Rosh Hashanah Morning 2017: “Our Nation’s Attic”

My mother’s email was short and to the point. “I’ve sold the house and will be moving into an apartment,” she wrote to all her kids. “If there’s anything you want, you’d better come this week and get it.”

The email sent me into a bit of a panic. How in the world was I supposed to drop everything and sort through decades worth of possessions? My late father had been the pack rat in the family, and although mom had culled a lot of his belongings over the years and given us things she knew would be meaningful – there were an awful lot of drawers, closets, and storage areas to be investigated in the big townhouse with three full stories and an oversized garage.

In the end, we all ended up with a few things that we wanted before mom made herself comfortable in a nice apartment building with good neighbors and lots of amenities. And, truth be told, she made it easier for us than for others our age – because she didn’t insist on foisting things on us that we really didn’t want or need, but might end up taking out of a sense of family obligation.

It’s a near-epidemic these days. When we’ve talked before about dealing with a family’s ‘stuff,’ we usually talk about the psychological baggage in a person’s life that often traces back to childhood. But lately, as the eldest of the baby boomers age and downsize, family ‘stuff’ has taken on a physical manifestation that pits one generation’s trash against another one’s treasure.

A recent New York Times story carried the headline “Aging Parents with Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It.” The author, Tom Verde, reminds us that our parents and grandparents were being good Americans, not just good providers. They were encouraged to accumulate lots of material goods in the economic boom after World War Two. No new home was complete without wedding china and sterling-silver flatware and cut crystal glassware. When the children came, so did big dining room sets and cushy den furniture and ritual objects and reels and reels of eight-millimeter home movies that never made it onto video tape, much less DVD.

But there’s more – much more – in the attics and basements and guest-room closets of many American homes, where parents have accumulated stacks and bags and boxes of stuffed animals, baby shoes, and seemingly every English essay, every report card, and every art project that every child ever made or received. The objects hold precious memories that many parents just can’t let go of – and they think those objects – as well as the memories they hold – should be as meaningful to their children and grandchildren as they are to them.

The trouble is, they’re not.

As Tom Verde writes “For a variety of social, cultural, and economic reasons, this is no longer the case. Today’s young adults tend to acquire household goods that they consider temporary or disposable, from online retailers or stores like Ikea and Target, instead of inheriting them from parents or grandparents.”

The Times then ran a follow up story of reader responses to the value – or the cost – of keepsakes, and the difficult conversations they’re having within the family about just what is valuable and what is not.

A lot of readers were downright disappointed that their kids and grandkids didn’t want their precious things, for which they often saved and sacrificed for years. One older person wrote: “My generation used to scrimp and resourcefully use everything. My 20-something children prefer to have kits from Ikea rather than castoffs I put aside.”

A younger person – part of a generation that lives smaller for longer than their parents did – summarized the quandary in this question: “Now we’re supposed to buy houses we can’t afford just to store your stuff?”

I happen to know of at least one congregational family here today that is downsizing right now and struggling with a huge houseful of stuff accumulated over 40 years, that the kids see mostly as a burden they don’t want. And another selling her house that the kids grew up in, who fears losing the memories, and the people, that those possessions represent. And yet another asking themselves: Do we stay in grandma’s house because it was grandma’s house, or do we find something new that suits the way we want to live?

There are no simple answers to these issues. Every family has to make its own choices, trying to respect both parental wishes and limits to what the children can take. It’s a mighty generational struggle – one that is reflected in the Torah portion we read this morning.

Just as our family’s attics are full to bursting with stuff and memories, so is the Jewish nation’s virtual attic.

The story of the binding of Isaac, the Akedah, is one of those possessions that makes us conflicted and uncomfortable about our heritage. Is it a story of child sacrifice that presumes our Israelite God would ask such a thing of a most faithful servant? Is it a story about a child’s self-sacrifice, an Isaac willing to accept and bear his father’s burden? Is it about a dysfunctional family where the mother is the last to know the fate of her beloved son? And why, if it’s so important, is the Akedah not mentioned anywhere else in the Torah?

This is not just a 21st century dilemma. The rabbis have struggled with these same questions for two thousand years. For them, it is absolutely crucial that Abraham’s reputation come out of this unscathed, and that the Torah, as the word of God, retain its literary perfection. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t brave enough to ask a lot of important – and sometimes impertinent – questions.

They have come up with a lot of possible answers – some more fanciful, and some more incredulous than others, many of which we studied in our adult-learning sessions this past year.

Maybe, they write in the Midrash, Abraham simply misunderstood God’s intention. After all, the angel stays his hand just as he raises up the slaughtering knife. In this scenario, God says to him – I just told you to bring him as if you were to offer him. Now that you brought him up, you can take him home.

