From Disgrace to Dignity: Shabbat Devarim, Friday, July 16, 2021

Tonight, the finale of our five-act play begins. As the curtain opens and the Book of Deuteronomy begins, the saga of our ancestors’ wanderings is over. Now, we see Moses standing at the banks of the Jordan River, which he knows God will not let him cross. The people are assembled and awaiting his farewell address.

This is Moses’s last opportunity to impart wisdom, warnings, and blessings to the generation he birthed in the wilderness over forty years. You’d think that the opening scene would be high drama – highlighting Moses as law-giver, as beloved of God. But instead, this is what we get:

א אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף

בֵּין־פָּארָן וּבֵין־תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב: ב אַחַד עָשָׂר יוֹם מֵחֹרֵב דֶּרֶךְ הַר־שֵׂעִיר עַד קָדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ: ג וַיְהִי בְּאַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בְּעַשְׁתֵּי־עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָֹה אֹתוֹ אֲלֵהֶם: ד אַחֲרֵי הַכֹּתוֹ אֵת סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר יוֹשֵׁב בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן וְאֵת עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן אֲשֶׁר־יוֹשֵׁב בְּעַשְׁתָּרֹת בְּאֶדְרֶעִי:

ה בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת־הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת

“These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab, it is eleven days from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea by the Mount Seir route.—

“It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses addressed the Israelites in accordance with the instructions that the LORD had given him for them, after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Heshbon, and King Og of Bashan, who dwelt at Ashtaroth [and] Edrei.

“On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching. . . . saying…[1]

No emotion. No reflection. What we get from the text is a GPS readout, and reminders of two recent military victories, before eileh had’varim, before Moses gets a chance to speak.

So of course I sit here and I wonder: why. Why does Torah put the start of Moses’s final sermon in abeyance for a moment to give us this particular information. Why does the Torah re-interate for us these particular details, out of the entire first four books.

So of course I go hunting, scanning these verses for some clue. And I found one. Actually, I found two. Two clues. Two words that might explain it all.

The Torah conjures up two defeated kings, to whom this rag-tag bunch of second-generation former slaves looked like Pharaoh’s army at its most mighty. King Sihon, we are reminded, lived in a place called cheshbon. King Og was from a place called bashan.

Bashan is a form of the word bashnah or ba-yi-shanut, which means “shame” or “humiliation.” Cheshbon is Hebrew for reckoning or calculation – for taking account of something or, in modern Hebrew, for a bill at a restaurant or a ticket at a shop.

In the context of the original story, it makes sense that the two kings that Israel defeated be depicted in their shame and degradation, puzzling over just where they went wrong and taking stock of their losses.

But tonight, in this context, what’s the take-away for us?

As it happens, this introduction to the notions of shame and self-reckoning lead us directly into the saddest and most troubling day in the entire Jewish year.

Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, begins twenty-four hours from now, at sundown. It was on this day – according to tradition – that many of the most tragic and calamitous events in Jewish history took place, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples, major exiles through the middle ages, and significant events in the Shoah during World War Two.

Tisha b’Av is a day of fasting and sitting on low stools, reciting prayers of mourning and reading the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations, or Eicha in the Hebrew, was written in the wake of the First Temple’s destruction and the exile of the people to Babylon. Much of it not only recounts the horror of destruction – but acknowledges that it was due to the communal sins of the Jewish people, who beg God to take the penitent back in love.

Eicha– alas!” – the author cries out!

“The precious children of Zion; Once valued as gold— Alas, they are accounted as earthen pots, Work of a potter’s hands!  . . . The LORD vented all His fury, Poured out His blazing wrath; He kindled a fire in Zion Which consumed its foundations. . . . It was for the sins of her prophets, The iniquities of her priests, Who had shed in her midst The blood of the just. . . .The LORD’s countenance has turned away from them, He will look on them no more. They showed no regard for priests, No favor to elders.

