Writing Torah In Our World

SERMON: Parashat SHOFTIM

WRITING TORAH IN OUR WORLD

One of the most famous lines in the Torah comes early in the week’s portion, Parashat Shoftim:

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ

אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

But what does “tzedek” mean, and how might we chase it in our lives?

The Hebrew root “Tzadee Dalet Koof” is found in words many of us know:

Tzedek: the Israeli Supreme Court, is called the Beit Din Gavoha l’Tzedek, which means the High Court of Justice.

Tzadik: A tzadik, is a very saintly righteous good person, as in “tzadik katamar yifrach yifrach”. In Jewish lore, there are 36 such tzadikim in every generation, and while they are unknown to themselves or others, the world depends upon them to keep the idea of goodness and justice alive. These are sometimes called “lamed-vav-nikim,”   “lamed-vav” meaning 36 in Hebrew letters.

Tzedakah is often translated as charity, but the Hebrew word means something radically different. The English word, ‘charity’ is from the Latin, “caritas” or love for humanity. That is, it comes from empathy.

But the Hebrew word “tzedakah” means somethings much closer to justice. It reflects a belief that the poor and disabled have a right to food, clothing and a place to live, a right to some dignity, and that it is the obligation of everyone that benefits from the economic system to help right the injustice that is inherent in the system’s outcomes. The current economic model that allows for huge profits for some, resultant increased concentration of wealth, and shrinking social safety nets, seemingly mitigated only by the possibility of philanthropy, is reflected in a popular slogan from the Left in Israel: tzedek velo tzedakah, justice and not charity.

So in Hebrew, tzedek means something between justice and goodness, between fair and kind.

**

These days, when I think of “pursuing justice” , these days, my mind tends to go to people in leadership of our nation, or of Israel. Of those who seem to be hoarding resources.  

It would seem our Torah portion did also, for Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof is the final line in this passage:

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.

You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

And it is no accident that later in this portion, we get a list of restrictions on how much wealth a king is allowed to amass, lest he start to feel he is above the law and treat his fellows with contempt.

And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.

Isn’t that eerily relevant?

But it is in the next verse that we find something easily overlooked, but profound:

וְהָיָ֣ה כְשִׁבְתּ֔וֹ עַ֖ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַמְלַכְתּ֑וֹ וְכָ֨תַב ל֜וֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵ֨ה הַתּוֹרָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ עַל־סֵ֔פֶר מִלִּפְנֵ֥י הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים הַלְוִיִּֽם׃

Many translations translate this as:

he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.

But traditional Jewish commentators read is like this:

When the king is seated on his royal throne, When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall write a copy of this Torah on a scroll in front of the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws.

Imagine what is would mean for a king to copy by hand the entire Torah, or even the entire book of Deuteronomy! We know from much research that most people learn things more fully and permanently by writing them down than by hearing or reading them.

And in the Talmud (Menachot 30a), we learn:

Rav Gidel said that Rav said: One who purchases a Sefer Torah from the marketplace is like one who snatches a mitzvah from the marketplace, [but] if he writes it—the text of the Torah considers it as if he received [the Torah] from Mt. Sinai.

And Maimonides tells us that it is everyone’s obligation, a positive mitzvah, to copy a Torah.

Well, I suppose this gives even the most pious among us something to repent for on Yom Kippur, but as we approach the High Holy Days, in this month of Elul, instead of literally writing a Torah, I want to think about how we write the Torah in the world around us through our actions.

How do we make the tzedek, the goodness and justice of Torah manifest through our choices in the world around us?

And I know for myself, yelling at the television or responding on Facebook can feel like I’m writing justice in the world around me, but it just feels that way. So how can we in our own lives, write Torah in the world around?

So take a moment and consider a few questions

  • How could I be a better person in my neighborhood? When haven’t I been just or kind there?
  • How could I be a better person with my coworkers? When haven’t I been just or kind there?
  • How could I be a better person with my life-partner? When haven’t I been just or kind there?
  • And How can I be a better person in the Jewish community? How can I help create more justice/kindness there?  
  • (what question didn’t I ask that you I thought I would?)

There is one more meaning to the root Tzedek that I think it is important to share. Any of us who have spent time in Israel know: tzodek/et. It means to be correct.

Sometimes our own sense of being correct, our own sense of certainty can get in the way of our writing Torah in the world around us.

So often, our sense of justice, our sense of rightness can start to prevent us from seeing the situation fairly. We become some convinced of our rightness, our righteousness, that we no longer listen to other points of view. Or as my mother often said when I would corner her in an argument: “Don’t confuse me with the facts! My mind is made up!”  

And this helps us understand why the Torah puts the command to be impartial in judgement just before “Justice, Justice Pursue!” We can’t be impartial when we are impassioned.

Or as the Mishnah itself teaches: (Eruvin 13b)

Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel, For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued. One said, 'The halakha is like us,' and the other said, 'The halakha is like us.' A heavenly voice spoke: Elu V’Elu d’vrei Elohim Chayim "These and these are the words of the living God, and the halakha is like the House of Hillel." A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: "Both these and those are the words of the Living God," why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai.

But it is Maimonides, reflecting on how in the Mishnah rabbis argue but admit when another argument is better, that reminds us how open-mindedness is at the very root of TZEKED TZEDEK TIRDOF: It says Tzedek twice to show us that we need to listen to both sides.

As behold, when these honorable, pious and magnanimous men, who were outstanding in their wisdom, saw that the words of the one who disagrees with them were better than their words and that their argument is correct, they conceded to him and agreed to his opinion. All the more so, when other people see that the truth is leaning towards the one with which they have a conflict, should they lean towards the truth and not stiffen their necks. And this is the meaning of the verse (Deuteronomy 16:20), "Justice, justice shall you pursue."

