could restore myself. And no, this is not the seven things I learned on my sabbatical so if that’s what you thought I’m sorry.

No, what I want to share with you are the answers to the why question. Why is spiritual community important. So here are my seven answers to that question. Here are seven reasons why spiritual community important. And my hope, is that if I share with you my perspective on the why question, we will be able to address the how question together.

We need a place to eat with other people

One of the things we have lost due to Covid that we have not yet fully regained here is the sharing of food. Whether it is an oneg of snacks after our Shabbat service, or a communal Shabbat dinner, or bagels and lox at Torah study, or our Passover Seder, or the apples and honey we share on Rosh Hashanah or the Break Fast on Yom Kippur, we have not yet as a community come back to our communal eating. And the sheer number of examples I have just mentioned indicate how central our shared food experiences are to our communal Jewish experience. They are not an addition to but an integral part to what we do. They are ways we celebrate, they are ways we console, they are ways we maintain our traditions.

And they are ways we strengthen our connections with each other for our own benefit.

People have studied the benefits of social eating, communal eating. It’s been determined that social networks are important in combating mental and physical illness. In one such study, Robin Dunbar from the University of Oxford notes that a significant proportion of survey respondents “felt that having a meal together was an important way of making or reinforcing these social networks.”

And sacred community is one of the places where it is natural to have a communal meal. When we eat with others it is usually in smaller groups: family dinner, or a night out with friends, or a work lunch. How important it is to draw together in larger numbers—including those outside your family, or friendship circle, or work cohort; sitting down to eat even with people you don’t even know.

The synagogue is one of those places that facilitates and prizes communal eating. Our tradition teaches this, not only by making some of our ritual practices and holiday celebrations dependent on food, but overtly when it teaches, “Three who dine at a table and exchange words of Torah are considered as having eaten at God’s table” (Pirke Avot 3:4) Social eating is important to our well being, and spiritual community is one place that we do that. And it is my hope that we can find our way soon to once again safely creating these opportunities for sharing food.

Being a part of spiritual community gives you an opportunity to strengthen social bonds over food.

We need a place to sing in public

Without intentionally joining a choir or a chorale, I can only think of three places where we regularly sing together in public: a concert, the ballpark, and a faith community.

Where everyone who walks through the door. Ok so it’s a bit of an exaggeration but think about when and where you sing in public. Not many places. But psychologists again have studied what maybe we know naturally, that singing together is good for us. Studies have been shown that singing is good for the immune system, and learning new songs is good for brain function. Singing in general improves wellbeing, happiness and improves one’s mood. It is a way of making music that is accessible to everyone–everyone can sing–creates a shared emotional experience, and—like sharing a meal—fosters social connections which have been shown to be vitally important. By being one of those places that regularly engages in communal singing as a central part of our liturgy and worship, faith communities thus have the ability to harness these benefits on a regular basis.

Of course it was a choir event that was one of the first superspreader events at the beginning of the pandemic, a choir rehearsal that made the news, and thus has been a challenge. And yet we are finding our way back, slowly and carefully, joining together our voices in song.

So let’s do more. Let’s do more in our community. We have our wonderful choir. I started learning the guitar a few years ago. There are others out there who have musical talent and interests, and there is so much Jewish music being released into the world. Let’s lean into music in our community. Let’s bring everyone together to do a music summit here where we all come together who are interested in music and learning new music and bringing new music to our community to our services and our communal life.

Being a part of spiritual community allows you to use your voice and give expression to your emotions and feelings to connect with yourself, with others, and with the spirit.

We need a place to contain our traditions

I hate to share some bad news on this day of celebration, but the Queen has died. If you didn’t know Queen Elizabeth II has died after over 70 years on the throne of England, which triggered not only the succession of King Charles III but an elaborate ritual of mourning and burial. It was fascinating to watch for me because all the pageantry and participation of the funeral had not been done in 70 years. The people who were at this ritual last time were children, most people were not alive when King George VI died. And yet, the elements were in place and went smoothly.

Which means that there was planning. The rituals: the processions, the services, the lowering of the casket, the breaking of the wand—all of these rituals needed to be maintained and held by a group of people who would be ready to carry it out when needed and able to direct all the parts and participants.