“Even now our eyes pine away In vain for deliverance. The crown has fallen from our head; Woe to us that we have sinned! . . . Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old! For truly, You have rejected us, Bitterly raged against us. Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!”[2]

Reminders of shame and degradation – which open the book of Deuteronomy tonight – are only a prelude to what is to come. For the next seven weeks, leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the New Year, we are going to be taken on an intensely personal emotional and spiritual journey that echoes the way the Haggadah describes our ancestors in the wilderness: from catastrophe to consolation. From disgrace to dignity.

Tonight we get the warning. Tomorrow night, we will be dropped into the abyss of destruction and lament, loneliness and separation. But from then on, we rise from the darkness of our mourning.

We uncover the mirrors of mourning to see ourselves in a different light. We put the shame behind us as we develop our cheshbon nefesh, the accountings of our lives. What did we lose this year, that we need to regain? What did we take on that holds us back?

We think of this as the work we do in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But, oh no, the work starts tonight.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in the Land of Israel during the British Mandate before independence, taught that people gave all kinds of chesbonot – all kinds of calculations – as to why they couldn’t move to Israel when they were called. But those calculations were really excuses for not doing anything different.[3] When we write out our cheshbonot – our self-assessments – we must calculate all the reasons why we must change the way we think and the way we behave. Only then can we move forward.

That was the message I think that Moses was trying to send to the Israelites as he prepared them to cross the Jordan and begin their new life in the Promised Land. And that’s the message Torah gives us tonight, as we move, step by step, from darkness to light, from isolation to community, from an old year littered with loss to a New Year full of promise.

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

####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Deuteronomy 1:1-5

[2] Lamentations, excerpted from chapters 4 and 5, http://www.sefaria.org.

[3] Torah Gems Vol III, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1992), p. 173, commentary to Parashat Devarim.

Finding Our Refuge – Shabbat Matot-Masei, Friday, July 9, 2021

Don and I have been living in our home in Duncansville for three and a half years now – and I have yet to go through all of those boxes that got shoved into the storage room three and a half years ago. You know the ones I’m talking about: The boxes that contain all the stuff you didn’t have the time or the energy to sort in the old house – the stuff you just threw into boxes, taped them up, marked them as “collectables” or “office supplies” and promised you’d figure it out . . . later. There are a lot of precious things in those boxes, but it just takes time and patience to do the sorting.

That’s kind of what I feel like, when I read this week’s Torah portion. It’s the very end of the Book of Numbers, which means it’s really the very end of the wilderness story. Starting next week, Deuteronomy gives the microphone to Moses, who recounts the entire ordeal based on his own personal reflections, before the people enter the Promised Land without him.

So this week’s reading is the last chance for the editors to include all the last-minute precious details they want us to know. And I mean all of them. The rules about making an oath and sticking to what you promise God you’ll do. The vengeance that God demands the people take on the Midianites. God’s setting of the boundaries of the land on the other side of the Jordan for each tribe, and the reticence of two tribes to cross. The provisions for the Levites. And the final disposition of inheritance rules for women.

Isn’t it nice of the rabbis to make this a double portion, so we can sort through all of these precious items at once?

With so much to choose from, I want to thank my great friend and wonderful colleague Rabbi Richard Address, of Jewish Sacred Aging, for directing me to one concept – to one word – that speaks to us tonight.

The word is miklat. And it’s the word for refuge that’s used in connection with the “cities of refuge” to which manslayers are to flee, to avoid punishment for a death they have caused unintentionally. It’s not the same word as we use for “God is my refuge” elsewhere in the Bible. The word miklat is only used in the phrase arei ha-miklat, the “cities of refuge.” And it only appears in this portion at the end of Numbers when God commands the set-aside of the cities, and in the Book of Joshua, when Joshua chooses the specific cities in each tribal region.[1]

These arei ha-miklat, these cities of refuge, are safe spaces for people whose lives would be in danger from people seeking revenge. And so the use of the word in the Bible is something akin to how we would understand it. Rabbi Address teaches: “A dictionary definition says that refuge is ‘a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger or trouble.’” That’s why, in Israel, the safe room people run to in their homes when there’s a threat of a terrorist attack is called a miklat.

From the Bible, we know where the manslayers found their refuge. This week, Rabbi Address asks: Where do we go to feel safe? Where do we find our refuge.[2]

We all have that happy place that we go to, that place where we relax, take a deep breath, do some reading just for fun, play games, or sit and chat with old friends or our parents or our children.