In this new year, let us try to pursue justice, to write the Torah in the world around us, and let us start with the humility of an open mind.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon

 


 

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone

SERMON:  Parashat RE’EH

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד׃

We all know the Shema.  It expresses the most important religious AND cultural value of our people: that there is a Oneness that underlies all reality.  And if God is One, we are also one, and we are also good.  In the face of all of our differences, our divisions, wars, distrusts, and hatred - in the face of all that,

Judaism assert that there is something more profound that unites us; there is something sacred that unites us that calls to our better ideas, and the more we cleave to that sense of the sacred, to the intrinsic value of every person, every creature, the more we will be able to move closer to our connection being made manifest in the world through just actions. That is as close as I can get to Judaism on one foot.  I’m wordy.

I am proud to be part of a people, and a culture that has professed such a counterintuitive ideal, and while we, like all people, have often  failed to live up to our own ideals, we also can be proud that this belief has lead so many of our people to fight for the rights of all people, whether through workers’ rights like:  

Clara Lemlich Shavelson -  who in 1909, found her young voice in a room dominated by loud men, and called them all out and succeeded in starting what became known as the “Strike of 20,000”  mostly Yiddish speaking women in the garment industry, or

Abraham Joshua Heshchel, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, or any of the numerous Nobel Prize winners from our tradition, or of

Justice Louis Brandeis who crafted the arguments for the Constitutional “Right to Privacy” and fought through out his life against monopolies, corruption on Wall Street, and wrote some of the strongest defense in our history of the importance of free speech, or even Bernie

So, “go Jews!”

And we know that right after the Shema in Deuteronomy comes the V’ahavta that we also read at every service, that is in our mezuzahs, and our t’fillin. But we don’t often pay attention to what comes just after the V’ahavta, that we just studied two weeks ago.

Here is what is says immediately after the V’ahavta:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you—great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the LORD who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

In other words,  it is easy, when life is relatively easy and we are comfortable, to forget how we got where we are, to take our privilege for granted.  

We here have such blessings and privilege, and of course, some of us have more than others, and we have different sorts of privilege. 

  • We are privileged to live in such a beautiful civil place
  • We are privileged to be part of the Jewish community, to share a tradition that goes back thousands of years.
  • We are privileged to be part of community that has a great in-house rock band like Dahg!
  • Some of us are privileged to have had parents that loved us and supported us; to give us choices in our lives.

But as that passage also teaches us, the danger in being comfortable is  forgetting how you got to where you are.  We forget we were slaves in Egypt. We forget that our ancestors were also refugees.  To some degree privilege might be defined as the comfort to forget all those who helped set you up in life, and all those who didn’t have such advantages. 

In Judaism, we stress remembering, ZACHOR, and I might say remembering the gifts you have, the advantages you have, the privileges you have is a good way to avoid the sense of anger and grievance that seems to pervade so much of our national culture right now. Rarely has the world seen people with so much feel as though they are being unfairly taken advantage of.  Here the Torah warns us to remember the blessings in our life, and to remember that the great privileges and advantages we have. 

This reminds me of what I think was the best college commencement speech I have ever heard.  When those of you going to college were about, oh, a year old, I was working as a dean at Middlebury College down the road, and the graduation speaker that year was Mr. Fred Rogers.  There is  a documentary about him now that is drawing big crowds, in part because in a time of such naked greed and dishonesty, his decency reminds us that there is a spirit we can share with other humans that reminds us that we are the same.  Like the Shema So in the spirit of “send-off’,   I wanted to share some of what he said that day. He started with this story:

 I wonder if you’ve heard what happened at the Seattle Special Olympics a few years ago?  For the 100 yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physical or mentally disabled.  All nine of them assembled at the starting line; and , at the sound of they took off – but one little boy stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry.  The other eight children heard the boy crying.  They slowed down, turned around, saw the boy and ran back to him – every one of them ran back to him. .. The little boy got up and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. ..  People who were there are still telling the story with obvious delight and you know why?  Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is much more than winning for ourselves.  What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.

And  who  are  those  who  have  helped  you  become  who  you  are  today?

Anyone  who  has  ever  graduated  from  a  college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work has had at least one person- and often many- who believed in him or her. 

We just don’t get to be competent human beings without many different investment from others.

In fact, from the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you in talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.

So on this extra special day, let’s take some time to think of those extra special people…  

We  don't  always  succeed  in  what  we  try  -  certainly not by the world’s standards- but it’s not the honors and the prizes and  the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls.

It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.

 

Rabbi Rogers is a wise man.  One of the core beliefs of Judaism is that people are born good, very good, and that we have free will to choose our path.  We can choose to be destructive, threatening, insecure, and petty;  be we can also choose to be absolute miracles of caring and creativity.  It is WE who CHOOSE whether to be in the words of this weeks’ Torah portion, “ a blessing or a curse.”

Humans are pretty amazing.  We can write symphonies and novels;  we can sing opera; we can do math that teaches us that space and time are relative.  This band – just think how much has gone into developing these instruments, the electronics, plus the songs, plus the Hebrew, all so that we can enjoy singing together. 

So as we all go forward in our lives, let’s try to remember to be grateful for our advantages, empathetic and aware that other people do not have those privileges, and that it is we who choose, every day, every minute, whether we will cling to resentment and prejudice, or whether we will leave the world a better, more just, beautiful, and caring place. 

So whatever you choose to do and wherever life leads you,

  • Let’s choose blessing.
  • Let’s choose to make more beauty.
  • More music.
  • More fun.
  • More Rock Shabbat
  • More love.
  • More friendship.
  • More art.
  • More justice.
  • More sustainability.
  • More connection.
  • More holiness in this world and in our own lives.

