As I mentioned last night, my sermons for these Days of Awe reflect the struggles we have had, as individuals and as a sacred community, for the past two and a half years. They are built around a quote from historian Howard Zinn in his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness.”
Last night, I spoke of compassion as the fundamental trait God implants within each of us. This morning, I turn to sacrifice – which God calls on each of us to perform, at some point in our lives, to preserve and protect the lives of others.
Sacrifice is at the heart of this morning’s Torah portion, the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac. Whose sacrifice it is – well, that is a question that’s been debated for thousands of years. And it deserves our attention today.
We know the basics of the story as the Torah tells it. God calls on Abraham to take his beloved son, Isaac, for whom he had prayed for so long, and sacrifice him on a far-off high altar that God would guide him to. Abraham and Isaac make the three-day journey with their servants – but walk alone up the mountain, where Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and raises the knife to slaughter him.
At the very last second, an angel of God calls to Abraham, lauding him for his faith and allowing him to sacrifice a ram – which magically appears in the nearby thicket – in place of his son. And the angel promises Abraham an everlasting covenant because of his faith.
But the story is jarring and disturbing. Does our Israelite God really ask for child sacrifice, like so many of the gods of the ancient world? Does our first forefather really act without questioning God’s order or motive? Does Isaac really go so willingly – or so ignorantly – to his death? Why didn’t Sarah have a say in all of this – or even know about it? Why did the Torah’s redactors deliberately include such a troubling and discordant passage, when the narrative flow of the Book of Genesis would have been just fine without it? And why did they then fail to mention it a single time in the rest of the Torah? Why did they, so to speak, “set it and forget it”? And how in the world does such a disturbing little episode then come to be the foundation for three monotheistic religions?
We might find some of these answers when we ask the initial one: Whose sacrifice does the Akedah describe? I would suggest there are several possible answers.
- Abraham’s Sacrifice
On the face of it, the answer is simple: Abraham, who has waited and prayed and cajoled God for this child for so long, is making the greatest sacrifice anyone can imagine. He is slaughtering a beloved son – the only son of him and Sarah. He is not only bringing untold tragedy into his home, he is cutting off the conduit for the future blessings that God has promised him: generations of his seed, the land, the eternal covenant. God has given, and now God is taking away. Abraham doesn’t know why he’s being tested – or maybe punished — this way. But the Torah depicts this as a clear test of his obedience to God.
If we are disturbed by this, we are not alone. The rabbis were troubled too. So much so that they insisted that, of course Abraham would argue for the life of his own son at least as vociferously as he did for the strangers of Sodom and Gomorrah! Plus, God seems unusually wordy here. Therefore, they decided, God’s words to Abraham could not have been commands but were merely one side of a vehement conversation, for which Abraham’s replies are presumed but not explicit.
Take your son Why, I have two sons!
Your only son Well, one is the son of this woman and the other is the son of that woman!
Your beloved one Now how can a father possibly choose between them?
As Jon Levenson writes in his book Inheriting Abraham, the pain is so unbearable because, as the medieval Torah commentator Rabbi David Kimchi put it, Abraham “loved Isaac more than he loved himself.”
But for Levenson, Abraham’s sacrifice is even greater than that:
“Abraham’s own destiny is so entwined with that of Isaac, and the ‘great nation’ that is eventually to descend from him, that the demand is even harder than the demand upon any other loving father to offer up his beloved son. Psychologically, what is asked is not only an inexpressibly painful act of sacrifice; it is also an act of self-sacrifice . . . it is Abraham’s very future, the very promise that issued from the mouth of God, with which he must part.”
- Sarah’s Sacrifice
Jon Levenson’s description of the heartbreak of Abraham helps us understand his agony. But what about his wife, Sarah? What about her sacrifice? According to the Torah, she was blessed with this child of her old age because of her hospitality to God’s messengers as well as her husband’s. But also, according to the Torah, she is not party to God’s order, or to Abraham’s fulfillment of divine command. What did she know and when did she know it? And what impact did it have on her life?
Since Sarah is completely absent from this story in the Torah, her sacrifice has to be built through rabbinic writings. And there are plenty of them.
In one telling, Abraham does tell her he’s taking Isaac but not what he’s about to do to him. She sends them off with love and hope for their safe return.