Maybe it’s a room. Maybe it’s a backyard. Maybe it’s a city by the beach, or a quiet little town in the mountains. Maybe our miklat is even a person. It’s who or where we go to get away from the stresses and the demands of our day-to-day lives. It’s where or with whom we find joy. It’s where we go to renew our strength when we are tired, or who we seek out when we are in doubt. And we need this miklat. We need it desperately.

In this past year, many of us have found our miklat inside our own homes. That’s the place we and our loved ones could be the most safe from the spread of a deadly disease. We re-made and divided up open spaces into classrooms and offices and quiet corners and mini movie theaters.

Some of us still feel that way. For others, as the months have dragged on, and especially now that the world is opening back up, our miklat has become anywhere but home – which has taken on the feel of a lock-up more than a refuge.

Which brings us to Rabbi Address’s question: Where do YOU find refuge? Where do YOU go – or to whom do you go – for peace and comfort and security.

I want you to just take a minute. Close your eyes. And imagine your happy place – your miklat. The person or place where you feel safe. Where you can be you, and do you, and find you. Just take a few deep breaths and imagine yourself there . . . and think about when you are going to make that happen.

And, as you do, know that you don’t have to do all the work. The root of miklat, kuf – lamed – tet, also is the verb that means to aborb, to receive. That space – that person – embraces you and lets you lose the angst and the anger and the fear and the doubt that fills you up.

Like the trees and the plants around you that take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, your miklat absorbs from you what harms you and replaces it with what heals you.

As we all feel the pressures to re-integrate back into the world, to re-construct the “before times” – know that it’s okay if the future looks different from the past. That it’s okay if your miklat now is different than it used to be. And that wherever you are and whoever you are with – when you feel that embrace and that sense of security, know that you are in your refuge and you are safe.

As for me. I’ll be holed up in my miklat, sorting through those boxes for more precious items that have been hidden away.

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

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] See Numbers 35:10-15, Joshua 21 and the tribal land assignments.

[2] https://jewishsacredaging.com/matot-masaei-numbers-302-to-end-of-numbers-where-can-i-find-refuge/

A Sly Move Toward Jew-Hatred Shabbat Balak: Friday, June 25, 2021

This week’s Torah portion takes us almost to the edge of the Promised Land. The Israelites have been journeying through territories and kingdoms that skirt the east bank of the Jordan river as they head north to the crossing at Jericho, as God is guiding them. They had just asked the Amorites really nicely if they could pass through their kingdom in peace, promising not to take anything or veer off the main road. And when the Amorite king rejected the request and sent an army against them instead, God mustered the Israelite men – they devastated the Amorite army and took control of the entire kingdom.

As we pick up the story this week, the king of Moab – the one remaining kingdom between them and the crossing at Jericho – has heard of the Amorites’ defeat. He, too, would like to deny Israel entrance to his kingdom – but now he fears the result if he resorts to violence. So he tries something a little more subtle and a little trickier. He resorts to something akin to witchcraft.

TORAH READING: Numbers 22:2-6

“Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’ Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor in Pethor, which is by the Euphrates, in the land of his kinsfolk, to invite him, saying, ‘There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.'”

Now, I don’t want to spoil this for anyone. But Balak’s attempt at trickery does not go well at all. The pagan Balaam – who is considered both prophet and a master of magic powers – is co-opted by Israel’s God, and every time he tries to curse the Israelite nation, words of blessing come out of his mouth instead. Not once, not twice, but three times he blesses the Israelites with greater passion and promise – the third time uttering the words we still use in worship today: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishk’notecha Yisrael: How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!

Looking at how the story unfolds, I think King Balak’s attempt to wipe out Israel is doomed from the start. Why? First, he won’t go up against them himself – he’d rather hire a prophet with magical powers to wish them away. Maybe he’s a coward. Maybe he wants plausible deniability about his role if things go south.

And second, he’s doomed because his premise for the whole thing is a lie from the start. He uses the same excuse to destroy Israel as Pharaoh had used: “There is a people that came out of Egypt, and it hides the earth from view and it is settled next to me. Come and curse this people for me, for they are too numerous for me.”