Let us choose blessing and choose life so that we may long endure on this beautiful fragile earth we have been privileged to inherit.

Amein.

 


 

The Foreskin Around Our Hearts

SERMON:  Parashat 'Ekev, August 3, 2018

Our Torah Portion this week includes this strange but evocative image:

Cut away, therefore, the foreskin from around your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  --Deuteronomy 10: 16-19

What does it mean’ cut away the thickening from around your hearts? And how might that connect to loving the strangers among us?

First, let’s remember what the Israelites had gone through: plague, hunger, attacks from hostile tribes, fires, and tribal struggles. Those experiences no doubt were traumatizing, and just to survive every day, people have to shut off their emotions, or see the stranger as a danger just waiting to attack us. When we are overwhelmed, everything begins to seem like a threat.

I think of today’s refugees, particularly those from Syria living in makeshift camps all over southern Europe and Lebanon. While love for children and family remain fierce in these camps, and people do extraordinary things, many also shut down, shut off their connections to others. Many begin to blame groups of people for their hardship. In the face of pain, complexity can be lost. The result can be extremism.

But today, as we look toward the month of Elul and the High Holy Days, I want to consider what we in this shul have experienced that have caused our hearts to callous. To be part of any community is to be disappointed and occasionally hurt. This community has had some significant struggles and disappointments in the past few years. Exciting projects have been rejected. Hopes and visions have not been realized. People’s faith in the institution has been eroded. In such circumstances, it is easy to build up a callous around our hearts, distance ourselves from the community, and even step away. Anyone who has worked in community has had to face this.

To survive loss, to survive life’s hardships, we all, over time, build up a little callous on our hearts, just as the soles of our feet respond to wandering in the desert or in the mountains, and our hands respond to working the soil or playing the violin, our heart develops its own protection to help heal from the million tiny cracks and the few great heartbreaks life has inflicted upon it.
Those callous are often necessary for survival.

Paradoxically, those very callouses we need to survive also, over time, keep us from fully living. In our desire to protect ourselves, we often hurt ourselves the most. When our hearts close off, we become incapable of letting in love, or experience new friendships, of trusting and laughing fully with others. We lose our ability to build a better future together.

For some, the hardened heart leads to anger, anger that can be exploited by dangerous demagogues, whipped up to full hate and violence. It is easier to blame others, to blame ‘those people’ than it is to take the risk of opening our hearts despite the risks. The greatest wound to the heart is shutting it off. The risk of pain is not nearly as great as the risk of not feeling.

Our Torah Portion also retells the story of the breaking of the tablets and the making of new ones, and putting them in the ark. The question arises: are only the new tablets in the Ark? What happened to the pieces of the old tabliets? The Talmud says that both the broken pieces of the first tablets and the new tablets were put in the ark. From this, our tradition derives some very beautiful ideas about the human condition.

The 16th century Kabbalistic work, Reshit Chochmah, taught that the ark was like the human heart, with chambers that are broken, and chambers that are whole, and that both are required to make us fully human.

Or as Dan Nichols song says, “I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken, too.”

And the Chassidim teach that “there is nothing so full as a broken heart”.

Or to quote Rabbi Leonard Cohen, ‘there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

And as a rabbi, I want to mention another kind of thickening of the heart: hyperrationalist know-it-all atheism that views as superstitions and obsolete any beliefs in the divine, the sense of wonder, radical amazement, and mystery. These people often accuse people of faith of clinging to certainty, of needing certainty in the face of modernity and its doubts. There is some truth to that, of course, but I have to say that I have met few people of faith as certain and sure of its self as an Atheist. Atheism seems way too sure of itself for me. I tend to think the trick is in finding a balance between faith and skepticism, in living in the tension and liminal space between the two. Like Iris Dement, I think sometimes humility and skepticism requires that we ‘let the mystery be.” Certainty is a foreskin around the heart.
Indeed, in Jeremiah 4:3–4, an uncircumcised heart is compared to hard, fallow soil that cannot be cultivated because it has not been plowed:
Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the LORD and remove the foreskins of your heart. (Jeremiah 4:3–4)
As we approach the High Holy Days, let’s try take the risk of take some of the callous layers that have build up around our hearts, to use our free will to choose empathy over callousness, connection over the safety of withdrawal so that we might feel life’s greatest joy: loving others and being loved.
Only when we find a way to keep our hearts open, can we find a way through the Sea of Reeds that our own injuries form around us and come home to a life in the promised land that flows with the milk and honey of human connection.


 

 

We Are All Standing On Nebo

SERMON:  Parashat Va’etchana, July 27, 2018 

Our Torah portion this week includes the 10 Commandments and the Shema, but I want to start my talk tonight with the very opening of this portion: Moses says:

וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃

I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying:  “O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!

Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.”

אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֽוֹן׃

But the LORD was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The LORD said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!

Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.

To me, this is one of the most poignant moments in all of the Torah.  It seems cruel.   I mean, Moses didn’t want this job and refused it repeatedly, and then he had to deal with those stiffnecked Jews, and now, having stuck it out and getting at last to his goal, he is allowed to see it, to feel it, to taste it – but never to have the experience of stepping foot onto the promised land. 

Of course it is heartbreaking, but I also think it expresses something about what it means to be human.   At some level, we all stand on Nebo looking across the Jordan at the Promised land.  We all know we will not live to enter the future, though we can glimpse it.  We all know that we won’t complete everything we hoped to, and that it will be up to future generations to see our efforts come to fruition. 

In our lives, we all feel a sense of alienation, even when we can’t quite put our finger on why. We just have a profound sense that there is something we can just glimpse, we can almost reach, but can’t quite hold, something we have become separated from, we have lost, and we aren’t quite complete without it.  We know we left a garden and we can’t quite find our way back.  We feel it.   