But that is just too easy, isn’t it? The rabbis thought so too. So their Midrash gives us this:
“Satan went to Sarah and disguised himself as Isaac. When she saw him, she asked: “My son, what has your father done to you?” He answered, “My father took me down into valleys and up a certain mountain . . . He set up an altar and arranged the kindling and bound me on it. He then took the knife to slaughter me. If the Holy One had not called out, ‘Do not cast your hand on this boy,’ I would have been slaughtered.” He did not complete his sentence when Sarah’s soul had already gone from her.”
The Torah itself connects the near-sacrifice of Isaac at the end of Genesis chapter 22, to the death of his loving mother Sarah at the beginning of chapter 23.
This is not lost on the rabbis, who see that “Sarah died in Kiryat Arba and Abraham came to mourn Sarah and to weep for her” – “came,” because he was nowhere near her when she needed him. We might say that Sarah herself was sacrificed to fulfill Abraham’s quest.
- Isaac’s Sacrifice
So we see that the rabbis themselves re-imagine and re-write the story in many different ways. The rabbis also focused on the possibility that this is really Isaac’s sacrifice.
In one “reconsideration,” the rabbis look closely at the language of the Torah passage. Not once but twice along the three-day journey, the text tells us, וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו, and the two of them walked off together. The first time is when Abraham lays the wood for the sacrificial fire in Isaac’s arms. The second time follows almost immediately: Isaac sees the firestone and the wood but asks, “Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham answers cryptically: “God will see to the sheep, my son.” Or perhaps: “God will see to the sheep – my son.”
Yachdav, the rabbis recognize, means not just that the father and son are walking physically side by side, but that they are “together” in their understanding of what is about to happen.
Surely, Isaac is not an ignorant child. In fact, according to one midrash in the Talmud, Isaac selflessly offers himself up to ease his father’s pain:
“Rabbi Itzchak said, “At the time that Abraham sought to bind Isaac, his son, [the latter] said to him, ‘Father, I am a young man and I am concerned lest my body shake from fear of the knife and I will trouble you, and lest the slaughtering will be invalid and it will not be considered a sacrifice for you. Rather, tie me very well.’ Immediately, [the text says] ‘and he bound Isaac.’ Could he really tie up a man of twenty-six years (or even thirty-seven)? Clearly, it was with his consent.”
But the rabbis don’t leave it there. In the rabbinic mind, Abraham was so intent on fulfilling his vow to God, that there was no stopping him – by an angel or any other means. And here the rabbis again closely examine the text, and the fact that Abraham names this site Adonai Yireh, “and God will see.” Well, what is it that God sees? “I see the blood of the Binding of Isaac.” This early midrash – nearly two-thousand years old — imagines that Isaac was indeed sacrificed by his father, and only the tears of the angels in heaven resurrected him.
Here we have not just a sacrifice by Isaac but truly the sacrifice of Isaac – a story that later Christians will adopt as their own.
The connection between Isaac’s sacrifice and this day, Rosh Hashanah, our Day of Judgment, is clear in the rabbinic mind:
Rabbi Abbahu said: Why does one sound a blast with a shofar made from a ram’s horn on Rosh HaShana? The Holy One of Blessing, said: Sound a blast before Me with a shofar made from a ram’s horn, so that I will remember for you the binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, in whose stead a ram was sacrificed, and I will ascribe it to you as if you had bound yourselves before Me.
“When the descendants of Isaac become involved in transgressions and bad deeds, may You remember for their benefit the Binding of Isaac and leave the Throne of Judgment for the Throne of Mercy, and, filled with compassion for them, may You have mercy upon them.”
- Our Sacrifice
The sacrifice at the heart of this story could be that of Abraham. Or Isaac. Or Sarah. But I think there’s a much bigger reason why it’s traditional to read the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah, on our Day of Judgment. And that is because this day, God is teaching us the value, and the need, of our own sacrifices to bring healing to this world.
In these Days of Awe, God asks us to sometimes sacrifice our comfort to alleviate someone else’s suffering. To sacrifice personal gain for the benefit of our neighbors. To sacrifice self-righteousness and our own ego for self-awareness and someone else’s dignity. To be willing to give up time or money or the use of our God-given skills for something from which we are unlikely to benefit. That’s what makes it a sacrifice. That’s what makes it meaningful.