Are they too numerous in terms of the size of their army? Or is it just that he doesn’t want all those Israelites as neighbors? Is it fear of conquest – or is it basically an early episode of Jew hatred?

That question occurred to me this week after I read a story on the Daily Mail web site about the ugly debacle in Philadelphia, where an Israeli food-truck was un-invited from a Father’s Day food truck festival. “Moshava,” a food truck selling Israeli street food, was launched in May at the monthly Taste of Home food festival, where a local group called Eat Up the Borders promotes small businesses run by immigrants. Chef Nir Sheynfeld, who was born in Israel, would seem to fit the bill, and everything went great. But this month, he was asked to stay away.[1]

Eat Up the Borders released a statement that read, in part:

“In order to best serve our guests, we decided to remove one of our food vendors for Sunday’s event so that we could deliver an optimal experience to all. This decision came from listening to the community we wish to serve and love. We do stand by our initiative to give vendors from all nationalities a platform to showcase their talents and provide an awesome experience for all.”

Huh, that’s interesting. A platform for “all nationalities” – but apparently not for an Israeli food truck. They didn’t really say why it was okay to have Moshava there in May, but not in June. But frankly, that’s the kind of language that makes my spidey senses tingle: we are open and inclusive – they seem to say – but we still are disinviting the Jews.

One eventual excuse from the organizers was: well, we had agreed that both the Palestinian truck and the Israeli truck would come to our events. And since the Palestinian truck couldn’t make it, we cancelled out the Israelis too.

But Chef Sheynfeld, who was of course disappointed, explained it another way. He was told to stay away, he said, after threats of violent protests made to the organizers over his presence. Here’s how he explained it to his followers on Instagram:

“The organizers of the event heard rumors of a protest happening because of us being there and decided to uninvite us from fear that the protesters would get aggressive and threaten their event. We were hoping that the organizers @eathuptheborders and@sunflowerphilly would step up to the plate and defend local, small and immigrant based businesses, no matter where they are from (as per their so called ‘mission statement’) but by the looks of it, fear, violence, and intimidation got the best of them.”

“We really do hope that in the future you don’t succumb to such antisemitic and dividing rhetoric and keep true to your words of a safe environment for all religions and nationalities – not just all of them except Israel and Jewish ones.”

To which I say: Bravo.

The fact that the organizers did not disclose the threat of violence may be a sign of cowardice on their part. But it also may be that they thought disinviting the Jews was no big deal. They certainly weren’t willing to stare down the haters and racists and anti-Semites. We don’t even know if they even notified the police. Surely a police presence would not only have provided protection, it also would have sent a clear message that potential violence would not be tolerated.

Fortunately, the backlash toward the event organizers was swift and powerful – The Philadelphia chapter of the Anti-Defamation League immediately weighed in publicly with a statement that read, in part, “the decision to bow to this anti-Semitic intimidation by disinviting Moshava was wrong.” Two state representatives condemned the organizers’ surrender to the threats from bigots, which promoted division instead of unity. And the web site “Israelly Cool” suggested that the organizers looked at threats against Jews differently than threats against other groups.

In the end, the organizers decided to cancel the entire event because of what they call only the “ongoing situation” with Moshava.

The “ongoing situation” – what the Israelis would call the matzav – is taking place at a time when attacks on Jews in this country are rising once again. The conflict between Israel and the Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas certainly enflamed anger. But that anger led to attacks on Jews in this country who have nothing at all to do with what’s going on in the Middle East – except that they are Jews. According to the ADL, there were 127 reported hate attacks on Jews in the two weeks before the conflict – and 222 reported during it. They – we – are being attacked for who we are, not for our political positions. That is hated, pure and simple. And it cannot be tolerated. Not here, not anywhere.

As for Chef Sheynfeld, he said he was disappointed by what happened and told his followers he’s working with the organizers. And he thanked the public for all their love and support. He deserves better. We deserve better. We deserve for the bigots not to win. We demand that Jews not be blamed, or be forced to bear the burden, for antisemitism, as they were this week in Philadelphia.