Exile is part of being human and so Moses standing on that mountain is not so different than us.  And what is it we today are looking across the valley for?  Reaching out for?

I believe it is Love.  Love and connection. 

All of us have our own unique lives and experiences, things only we can truly know, and so at some level, we know we separate and alone.  Yet, through the miracle of love,  we take the radical risk of letting ourselves been seen and known as much as is humanly possible. 

Romantic love:  Sometimes that love is romantic love, partnership love.  And tonight is Tu B’av,  the 15th of the month of Av.  It was a very obscure holiday in the Mishnah, one on which marriages were agreed to, and so it has become in modern Israel, the Jewish Valentines Day, and so for those of us that have such love in our lives, it is a good night to express that, to let yourself feel just how much that love matters to you.  If you are with someone you love, tell them so.  Right now. 

Friendly love: But of course, that sort of love can create an exile all its own when it ends or goes wrong. But love, in the Jewish tradition, is not only, or even mostly  romantic love. Love is what we feel for those around us, our friends, our chosen families, and so tonight is also a good time to let them know how much that love means.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  What higher goal could there be for human beings?

Love of God:  And it seems to me a powerful coincidence that tonight is also the week where the V’ahavta is in our Torah reading.   “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.”  Love of God is another way of healing the exile of being human.  Of overcoming our sense of separateness, and balancing it with a cosmic sense of connection and love.

And love, it is not just a feeling, or an ache.  In Hebrew, love is an action verb that must be shown through what we do.  What we do matters more than how we feel.  

The word ‘AHAVA” is based on an older two letter root, HAV,  which means ‘to give.’  So in the Hebrew concept of love, love and giving are inseparable.  We give to those we love, and we come to love those to whom we give. To love is at some level to give yourself, to let yourself be seen, to give the other person or people or God the gift of our own vulnerability.  Isn’t that what Moses gives when he once again begs God to enter the land?

Modern secular life often is missing this dimension of deep connection, of intimacy.  Sadly, modern synagogue life is also often missing that same dimension.  We seem to want to have religion in our lives but we don’t want anyone to think we are really religious.  Among secular New England liberals, it becomes almost like a defensive flinch to minimize one’s spiritual life.

It is my prayer that this congregation, this synagogue, can be a place where we come to try and heal the wound of exile through connecting with God, but also if we are brave enough and let ourselves, connecting more deeply with one another, of sharing not just how much we can do, but our fears, our vulnerabilities, and our Nebo’s.  and by letting others see the divine that in each of us, helping ourselves see it too.  

I’m hoping and praying that here at Sinai, we can start to risk creating the Promised Land of real community by sharing our stories, our struggles,-  sharing our Nebo, whether it is through sharing our spiritual autobiographies, and making connections through building raised beds or a playground for our youth,  singing together at services, laughing  with our children, or from Shabbat dinners in one another’s homes.  

Judaism, in a synagogue community, can be a place where we come to try and heal the wound of exile through connecting with God, but also, if we are brave enough and let ourselves, where we can connect more deeply with one another, and learn to see the divine that in each of us.

And it is my job to make sure we also connect to our tradition, learn about it, finding  joy in it and discovering ways to breathe new life into it, into our community and into ourselves.

Ken Yehi Ratzon 


 

 

Do Not Separate Yourself From Community – Al Tifrosh Min Hatzubbur

SERMON:  Parashat Matot-Masei, July 13,  2018

On the drive into work this today,  there was a show on NPR about gentrification, and the hosts asked how one of the guests felt about these young ‘yuppies’ that move into inner city neighborhoods because they are central and affordable, and completely change the social fabric there.    

The guest responded, “I don’t think anyone moves into one of our neighborhoods thinking, 'I will destroy the social fabric here,' but nonetheless, as more and more people make that move with good intentions, the result is nonetheless that they do destroy it.” 

With the best intentions, a large number of individual choices, perhaps all for good reasons, can still have a tremendous destructive impact on our communities and social systems.  In other words,  good people can have good intentions and make good choices that still have destructive effects on the world around them. 

We see this unintentional effect being challenged in this week’s double Torah portion,  Matot-Masei,  in which two scenes really stuck out to me because of what seems to me like a tearing of our social fabric in the US.

The first episode concerns the tribe of Reuben and Gad approaching Moses and saying: 

the land that the LORD has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us,” they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.”

That seemed reasonable enough, so it is Moses’ response that surprised:

Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?   Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the LORD has given them?

But the Tribes of Reuben and Gilead immediately understand, and say that they will serve as infantry, or ‘shock troops’ in the invasion of Canaan, and only after Israel is secure will they return to their families and herds.  Moses makes a few additions, but accepts this, making sure the entire leadership heard their promise and will hold them accountable.

The second scene is a ‘bookend’ from last week, and again concerns the Daughters of Zelophechad, those five fierce women that speak up for justice for themselves and their children.  Last week, God says, “The women speak justly”  “Ken b’not Tzlophchad dovrot. Women should inherit.

But this week, the tribe to which the daughters belonged, Menashe, push back.  The men go to Moses and say that if the women inherit, and they are allowed to marry anyone they want, the land they possess will leave the tribe if they marry into another tribe.  That’s not fair since there is not way to regain that territory.  Moses takes this to God and in the exact same words, God says, “ Ken Mateh B’nei Yosef Dovrim”

כֵּ֛ן מַטֵּ֥ה בְנֵֽי־יוֹסֵ֖ף דֹּבְרִֽים

This seems at first like a ‘bait and switch’ for the women, something women through the ages are quite familiar with, but on closer inspection, both of these passages seem to be saying something else.

They are saying that while the needs of an individual or small group matter and are just, that need can’t cancel out the obligations of those individuals desires on the larger community. 