Today is the day we celebrate the birthday of the world, and when we read the words of the Akedah, and when we heed the sound of the Shofar. That’s no coincidence. Let’s keep in mind that the mystics believe that what we do here on earth has cosmic consequences – affecting even God. So today, God is entrusting us with Creation itself. I said last night that every small act of compassion we take can have a huge impact. Now we realize that every small sacrifice we make can help save a world.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.
©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Bereshit Rabbi 55:7-8.
 Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity & Islam (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 69
 Midrash Tanhuma, Vayera 23.
 Genesis 23:2.
 Bereshit Rabbah 56:8-11
 Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Pischa 7.
 Bavli Rosh Hashanah 16a
 Leviticus Rabbah 29:9, Levenson p. 96.
Finally! For the first time in three years, we are physically together as a community for Rosh Hashanah. For prayer, for food, for celebration of the New Year. And for giving thanks. Thanks for the love we share for this congregation and for one another. Gratitude for the hope and support and perseverance with which we have supported one another. Appreciation for the strength we have shown as we have faced down challenges large and small, throughout this long siege of COVD in all of its stages and strains.
So for this year’s High Holy Days, I want to highlight, in my four sermons, four fundamental values we have lived out during this time -values that are both keenly Jewish and essentially human. All of them point to a message of hope for the future, no matter how hard our struggle has been these last few years. No matter how hard we may still be struggling.
I’m grateful to the legal journalist Dahlia Lithwick for identifying these values for me in an interview she did with Ezra Klein recently in The New York Times. She quoted from the memoir You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train, by historian and teacher Howard Zinn. This is what he said in his message of hope:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”
Compassion. Sacrifice. Courage. Kindness. Tonight, I start with a message of compassion. It is a message that calls on us not only to bear witness to the astonishing acts of goodness we have seen all around us in these past few years of struggle — but also to the urgency of the “still, small voice” with which God commands us to continue to act with compassion every single day.
For us, every single day starts today. The day on which we celebrate the birthday of the world and the rebirth of our souls. Today is the day on which we accept the torch of Torah from those who came before us, take a deep breath, and let its light and warmth guide us as we step forward onto a path whose way is not always clear.
Today is the day that God gives us to dig down deep within ourselves and find that mother lode of compassion that may be lying dormant, so that we can release it into the world.
And for that inspiration, God has given us the world itself.
All summer, we have been treated to the astonishingly brilliant and beautiful photos taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. But the Webb has brought us more than just a spectacular view of what’s out . . . there. It actually gives us insights into what’s in here – in ourselves. It physically shows us how compassion can guide our lives.
Just a few weeks ago, NASA captured incredible images of the so-called Cartwheel Galaxy. The Cartwheel is about 500-million light years away from us. Scientists think it used to be a normal spiral galaxy, like the Milky Way. But it acts like a cartwheel spinning around. That’s the result, apparently, of a high-speed collision between a large spiral galaxy and a smaller one.
The collision gave the Cartwheel two rings: a bright inner ring, and a colorful outer ring, in glamorous shades of orange and yellow, both expanding outward, with spiraling spokes of blue stars in between, connecting the two rings.
But here’s the thing that struck me about the Cartwheel Galaxy. The smaller ring – the seemingly less consequential one, the one with less bling and pizazz – is actually the one that’s doing all the pushing. The energy of the galaxy comes from the center, and this core drives the rest of the Cartwheel. Without that core pushing and prodding, the Cartwheel could not be the great, magnificent galaxy that it is.
I think each of us kind of has a Cartwheel Galaxy inside of us. There’s an intense and powerful light that God has implanted at our core. It is the power of compassion – the essence of human existence, the command of Torah to love one another as we love ourselves.
It is our responsibility to access that light of compassion and let it guide us. It is our mission to use that force as part of the greater galaxy of humanity, moving forward toward a better world.
It’s an awesome power – and an overwhelming responsibility. The challenges and troubles of our world are so big – and we are so small. But we see how the small ring at the core of the Cartwheel can move an entire galaxy. And we know it can be done.
When we saw the first images from the Webb telescope this summer, science writer Shannon Stirone wrote in the New York Times:
“Viewing images like these can provide a profound sense of insignificance . . . they offer a sense of proportion and understanding of just how small we are on the grand scale.”
But I think our relative smallness in the world makes every single act of compassion even more grand – in ways we might not even know.