We deserve not to be the bogeyman of hate-mongers who materialize in every generation as they did in this week’s Torah portion – as King Balak of Moab looked out on the wandering Israelites trying to get home, and saw a pestilence that had to be destroyed one way or another.

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

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9707329/Israeli-food-truck-BANNED-Philadelphia-food-festival-causing-fierce-backlash-cancellation.html

Charting History “In the Heights” Shabbat Chukat, Friday, June 18, 2021

I’m not in the habit of using the Friday night pulpit to recommend movies – but. . . You MUST go see “In the Heights,” the movie version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking, Tony-winning Broadway musical that preceded “Hamilton.” “In the Heights” is raucous and beautiful. The dancing and singing are spectacular. The story is heartwarming and emotional – and it includes a few surprises that I never saw coming.

I know it’s on HBO Max. But see it in the theater, if you can. The big screen and the immersive sound do it justice.

Great singing and dancing aside, though, there are good reasons to speak about the movie from the bimah on Shabbat.

“In the Heights,” for those of you who don’t know, is the story of three days in the life of the diverse Latino community of Washington Heights, the neighborhood north of Harlem on Manhattan’s West Side. Its residents come from countries throughout the Caribbean and Central America, all drawn to the promise of a better life. But many struggle with the powerful forces arrayed against them: poverty, racism, anti-immigration politics — not to mention the usual stresses on any family.

Many also struggle with themselves. They are torn between their pride in their heritage and their desire to be fully Americans. Do they have to move out to move up? As we join the story, the ties that have bound generations of neighbors together are fraying. Prices are rising. And a massive blackout in the hottest days of the summer creates huge challenges for the future of the Heights and its unique cultural personality.

The first thing that struck me about “In the Heights” was that it could easily have taken place in a Jewish neighborhood. People of one ethnic group moving into the homes and businesses of another ethnic group that has moved up by moving out. People fighting distrust and discrimination. Parents sacrificing everything for their children, so that the kids can leave the barrio (or the shtetl) prepared for a successful life. Sounds familiar, right? One character in the film even gives a “l’chayim” in a toast over cold beers.

But the more I learned about the history of the show, the more Jewish it became to me. From its first version in 1999, written when Lin-Manuel Miranda was still in college, “In the Heights” has gone through a series of major mutations. Responding to the social, political and cultural changes of the past two decades, the film version has a profoundly different outlook, focus, and feel than the original stage show.

A professor here at Penn State University, A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, the school’s Bronx-born director of Latino and Latina Studies, reviewed the show’s history for an article in The Washington Post this week. And what I share with you tonight about the evolution of the show over two decades is drawn from that article.[1]

Amazingly, that first version of the show didn’t really deal with immigration at all. It was love story whose backdrop highlighted the wide array of music, food and language in the neighborhood. That changed by its next iteration in 2004 which, as Sandoval-Strausz points out, followed a decade of major migration to this country — and a subsequent anti-immigrant political backlash.

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes came on board. She shifted the focus of the play from one relationship to the entire community, spotlighting the characters and the different countries from which they had come.

Major musical numbers were added that highlighted the shared experiences of one wave of immigrants after another. All that led to the show’s debut on the Broadway stage in 2008, where it blew everybody away with its charm, its unique rhythms, and its sheer energy – and where, as Time magazine noted, its celebration of multiculturalism made it the perfect musical with which to open the Obama presidential era.

But in the decade that followed, our national mood and federal policies changed. We witnessed southern borders all but closed, even to legal immigration, with parents and children torn from each other; and ramped-up rhetoric against immigrants and people of color in general.

So the finished film evolved to answer these challenges. New plotlines include the threat to so-called “Dreamers” who were brought to this nation illegally as small children.

As Sandoval-Strausz wrote: “This cinematic adaptation of ‘In the Heights’ has met its historical moment.”

But what strikes me as most Jewish about the show is not that it met this moment – but that it has evolved to meet every moment. It has adjusted to reflect each generation’s self-awareness, needs and goals.

And that is something that we Jews have been doing for three thousand years.

In every generation, we try to make sense out of our own lives through our history, our traditions, and our sacred texts. And as we search for answers, we find new insights – and new answers — in old stories.