That is, we are responsible for speaking up for our own needs, but we are also responsible for maintaining the community as a whole, the social fabric.  Individual free choice is crucial, but so is living in a community.    In Judaism, we  must balance our individuality with the greater need. 

אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:

Im ein ani li mi li, uchsheani l’atzmi mah ani, v’im lo achshav ehmatai? Hillel

This is hard for us as Americans sometimes. We have been so indoctrinated to the gospel of individualism and taking care of our own needs that we often don’t even think of the larger impact of our choices.   Our Therapy culture has taught us to ‘get over the guilt’ and make choices that are good for our well-being – and this is good and ethical and right – but if it is not balanced with an awareness of and a sense of duty toward the larger community, our individualism can become very lonely and even community and self-  destructive.

The late philosopher Phillipa Foote argued that just like orchids, human beings need certain conditions to flourish.  We might survive in lonely, stressed out, consumerist lives, but that is not the same as flourishing.  Indeed, being comfortable in those lives doesn’t mean, according to Foote, that we are flourishing.  As Neil Young wrote, “the hotel of lost companions waits with heated pool and bar.”

Instead, Foote, in her book NATURAL GOODNESS argues that human beings need relationships, love, intimate friendships, laughter, music, a sense of purpose to flourish.  And we need community.  We are, by nature, groupish, so I view with great concernthe current trends toward atomization and separation. 

For example, America, and especially young Americans, are no longer ‘joiners’.  “Joiners” are seen as ‘lemmings’ that follow the crowd.

We see this in the most absurd ways on television commercials.  So many of the most successful commercials convince us that we need to be ourselves, UBU, do our own things, and in order to do this, we need to buy the same product all our friends are buying.

Be yourself!  Buy these Nike shoes.

Be yourself! Think Different!  Buy Apple.

This is the great paradox of American life:  in order to convince us to do what everyone else is doing, you have to tell us it is individualistic and will make us different from all those other conformists.  We are obsessed with individuality even as we are obsessed with being on trend.

And we can say Vermont is different, until you go hiking and you see that the parking lot full of Subarus (guilty), the stream of Patagonia and North Face togs coming at you,and then there is the  parade of black and chocolate labs.

Tim and I used to dress up once a year in silk jackets and ascots, have our Standard Poodle groomed like a show dog with all the look puffs and pom-poms, , and then go  hiking on the Long Trail.  That will teach you that Vermont is not nearly as individualistic as we like to think.

Social Media makes this even more confusing, because we are connecting with others while being more along than ever.  Professor Sherry Turkle at MIT  wrote a fascinating book about this called “Alone Together” about how instead of relying on one another, we have come to rely on technology that makes us feel like we are in community even though we are alone.  And of course, Neil Postman’s seminal book, “Bowling Alone” was way ahead of the curve in noticing  what was  happening in our culture.

I have seen young adults have panic attacks when they find themselves without wifi, or their phones die, and they can’t be in constant contact with friends, even though they are there with friends while they are panicking. I have felt a bit that way myself, if I am honest.

And this is certainly happening in the Jewish world.  I’ve been asked to do lots of online bar and batmitzvah tutoring because families don’t belong to a syngagogue.  I’ve gotten a bunch of emails since I’ve been here asking to do a bar mitzvah without having to join a synagogue.  They don’t want to join a synagogue, and should the Jewish world just provide that for us as an app or something so we don’t have to actually go and participate in the community?   

As one young rabbi put it:  “Our generation doesn’t view Judaism as an obligation.”  It’s something that has to compete in the marketplace with everything else we have in our lives. “  

Of course, in rebelling against our Jewish upbrinings that can feel constricting or stifling, Jews join other groups with abandon.  1/3 of American Buddhists, for example, are Jews and I would guess that number is true for Jewitchs, HinJews, UJews, and other belief systems that package themselves as spiritual instead of religious, though there is not really a difference except ‘spiritual’ sounds more individualistic and American, while ‘religious’ sounds old fashioned and even a bit reactionary.

The result is all over this country, civic and public organizations and institutions are shrinking and dying.  We all know that synagogues are struggling, but so are churches, and Elks clubs and Moose lodges and Kiwanis clubs.  And yet, people assume that the synagogue will just be there for them when they need one from time to time, when they feel like it, but they should have to actually be involved or support it. 

The last tractate of the Talmud is a little book of sayings called “Pirkei Avot” of “Ethics of the Ancestors.”  It contains many pithy aphorisms, But one of the most famous sayings there, and one that many modern Jews wrestle with is Hillel’s saying”  

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר

Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibbur – Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community.

So since one of the big rules of sermons is not to yell at the people who aren’t the problem, so first let me say:

THANK YOU to all of you who have worked so hard, given so much, put up with so much, to support this or other synagogues and organizations, that sit on boards, that deal with long irritating meetings, that give up your weekends to keep this place going so that others will have it when they need it.

Jews, lovable and smart, irreverent and endearing as we are, can also be really really challenging.  We argue.  We don’t let go of our ideas easily. That is perhaps how we have managed to survive everything we’ve been through.  So thank you to those who have ‘leaned in,’ and stuck with it.

But I also want to say, let us commit, even when we disagree, even when things get tough and frustrated, irksome and infuriating,  to stay connected.  It is so easy to get mad, to either storm out, or just disappear without really ever saying why, but when a bunch of people do that, as has happened here over the years, and at every synagogue and house of worship I know, it harms the social fabric.  It diminishes the community.  Even though every person might do so for very good reasons, reasons any of us would understand, and want to suggest that sometimes, the spiritual challenge in the situation is not self-care by separating, but self-care by leaning in, by sticking with it, by finding a way to be both yourself, and in community.  It helps you and it helps us flourish in ways we never expected.