Writing in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Catherine Pearson, told this story:
“In late August, Erin Alexander, 57, sat in the parking lot of a Target store in Fairfield, California, and wept. Her sister-in-law had recently died, and Ms. Alexander was having a hard day.
“A barista working at the Starbucks inside the Target was too. The espresso machine had broken down and she was clearly stressed. Ms. Alexander – who’d stopped crying and gone inside for some caffeine – smiled, ordered an iced green tea, and told her to hang in there. After picking up her order, she noticed a message on the cup: ‘Erin,” the barista had scrawled next to a heart, ‘your soul is golden.’
“’I’m not sure I even necessarily know what ‘your soul is golden,’ means,’ said Ms. Alexander, who laughed and cried while recalling the incident.
“But the warmth of that small and unexpected gesture, from a stranger who had no inkling of what she was going through, moved her deeply.”
It turns out, writes Pearson, that a lot of the time we have absolutely no idea how a small act of compassion can change a person’s life – or at least make today a lot better. Scientific studies have shown that people who show compassion to someone else tend to underestimate just how much the recipient will appreciate it.
As psychologist Marisa Franco says: “We just don’t think the positive impact of our behaviors is as positive as it is.”
The studies referenced in Catherine Pearson’s article are based on small experiments and seemingly small acts – giving someone a ride home, baking cookies, buying someone a cup of coffee. The people who performed these acts of compassion consistently underestimated the impact they had. And one of the researchers, Amit Kumar, at UT Austin, concluded that “not knowing one’s positive impact can stand in the way of people engaging in the sorts of acts . . . in daily life.”
The bottom line is that no act of compassion, however small or unimportant it may seem to us, goes unnoticed. Sometimes it can change a person’s life forever. Sometimes, it just makes a bad day a little better.
And you don’t have to know how to bake cookies to do it. As Dr. Franco said in the article, “It’s about: What skills and talents do you already have? And how can you turn that into an offering for other people?”
I like the way she uses the word “offering.” I find that a very Jewish proposal. Remember that, in Biblical times, our offerings consisted of sacrifices brought to the priests at the Temple’s altar.
Wealthy people would bring dozens of fatted calves to cultivate God’s favor. But poor people who brought one turtledove or a handful of flour were welcomed, and treated, and blessed by God just the same. No offering was too small or too inconsequential for God.
The early rabbis taught that we cannot differentiate a “minor mitzvah” from a “major one.” And it’s no different for us today.
I think of the simple acts of compassion we’ve witnessed during the COVID crisis, when all of our lives were impacted by isolation, illness, loneliness or even death – but we knew others needed help more.
Remember when toilet paper was in short supply because of hoarding? I can’t imagine having kids and no TP in the house. Word went out through the digital grapevine from the local carwash that had turned into a pop-up food bank that they were all out. Neighbors drove from all over the area just to drive through and drop off a twelve-pack.
Remember when people missed time at work or lost their jobs because their kids were home-schooling and they had no one to care for them? Word went out through the grapevine again, and up popped “Mutual Aid Blair County” on Facebook. Neighbors set up food banks on their porches and spread the word around town. Individuals posted where families could find infant formula or paper goods. The group is still active, with more than 750 members, because the need has not gone away, it’s only become more public. “Help is available to any and all who want/need it,” the site operators say. Need never takes a rest – and so neither can compassion.
Remember when we were all being encouraged to wash our hands thoroughly, wear masks any time we were in public places, and keep up with our COVID vaccines and boosters? That’s not just past tense. That’s all just as relevant right now. I promised my physician, when I saw him last week, that I’d quote him: “Wash your hands. Wear your masks. Keep up with your vaccines. That’s what we do for one another.”
Just as NASA was able to draw back the veil on unknown realms, we have the capacity to uncover previously unknown opportunities for forging relationships, for imbuing these relationships with compassion, and ultimately for lighting the lamp of hope for the future of the world we celebrate today.
Author Rebecca Solnit, who also was recommended reading by Dahlia Lithwick, put it this way:
“This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative moments that could not be foreseen. . . hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen – and in the spaciousness of [that] uncertainty is room to act. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable . . . it is the belief that what we do matters – even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”
Our lives, like God’s universe, are full of twinkling lights full of brightness and clarity, that stun us with their beauty and power. They also are filled with dying stars shedding their gas and light as they weaken. And black holes that mark the places in our hearts where the people we loved once stood.