Or maybe this test of Abraham was instigated by Ha-Satan, Satan, the trouble-making angel they would later see in the Book of Job. Maybe Satan taunted God into trying Abraham’s honor and faithfulness, and then proceeded to put every obstacle in his way, including turning himself into a raging river that stood between Abraham and Isaac, and Mount Moriah.

Or maybe this story is meant to distinguish between Jews and non-Jews. Abraham and Isaac must have walked through the Valley of Gehinom, where pagan peoples around them sacrificed their own children, on the way to Mount Moriah. Abraham – and all of us – would understand the difference between our God and all of theirs, when God would not let Abraham go through with the offering.

For we 21st century Reform Jews, it’s not as important to us to see Abraham as a wholly righteous character, or that every bit of Torah is consistent with every other bit. Many of us see the Torah as divinely inspired but not the literal word of God. And yet, in some ways, our task is more challenging. Because, unlike the material possessions of our parents and grandparents, the literary inheritance of our people is not something we can give away, or discard completely, or just say “thank you, but no.” It is, quite literally, a keepsake.

This is the burden of what’s lurking in our people’s attic: child sacrifice, blind faith, capricious gods. The redactors of the Torah may have smoothed over a lot of its inconsistencies, but they retained the vestiges of an old religion that had all of this and more. And I think they did it on purpose, so that we would be forced to confront and understand our history in each and every generation.

And then the sages connected it to Rosh Hashanah so that we would be forced to confront and understand it at the beginning of each and every year.

In fact, I think that struggling with the story of Isaac’s near sacrifice is an essential rite of passage to the New Year, to the feeling of renewal we all seek. Because, like the entirety of our Torah-reading cycle, it not only forces us to confront what’s in the attic, but it also allows us to see our nation’s possessions in a new light. When Rabbi Ben Bag Bag taught us about the Torah “turn it over and over again, for everything is in it,” he meant that year by year, as we get older, as we experience more of life, we gain new perspectives about our spiritual inheritance. Rather than rushing to “preach against the text,” so to speak, we begin to see the value that it has, even in its difficulties.

Not every big, hulking dining room set can be made useful again with new seat covers and a coat of paint. But the Akedah, like so many old things we have re-discovered in our peoples’ attic – mikvah, Hebrew, ritual objects like tallit and kippot – can be made into something new, fresh, and meaningful. Women are going to the mikvah to mark important events in their lives, from marriage to menopause. Hebrew is a living language that identifies us around the world. Wearing a tallit can feel like a big hug from God. But it’s up to each of us to find meaning for ourselves, this year, at our age, at this stage of our lives.

I can’t tell you what the Akedah could or should mean to you. I can only tell you what I see in it today, this year, at this stage in my life.

For me, right now, what draws me to this story is a huge question at the very end (Gen. 22:19):

יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל־בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע:

“Abraham then returned to his servant lads; they got up and traveled together to Beersheba, and Abraham settled in Beersheba.”

Abraham returned. But where was Isaac? What exactly happened between father and son that separated them, maybe forever? Because, as far as the Torah tells us, the two of them never saw each other again.

We could look at this as a terrible tragedy, a family torn apart by anger, guilt, and fear. But this time around, this year, this Rosh Hashanah, I prefer to see it as something quite different. Not as a trauma, but as a triumph. One small note in the Reform movement’s Plaut Torah commentary suggests:

“Is it possible . . . that Isaac now became a man who for the first time could let his father go and who would return later, at his own choosing and time? Isaac’s nature is not radically changed in the Akedah, nor can his early childhood be denied its formative influence, but in the binding Isaac becomes an individual in his own right. If Abraham was tested and purified in agony, Isaac was liberated by it.”

In this perspective, Isaac chooses what to accept and what to refuse of his father’s possessions. He will literally follow in his father’s footsteps, retracing Abraham’s steps and digging wells and settling down where Abraham lived.

But his concept of God, of the human-divine relationship, is different. He seems more sure of both sides of the covenant, and more comfortable in it. And because he – unlike his father – does not feel he has to choose between his faith and his family, he seems to enjoy a more peaceful life, freed from the angst and battles that he saw his father endure, culminating in that fateful trip to Mount Moriah where he found himself bound on the altar, his father knife above his throat.

After Abraham sacrifices the ram in place of his son, the text tells us:

יד וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם־הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא יְהוָֹה ׀ יִרְאֶה

“Abraham named that place Adonai yireh, God sees, or God will see.”

But the Torah doesn’t tell us just what God sees. Here’s my suggestion for this year: Adonai sees that Isaac is now a man, and will see him thrive and perpetuate the covenant of his father, but on his own terms.