There is a great passage in the Talmud, in Yevamot 14, where it reminds us of the terrible knock-down drag-out fights between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai.  They disagreed about almost everything; they were opposites.  The Channukah candles should start with 8 and go down to 1 said Shammai. Hillel said the opposite.  I could go on, and their fighting did go on for around 300 years!

But here is what the Talmud also reminds us:

Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai. This serves to teach you that they practiced affection and camaraderie between them, to fulfill that which is stated: “Love truth and peace”

So if Beit Hillel and Shammai could stay in community, if the Reubenites were willing to be infantry in order to show they supported the community needs even as they advocated for their own,  if the Daughters of Zelophechad could accept having to marry in their tribe so that their freedom, while circumscribed, did not harm their tribe,  surely, even when someone is working our very last nerve, we can find ways of coming together, of loving and caring for one another across our divides.

We can learn not only to speak, but to listen.

We need to remember that we are all human beings, all trying our best to be good, and fumbling awkwardly as we do.  We can learn how to love one another especially when we don’t agree.

Isn’t that what our nation and the world needs so badly right now?  Let’s us be the change we want to see. 

So I will end on the full quote from Hillel, because in it is so much wisdom our synagogue, and our nation, and our world could use right now:

Hillel Taught: Do not separate yourself from the community; Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die; Do not judge other people until you stand in his situation; Do not say “It is not possible to understand this” for eventually it will be understood; Do not say “When I have free time I will study”, for you may never have free time.

 Wisdom of our ancestors speaking in our ears.  Shabbat shalom. 


 

Fear No One--Judgement is God's

SERMON:  July 20, 2018

Do you remember the riots in Baltimore after the police arrested Freddie Gray, and in the van ride that followed, managed to break his neck and back, putting him into a coma from which he died the next day?

During that week,  Tim and I were in New York where I was getting my Doctor of Divinity from Hebrew Union College.  That Friday evening,  we decided to go to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah,  the LGBT synagogue in New York that Tim and I had been very active in during the 1980’s, when they didn’t have a building or a rabbi.  During that time, the AIDS crisis was at its height in the gay community, and it seemed to me like laws didn’t really seem to protect us, and in fact the laws seemed to be causing more death.   Still, during that time that little synagogue meant the world to us, so going back to seem them now with a rabbi and a new fancy building was exciting.

We walked into their Chelsea building, very nice, and it was very much a homecoming, with some of our friends from back in the day hugging us and all of us really enjoying being together.   There were lots of children, something there had not been in the 1980’s, and in addition to the flamboyant characters we had known, there were NY State Supreme Court justices and other people who were now in powerful positions. 

Their rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, is someone who I didn’t always agree with, but very much respected her social justice activism and leadership in the Jewish community.  Rabbi Kleinbaum started talking about the riots in Baltimore, about the TV show “The Wire,” which I hadn’t really watched,  but then she said this, and for some reason, it hit me very deeply at that moment as one of the reasons I so deeply love Judaism.

She said,  “in Judaism, we are made holy through law.  Without law, there can be no holiness.” 

Now I must confess, that my mother desperately wanted me to be a lawyer, and I tried but I just never liked it because I bristled at all the sexist, racist, and homophobic laws and the attempts to justify them with pat phrases like “rule of law.”

I had also found myself exploring Jewish spiritual paths that were much more mystical, individual, and that really took a somewhat dismissive approach to the notion of law as holy.  Love is the only law, so many of them say.  All religions area about Love. 

 Even  Maimonides, the greatest legal scholar in Jewish history, in his great work, The Guide for the Perplexed, says that laws are for people who are not really enlightened, for the common people to follow,  and he often said, “ha-mevin yavin”  those who understand will understand.

Cryptic, but with just the right dismissive tone to rule-followers.

So when Rabbi Kleinbaum said that we are made holy through law,  I was about to roll my eyes, but mid roll,  something shifted, and I really heard what she was saying. 

Without law,  individuals may do very loving and caring things, as they do in places where the law is failing, but as a society, we can’t hope to be good, to be holy, without laws that are just, fair, and central to our sense of who we are.

As Thomas Hobbes, the 17th Century British political philosopher, famously wrote that  when there is no law, we live in a state where we in a war of  everyone against everyone. 

He wrote that without law, without a sense of awe at the law, there can be no justice.  “There is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Today, we start reading the Book of Deuteronomy, the book of the law, what was called “Torah” before the five books were, and almost all of Deuteronomy is about law. 

In fact, the book is one long monologue by Moses on the law, and it is fascinating to me, that this book-length sermon  (see, I’m not so bad!)  begins with a short prologue and then says this:

So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced men, and appointed them heads over you: chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens, and officials for your tribes.

וָאֲצַוֶּה֙ אֶת־שֹׁ֣פְטֵיכֶ֔ם בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹ֑ר שָׁמֹ֤עַ בֵּין־אֲחֵיכֶם֙ וּשְׁפַטְתֶּ֣ם צֶ֔דֶק בֵּֽין־אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵין־אָחִ֖יו וּבֵ֥ין גֵּרֽוֹ׃

I charged your magistrates at that time as follows, “Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger.

Why did Moses start with this, instead of the 10 commandments, or the Shema which is six chapters later, or with Sinai. Why would he start with this comment about fair courts and just legal procedures?  It seems a bit narrow for the start of a great speech.

I think Rabbi Kleinbaum had it exactly right.  It is because in Judaism, law is not what keeps us from being bad, a negative justice, but rather law is what allows us to be good, to create stable societies that can be just.  America might have a romantic fascination with the Wild West, but Judaism sees it as unholy, unjust, and not what God wants from us if we are to live up to our potential to  make a better world.