The fact is that, when we walk out of this sacred space tonight, we journey into a darkness that gives us no clue of what’s to come in the year 5783. There may be predictions. Or presumptions. Or probabilities.
But the broad space accorded to uncertainty in life is all the more reason for each of us to fill it with love, and hope, and let the spark with which God imbues each of us move us to act with compassion every day.
Like the inner ring of the Cartwheel Galaxy, the seeming smallness of our acts, performed purposefully day by day, drives the entire world forward to healing.
As historian Howard Zinn concluded his memoir:
“If we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
I think this world deserves a marvelous victory. Don’t you?
Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will in the universe and our own mission here on earth, whatever the New Year may bring. As we say together: Amen.
©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 208.
 https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2022/webb-captures-stellar-gymnastics-in-the-cartwheel-galaxy. Accessed September 5, 2022.
 Pirke Avot 2:1.
 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/15/rebecca-solnit-hope-in-the-dark-new-essay-embrace-unknown. Accessed September 5, 2022.
 Zinn, p. 208.
It’s always such a joy for me to see a leader of our country visiting Israel, as President Joe Biden did this past week. I don’t care about your political persuasion. For most of us American Jews, watching the president or vice president of the United States spending precious days in Eretz Yisrael is a real rush. It’s a source of pride, as both countries not only recognize the value of our strategic alliance, but also celebrate the connection in our shared values. Upholding democracy. Sustaining humanity. And fostering security.
When I was a rabbinical student studying in Israel for a year, I remember the excitement, the crowds, the energy throughout Israel when President Clinton came to celebrate the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, which he had helped to broker – a treaty that allowed a group of us student rabbis on winter break to be among the first to walk across the Israeli-Jordanian border, Israeli visas stamped into our passports, without trouble, and with a warm welcome.
The following spring, we were among dozens of Americans and Israelis gathered outside Prime Minister Rabin’s official residence to cheer Vice President Gore and his then-wife Tipper, as they came to Jerusalem to promote America’s efforts to bring peace to the region.
It was so wonderful and so important for us to know that they were experiencing Israel in all its modern vibrancy as well as honoring its past.
Which was why the media coverage of President Biden’s recent visit made me so sad.
We know that the president got a briefing on security and defense, including a close-up look at the Iron Dome missile defense system. We know he and his hosts joined in a virtual meeting with their counterparts in other countries to talk about regional priorities like food security and technology innovation. We know he took part in the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah games, the Jewish equivalent of the Olympics.
But the only news reports I saw were of his stop at Yad Vashem, where he honored the memory of the dead of the Shoah and met with several survivors of the Nazi genocide. It was emotional. It was important. But it is really the only visual content that most of us have of his visit to Israel.
Apparently, the president asked for the visit. But the Israeli leadership was very accommodating. For them, a prominent and highly publicized visit to Yad Vashem is requisite for any foreign dignitary that visits the Jewish homeland. You don’t go home without it.
My first thought was: Why? Why is this all that I’m seeing? Why is this the only thing the world will remember about this visit?
My friend and colleague Rabbi Jeff Salkin, who was in Israel at the time, thought the same thing. And as always, he has written magnificently about it.
In his on-line commentary this week, Rabbi Salkin answered the question this way:
“You, dear visitor,” he wrote, “are visiting Yad Vashem because it tells you why there must be an Israel. Yad Vashem is the story of Jewish powerlessness. We will never be powerless again. This is why there is an Israel.”
I think he’s exactly right. But I also think there’s more to it. I’d suggest that requiring foreign leaders – especially Western leaders – to take part in the Yad Vashem photo op also has to do with guilt. The guilt of the Allies for allowing six million to die when they could have stepped in to stop it. When they –- when we — could have accepted millions of fleeing European Jews but closed our doors instead. When we could have bombed the rail lines that took Jews to the gas chambers. When we resisted allowing Jews to flee to what was then British Mandate Palestine. Never forget, President Biden was reminded, that America – that beacon of freedom and democracy — should have done more then and owes us more now.
And that, for me, is a problem. Because this message of why we need an Israel, why Israel should exist as a Jewish state, can easily be turned against us. It suggests that Israel only exists as a post-war colonialist enterprise, imposed on the Middle East by the victorious Western powers. This message is at the heart of growing antisemitism and Jew-hatred on the left, where many well-meaning people are being deluded by antisemites into condemning Israel and Zionism and Zionists and all Jews as colonial racists who have stolen the land of the native Palestinian population and want to see them destroyed.