Isaac was able to climb up into his family’s attic and sort carefully and thoughtfully through the inheritance that Abraham had prepared for him. What would he take on? What could he re-use? What needed to be recycled? He understood that one generation’s treasures can turn into the next generation’s burden – and if you feel it as a burden, you will never cherish it the way you might if you were able to choose it freely.

Each of us is here today, welcoming the New Year together, because we have chosen freely to be here. We are not here out of obligation, to carry a burden that has been foisted upon his against our will.

That is what it means to be a Reform Jew in 21st century America. Not to reject what’s in our peoples’ attic, and not to stuff it into our own homes beyond what we can bear. But to sort carefully, study thoughtfully, and create a Judaism for ourselves that we can live with dignity, share with joy, and save for future generations, who will make their own choices.

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


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin





Erev Rosh Hashanah 2017: The Power of Purpose

Throughout these days of awe, our liturgy reflects a sense of life and death hanging in the balance, of God weighing the value of each person’s days. So here’s a little tidbit I bet you didn’t know: Do you know why women live an average of six years longer than men? It’s not genetics or exercise or diet. Or, sad to say, even religion. No, what we have, ladies, is the power of the girlfriend.

That’s right. Psychologist Susan Pinker has been studying longevity for, well, a long time. And her conclusion is that our social interactions have a huge impact on our well-being – both physical and emotional.

I can’t speak for the guys, but I know what women are like when we get together. We laugh with each other, at each other, and at ourselves. We dish on the people who aren’t in the room and promise we’re not. Most of all, we share. We share a lot. We unload about the annoying co-worker who’s been singing in her cubicle all week, who has the voice of a screechy cat. (Oh my Gawd!) We kvetch about an upcoming social event we really want to avoid. (Ugghhh!) We kvell about our spouse’s latest achievement, or our grandchild’s latest brilliant invention. We take pride in ourselves because we know we’re good.

We give each other a good hug, sometimes with some tears thrown in. We hold hands, we whisper in each other’s ear. I know guys get together too, and enjoy each other’s company. But apparently the intensity of the sharing, the face to face contact, that we as women have with each other makes a difference not only in how we feel about our lives, but how long we actually live.

Kolby Itkowitz wrote recently in the Washington Post about Susan Pinker’s studies. She said: “Pinker showed two images of the brain, one of someone conversing in person and another of someone watching a video of a person discussing the same subject. In the brain of the person interacting, regions associated with social intelligence and emotional reward lit up.”

And  Pinker herself says: “This face-to-face contact provides stunning benefits . . .  It’s a biological imperative to know we belong.”

Think about that statement for a minute: “It’s a biological imperative to know we belong.” We are here, all of us, tonight, on the cusp of a New Year, because we believe it is a religious and spiritual imperative to know we belong – to this community and to God. But it turns out that this need is inherent in the way we are created.

We need to be together. We need other people to be physically present in our lives. And when they are not, we are worse off for it. Because Susan Pinsker has also found that, sadly, one-quarter of the population says they have no one to talk to. “We can do something about this,” she says. And it’s not just a can – it’s a must. Because, in this room tonight, we must surely have people who are in that one quarter of the population who feel they have no one to talk to. Who feel isolated even when they are in physical proximity to family or friends or co-workers – or fellow congregants. Who have not yet found a safe way to express their emotions, their needs, their fears. Look around you. Look inside you. Many of us have found ways to hide that terrible sadness. But here, tonight, on the cusp of the New Year, it’s time to acknowledge it, to let it show, to change how we relate to the world – it’s time – to open up the path that might potentially lead us to a longer and fuller life.

Author Emily Esfahani Smith interviewed hundreds of people for her new book, The Power of Meaning. She studied psychology, sociology, philosophy, and even neuro-science – how our brains actually work and respond to stimulation. Her conclusion: that meaning in life can come in four forms: Belonging, purpose, transcendence, and story-telling. I know, they seem like generic terms, but hang in here with me. Because I think they also are the steppingstones on that path that Rosh Hashanah opens for each of us. So let’s map out that path tonight.

The first step on our journey is BELONGING. In Smith’s understanding, that means prioritizing the people in our lives who love and care about us. In our Jewish context, I would call it Teshuvah, turning. At the High Holy Days we think of teshuvah purely in the context of turning, or returning, to God through what we think and how we behave, and being embraced by Divine mercy and forgiveness. But teshuvah can also mean turning, or returning, to one another – restoring connections that may have become frayed over time or distance or distractions, but also by anger, or disrespect, or simple misunderstanding.