This process of ongoing revelation is as old as the Bible itself. Take the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’s farewell address. He gives us a very different take on some of the key events in Exodus and Numbers, portraying himself as a leader much put-upon by the people, whom he regularly saves from God’s wrath. Within the Bible, this is clearly the story he wants to impart to the people before he dies – as both promise and warning of how they should behave in the future.

But the changes that are made in the telling also reflect the authors and redactors of Deuteronomy, who — in the late 7th century BCE, in the reign of King Josiah – sought to reinforce monotheism and the worship of Israel’s one and only God, as well as the centrality of Jerusalem as the source of both temporal and celestial power.

Or take Chronicles, which gives us a very different take on the same era that’s already been covered by the Books of Kings.[2] While Kings focuses on the monarchy, Chronicles wraps its historical perspective around the Temple. That makes sense, since it dates from a time when the re-built Second Temple took center stage in the hearts, and the daily lives, of the Jews of Israel. That’s how the authors explained our history in the way that people of their generation would understand.

Now, since the close of the canon two-thousand years ago, we have used tools like biblical commentary and Midrash. These tools help us unpack the text, yes. But they also teach us a lot about the authors and their communities — be they Babylonian rabbis, medieval European sages, or modern scholars.

All of their work is designed to answer the same questions: How can we Jews understand these obscure texts and make them relevant? How can we use them to connect our past to our present, in order to preserve our future?

That’s at the heart of what we do every time we pick up a Tanakh or look at rabbinic literature or ask the question: “Why does the Torah want us to know this?” We start with the presumption that the past has something important to teach us today, and that if we don’t find meaning in it, we’re not looking hard enough or using all the tools at our disposal.

We also start with the presumption that we want the past to teach us and guide us. We want our ancestors and their stories to be a source of pride – just like the people of Washington Heights did. It doesn’t mean white-washing troubling passages or events. It means struggling with them to learn from them – even if the lesson is what not to do.

So let’s look at one episode in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. After the death of Miriam, the water supply dries up. The people rise up once again against her brothers, Moses and Aaron, wailing about being left to die of thirst in the wilderness, and why-oh-why did we ever leave Egypt!

God instructs Moses and Aaron to take up a rod, assemble the people, and order a nearby rock to produce water – a miracle that is meant to rally the troops.[3]

So they do. They’re at the rock, Moses has his staff in his hand, and he says to the people: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”[4] Moses strikes the rock twice with the rod, and water pours out.

But now God is angry with Moses and Aaron! “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people,” God tells them, “therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”[5]

Wait…. What just happened there? Why, exactly, is God angry at them? What did they do wrong? It’s really not clear.

Over centuries, the sages have come up with a different lot of answers. Early on, the rabbis thought it seemed obvious: Well, God said to order the rock – v’dibartem – and Moses struck it instead. But for us – I mean, doesn’t that seem like a petty little difference? Given everything Moses has done for God and the people, does the punishment fit the crime?

A thousand years ago, Maimonides – the great physician, philosopher and Torah scholar – suggested something very different: It had nothing to do with the stick, he said. It had to do with the way Moses spoke to the people, calling them out: “Listen, you rebels!” – Shim’u-na hamorim!

“God found fault with him,” Maimonides wrote, that “such a man as he should show anger in the presence of the entire community of Israel, where wrath is unbecoming. This was a profanation of God’s name, because men imitated the words and conduct of Moses.”[6]

So, not only should Moses not have blown up at them like that – but in doing so, he gave them implicit permission to act that way, too. Leaders and teachers instruct us with everything that they say and do. And Moses was setting a very bad example.

Maimonides is, of course, speaking as someone who moved easily – though carefully – in the courts of Islamic power in Spain and North Africa. He uses his experience with the wider world to warn us about speaking rashly or losing our temper in public.

That resonates with us. We represent the Jewish community among non-Jews all the time – whether we are aware of it or not, and whether we like it or not. Maimonides reminds us that what we say and how we behave is often taken by others to represent what all Jews say and do.

So let’s now look at the same text in much more modern interpretation. This one comes from the Women’s Torah Commentary published by the Reform movement just thirteen years ago.