I thought about this in reflecting on our institutions—our synagogues. Our Jewish communities are also the repository for our traditions, our rituals, our practices. These rituals and practices are so vitally important because they provide a container for the ups and downs of our lives. We need ways to frame what happens in our lives that are both personal and communal, both contemporary and timeless. In this way spiritual community helps us shape the narrative of our lives.

Judaism is meant to be practiced every day, in our personal space, in our homes. But it is also practiced in community. And while we individually may not have all the information or guidance, all of us collectively contain the practices and minhagim of our people. None of us, myself included, can hold the entirety of our tradition by ourselves. Everyone is needed.

And in addition, it is by joining together in spiritual community that we give life to our practices and traditions even when you do not personally practice them. We need a place, we have a place, regardless of our own personal practice, where we observe our traditions, where we can say oh we don’t eat that here, or we only do certain things at certain times–blessings, holidays, foodways—because we are a Jewish community and when you are a part of it, it gives you that opportunity to practice and engage in our traditions.

Being a part of spiritual community gives you a connection to the past and a foundation for the future.

We need a place to teach values

You may have already heard but we have introduced a new youth education program this year. We have lovingly retired our “Beit Sefer”—which means school—and introduced a program which “Darchei Noam”—which means “pleasant paths.” It is a program that moves away from the Sunday School model and incorporates Jewish learning on Jewish time, and allows families to build their own education program based on a variety of offerings. And also allows more integration of our families with the rest of the congregation, where anyone can be a teacher.

And I say this not just as a means to plug a new program here at TBH, but to emphasize how important spiritual education is, and perhaps now more than ever. Our children have also lived through this pandemic—their schooling, their socialization, their development, interrupted by separation and isolation and fear. But I say this without judgment—it is what it is, and there was learning that happened because of the pandemic not despite it. and we are so grateful to our kids who do what they need to do to be safe and keep others safe.

And the spiritual needs are there. The need to belong, the need to have a place, the need to be accepted without judgment. And spiritual community is a place to do it.

And our youth program is not there just to teach kids how to be Jewish. Of course that is a part of it—Hebrew, holidays, Shabbat, customs, prayers—these are all a part of the curriculum. But spiritual education, like here at TBH, is there to teach kids how to be humans. We teach values. We teach character traits.

This is not something that would necessarily be taught in the public schools, where the emphasis is on skills and performance. But it is a necessary part of a child’s education. And so we partner with parents and families to make it here. When others won’t or can’t teach values, then we will. And if the forces of book banning ever reaches this community then I can guarantee those books will be on our shelves.

Being a part of spiritual community prioritizes the creation of the whole person, in all our intricacies, and gives us the tools we need to be our full selves.

We need a place to work for justice

Our values lead to action. And we are a values-based organization not only so that we as individuals can grow, and be fulfilled, but so then we will go out and work in our community. This is not the only place where one can organize and work for justice. But this is a place. And it is our place. And so if you are looking for an opportunity to engage in justice work rooted in spiritual values, then you can be connected to spiritual community. Especially too if you don’t know where to start, here is a place to focus your passion.

One of the things that I think is so powerful about doing this work of social justice through spiritual community is that it provides a narrative, a framework for the work we are doing that is beyond charity, and beyond the needs of the individual. The story of the Exodus, that foundation story that we repeat year after year around the Passover table, tells the story of a people liberated from oppression and brought to safety not so they could live in peace for themselves, but so that they can live in peace for themselves and then work for the liberation of others. How can we expect to transform the world if we don’t have the vision of a world that can be transformed?

We have developed a number of opportunities, deeply rooted in our identity as a Jewish community, to support the work of justice and tikkun olam. We have a Green Team that is leading us in our own environmental sustainability. We have our Immigration and Refugee Task Force, which has done a tremendous job with our sanctuary work over the past few years and continues to advocate. We started a homeless task force this past year, to guide us in contributing to supporting our houseless neighbors here in Olympia. We have advocates for gun responsibility, and in the works are members organizing around racial justice and exploring reparations work. And maybe, in light of recent events, we can begin to do more on reproductive justice.