The rabbis teach us that repentance itself is something that can easily be misunderstood. Repentance, they wrote, may appear to be near to you when it’s really quite far. It also can appear far from you but is very near[1]. I think what the rabbis might be saying is that teshuvah – real transformation – may seem easy, but it’s really hard and it can really be a painful process. On the other hand, if you think it’s far from you, maybe that means you don’t think it’s so important to change, or that it doesn’t seem relevant to getting by every day, or maybe you think it’s simply unachievable. Whatever is keeping teshuvah far from you is also blinding you from seeing how to bring it closer: through turning, through returning, to those people in your life who love and care about you.

Susan Pinker teaches: “Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now in the present, and well into the future.”

Think about what it’s like when you see somebody you used to be close with but haven’t seen in a very long time. Maybe it’s somebody in the pews tonight, someone you ran into before services started. Your immediate response was to reach out – physically. A handshake or a hug. Eye contact. Looking each other over. What’s the same? What’s changed. When was the last time we were together? Has it really been that long?

Judaism values these personal connections so much, that when you see someone for the first time in a long time, you recite this blessing: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech Ha-olam, me-cha-yei ha-meitim.” Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who revives the dead.

And there go your neuro-transmitters pinging like crazy. As you’re overcome by this sense of real joy at sharing each other’s space, and hugging, and holding hands, you are sustaining life itself.

So, Dayeinu, that would be enough. But teshuvah, making connection, is just the first leg of the journey. Now you move to the second part: PURPOSE. Purpose means intent. It means taking these relationships you’re establishing, or re-establishing, and making them meaningful. In Jewish terms, let’s call it Tefillah.

Tefillah is, yes, the words we recite together from the pages of our prayer books. But it cannot be just that. The rabbis call it avodah shebalev, service of the heart – or, better, service from the heart. And this stage, too, requires traveling together.

About five years ago, we on the Reform Responsa Committee got this question from a colleague in Atlanta: We had a vicious storm that kept a lot of people from coming to Temple, but we live-streamed the service and we know about 70 people logged on to take part from a distance. Given the plugged in world that we now live in, wondered this colleague, would these people technically count as part of a minyan, the group of ten or more Jews required community worship?

In our response, we acknowledged that, over the years, the Reform movement has given a lot of leeway: “Most of these have tended toward a lenient position, largely out of sympathy for those who attend worship services: why should they be denied the opportunity to hear the Torah read and to say Kaddish simply because others were unable (or did not feel motivated) to come to the synagogue?” And that’s what we do here at Temple.

On the other hand…. On the other hand, we see that the major Jewish law codes all say that “all of (the members of the minyan) must be assembled in one place – b’makom echad . . . One contiguous, undivided physical space.” And in the end, we decided that there is still a distinction between reality and virtual reality, between virtual presence and actually being here. Our conclusion read:

“Whether through dial-in, live-streaming, or video connection,” we concluded, “it is a good thing to encourage those who cannot attend the synagogue to be ‘technologically present.’ Such persons, however, are not part of the minyan, because the minyan is the community of those are truly present with us, that is, in the real (as opposed to virtual) sense of that term.”

What’s important here is not the words recited from the book, it’s the life that is created, or extended, by being together. Sure, you could have stayed home tonight and watched a service live-streaming from somewhere. But you had to be here, sitting together, feeling the energy that is created by everyone’s focused presence.

But if we now understand tefillah not as words but as intent, tefillah now takes us far beyond the walls of this sanctuary. Being present, bringing value, ought to infuse every part of our lives. It’s something that’s become harder and harder the more technology has taken over our lives. Just a decade ago, technology – computers, emails, cell phones, texting – made up a small sliver of our personal time. Today, it takes up almost all of it.

We tend to see it more when other people do it. We make fun of people texting while walking and stumbling off a curb or walking right into somebody else. We throw up our hands in frustration when somebody’s talking loudly on the phone in the middle of a restaurant.

But I’m as guilty as anyone of checking Facebook and g-mail when I’m riding in the car with Don and could be carrying on an actual conversation with him. I’m as overwhelmed as anyone else with the massive amounts of data I have to sift through every day in my daily in-boxes and news feeds.

Our test — our task – is to engage in the power of tefillah, to focus on live people, prioritizing real relationships over virtual ones. We read in the Torah about God knowing Moses panim el panim, face to face – and consider that the highest level of connection that a human being can reach with the divine. But panim el panim is no less holy when it’s one person in relationship with another.

So far, our New Year’s journey has taken us from teshuvah, from turning toward each other, to tefillah, creating an environment that allows those relationships to grow and flourish. But what’s the end game? What’s the point of getting personal? That takes us to the third part of the journey –recognizing that each of us has a greater role to play than we realize; that we are all part of something much, much bigger than ourselves. Emily Esfahani Smith calls it transcendence. We call it tzedakah.

