“These Words” – Shabbat Devarim, August 9, 2019

via “These Words” – Shabbat Devarim, August 9, 2019


“These Words” – Shabbat Devarim, August 9, 2019

“Eilu ha-devarim” – These are the words. This is the way the Book of Deuteronomy opens. These are the words that Moses spoke to all the Israelites. The entire book is composed of a series of speeches – sermons – given by Moses in the days before his death. Sermons of history and remembrance. Sermons of chastisement. Sermons of promise.

These are the words that Moses chooses ever so carefully to re-tell the story of this past forty years.

“Eilu ha-devarim.” These are the words.

Except that the Hebrew is actually much more nuanced than that. The word “Davar” often refers to words, to speech. But a “davar” is also a thing, an action, a behavior.

כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ:

“This thing is very close to you, on your lips and in your heart, that you accomplish them,” Moses will say in a subsequent sermon, referring to the life of mitzvah the Israelites are commanded to lead in the Promised Land.[1]

“When you go out as a troop against your enemies,” וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכֹּל דָּבָר רָע: “guard against all bad behavior,” Moses will warn them, regarding the struggle they will have settling the land.[2]

By often using the same language for both words and deeds, the book of Deuteronomy – Moses’s epitaph to himself — draws a clear connection between what you say and what you do. The lesson, I believe, is that the way you speak carries the same consequences as the way you act.

I think about this fundamental lesson in the wake of a sad, horrifying, deadly week in our country.

Within a few hours of each other, two young men with a grudge and a powerful weapon went on bloody rampages – first in El Paso, Texas, and then in Dayton, Ohio. More than 30 people are dead, scores more wounded – some critically.

We do not know yet what drove the mass murderer in Dayton to kill nine people, including his own sister. But we do know a lot more about the first shooter, who drove ten hours from his hometown to deliberately target Hispanics and mixed-race couples — and found what he was looking for at a Wal-Mart store in the border town of El Paso.

We know a lot, because, like the terrorists responsible for the carnage at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, at a synagogue in Poway, California, and at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, the 21-year-old white male suspect was connected to an on-line manifesto posted just before he started shooting – clearly stating what the author was about to do and why.

The El Paso screed – posted 19 minutes before the first 9-11 calls came in – railed against what the author called “a Hispanic invasion of Texas.”  It called for separating our country in to different zones according to race. It warned that white people were being replaced by foreigners. It decreed, and I quote: “if we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.”

Similar language was posted on line and in chat rooms by the terrorists responsible for the slaughters in New Zealand and California and Pittsburgh. It’s a white-supremacist theory called “The Great Replacement.” This one substituted Hispanics for Jews or Muslims – but the perceived grievances are the same: the attempted replacement of whites by people of other colors or ethnicities. And the antidote is the same: Kill as many of the “other” as you possibly can, to deter more of them from invading your country.

The white supremacist terrorists who conducted these slaughters of innocents clearly understand the connection between word and deed. They themselves had been influenced by what previous terrorists had written. They themselves want to encourage others in their circles of hate to follow in their footsteps. They are everywhere. And they are dangerous. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Violence committed by white men inspired by an extremist ideology make up a growing number of domestic terrorism cases, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Of about 850 current domestic terrorism cases, 40% involve racially motivated violent extremism and a majority of those cases involve white supremacists, the FBI said.”

Eilu Ha-devarim: Watch just not what we say, but what we do.

As Jews, our history teaches us terrible lessons about the connection between word and deed. The Nazi program of genocide began with anti-Jewish propaganda, blaming us for the economic and social woes that beset Germany after World War One. This was followed by a concerted program of de-humanization, then discrimination, then removing Jews from civic life, then physically separating us. Then deporting us.

The horrors of the Holocaust are unique in history – but the pattern is so clear that the Anti-Defamation League created a Pyramid of Hate that starts at the bottom with biased attitudes like stereotyping and fear-mongering, to acts of bias like bullying and isolation, all the way up to genocide. Not every action on the bottom leads to the top. But every genocide starts at the bottom.

Eilu ha-devarim. At its most horrific, propoganda begets pogrom.

But dangerous and potential deadly language does not just lurk in the chat rooms of Chan8. It is all around us. Insensitivity, stereotyping, ridicule, name-calling, bullying, de-humanization – all of it is heavy in the air of our public discourse.

As Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear wrote this week in the New York Times:

“Linking political speech, however heated, to the specific acts of ruthless mass killers is a fraught exercise, but experts on political communication said national leaders could shape an environment with their words and deeds, and bore a special responsibility to avoid inflaming individuals or groups, however unintentionally.”

And those words do inflame.

So we have moved from “Mexicans are rapists” and “this is an invasion” and migrants “pour and infest” our country and “go back to where you came from” and the clear implication that women lawmakers of color are not true Americans . . .