Being part of a spiritual community reminds us that we are part of a greater whole, and we have a responsibility beyond our own selves and our interests.

We need a place to be comfortably uncomfortable

We have spoken to the point of cliché of the polarization that is plaguing us at this point. Common ground is far and few between, we are in our silos of opinion. It seems that we are losing shared spaces where we can offer ideas, hear others in return, and allow ourselves the humility to learn and grow.

I believe that the synagogue is one of those places, or must be. When we speak of the Exodus, as mentioned earlier, we speak of the erev rav, that it was a “mixed multitude” that left Egypt. Traditionally this is understood as Egyptians who were fed up with their society fleeing Egypt along with the Israelites, and joining together in their journey or cause. Another way to understand it, perhaps, is that there was an erev rav within the Israelite community itself, a community brought together by a shared journey, but of different mindsets, experiences, backgrounds.

Indeed we see this throughout the Torah, as time and time again we have stories of the Israelites arguing, rebelling, challenging. The powerful thing is not that these stories exist, but they are kept in sacred text. Challenging each other is holy. Disagreement is holy. This is an ethic that continues throughout our literature, primarily the Talmud, whose literary style is dialogue and argument among rabbis, with minority opinions not excised from the text but preserved.

Spiritual community is one place in our society where we should be able to come together like the ancient Israelites—a community brought together by a shared journey, but of different mindsets, experiences, backgrounds. A place where we can learn from each other. For how do we change if not pushed to consider ideas, to compromise, to question, to empathize, to be humble—that in and of itself, is spiritual work.

And we must be a community here that affirms and celebrates radical inclusion, and so must be a place for Jews of all backgrounds, gender identities, abilities, sexual orientations, linealities, racial and ethnic identities and paths to Judaism to find a home here. And that any practice that violate this value of inclusion, even though they fall within the exercise of Judaism, can not play a part in this congregation.

And indeed this radical inclusion itself can be a source of the comfortable discomfort that allows for learning and growth. And I think of my own experiences: I have misgendered people. I have limited access to others. I have said or done things that excluded. When these have been pointed out to me these have been learning opportunities, and we as a community can only grow in our inclusivity if we learn from others.

And this is the heart of teshuvah, of the work that we are doing now, to recognize where we have done harm, and how we can rectify it. And teshuvah doesn’t end with an apology or even forgiveness. In fact, those might not even be part of the teshuvah process. It ends when we have changed our behavior away from our past harms to another way of being and doing. Teshuvah itself is uncomfortable. Spiritual community though can contain that discomfort and, in fact, welcomes it.

Being part of a spiritual community gives us a place to belong, engage with others, and to grow.

And the seventh why of spiritual community, and perhaps the most important and the most difficult, is:

We need a place to bring our pain and our loneliness

I hesitate whether to share this, because its hard to say and talk about, these last few weeks have been very difficult for me as I learned that a good friend from my growing up took his own life. Although we had fallen out of regular contact in recent years, he played a significant role in different parts of my life.

I do not wish to share details of his life or his name or circumstances of his death, and there is still much I do not know. I can not say anything for certain. Can we ever, in circumstances like this. But it has got me thinking deeply about suicide, and the profound sadness that usually precedes it. And how that sadness can be brought about or compounded by isolation.

We are suffering from an epidemic of loneliness in our country. A recent survey out of Harvard University, determined that 36% of respondents reported serious loneliness—feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the four weeks prior to the survey. This included 61% of young people aged 18-25 and 51% of mothers with young children. About half of lonely young adults in our survey reported that no one in the past few weeks had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared.” In older individuals, other studies have shown that people who are lonely have a greater risk of premature death, of dementia, of heart disease, of stroke, of anxiety, or depression.

We have seen over the recent past more mutual aid groups pop up assisting people with their basic needs. And we also need to be able to assist people with their emotional and spiritual needs. We so desperately need a place to bring our pain, to bring it to others, not to be fixed, not to be advised, not to be remedied—but to simply witness. To share it. To be reminded that we are not alone in it. Brene Brown has this great quote, “I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away, but church isn’t like an epidural; it’s like a midwife. I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, I’ll sit with you in it.’”