Not the tzedakah we collect at Sunday School every week. But tzedakah as righteousness itself. The medieval mystics believed that a tzadik was more than just a righteous person, the tzadik was someone who was elevated above humanity, someone who even had superhuman gifts. I would suggest tonight that we come down to earth and realize the gifts each of us could bring to the world through our own tzedakah.

And friends, that is going to take something more than I have asked you so far tonight. It may take stepping out of your comfort zone, or stepping up to address conditions in this community, and in this nation, and in this world that seem too overwhelming for one person to change. Tzedek tzedek tirdof – seek righteousness and pursue it, the Torah teaches us – with Hebrew in the second-person singular, addressed equally and specifically to you, and to you, and to you.

It is no secret that, since mid-summer, our nation has been wracked by the pain of ugly racial and ethnic and religious hatred paraded through our streets by people who feel they no longer have to conceal their identities. People who are too quick and willing to blame blacks, or Jews, or Muslims, or women – for perceived slights and threats to their position. All of these hatreds have been poured together into a big cauldron that stinks of rot. Any one of us could be a target, simply because of the way we look, or the way we pray, or the fact that we support the most vulnerable in our community, as our Torah says we must.

. לֹא־תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל־דַּם רֵעֶךָ . . . וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:

“You shall not go about slandering others; you shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds. You shall love your neighbor as yourself, for I am Adonai.”[2]

Just a couple of weeks ago, many of us clergy from across the spectrum and across the area walked together in a call for unity, peace, and respect. We marched under the banner ‘Hate Has No Home Here,’ a grass-roots campaign that started in Chicago and has spread all over the country. We are attempting to be proactive – not only to tell those who hate that they are not welcome, but to challenge the tzadikim and the potential tzadikim in our midst to stand up to hate.

Each of us is part of something bigger than ourselves; each of us is called to something greater. We are part of humanity, and we are called on to respect and protect the dignity of every human being. We can do it in everyday life. In the spirit of atonement, we must recognize when we have been silent in the face of bullying or bigotry.

And then we must speak up. Shutting down conversation that is disrespectful of others. Calling out the haters. Going out of our way to welcome neighbors, and make new friends, and get acquainted with new communities outside of what is familiar to us. How can we grant ourselves a sense of belonging when we do not provide it for someone else?

As the Talmud teaches; “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.”[3]

Tzedakah in our daily lives takes us back to the beginning of what we talked about tonight: Teshuvah, making personal connections, and tefillah, making them meaningful. It’s what makes our lives fuller, gives them purpose, and even might add a few years onto the time that God has granted us on earth.

The Babylonian Talmud preserves for us the words that Rabbi Eleazer would recite every day when he concluded his daily recitation of the Tefillah, to give meaning and purpose to his prayers:

“May it be Your will, O Lord our God, that in our lot there dwell love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. May You make our territories abundant in disciples. To the very end of our lives, may You endow us with hope and expectation. May You set our portion in Paradise. May You sustain us in Your world with a good friend and a good impulse. When we rise in the morning, may we find our hearts yearning to fear Your Name, and may You be pleased to regard our contentment with favor.”

Let Rabbi Eleazer’s words be the rallying call to a New Year of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah – of renewed relationships, meaningful labor, and greater purpose. God calls each one of us with the sound of the shofar – and each of us, in our own way, are compelled to answer.

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


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Eccl Rabbah 8:16#1

[2] Lev. 19:16, 18.

[3] Bavli Shabbat 54b: Whoever can forbid his household [to commit a sin] but does not, is seized28 for [the sins of] his household; [if he can forbid] his fellow citizens, he is seized for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is seized for [the sins of] the whole world.

This Too Shall Pass? On Turning 60 and Other Matters: Shabbat Vaetchanan August 4, 2017

Earlier this week, a Facebook friend of mine posted a short Hebrew phrase that needed interpretation for his non-Hebraic followers. He wrote: Gam ze ya’avor: This too shall pass. He was specifically referring to the latest round of unpleasant political news that had come out that day. But the phrase is one that I have heard many times before.

I’ve heard it in both Jewish and Christian preaching – on the premise, I think, that it is biblical in origin. But it’s not. It comes from a medieval folktale that appears in Persian, in Turkish, and in Hebrew. Here’s the Jewish version:

“King Solomon once searched for a cure against depression. He assembled his wise men together. They meditated for a long time and gave him the following advice: Make yourself a ring and have thereon engraved the words ‘This too will pass.’ The King carried out the advice. He had the ring made and wore it constantly. Every time he felt sad and depressed, he looked at the ring, whereon his mood would change and he would feel cheerful.”
-Israel Folklore Archive # 126

The folk tale has popped up throughout the ages, as we look for ways to ease physical pain or emotional turmoil. Some people have taken the story literally and have had rings and amulets made with the phrase, or the Hebrew letters that begin the words, inscribed on them. Some people take it metaphorically, as the Jewish medieval philosopher and physician Maimonides did, when he advised against making yourself sick over something that already has transpired and cannot be changed – or over something that might or might not come to be in the future.