In her essay on the parashah, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser reminds us that all of this happens right after the death of Miriam, and she believes that the text itself shows us that it’s all related. Remember that Moses called out to the people, Shim’u-na ha-morimlisten up you rebels! She points out that this word for rebels, mor’im, only appears this one time in the Torah. “Remarkably,” she teaches, “in their unvocalized form the words morim (rebels) and miryam (Miriam) are made up of the same four Hebrew consonants: mem-reysh-yud-mem.”

“This verbal coincidence,” she teaches, “may intimate that Moses’ behavior has as much to do with losing Miriam as with his frustration with the Israelite people. It suggests that, when faced with the task of producing water, Moses recalls Miriam as his older sister, his co-leader, and perhaps most of all, the clever caretaker who guarded him at the Nile.”[7]

Wow. Now that’s something we totally get. Remember – there was no formal mourning period for Miriam, as there would be for Aaron and Moses. No chance for her brothers, or the people, to openly weep for her.

And even if there had been, we know from personal experience that the intense and overpowering feelings we have after we lose someone we love can surface in unexpected ways at completely random times.

So for a lot of us, this interpretation might make the best sense of a really troubling text. Anger and frustration born out of loss – especially after the year we’ve had – is something we absolutely understand.

Throughout the show and movie “In the Heights,” characters are challenged by a “here and now” that is moving fast: surprising, sometimes strange and sometimes strangely familiar. Every day is a balancing act, when they have to weigh what they’ve lost of their past against what they may gain for their future. Everyone makes different choices. Some have even changed from one version of the story to another. This, too, is at the heart of our own evolution from generation to generation.

Beyond its masterful storytelling and film-making, “In the Heights” encourages and inspires us to revel in the uniqueness of each community that comes to our country for a better life. But it also teaches us to search under the surface for the underlying values and needs that all of our communities have in common.

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

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©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/06/11/in-the-heights-immigration/. Accessed on line June 14, 2021.

[2] The Jewish Study Bible: Torah, Nevi’im, Kethuvim, Second edition, edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2014), p. 1707

[3] Num 20:1-8.

[4] Num. 20:10.

[5] Num. 20:12.

[6] Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim (“Eight Chapters”), his introduction to the Mishnah’s Pirke Avot, chapter 4, paragraph 13. Accessed on Sefaria.com, English translation by Joseph I. Gorfinkle.

[7] Ora Horn Prouser, “Another View,” The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Dr. Tamara Cohn Esakenazi and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, Ph.D. (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), p. 931.

Macho a Macho – Shabbat Korach, Friday, June 11, 2021

These days, what happens in tonight’s Torah portion would be billed as a battle for the ages, available exclusively on pay-per-view. In one corner, the defending champions: Moses and Aaron of the tribe of Levi – God’s chosen leaders for the Jewish nation. In the other corner, their most formidable challenger yet: their first cousin Korach, the fan favorite among the likes of Dathan and Abiram, rallying from the tribe of Reuben.

It’s a match concocted in testosterone alley: mano a mano – or perhaps macho a macho, since nary a woman is seen in this entire episode.

Korach is incensed that, of all the tribe of Levi, only Aaron and his sons are awarded the high priesthood. Dathan and Abiram question Moses’s leadership capabilities, though they offer none of their own.

The two sets of grievances combine on the main stage as they publicly challenge Moses and Aaron: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy – all of them! – and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”[1]

In a show of strength clothed in humility, Moses falls on his face at hearing this challenge but warns them: “Come morning, God will make known who is God’s and who is holy.”[2] He challenges them on Aaron’s terms: with competing fire pans and incense laid on the altar, to see whose offering God will choose.

The next morning, Korach gathers the crowds – in fact, the Torah says he gathers “Kol ha-eidah” – the entire community – at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The presence of God appears, but God speaks only to Moses and Aaron, warning them to step away from Korach and his band, and for all the Israelites to do the same.

The ground under the leaders of the rebellion bursts open,

“and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. . . and a fire went forth from God and consumed the two hundred and fifty representatives offering the incense.”[3]

That would totally have been worth the $49.95 on pay-per-view.