That’s exactly it. Indeed, all of us walk along the same path. Sometimes we are the ones with the pain, and sometimes we are the midwife. And what is spiritual community if not a place, a vessel, to contain that hurt. And to emphasize the fact, that we all carry it. Each week we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish at our service. Each one of us will at some point stand to recite the kaddish, and each of us will have it recited for us. The Kaddish can not be said outside of community—you need 10 people in order to say it. You must bring your pain in public, into this safe vessel. Each week we read names, each week people stand, each week the invitation is there to share grief and loss.

Our congregation may not be able to take away all the pain and sadness that we carry, because of illness, because of trauma, because of the world we live in. But we must be the place to bring it, without judgment, without stigma, to be the antidote to this epidemic of loneliness. We need a place to belong. We need a place that we are not alone. We need a place to see and be seen. And this, like other spiritual communities, is that place.

So if you are here this evening, and you need to hear this right now, I will tell you:

I love you.

I care about you.

I’m sorry you are in this pain.

I am here for you.

You are important to me.

You so not need to be alone in this.

Everything we do here at TBH. Every program, every class, every service has this at its heart. This must be at its heart.

Connection.

Companionship.

Love.

Being part of a spiritual community is being a part of something with love at the center.

What is next for our community? Outside of our beautiful new courtyard that we are going to build, I’m not sure. What I do know for sure is that dictum from Rabbi Hillel in that ancient text Pirke Avot, Al tifros min hatzibur “Don’t separate yourself from the community.” Not just because community needs you, but because we all need it.

My Pig is a Blessing

This Shabbat ushers in the new month of Elul, which in turn ushers in the High Holiday season. Elul is the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah and the new year, and so invites us to use these next four weeks as opportunities for reflection and preparation for the spiritual work of atonement and repentance we engage with over the holidays.

Lesser known is that Rosh Hodesh Elul is its own new year, the New Year of the Animals. A traditional rabbinic text teaches that there are actually four new years. The most familiar is Rosh Hashanah, followed by Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees. Not as popular–probaby because they haven’t developed contemporary observances, are the new year of kings, traditionally marked to count the years of a king’s reign, and the new year of the animals, traditionally observed to know which animals were old enough to be sacrificed.

The latter, though, does have some conemporary proponents and liturgies and rituals are being developed to celebrate our animal companions. For this new year is specificially a recognition of our domesticated animals, and while we are no longer raising cows and goats for ritual sacrifice, we do maintain relationships with animals as pets.

So this Rosh Chodesh Elul, take some time to celebrate your pets and mourn the ones you lost this year.

My own menagerie has been steadily growing. We now have two dogs, four cats, five chickens, a turtle and–as you may have heard–a pig.

Our pig Oswald came to us this fall when Yohanna’s cousin put out on Facebook a need to rehome her animals. Yohanna had always wanted a pig someday and volunteered to take Oswald. A few weeks later he arrived in an RV and we welcomed him into his new home.

We had a crash course in pig keeping–literally–as his rooting behavior led him to knock over everything in our kitchen. We soon adapted, learned his eating habits and likes, created a corner and bed for him, and got him into a routine. Pigs, we learned, don’t like change but are very smart, and it was not long before we all settled into a routine with this pig, who was housebroken and used to living indoors.

Once we got through the winter, we built a pen and shelter for him outside, and now he lives in his own corner of our yard and enjoys burrowing in the straw and eating all the scraps that we share with him.

Of course, going into it, we anticipated the questions and comments. Not that many people keep pigs, and perhaps even fewer are Jewish households with two rabbis. It is well known that pigs are not kosher, and therefore traditionally not eaten by Jews. Our ongoing joke is that this is the safest pig in all of Olympia, for there was no chance we would ever choose to eat him.

But the negative connection of Jews and pigs goes much deeper and there is seeming an aversion within Judaism not only to eating the animal, but to the animal itself. [Though no one has confronted me about it, I have heard of a few in our community who are concerned with the optics of a rabbi owning a pig.] A pig is not kosher because it doesn’t fulfill the two criteria of kosher animals: that they need to have cloven hooves and chew its cud. Pigs have the former but don’t do the latter. In this week’s Torah portion we have a recap of the dietary laws, and the pig is specifically singled out and defined as unclean:

But the following, which do bring up the cud or have true hoofs which are cleft through, you may not eat: the camel, the hare, and the daman—for although they bring up the cud, they have no true hoofs—they are unclean for you; also the swine—for although it has true hoofs, it does not bring up the cud—is unclean for you. You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses.