“Now intellectual reflection teaches that thinking about what has taken place and has happened is of no benefit at all, and that sadness and grief about matters that have passed and gone are due to faulty understanding.  . . .  On the basis of this reflection, acts of thinking leading to depression about something that is expected to come to pass in the future ought also to be abandoned. . . . After all, the expected matter and its opposite are both possible.”

Gam ze ya-avor.

Me, I’ve been mulling it over because of something that has not yet happened but will come to be in the very near future. This coming Tuesday, I’m turning 60 years old.

Yeah, I know. Some of you in this room are laughing because you’ve been there, done that. Others of you are thinking: Wow our rabbi is really old. And I’m hoping still others of you are wondering: Boy, how does she stay so young? I know it’s going to happen whether or not I like it. But I do wonder if I’m going to feel any different.

Will my legs start aching? Will my mind go blank more often than usual? I know my hair won’t suddenly turn grey, because I’ve already taken care of that. In the past I’ve loved my birthday celebrations in the past. Cake. Presents. This time? Hmm. Gam ze ya’avor. I kind of just want it to be over. Although – to be honest – I still would like presents and cake. Chocolate cake.

Between now and Tuesday, Don and I will be at a family celebration, seeing the youngest child of my youngest sibling off to college. The one who identifies himself as my favorite nephew and calls me “Aunt Rabs.” I’m hardly losing him forever. In fact, he’ll be at University of South Carolina, just a 25-minute drive from our house down in Camden. But a large part of my adulthood has been the joy of being a doting and slightly eccentric aunt to some pretty remarkable nieces and nephews. Now they aren’t kids any more. One is already married, and I’m officiating at the wedding of another next summer. Gam ze ya’avor. That part of my life has come to an end.

But another part has not. The next day I’ll be spending a few hours in the hospital, undergoing surgery to remove a growth that has been identified as benign – but given my history of cancer, anything they call a “lumpectomy” is scary all the same. And yeah, gam ze ya’avor.  Let’s hope we can get through that quickly. And please give me a good dose of that IV medicine that causes a bit of amnesia.

Gam ze ya’avor. It can be said with a shrug, or it can go with a hug. It can express impatience or it can show affection. We’d all like to think that these words – like all words – would be used kindly. But sometimes, it seems, both the carrot and the stick are necessary.

And even though the phrase isn’t itself Biblical, I think that this is what Moses had in mind, as he continues his final sermon to the people in this week’s Torah reading.

Moses spends a lot of time wielding that stick – stewing over things that, as Maimonides warned, already had taken place and could not be changed. He chastises the people because God has been angry with him on their account. He even blames them for the fact that he won’t cross the Jordan River with them – though we’ve already seen that his own anger and impatience had at last something to do with it.

And he inveighs against them for behaving badly in the future – for things that Maimonides warned might or might not happen, like turning to idolatry.

But Moses knows that browbeating the people for what’s happened in the past, or what may not happen in the future, isn’t the way to leave them. It isn’t the way he wants them to remember him. So he softens all of that with the more kind version of gam ze ya’avor – things will be hard, but you’ll get through it.

He starts this part of the speech by telling them that va’etchanan, he has pleaded with God on their behalf. He reminds them that they must be, at heart, a great nation – otherwise God would not have guided them this far, nor given them the great gift of Torah. He implores them to remember what they have seen with their own eyes, and heard with their own ears – the words and the commands of God, the divine presence on Mount Sinai, the daily miracles that allowed them to survive on a journey through hostile territory. And he reiterates for them the Ten Commandments, which prove God’s eternal love for them, and then shares the words of what we know now as the Shema and the V’ahavta – which express their love for God, from generation to generation.

And he ends here, this week, calling them an “am segulah” – a treasured people with a special claim, not just to the land, but on God’s heart. Any trial, any challenge, and pain can be endured if only they have faith:

יא וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת־הַמִּצְוָה וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לַעֲשׂוֹתָם:

“Only observe faithfully the Instructions – the laws and the rules – with which I charge you this day.”