Throughout the Torah, over and over again, the importance of law and a fair court system is stressed.   There is almost nothing in Judaism worse that perjuring yourself in a court, or accepting bribes, or siding with the powerful against the poor, or siding with the poor against the powerful. 

We are taught:   Tzedek,Tzedek Tirdof JUSTICE, JUSTICE PURSUE  (Deut 16:20) 

The word Tzedek, which is also the root of Tzedakah, is often translated as righteous, but its basic meaning in ‘justice’.  In other words, being just in law and being good are inseparable in Jewish thought. 

It is not only the Torah, but the Mishnah and Talmud is one big legal argument, and there are very long and very detailed tractates on how to examine a witness, how to select a judge, how to be a judge, what is admissible in court, etc, all in great detail.  Judaism is a religion rooted in law.  Rabbis are the original lawyers. That law is called halakha.

But of course, as Reform Jews, we don’t tend to approach Judaism legalistically, but more in terms of ethics and spiritual lessons.  We are not strictly a halachic movement. 

But that is because we see the law of the nations in which we live as the law we must follow, using the rabbinic dictum:

Dina d’malchuta dina:  The law of the land is the law. 

And of course, progressive Jews have played an enormous role in American jurisprudence, whether we are talking about Justice Brandeis or Justice Ginsberg, to name two.

We have been instrumental in trying to create justice in this nation, but when we do so,  we are acting on an ancient impulse that tells us that without law, there can be no justice or holiness. 

It is no wonder then that so many of us are so concerned about the rule of law in this country right now. 

We seem to living in a time with respect for rule of law is unravelling, or being unraveled by those that would place themselves above the law.

And there are genuine flaws in our justice system, as that situation in Baltimore, and so many other places has shown with the shooting of unarmed black men in numbers that can’t ben coincidence.

But there is also a cynicism about law and civil society that is dangerous, and unholy.  There are forces that are actively and deliberately undermining confidence in the law and the legal system. And we have a President that seems to think he is above the law, or that the law is something to play with for personal advantage.  

It is no wonder that we are also deeply concerned about the Supreme Court, and how one party prevented another from naming a justice, and now the nominations have become deeply politicized, and seem to be about favoring the wealthy and powerful over the poor and vulnerable.

It is not my place to get into the politics of that, though I will say that to make a woman’s right to choose illegal is to violate Jewish religious beliefs that demand that the safety of the mother’s life must always come first. 

But reading Devarim this week, I was reminded not of this side or that side, but of how in Judaism, it is so deeply important that we remember that law has the potential to be a holy thing in creating a just and harmonious society.  

And perhaps that is why, after all, Moses begins his final speech to the people before they enter the holy land to set up their society based on a law and justice:  perhaps that is why he starts by reminding the people of the importance of good, educated, and wise judges and fair courts, and adds this:

לֹֽא־תַכִּ֨ירוּ פָנִ֜ים בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֗ט כַּקָּטֹ֤ן כַּגָּדֹל֙ תִּשְׁמָע֔וּן לֹ֤א תָג֙וּרוּ֙ מִפְּנֵי־אִ֔ישׁ כִּ֥י הַמִּשְׁפָּ֖ט לֵאלֹהִ֣ים ה֑וּא

You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s.

Fear no one, for judgment is God’s.

He is not saying that we shouldn’t judge because God does, but rather that our ability to judge, to be fair, to be just is holy, is a great gift from God, as anyone who has lived in a place when the government fails and chaos ensues knows. 

As we as Jews know only too well. 

So as we go through the coming months of the confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice, and midterm elections that will in many be a referendum on the rule of law,  let’s try not to get to wrapped up in our partisan blankets, seeing things only as a team sport.

Rather let’s remember our heritage, and the profound ethical and religious importance of fair laws applied fairly, to low and high alike.   Let us pray that it is this respect for law that will guide us through the wilderness and back home.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon


   

Meet the Fierce Daughters of Zelophehad

SERMON:  Parashat Pinhas, July 6, 2018

I want you to take a breath, close your eyes if that’s comfie for you…Take another breath. Now I want you to think back on a time in your life when you knew you needed to tell someone something you knew they didn’t want to hear, a time when you needed to speak up and speak your truth even if is wasn’t easy.   Maybe it was about your relationships.  Maybe it was about social justice.  Maybe it was about who you are as a person.

  • How did you work up your courage to speak?
  • How did you prepare, if at all?
  • How many times to you try to say something before you did?
  • What were you afraid of?
  • How did it feel when you finally spoke up?
  • Did it feel like there was a spiritual component to speaking your truth?

Open your eyes.

I’ve had a few of those moments in my life, but tonight, I want us to look at one of those moments in this week’s Torah portion. PINCHAS. After Pinchas, the son of Aaron, skewers two people involved in hanky-panky in the Tabernacle, after Moses and the other leaders just stand and watch passively, weeping, but doing nothing; and after that, there is a new Census; and after that, the land they are going to occupy is divied up by lots;  but before Moses lays his hands on Joshua and makes him the new leader- stuck in there, almost hidden, is a story that is easy to miss when your eyes are rolled up in your head from the endless list of the census –

Let me read it:

תִּקְרַ֜בְנָה בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָ֗ד בֶּן־חֵ֤פֶר בֶּן־גִּלְעָד֙ בֶּן־מָכִ֣יר בֶּן־מְנַשֶּׁ֔ה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹ֖ת מְנַשֶּׁ֣ה בֶן־יוֹסֵ֑ף וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ שְׁמ֣וֹת בְּנֹתָ֔יו מַחְלָ֣ה נֹעָ֔ה וְחָגְלָ֥ה וּמִלְכָּ֖ה וְתִרְצָֽה׃

וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֜דְנָה לִפְנֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֗ה וְלִפְנֵי֙ אֶלְעָזָ֣ר הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְלִפְנֵ֥י הַנְּשִׂיאִ֖ם וְכָל־הָעֵדָ֑ה פֶּ֥תַח אֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר

The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

Moses brought their case before the LORD.