Deuteronomy 14:7-8

Our traditional commentators ask why swine are mentioned specifically. There must be some significance since there are other animals that fit the same criteria that pigs do. Here we see commentators imagine that the pig must be particularly unclean. An example is from the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides:

The principal reason why the Law forbids swine’s flesh is to be found in the circumstance that its habits and its food are very dirty and loathsome. It has already been pointed out how emphatically the Law enjoins the removal of the sight of loathsome objects, even in the field and in the camp; how much more objectionable is such a sight in towns. But if it were allowed to eat swine’s flesh, the streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool, as may be seen at present in the country of the Franks. A saying of our Sages declares: “The mouth of a swine is as dirty as dung itself” (Talmud Berachot 25a).

Guide for the Perplexed 3:48

From my experience, Maimonides had it wrong. A pig isn’t more objectionable than other animals. Plus Jews keep animals that they don’t eat. (Plus I’ve seen my dog eat out of the cat’s litter box.) Perhaps its time to retire this negative stereotype of the pig.

One way that I have done that is to live with one. Now I’m not suggesting everyone get a pig, but simply pointing to the fact that very often our prejudices and our biases are removed through actual experience. Or the testimony of those we trust as to their experiences.

In that way, the fact that the New Year of the Animals falls on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the formal beginning of the High Holiday season, is very fitting. We can reflect on our own experiences and listen to the testimony of others to reevaluate our own behaviors and ideas, eliminate stereotypes, learn new things, and continue in our desire to become our best selves.

Tisha B’Av: Teaching the Past to Save the Future

Tisha B’Av is a challenging holiday for me in a number of ways.

According to Jewish tradition, Tisha B’Av (“the ninth of Av”) is a day of mourning in observance of the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem and other calamities that have struck the Jewish people over the centuries. It is observed by fasting, refraining from fun activities, and adopting other practices from Jewish mourning ritual such as sitting on the ground and not greeting others in a normal way.

I’ve always been challenged by the fact that a day of mourning comes during the summer, a time for relaxing and fun activities. Especially in western Washington, when we live through months of rain only to be gifted with majestic summers, the casting aside of any day for mourning feels unfair.

Additionally, I am personally not a fan of fasting. I do not mind fasting on Yom Kippur as I am deeply invested in the day as well as focused on leading services and programs throughout the day, so the fast tends not to impact me too much physically. There is usually less to do on Tisha B’Av, and so I am more aware how the lack of food and drink makes me feel. [So to be honest, I tend not to fast on Tisha B’Av, but rather modify my eating in other ways.]

These, admittingly, are petty reasons perhaps. But I am also challenged by Tisha B’Av theologically. By romanticizing the Temple, aren’t we engaging in a difficult form of nostalgia? The Temple, in the Jewish imagination, was a place of great holiness, a place when the Jewish people and God were the closest, the focal point of spiritual energy from ancient times. Yet while the destruction was a difficult moment in Jewish history, it was that event that predicated the formation of the Judaism we observe and celebrate today. The destruction of the Temple paved the way for the replacement of a Judaism that was rooted in hierarchy and exclusion with one that is rooted in democracy and inclusion.

The tendency to rewrite the past is also seen in this week’s Torah portion of Devarim, We begin reading the fifth book of the Torah this week, Deuteronomy, which is for the most part a long speech by Moses to the Israelites prior to them entering into the land. They have wandered for forty years, and now Moses needs to prepare them for their new life both by retelling their history and reminding them of the laws.

The book begins with this first part, with Moses recounting the story of the Israelites. Though he takes liberties that interestingly put him in a better light. This is primarily true with the story of the institution of the judicial system that we first read in Exodus. [Biblical criticism of course recognizes this as two different source texts, but we can read it as one redacted literary narrative.]