Gam ze ya’avor. “This too shall pass.” Hey, I know I’ll get through the next few days in pretty good shape. And by next Friday, I’ll have made sure my hair will once again be the color I was born with (60 years ago!). But just thinking about all of this makes me more aware that none of us really knows what is going in other peoples’ minds, or their lives, at any given moment:  what they might be stuck on, rehashing from the past, or anticipating in the future. We should never assume we do know, or take those feelings lightly. We may not have Moses’s power of speech – but we can learn from the care he takes with his words, how we must choose ours.

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


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

“A Woman’s Place” Shabbat Matot Masei July 21, 2017

So tonight we complete the Book of Numbers – and we come to the end of our story. Oh, I know, we have the entire book of Deuteronomy still to come in the Torah-reading cycle that takes us to Simchat Torah in the fall. But Deuteronomy is Moses’s final discourse to the people – his chance to put his spin on his 40 years of leadership, his failures and his successes, his frustrations and his exaltations. The story of us, of the Israelites in the wilderness, really ends this Shabbat.

The redactors of the Torah could have ended this saga in so many different ways. They could simply have stopped a couple of paragraphs before they did, with God’s command to Moses of how to divvy up the Promised Land among the tribes, when Joshua led them across the Jordan River. But no. Instead of bringing down the curtain with the children of Israel being given their freedom, the book of Numbers ends here with Israel’s women being deprived of theirs.

We first met the five daughters of Zelophechad a couple of weeks ago, after the failed coup attempt led by the Levite Korach, when they went to Moses to plead for the inheritance of their father. The law apparently presumed sons would inherit their father’s property – but Zelophechad had none. “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach’s faction . . . but died for his own sin,” the daughters tell Moses. “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.” Moses is thrown for a loop and goes to God for guidance. And God wholeheartedly supports the sisters’ demands and even establishes a new and permanent law that allows daughters to inherit in such circumstances.

You’d think that, if God says so, that would be the end of it. But apparently not: Now it’s the daughters who are thrown for a loop, as Moses invokes God’s name to change the rules:

“The daughters of Zelophechad,” he declares, “may marry anyone they wish, provided that they marry into a clan of their father’s tribe. No inheritance of the Israelites may pass over from one tribe to another . . . every daughter among the Israelite tribes who inherits a share must marry someone from a clan of her father’s tribe.”

The text here says that Moses makes this pronouncement “al pi Adonai” – at God’s bidding. But it does not directly quote God, as it did before. It does not even say that Moses sought God’s guidance, as he did before. Is Moses freelancing here? We’ll never know. What we can say, however, is that Moses is changing the rules. In the very, very last verses of the wilderness saga, the Torah declares – in essence – that upholding the patriarchal tribal system is more important than the freedom of women to choose their own futures.

You know, this saga started out with such promise. The powerful stories of Yocheved and Miriam – Moses’ mother and sister – saving his life and placing him in the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter. The midwives, saving the lives of all the other sons of Israel. Strong women, all securing the future of the people. It was Miriam and the women who danced and sang, leading the people across the dry sea bed from Egypt to freedom. It was the women – “wise in heart” says the text – who gave their gold and jewels freely, who spun the thread and the animal hairs to create the tabernacle’s fittings. But then it kind of went downhill from there.

In the book of Leviticus, we learn that divorced and widowed women are tainted and unfit to be the wife of a high priest – lumped into the same company as harlots. In Numbers, chapter 5, we see that a man who suspected his wife of infidelity – even if she was, in fact, faithful – could take her before a priest and force her to undergo a humiliating, public and dangerous trial by magic. In Numbers, chapter 30, we learn that, while both men and women may become nazarites, vowing themselves to God, a woman’s father or her husband can nullify that vow. And by Numbers 31, we see that, of the Midianite women taken captive in battle, those with sexual experience were slaughtered, while the virgins were to be taken as spoils of war.

Before the people even make it to the Land of Israel, then, women’s roles and futures have been proscribed and determined by biology, by sexual experience, and simply by gender. Women are tagged as virgins or harlots – though most are neither. Power and control rest in the hands of men.

If this sounds familiar – it’s because, well, it is. As my colleague Rabbi Rick Block has written, “The disparity in treatment of men’s and women’s vows and oaths exemplifies the secondary legal and social status of females in biblical legislation, an inequality that persisted throughout the postbiblical and Rabbinic periods, and has yet to be fully eradicated even in our egalitarian era. From the perspective of modernity, no effort at apologetics can negate the injustice.”

Which makes what’s happened recently with regard to the Women of the Wall and access to the Kotel so important.

The modern state of Israel likes to tout its gender equality – women serving in the armed forces, a woman (Golda Meir) as Prime Minister at a crucial time in the nation’s history. Yet recent events call into question the state’s true commitment to equality and freedom for all, especially when it comes to women. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Haredim – the ultra Orthodox male-dominated hierarchy –  not only have broadened their control over issues of personal status like birth and adoption, marriage and burial, who can be considered a Jew – but have also systematically marginalized, sexualized, and objectified women and girls in a campaign that has been especially pernicious.