But apparently the people didn’t like that the fight ended in the first round. The next day the whole community rose up again against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of bringing death to God’s people. So God sent a plague to wipe out the complainers: 14,700 died before Aaron checked the plague.

Afterward, God reaffirmed the selection of Aaron and his sons as the High Priests and the rest of the Levite men as their assistants at the Tent of Meeting: “To be attached to you and to minister to you, while you and your sons under your charge are before the Tent of the Pact.”[4]

God bestows Aaron and his sons with a priesthood called “avodat matanah,” a service of dedication. And God declares anyone else who encroaches on that holy space will be put to death.

Now that ought to do it.

I thought it was important to emphasize the purely masculine aspect of this fierce and public battle for control of the Israelite nation – for a couple of reasons. First, although women do play important roles in our ancient stories, they’re absent here. It’s like the wives and daughters said: Hey, you guys work this out among yourselves. We’re staying out of it – it’s not our fight.

The second reason I wanted to share this perspective on Korach’s rebellion was that I had the honor this week of being part of the event committee for a very important virtual conference by the Women’s Rabbinic Network. We called this convention “Journey to 50,” as we kick off a year of celebration leading to next spring’s 50th anniversary of the ground-breaking ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand.

Sally was at the heart of our celebration. But our conference was about a lot more than that. It was a celebration of every woman who has command of a bimah or a religious school or a social justice organization. It was a celebration of the way women’s voices and demands have changed the face of the rabbinate – and indeed the Jewish world. It was a celebration of women all over the world whose stories we were hearing for the first time.

Months ago, when we first talked about the idea of my emceeing panels of women ordained in each decade, I thought it was really important to select colleagues who aren’t famous – who aren’t published authors or senior rabbis in huge congregations. Who aren’t the go-to people for newspapers or magazines or television shows. A number of the colleagues we invited were surprised to be asked: they said they didn’t think their stories were unique or important enough.

But as we convened one panel after another, representing one generation and then the next, they opened up. They shared with their whole hearts in ways they never expected to, and told stories they’d never shared publicly with anyone. Stories of struggle and insecurity. Stories of triumph and jubilation. Stories of just trying to uplift people’s spirits and sustaining their faith — changing lives for the better, one person at a time in one community at a time.

Story-telling – and active listening – were important this week for another reason. If you read Jewish news sites, you might have seen that there is a whole new wave of #MeToo stories breaking out throughout the institutions of American Reform Judaism – involving friends and colleagues and teachers and institutional leaders. This week, we welcomed all the voices and the stories that needed to be told, however difficult they might be to hear, in a safe and open space. In seminars, in text-study sessions, in small group conversations, and even in the chat box.

It was an important reminder to each of us that we need to speak softly and sensitively. That we must listen and ask questions rather than make assumptions or accusations, without having all the facts at hand.

I wonder what would have happened if Korach and Datham and Abiram and their followers had approached Moses and Aaron with that attitude, rather than trying to shame them or throw ignorant, self-serving accusations at them in public. Maybe their wives and daughters would have encouraged collaboration rather than confrontation. Maybe God wouldn’t have gotten so angry as to open the earth and spread a plague. Maybe at least some of those 14-thousand people would have lived.

In next week’s Torah portion, Miriam dies – and there is no formal mourning period in the camp for her, as there will be for Aaron and Moses.

Yet the Israelites will reel in the profound loss they feel — so much so that, according to the text, the community is said to be left without water. Without basic life-sustaining nourishment. It is a reminder of how much the talent, the commitment, and the nurturing character of women contribute to Jewish community – often without recognition.

You know, for years after ordination, I kind of dismissed the Women’s Rabbinic Network as something I didn’t need. After all, I’d always worked in male-dominated careers – and I managed to acquit myself pretty well.

But the first time I went to a women’s rabbinic convention, I realized that I get something there that I get nowhere else. Everything we do together is meant to lift each other up and embrace each other, or receive an embrace and be lifted up, as we need it. We share and we listen. We socialize and do things just for fun.

After any other professional conference, I might leave with some new texts to teach or new technology to bring back. This week, I bring back joy and pride and hope and love.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.

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©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Numbers 16:3.

[2] Numbers 16:5

[3] Num. 16:32-35.

[4] Num. 18:2.