In the original story in Exodus 18 , it was Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, who devises the system for a pyramid-shaped court system wherein the community is divided in the smaller sections and appointed judges hear the “lower court” cases, while only the big cases are decided by Moses. In Deuteronomy 1, Moses says,

How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! Pick from each of your tribes candidates who are wise, discerning, and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads.” You answered me and said, “What you propose to do is good.” So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced people, and appointed them heads over you: chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens, and officials for your tribes.
Deuteronomy 1:12-15

Why does Moses do this? Perhaps it is just a shorthand way of telling the story without getting too much into details, perhaps he wants to just make himself look good. Regardless, this portion–and the impending observance of Tisha B’Av–reminds us of the importance in noting how we tell our histories, and that the telling of history is sometimes more about the present than the past.

So in the case of Tisha B’Av, what is gained by remembering an ancient event that indeed ultimately proved to have positive (albeit unintended) consequences?

The answer I believe lies in events underlying the destruction of the Temple. The ancient rabbis of the Talmud and later tradition would seemingly have a similar relationship to the events of the Temple’s destruction, for they were the beneficiaries of the removal of the priesthood and the sacrificial system that defined communal spiritual life during the days in which it stood. But they too saw that the loss needed to be acknowledged.

Their answer was to focus on the “causes” of the destruction. While ostensibly the fall came from outside conquering forces, there was less of a moral lesson in that. Rather, the rabbis looked inward, and told stories about how interpersonal ethical failings–such as ravenous hatred among groups and individuals, public shaming, and the inability to speak up for victims–set in motion a chain of events that led to the fall of the community. The rabbis, like Moses, relate the history in a particular way because that is the way their communities needed to hear it.

Acknowledging Tisha B’Av is therefore not nostalgia for a lost past but a warning for the future. Like the rabbis, we retell the story of the Temple in this way because this is how need to hear it now.

We are living at a time too when we are seeing ravenous hatred among groups and individuals, public shaming, and the inability to speak up for victims. Tisha B’Av reminds us that these forces can ultimately threaten the stability of our communities and our institutions. What was lost once, can be lost again. And by telling the stories of the past, we can prepare ourselves for a better future.

Time for Something New?

A brief note: I know I have been posting less frequently in recent times, as I have also been exploring different media. I have been putting many of my thoughts and teachings in video form on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook as of late, so you can find me there as well.

Sometimes we need to take radical action.

A fable with a talking animal defines this week’s Torah portion. In the story, Balak, the king of Moab hires a seer Balaam to curse the Israelites. He has heard the stories of the Israelites leaving Egypt and their various travels, and he is fearful of them. He hopes putting a curse on them will protect him and his kingdom.

God is not pleased about this plan, and seeks to stop Balaam from carrying out his task. After some back and forth, Balaam saddles up his donkey and sets out to deliver his curse. God then places an angel with a sword in front of them, but Balaam can’t see it, only the donkey does.

The donkey then swerves out of the road, and Balaam, thinking the donkey is being stubborn and defiant, beats him with a stick. The donkey then pushes up against a wall, and again, Balaam hits him. Finally, the donkey sits down and Balaam is furious. Then the story goes,

Then God opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”

Numbers 22:28-30

This is such a powerful argument from the donkey: you know me, and I have never did anything like this before. And Balaam realizes, yes, she has never done anything like this before. So therefore, something must be unique and important about this situation. Balaam then realizes what is up, reconsiders his position, has a change of heart, and ends up blessing the Israelites rather than cursing them.

Balaam’s initial response to the donkey’s actions was to hit her (there is something about animal cruelty here but that’s for another time), something he did three times to no effect. Balaam is like us much of the time: doing the same thing over and over again with little change in the outcome. We stick to bad habits, put faith in outdated institutions, hold on to relationships that do not serve us. We sometimes make small changes or reforms, but they are not enough.

The donkey, however, takes radical change. In order to open Balaam’s eyes, she does something she has never done before. And it was that unprecedented step that was successful in bringing about a new result.

Nationally we are witnessing long standing norms under attack. Personally we are all still reeling from Covid and the pressures of these times. Perhaps the time has come to heed the donkey, and in response to all these challenges, to do something we have never done before. In that way we may open our eyes, open the eyes of others, and head down a new path that will lead to blessings, not curses.