All of it is nonsense and lies, of course. But the PLO and the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have been very successful at promoting it . It has resonance among young people – even young Jews, even young rabbinic students. They agree to leave a huge part of their Jewish identities at the door, because they are so eager to be part of the coalition that is assailing us on the left, as white supremacists are on the right.
Nobody should be forced to do that. And if Israel were not, in some way, pushing that Shoah narrative so hard, maybe we’d be better equipped to educate so many well-meaning people who clearly know so little about the history of the Middle East, the Jewish people and our three-thousand-year connection to the land. Clearly, there’s a lot of ignorance about the modern state of Israel, where the majority of the Jewish population is not European Ashkenazic – that is, non-white. Obviously, there’s a lack of nuanced understanding that the modern Palestinian – Israeli conflict is one of competing valid historical narratives, not one of racism.
As Rabbi Salkin wrote, the sympathy of the world after the Shoah “lubricated the wheels of the creation for the state, but it was not solely responsible for creating the state . . . these stories that connect Israel with the Shoah are not wrong . . . but they are incomplete.”
I’m grateful to Rabbi Salkin for directing me to a decades-old essay by the late Rabbi David Hartman, whose name adorns a trans-denominational institute in Jerusalem where he was studying this summer. Rabbi Hartman challenged us to choose Auschwitz or choose Sinai. Rabbi Salkin paraphrased the essay this way:
“Auschwitz is what they did to us. Sinai is what we did for ourselves.”
Auschwitz, I think, promotes the narrative of servitude and helplessness, while Sinai signifies empowerment and freedom.
I see the choices of this narrative in the start of this week’s Torah portion. Here, we end the Book of Numbers by starting with a long recap of the forty-year journey of our nation from servitude to freedom. Forty-two place-names are listed as stopping points along the way from Egypt to the Promised Land, to remind us what a long, difficult and tumultuous trek we successfully completed.
In a Torah commentary several years ago, Jane West Walsh and Cantor Gershon Silins noted that at least two of the places are not mentioned anywhere else in the Torah and we have no idea where they were. They were important places of rest at the time – but they are other otherwise forgotten. So why keep them in the story?
Well, maybe it goes back to what my Grandmom Freda used to say so often: “Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been.” That was especially important for me because I’m such a klutz and I definitely would have tripped over my own feet or something else right in front of me, had I not been paying attention.
But I’ve always taken that wisdom as a life’s lesson. We are shaped by our experience, and memory can be a gift. But we need to be moving ahead, without getting entangled and tripping up in what we’ve left behind.
To add to what Rabbi Hartman wrote, then, Rithmah and Rimmon-perez might be the ancient equivalent of Auschwitz. They were places where we were alone, endangered, and exposed to threats all around us. They were places we survived.
They are stages in a narrative of fear and vulnerability that we always carry with us. But: Between Auschwitz and Sinai, I’ll always choose the latter to define my life as a Jew, and what I understand as God’s plan for me and for all who are part of B’nai Yisrael, whether by birth or by choice. We can say “never forget” and mean it – without being defined by it or restrained by it.
The fact is that, in our Parashah, the list of the 42 encampments is merely a prelude to the preparation that Moses will give us in the entire book of Deuteronomy, so that we can fulfill our destiny in the Promised Land, the land of Israel. Our destiny, our empowerment and our peoplehood also are parts of the narrative we always carry with us.
Sinai is the past, the present, and the future of Israel and the Jewish people of the world. Sinai is our life and our destiny. Sinai is what we create, every day – in politics, medicine, education, entertainment. And yes, fundamentally in faith, and in the covenant – our partnership with God – that continues to shape our world.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth, as we say together: Amen.
©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin
Dazzling. Pulsing. Mind Boggling. Those are some of the phrases used this week to describe the brilliant images NASA has shared with us from the James Webb telescope. Traveling in an orbit a million miles from home, the telescope has awed us with its brilliance and clarity – showing entire galaxies we never saw before, never even knew they existed.
To me they had the feel of the immersive experience of the Van Gogh exhibit, with its three-dimensional atmosphere. Twinkling orange galaxies. Dying stars shedding gas and light. Black holes. (And I thought of this even before my friend Ann Millin posted a Facebook Meme in which someone actually had combined the two).