And the LORD said to Moses,

כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃

KEN B’NOT TZ’LOF’CHAD DOVROT:

The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.

 In a book where women are rarely named, and most the matriarchs, here we have five women named, women that come up through all the princes of the people, through the all male space to the all male space of the Tabernacle, and without being invited to, they speak up. They speak up with confidence, with calm, with a great argument, and with justice on their side.

In fact, the rabbis writing in the Sifrei on the Book of Numbers, tell us that as soon as these women heard the land was being portioned, they “gathered to make a plan.” Other commentary, like the Yalkut Shimoni, tells us that each of the daughters was wise and just, and that to show they were united, rather than asking one person to speak for them, each spoke a part of their argument. 

This is also one of the few passages where the Torah and the Rabbis agree that the women were far superior to the men around them. Yes, the Torah, so often accused of being the cause of the Patriarchy, here tells us that while the men were all whining and kvetching, openly agitating to find a new leader that will take them back to Egypt, and after the spies that go into the Promised Land come back with the most negative, fear-filled warnings,  The Five Daughters of Zelophehad showed just how defeatist and, well, chicken the men were.

The rabbis point out that they had faith when none of the men did, when even Moses was flailing – they showed both their faith in the future, and their self-respect by demanding their portion in the Promised Land. 

Why did they think the men would listen?  They didn’t.  I said they were wise!

No, here is how the Sifrei tells us the daughters decided to step forward:

They said, G-d’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of mankind. Mankind favors men over women. G-d is not like that. His compassion extends to men and women alike...”

Isn’t that what a  small but wise, even sacred voice in each of us says at such moments  -  “I am as good, as holy, as loved and as lovable as any, and I am a child of God and have a right to my portion”?

There is SO MUCH to say about this story, and if you want to look at it in more depth, please come to Torah Study tomorrow at 10:30!

But I want to connect it to why I am a Reform Jew, why I believe in Reform Judaism, and why I am so glad to be your new rabbi.

As some of you know,  one of the classes I have taught regularly is the Introduction to Ethics.  When we study ethics and religion, we always read Plato’s Euthyphro.    In this dialogue, Socrates is hanging around the court house trying to figure out how to avoid being exiled for corrupting the youth of Athens when we runs into Euthyphro, the high priest of Zeus who is there to accuse his own father of a crime.  Socrates asks him what has become known in philosophy as “Euthyphro’s Dilemma.”   Plato asks -(in Monotheistic translation)  Does God love what is good, or is something good because God loves it?  In other words, is something right just because God says so, or it something right because it is right, and God recognizes this and puts it into law.  What comes first:  GOOD or GOD?

It is one of the big issues in religious ethics, and it divides two MAJOR approaches to religion.  One is called Divine Command, which means that we as humans can’t really know right and wrong, and so we rely on God’s commands to tell us.  If God says it’s right, we have to do it, and if God says it’s wrong, we must not do it or face God’s wrath. The other is called Divine Perfection, and it argues that God gave us the intelligence, the empathy, and the capacity to know right from wrong ourselves, and to get better at knowing it over the centuries. 

Biblical religion and some forms of Orthodox Judaism are clearly Divine Command.  God says you can’t wear a wool/cotton blend, and so you can’t. But Judaism early on moved strongly toward Divine Perfection, and we can easily forget that modern rigid forms of Orthodoxy are reactions to modernity, growing out of the turmoil of the Enlightenment just as Reform Judaism did, but I believe Reform Judaism is in many ways much truer to our tradition.

In one famous Midrash, the rabbis decide that even if God calls out from heaven “this is wrong”, we don’t have to accept that because God gave us the ability to work it out on our own.

Humans are, by nature,  ‘meaning makers.’  And Jewish tradition is a profound mirror of what it means to be human. We see this very clearly in another commentary on these bold, proto-feminist daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.

In the commentary of the Sfat Emet,  Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter who lived in the second half of the 19th Century, he argues that this moment when the daughters speak up is THE MOMENT where Judaism turns from Divine Command to Divine Perfection.  In their terms, it is where the revelation at Sinai ends and the oral law and rabbinic interpretation begins, AND THESE WOMEN ARE THE REASON. 

The Sfat Emet tells us that until this moment, law was about whatever God said to Moses, no questions asked.  Moses himself was not able to think past the literal approach to the laws God gave him.  But these daughters because of their direct experiences, saw that there was a big problem with the law as it was given, that there was injustice in it, and so they stepped forward and demanded justice.  They demanded the law be changed.

And look at God’s Answer!

Ken B’not Tz’lof’chad Dovrot:

“The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters" is just:

God changes the law upon recognizing that these women understood justice better than God had in this moment.  They knew it because they had lived it.

Reform Judaism  is often criticized by more traditional movements for ignoring Jewish law, for changing it, for ordaining women, for ordaining LGBT rabbis, for not focusing on kashrut –  but I think here, in the Daughters of Zelophehad we see just how old the urge to have our tradition match our direct experiences is.

Reform Judaism is rooted in the need for justice, for TIKUN OLAM. We focus on the ethics of the great Hebrew Prophets more than the minutiae of practice.  So did these women!  And so here at my first service here at this Reform Temple, I want to invite all of us to take up the mantle of these women, to be daughters of Zelophehad,  to step forward, to speak the truth of our lived experience, and to create a Jewish life that is joyous, wise, just, and spiritual.  Like the daughters we remember that to step forward in truth and in justice is to repair the world.  Together, let’s step forward to create the sacred community we know is possible, with God’s help. 

Ken Yehi Ratzon