On the Overturning of Roe v. Wade: It’s the Men

I, like many others, especially in the Jewish community, are reeling from this morning’s decision from the Supreme Court: the 50-year-precendent Roe v. Wade was overturned, eviscerating an established constitutional right and allowing government to exert control of bodily autonomy.

Today is a day filled with sadness and rage. The conservative long-game has won. Donald Trump’s ability to seat three (three!!!) Supreme Court justices is paying dividends. Roe v. Wade was decided in July, 1973. I was born six months later. I have never lived during a time when this fundamental right did not exist. And here we are.

The Jewish view of abortion is well documented. While Judaism, like other faith traditions (like many people, I would assume) is not pro-abortion in the sense that it is desirable, it is permissible. Judaism teaches that life begins at birth, that a fetus is a part of the carrier, and that the health of the parent takes precedence over the life of the potential child. Judaism is both sensitive to the loss and grief that comes with fetal demise, and open when it comes to decision-making about ending a pregnancy.

It has been pointed out and argued that governmental bans, therefore, are a violation of religious liberty in that they enshrine in the law one particular religion’s approach to life without accommodating different religious perspectives. That is certainly the case, and we need to identify the role Christian hegemony in this country (and particularly evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity) has brought us to this moment.

But that is an incomplete story, as we know, as this is also an issue of patriarchy. Of the perpetual project of men to control the lives and bodies of women. (The attack on transgender health care is another expression of the desire to control bodily autonomy.) Our institutions going back millennia–and I include Judaism in this–are created by men for men and thus therefore seek to categorize and control those who are not men. Men throughout the generations have witnessed the tremendous power it is to gestate and create life, and rather than honor those who possess it, sought to limit it.

The decision this morning is just the latest iteration, as a majority of men made a consequential decision that goes against precedent, progress, and popular opinion. A decision that privileges a theoretical reading of a text over the real lived human experience. A decision that favors the possible over the actual. (Ironic too as in the day before, by limiting gun-regulation, the Court expanded the ability to take away life in the name of “self-defense.”)

In the Torah portion this week, Shelach Lecha, Moses sends out spies to scope out the land of Canaan in advance of the settlement of the Israelites. Twelve are chosen–one from each tribe–and they return with the same report: the land is rich and abundant, and the people living there will make it difficult to inhabit. A majority of ten of the spies try to dissuade the people from moving forward over the objections of the minority of two. The people rebel, and are punished by 40 years of wandering in the desert.

The opening words of the portion are explicit: “Shelach lecha ANASHIM, send forth MEN.” While this has been translated as “scouts,” or “spies,” the literal meaning is just that: “men.” And not surprising too as the Torah is a text rooted in patriarchy, with men as the leaders of the tribes, the priesthood, the community institutions as a whole. (Isolated examples like Miriam notwithstanding.)

Shelach Lecha is a portion in which a majority of men make a decision that sets a community back 40 years, just as in today’s Supreme Court decision a majority of men make a decision that sets a community back 50 years.

Judaism does teach, however, that time is not linear but cyclical, and that progress comes not with a straight line but with twists and turns and steps backward and forward. Today is a day of mourning and despair, yes. And it is also a call to action to fight for the rights and autonomy of all.

And that fight, especially for men like myself, is to work to change the cycle. To come back with a different report. To do teshuvah for what has been. To rethink institutions and power. To do things we have never done before.

That is the way to the Promised Land.

Raise Your Banner and Be Who You Are

I will admit, the first portion of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar, is a little tough to sink one’s teeth into. In preparation for the journey into the wilderness, God asks Moses to conduct a census of the Israelites. Much of the portion is the census numbers of those who make up the community.

In the organization of the community, the Israelites are divided into tribes, each named for one of the sons of the patriarch Jacob. What was once a family is now a nation, but the local and familial associations are carried forward and retain meaning. Certain tribes are given specific roles in the community, the tribe of Levi most notably is charged with the sacred Tabernacle and leading the spiritual life of the people.

We are told in this week’s portion that not only are the people counted, and that they are organized by tribe, but that the tribes are all organized physically around the Tabernacle–each tribe is to be in a specific place whenever the people are encamped, and that place is to be marked. “The Israelites should make camp in divisions, each person under their banner.” (Numbers 1:52) Each tribe had a flag of some sort, just as nations, or states, or cities have today.