Up until now, the biggest and best view we had of space was from the Hubble Telescope, launched in 1990 – more than 30 years before the Webb Telescope went up. Looking at images of the same star clusters side by side, it’s like comparing a 1990s analog television or gaming console with the striking life-like, ultra-high-definition of today.
While we were essentially seeing these breathtaking images in real-time, we were really looking at the past, because the further in the distance you look, the older the image is. What we see now existed long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away – by one account 4.6 billion years ago.
Science writer Shannon Stirone wrote in the New York Times this week of the overwhelming awesomeness of this gift from afar. “Viewing images like these,” she wrote, “can provide a profound sense of insignificance – they offer a sense of proportion and understanding of just how small we are on the grand scale.”
In that same issue of the Times, graphics columnist Sergio Pecanha reflected: “If nothing else, the humongousness of the universe ought to put our problems into perspective. A little insignificance isn’t such a bad thing.”
A little perspective. A dollop of humility. These were thoughts reflected in much of what was written this week. Whether or not you believe that all of this was the materialization of what was in God’s mind, it’s worth considering it, in light of the stories we’re reading this summer in the Torah.
Take the story we began last week: the uber-zealotry of the Israelite priest Pinchas, who is so incensed when he sees Israelite men cavorting with Moabite women, and worshiping their gods, that he hauls off and chucks a spear clean through one of the couples, killing both of them.
On the face of it, it looks like God approves of the actions of Pinchas. But some rabbis commenting on these verses give us another perspective.
This violent act by Pinchas, they note, is tagged onto last week’s portion. The apparent divine reward does not appear until this week. And when it does, it’s an eternal covenant of peace. A covenant of peace for a zealot who took the law into his own hands? Well: That’s where the one-week pause comes in.
Pinchas, they say, is not rewarded in the moment. God makes him – and the whole camp — step back and maybe take some time to reflect. Yes, “Pinchas was zealous for My sake” – God says in the text. But the pause makes us think that God also recognizes: Whoa, we can’t have a whole camp acting this way! True peace cannot come through violence.
God’s reward to Pinchas the B’rit Shalom – the covenant of peace – points to a desire, a need, for reflection and humility. For a different path going forward.
We are reminded of that message of humility when we see these remarkable pictures from across space and time – so magnificent and pure. Yes, we should be proud of the phenomenal ability of human beings to bring us this great gift – what columnist David Von Drehle called a “marvel of engineering and audacity.” And yet, he concludes:
“Perhaps by gazing outward, we will be inspired to examine anew our own existence. Earth is so small and humanity so transient . . . The more we can see the scale of the universe . . . the smaller our part in it feels. Smaller, yet more precious. For the farther we see, the humbler we become, and the fruit of humility is gratitude.”
I think maybe that’s exactly the message for us on this Shabbat. From our Torah, gratitude that God gives us precious time and space to re-orient ourselves on a path of peace, and with a spirit of generosity. From the Webb telescope, gratitude for the precious gifts of mind and body that God has implanted within us, that let us make the seemingly impossible happen every single day. These are gifts that are not to be taken for granted. They are gifts that can, and should, make life better on this small and seemingly insignificant little planet, even as we lift our eyes and try to take in the magnitude of what is around us.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own mission. As we say together: Amen.
©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin
We cannot say we didn’t see it coming.
Charlottesville, Virginia, August, 2017: One woman dead in white nationalist riots. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October, 2018: Eleven Jews slaughtered during prayer at Tree of Life Synagogue. Christchurch, New Zealand, March, 2019: 51 Muslims killed at prayer at two separate mosques by a single gunman. Poway, California, April, 2019, : One woman murdered at a synagogue during Sabbath prayer. El Paso, Texas, August, 2019: 23 Hispanics killed at a Wal-Mart. And now Buffalo, New York, is in mourning for ten people gunned down at a neighborhood supermarket because they were Black.
Jews and Muslims at prayer. Black and Brown people out shopping. All the slaughters had one thing in common: All the alleged gunmen were white men with guns and grudges, who believe in a sick, twisted conspiracy theory called “The Great Replacement.” Here’s a simple explanation from the American Jewish Congress:
“The Great Replacement [is] also known as white replacement theory or white genocide theory. The conspiracy theory, rooted in white supremacist ideology, claims there is an intentional effort, led by Jews, to promote mass migration, intermarriage, and other efforts that would lead to the (quote) ‘extinction of whites.’.”