To a group of young white men, photographed at a political rally this week choking a life-sized cutout of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez . . .

To dozens of border agents using racist and misogynistic language in private chat rooms, belittling Hispanic law-makers and threatening members of Congress who call for investigations of the conditions at the border. . .

To those conditions that exemplify dehumanization: immigrant children living in filth, without diapers, food, or showers, for weeks at a time – many torn from their parents, never to be reunited. . .

To the name-calling and fear-mongering reflected in the screed attributed to the El Paso killer, who traveled ten hours from home to target Hispanics and mixed-race couples. Just as it had appeared in similar postings by the white-nationalist terrorists who killed in Christchurch, and Poway, and Pittsburgh.

National leaders not only could shape an environment with their words – they must. We have a right to demand that ALL such language cease. Because you never know who’s listening to you. You never know who’s talking about your remarks in the dark corners of the internet. You never know who hears your nasty, degrading remarks and takes them as an invitation, or even a command, to act on them.

We never know who. But because we know they’re out there, we must all watch what we say and how we say it. And because we also know that words and deeds are deeply embedded in each other, we must all demand that civic discourse be civil discourse.

Eilu ha-devarim” – there are always consequences to these words.

Changing behavior, in Judaism, is called teshuvah. It is the act of turning from sin, seeking forgiveness, and forging a different path. The first step is acknowledging your sin – of word or of deed. It has to be personal and it has to be sincere.

My own scholarly work this year focused on a Yom Kippur prayer called “Tefillah Zakah,”[3] in which the sincere penitent pledges to use those parts of the body with which they committed sin to try to repair the damage they have done.

Here is part of that prayer, in my translation:

“[God], You have gifted me with a mouth and tongue and teeth and palate and throat . . .  Through the power of speech, You differentiated human from beast—and yet I am not even a beast, for I have defiled my mouth with obscenities and with evil language; with lies, mockery, and gossip; sowing discord, shaming others, cursing others, and glorifying myself at the expense of others.

“You have gifted me with hands and the sense of touch, that I might engage in the performance of mitzvot. And yet I have defiled them through forbidden contact, striking with a vicious fist and raising a hand to cause harm.

“You have gifted me with legs with which to walk the path of mitzvah. And yet I have defiled them, turning them into legs that hasten to cause trouble. . .”

The true penitent then vows to seek forgiveness from those they have wronged – knowing that God cannot forgive until atonement has been made.

It’s time for teshuvah. It’s time for those who have let loose the beast of fear-mongering and de-humanization and the clear potential for violence to stop, turn, acknowledge what they have done, and instead use their speech and their hands and their legs and every other part of their body that they have defiled . . . to calm, and to heal, and to unite.

Do it now. Do it for us all.

Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Parashat Nitzavim, Deut. 3o:14

[2] Parashat Ki Teitse: Deut. 23:10

[3] In traditional prayer books, Tefillah Zakah appears just prior to Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur Eve, in preparation for asking God to excuse unfulfilled vows that one has tried one’s best to fulfill.

“The Journeys of the Children of Israel” for Shabbat Ma’sei – August 2, 2019

It’s the end of the road for the children of Israel – the end of the forty-year journey from slavery to true freedom, as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, the land that God had promised their forefather Abraham would be theirs. That’s where we find our Israelite ancestors this week as we conclude the Book of Numbers. They are just a stone’s throw from claiming their inheritance.

It has not been an easy journey. It has been filled with fear and fortune, with setbacks and successes, with challenges to the leadership of Moses, Aaron and Miriam that have sometimes shredded the nascent unity of a rag-tag group of slaves. But it also has brought joy to a people experiencing for the first time both the rights and responsibilities that freedom brings. And it has imbued them with a sense of awe and purpose that they could never have had before.

But we know that the past is prologue. And so the Ba’al Shem Tov, the great mystic and founder of Hasidic Judaism, teaches us this:

“Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual, between the time he is born and the time he dies.”[1]

WILL occur. Not did occur. In other words, when we look at the broad sweep of the story of the Exodus and the wilderness journeys, we should also recognize its intensely personal nature. And not just for those generations that died in the wilderness or were born in it – but for every person in every generation, including every single one of us.

The forty-two journeys to which the Ba’al Shem Tov refers are nominally the ones that Moses chronicles at the beginning of this parashah – the specific places from Rameses to the steppes of Moab where the Israelites encamped on their journey, some overnight, some for weeks or even months at a time.

But for the Ba’al Shem Tov, and for the mystical tradition he represents, these stops along the way correspond to the forty-two journeys that make up the life of every human being, from the time we emerge from the womb (which would be the exodus from Egypt) to our entry into the World to Come (that is, coming into the Land of Israel). Each Israelite encampment, he believed, represents a constricted part of our own consciousness – a time when we have strayed from our obligations to God and to other people and to ourselves. Each time the Israelites traveled forward, this represents an expanded part of our consciousness – that is, when we act in a way that is kinder and truer to what God expects and requires of us.