The Hasidic master Isaac Meir Rothenberg Alter, also known as the Chiddushei Ha’rim or the Gerer rebbe, notes that the Torah portion Bamidbar is always read just prior to the festival of Shavuot. Originally a harvest holiday, Shavuot is now associated with the story of the revelation at Sinai when the Israelites, having escaped Egyptian slavery, travelled to Mount Sinai in the desert to receive the gift of the Torah from God. Each year on Shavuot we mark this by affirming the role that Torah plays in the life of the Jewish people.

The Chiddushei Ha’rim writes,

Parashat Bamidbar is always read immediately preceding Shavuot. This is because we read in Bamidbar, “each person under their banner,” which is to say the each person will be in their proper place. And this is the reason for the commandment of setting bounds just prior to the giving of the Torah.

Here the rebbe is noting how in the Torah prior to the story of the revelation in the book of Exodus, the Israelites are told to create a boundary around the mountain. He connects this to the idea of the tribes being under their banner in the book of Numbers. Both imply people being in a specific place which, he notes, is necessary for the revelation of the Torah. In order for us to be receptive to the gift of the sacred, we need to be where we need to be.

So what does this mean? Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky have a beautiful interpretation of this in their book Sparks Beneath the Surface. They write,

[Isaac Meir Rothenberg] reasons that we have to be standing where we are supposed to be before the Torah will be given to us. If we try to be somebody else (and therefore be someplace else), the truth of Torah will only elude us. The process of receiving Torah…is lifelong. In this sense, for the Gerer rebbe, the giving of Torah becomes the ultimate expression of knowing who we are. The minute we are who we are, we are able to be changed and grow. What keeps us from realizing ourselves is trying to be someone whom we are not.

In other words, the wisdom of Torah itself is knowing who we are, and not trying to be someone else.

This teaching is a gift and a challenge. Sometimes we feel that our true self eludes us, we put on masks of who we think we are supposed to be or what we are supposed to do. And sometimes those masks act as boundaries between us and others. But the more we are able to remove those masks and shed those illusions about who we think we ought to be, the more we are able to to express our true selves, our true interests, and our true desires, then we are able to live fully into our lives.

[It is particularly powerful to think about this during Pride month, when we celebrate those in the LGBTQ+ community and the ability to live into our true identities especially around sexual orientation and gender identity, while at the same time acknowledging there is much more to be done. Waving the rainbow flag as a sign of Pride gives new meaning to the verse in Numbers, “each person under their banner.”]

While the story of revelation of Torah in the book of Exodus describes an event, really the revelation of the Torah is a process. Its a continuous unfolding of wisdom and experience that changes for us over time, that is bringing us closer to the knowledge of our true self. May you have the clarity and power to raise up your banner and be who you are.

Is America the Land of the Free?

If you can not go to school without the fear of being shot, then you are not free.

If you can’t leave your job because you will lose your health insurance, then you are not free.

If you choose not to seek medical help because you are afraid of getting high bills, then you are not free.

If you can only pursue higher education by going into debt, then you are not free.

If financial donations are considered speech, and you do not have as much money as others, then you are not free.

If you do not have autonomy over your body, then you are not free.

If you must overcome hurdles in order to exercise your right to vote, then you are not free.

If you are required to return to work too soon after having a child, then you are not free.

If you are impacted by racism or xenophobia, then you are not free.

If you are impacted by homophobia or transphobia, then you are not free.

If you are impacted by anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, then you are not free.

If the necessities of life are not available in your local store, then you are not free.

If you are not guaranteed basic housing, or a living wage, or security, then you are not free.

If you can not unionize, then you are not free.

If you can not guarantee that others will act with consideration to support public health, then you are not free.

If you carry a greater burden of the impacts of climate change, then you are not free.

America is not yet the land of the free. But it is the home of the brave.

And if the brave can rise up together and fight for a just, peaceful, compassionate society, then we will truly be free, and we will all be able to “lie down to rest, untroubled and unafraid.” (Leviticus 26:6)