The shooting suspect in Buffalo made mention of this in his manifesto, which blamed Jews for pushing out whites. So did all the rest. They were pushed and encouraged on line by manifestos full of rage about the supposed downfall of White Christian male domination – here in our country and around the world.
The more the demographic trends move in other directions, it seems, the more angry and desperate they get to stem the tide, one or two or ten or 23 or 51 people at a time.
Back in 2017, when news programs showed streams of young white men in geeky polo shirts marching with hatred blazing in their eyes, shouting “Jews will not replace us!” – back then, we saw this white supremacist movement as a fringe element. As Jews, we took it seriously – we always have to. But we thought it was limited to small groups being radicalized in secret, dark corners of the internet.
We missed one big sign. The sign, in Charlottesville, was that these hate-filled white men were no longer hiding behind masks or inside white robes. They didn’t care who saw them, who identified them. They had been released from the shackles of the darkness.
The mass murders that followed Charlottesville, tell this story. Manifestos by the killers are posted, shared and quoted openly. The Buffalo shooter copied the killer in New Zealand by proudly posting video of his bloody crime. The killers in Pittsburgh and in Poway – consumed by racial paranoia — wrote that their attacks would spark a long-smoldering revolution, a violent race war, awakening unsuspecting white people to the “fact” of their imminent demise unless they took up arms.
We also missed a second big sign from Charlottesville: the shrug, the wink, the nod, that people at the highest levels of our government gave to the racist violence. Again, we believed it was a handful of people. Powerful ones, to be sure, but limited. We were wrong about that. There are a lot more powerful people spewing variations of this hatred, some more overtly than others. And there are lot more Americans than we’d like to think, who believe it.
And we’re just now catching up to a third big shift: the toxic mixture of Christian nationalism, white replacement theory, and other conspiratorial belief systems like Q-Anon and long-refuted allegations of stolen elections. Author Katherine Stewart, who’s written recently on this dangerous and deadly confluence, describes it as “a reactionary, authoritarian ideology that centers its grievances on a narrative of lost national greatness . . . this mind-set always involves a narrative of unjust persecution at the hands of alien or ‘un-American’ groups.”
Stewart says the targets may vary: gay people, non-white immigrants or Americans of color, religious minorities like Muslims or Jews, or that vague catch-all known as “secular elites.” Or, of course, all of the above.
That vagueness is well suited to the dog-whistles we now hear calling those who fall into this toxic morass – calls emanating from elected officials and “populist” media personalities. Some are true believers in “white makes right.” Others simply seek fame and fortune, higher office and high media visibility. Twitter followers. Loyal donors. Even those officials who are late to the “hate party” have learned how to stoke the hatred for personal gain and profit.
As Jews, we know where all this can lead. For millennia we have been the scapegoats who are bullied, exiled, murdered, slaughtered in numbers that were once unbelievable. It’s why we are quick to come to the aid and support of others now targeted by vicious and deadly hate, whatever their race or religion. It’s why we demand action from our government officials at all levels, to denounce the conspiracies and crack down on the violence.
We know that haters carry senseless grudges against “the other” – everyone and anyone who isn’t them. It’s why the echoes of “never again” always tug at our hearts and our guts – and require us to speak out against injustice always and everywhere.
When our Torah says “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof” – justice, justice shall you pursue – the rabbis take special note of the fact that the word for justice is said twice, a rare occurrence in the Bible, which uses terse language. One great Torah commentator, Nachmanides, teaches that’s because we cannot leave it to the judges or the justice system – we each have an obligation seek justice for all. Another sage, Abraham Ibn Ezra, teaches that it means you are obligated to pursue justice – whether it’s to your gain or not — to your last day on earth.
Sitting quietly is not an option. Not when we know where this toxic mix of baseless hatred, conspiracy theories, and beliefs in racial superiority lead. Too many lives have been lost already. Black and brown, Muslim and Jew. If each of us is, as Judaism teaches us, made in God’s image, and if no one’s blood is redder than another’s, then we cannot stand idly while our neighbors bleed. Hate has no home here. Hate must have no home anywhere.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Deut. 16:20.