The mystical understanding of all this stopping and starting over a lifetime is an acknowledgement that we don’t always act the way we should. That sometimes we become petty or nasty, or even abusive. That we lie or cheat or steal – in direct contradiction to the way God has commanded us to behave.

It’s also a recognition that we have long stretches in our lives when we make a habit of doing the right thing – acting in an honest and generous way that makes others’ lives better.

But I think there’s another layer to all of this. The mystics focused on what’s inside of us – while we have to deal with a lot of factors outside of us that we cannot control.

So in our constricted times, when we’re stuck in one place, it could be because we’re sad, alone, confused, bereft. Each of us in this sanctuary tonight has lost people we love. Many of us are sharing the names of family and friends who are sick, and some of us will rise for Kaddish tonight to remember someone we miss a lot. In the last three weeks, we have held a funeral at the cemetery along with two headstone dedications marking the first year after someone’s death. And there are two more such dedications scheduled for later this year.

And yet each of us also has been gifted with times of incredible happiness – sometimes fleeting, sometimes for a long while. The birth of a child or grandchild. A reunion with a loved one. A major milestone or achievement in our career. Coming out of illness to healing and health again. We remember to be grateful for every one of these times of joy. We  thank God for every small delight.

The Book of Numbers – the narrative of the Wilderness Journey – ends quite abruptly with the conclusion of this Torah portion. All we get is a raft of jumble, last-minute divine commands regarding boundaries and cities of refuge and inheritance laws, all mooshed together. No lofty rhetoric. No sense of literary or emotional closure.

But that’s the thing about all these comings and goings. They often come out of nowhere. The Biblical commentator Ovadia Ben Jacob Sforno reminds us:

“Sometimes the starting points were good places and the points for which they set out were bad ones, sometimes the opposite; in either case, the Israelites had no advance knowledge of when and where they were to travel, which was very hard – yet they never refused to go.”[2]

Not one of us has a clue what even tomorrow will bring. But there’s no way to avoid it. We embrace good days with gratitude and cope with bad days as part of the deal. Some of us will feel like we reach our Promised Land in our lifetimes, the ultimate expansion. Some of us are left feeling short, in a place of constriction. But some of us don’t even comprehend how expansive our lives really have been.

I was talking the other day with a life-long friend who opened up to me about her years of physical and psychological illness, from which she is only just emerging.

She told me she had an epiphany one day when she was deep in her illness: She had a clear sense that God was with her, talking to her, guiding her. But she said she felt unworthy, that she felt she wasn’t good enough to do whatever God wanted her to do, which she didn’t really understand.

But as we talked, here’s what emerged. She’s a teacher – a high-school literature teacher. Most of her students are considered at-risk: they deal with everything from hunger to parental neglect.

She refuses to dumb down her lessons for them.  She insists they challenge themselves, even if nobody but her is paying attention.

She doesn’t win every battle against weariness or mediocrity.

But there are those students she hears from years later, whose lives she has taken from places of constriction to places of great expansion. The one who is a successful journalist because she told him that he was a really good writer – even though she’s the only one who ever did. The ones who make it to college – and even through college – when nobody but her expects them to, or prepares them to, succeed. And even the ones who just start coming to class a little more regularly, because she has created a classroom where it can be interesting, and even fun, to learn.

She hadn’t realized that, in taking each student from a stuck place to a place of growth and expansion – that she was doing the same for herself. It wasn’t just that sense of God in one place at one time that brought her to healing. It was the result of using the God-given gifts that she’d had all along. That’s what carried her through her own wilderness and brought her to the edge of her Promised Land.

Each of us may feel stuck in a narrow place from time to time – sometimes because of our own fragility and sometimes because of external forces. But this story of Israel’s wanderings, and its 42 stops and starts, reminds us — and assures us — that our limitations are only temporary obstructions in the journey of life.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

#####         ©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Torah Gems, Vol. III, edited by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg (Tel Aviv: Yavheh Publishing House Ltd, 1992), p. 159.

[2] The Commentator’s Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Numbers, edited, translated and annotated by Michael Carasik (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011), p. 238. Sforno: 16th-century Italy.

Liberty, Humanity, Community – An All-American Sermon for July 12, 2019

We haven’t been together to pray since before the long July 4th holiday weekend, so let’s catch up.

I usually love July 4th. Because whatever is going on in my life, your lives, and the world in general, it’s one time in the heat of the summer that we can just breathe a little easier. We relax, grill out, go to parades, and watch the fireworks. A few hours amidst the toils and tribulations of life when we can revel in the joy of our American experience.

And that SO didn’t happen this year. July 4th was, for a lot of us, full of invective that was unpleasant and unnecessary, and fully contrary to what we think the spirit of July 4th ought to be. So thank God we had July 7th. Remember July 7th? Last Sunday? The tail-end of the holiday weekend, and the day of all-American joy and celebration that we so badly wanted and needed. That was the day that the U.S. won the Women’s World Cup.

The Women’s Team members are brash and mouthy, but they back up their bravado with immense skill and power and pride. They are what we Americans strive to be: winners in our own right, working hard and playing by the rules – well, maybe pushing the envelope a bit but doing it with style, grace, humor, and, above all, unity. That’s why, in the words of Lauren Peace writing this week in the New York Times, ‘They’re the most American thing we’ve got going right now.”[1]

The teamwork the women displayed was impressive. The way they lifted each other up was heartwarming. The way they each took turns hoisting the championship trophy was a two-tissue tearjerker.

But here’s what caught my attention.

Before they got to the winner’s stand, each of them exchanged their game jersey for a new one – one that had a fourth, gold star embroidered on to signify the fourth such world title for American women. But instead of having their individual names and numbers on the back, every one of these jerseys said, simply, “Champions” with the number 19.

For all that we often laud America as the land of individual achievement, in the end we know that what really makes us great is what we achieve together.

We children of immigrants understand this. Like many of your families, mine didn’t come all at once. My great-grandmother was sent here at the age of 16 by her family, hoping to get her out of the poverty and oppression of Poland to live under the protection of Lady Liberty’s torch. With hard work and the support of a sponsor, she brought her family over, one by one, the last one arriving at Ellis Island just before the outbreak of the First World War, when the gates to freedom closed.

Family-based immigration – what is now derided as “chain migration” — is the way many of our families got here. It works because religious and ethnic groups provide all kinds of support to their members, physically, financially and emotionally.

And one generation helps another. The masses of Eastern European Jews who fled persecution – sometimes whole shtetls at a time – found support from the German Jews who had come before them and wanted their co-religionists to succeed.

They had set up places like the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House in Pittsburgh, to help their fellow Jews acculturate into American life. Today, newer immigrant communities create similar support systems to welcome members, for everything from job creation to English education to child care.

WE children of immigrants understand this power of WE the people. Not a melting pot, as our nation once was envisioned, but what anthropologist Frederik Barth called a “plural society” – one in which defined ethnic communities live side by side, interdependent on one another, each with a unique contribution that supports and enriches us all.

That’s the WE of America. That’s the strength of America. And nobody has said it better than US Women’s World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, as she danced her way through the ticker-tape parade through New York’s “Canyon of Heroes””

“There’s nothing that can faze this group,” she said told the enormous crowd.

“We’re chilling. We got tea-sippin’, we got celebrations. We have pink hair and purple hair, we have tattoos and dreadlocks. We got white girls and black girls and everything in between. Straight girls and gay girls. . . It’s my absolute honor to lead this team out on the field. There’s no other place that I would rather be.”[2]

That’s the America I love – and there’s no other place that I would rather be. An America that’s a land of opportunity for all, where there’s respect for differences and avenues for doing the hard work together, no matter the color of our skin or the color of our hair. A place where we pull each other, not just ourselves, up by the bootstraps.

I want every day in America to be July 7th, 2019.

When I saw our women that afternoon, one by one, hoisting the championship trophy above their heads, I really imagined them holding up Lady Liberty’s lamp. I saw them the way Emma Lazarus described the welcoming statue, as “a mighty woman with a torch.”

Alexandra Gold, in an essay some years ago in Lilith Magazine on the Jewish nature of the Statue of Liberty, commented that “Lazarus imagines the Statue’s torch as an enduring reminder of a tradition passed down through the ages, the light (and strength) of the Jews.”[3]

But not just for the Jews. We know what it means to come from oppression to freedom, from a sense of exile to a place of welcome, from a land of darkness to one bathed in liberty’s light. We live that journey in every generation – just like the one that took us from the exodus from Egypt to the glory of the Promised Land.

And like that journey of ancient days, we know that we can reach the goal only by walking as one, with all the difficulties and concessions and cooperation and mutual support that this demands.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” cries Lady Liberty at the conclusion of The New Colossus. This lamp, and its message of welcome, is the gateway to America. Not just for our ancestors but for us and for all who wish to be part of WE THE PEOPLE. Every purple-haired, tea-sipping, arm-waving, unapologetically and irreplaceably celebratory one of us.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/08/opinion/womens-world-cup.html?searchResultPosition=1

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/07/10/megan-rapinoe-speech/?utm_term=.d295d500f31a

[3] https://www.lilith.org/articles/is-the-statue-of-liberty-jewish/