Little girls – and I mean little girls — are being sent home from school for not dressing modestly enough. And their images are being erased from posters and billboards advertising things like Purim costumes – lest they sexually excite older men. Advertisements for women’s events cannot feature women. Women army officers and politicians have regularly been banned from what are supposed to be secular events like the annual national chanukkiah lighting – which are held in the men’s-only section at the Kotel.

And then there is the long saga of the Women of the Wall, who have won one lawsuit after another regarding their right to pray as they wish at the holiest spot in Judaism – only to have the Netanyahu government,  which needs the support of the Haredi parties to stay in power, blatantly ignore lawsuits and legal deadlines.

Recently, the government reneged on its agreement to set up an egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the Western Wall. At one point, a group of ultra-Orthodox took over the site and set up a mechitzah – a barrier preventing men and women from mixing – and the government did nothing.

Some people – including many secular Israelis – will say: The Kotel? Who cares about the Kotel?

The answer is: All of us should care.

Because the battle over the Kotel is more than just about the Kotel. It is about the treatment of women by a Jewish state that is supposed to welcome us all and consider us all equal. It’s about freedom of religion. It’s about freedom from coercion. It’s about demanding that Israel – which is supposed to be both Jewish and democratic – stop the quasi-official marginalization of women and girls of all ages and backgrounds. It’s about demanding of Israel the recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism that represent the vast majority of religious Jews outside of Israel – Jews like us who provide money and support to Israel, whether it’s through our Federation donations, our federal tax dollars that pay for foreign aid, or our children, whom we send on Birthright trips designed to cement their Jewish identities.

Withholding any or all of these may or may not have a financial impact on the Israeli government.  But, again quoting my colleague Rick Block,

“It is also well to remember that righteous indignation over historic injustices, if not accompanied by a passionate commitment to continue the struggle against those that persist, amounts to little more than self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and an undeserved sense of moral superiority. Like our ancestors, ancient and more recent, we too will someday be judged in terms of our own action or inaction in combating the inequality of our own era.”

While we persist in our fight, here in our own country, for equal pay, protection of health care, and reproductive rights, we cannot forget that the struggle of women for dignity and equality is a worldwide struggle – and that includes the State of Israel, where men of rank and privilege continue to impose restrictions and wield power in ways that go back to the Bible itself. In the 21st century, principles of fairness and justice trump ancient patriarchal presumptions. We deserve better. And so does Israel herself.

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


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

“Carved in Stone?” Shabbat Beha’alotecha – June 9, 2017

The adventure started last Sunday afternoon at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home to Baltimore baseball for the past 25 years. It was a kind of homecoming for me. As a young journalist in the early 80’s I had covered the Orioles at old Memorial Stadium. Cal Ripken Jr. and I had essentially been called up together – he as a major leaguer, me as a major-market reporter. And now, here he was, larger than life – one of a number of Hall-of-Fame statues in the center-field picnic area of the ballpark.

There was Jim Palmer, the great pitcher who was concluding his career as we were starting ours, preparing to let loose his next pitch. There was Brooks Robinson, depicted in the iconic crouch from which he would leap and stab any ball hit his way.

And then there was my nemesis, Earl Weaver, then the manager of the Orioles, who did not care for any reporters in his office, much less one of the first female reporters granted full and equal access by Major League Baseball. The first time I ventured in with the gaggle, he took one look at me and growled, “Are you gonna do something with that tape recorder, young lady?” From then on, I counted on pitching coach Ray Miller, at the locker closest to Weaver’s office, to scout out whether it was safe for me to go in for an interview after the game.

For most fans, the nine-foot statues represent the greatness of Orioles baseball of the past. For me, they were my own story – a large portion of my life, frozen in time, as though nothing had changed at all.

Of course that’s not true. Earl Weaver has passed from this world. Cal Ripken is long retired and now has less hair and more in the middle. Brooksie, God love him, is still going strong at age 80, but I’m guessing he’s not as fleet on his feet. And me, I’m 18 years into my third career – my true calling – and very well aware that time (and baseball) have moved on.

Just twenty-four hours later, I wasn’t so sure. Because the Baltimore I saw on Monday looked very much like the one I had left decades ago. And that was not a good thing.

You may know the name Freddie Gray. He was the 25-year-old black man who died in police custody two years ago after being arrested for possession of what police claimed was an illegal switchblade. Much of what transpired between Freddie Gray’s arrest and death are still unclear. Here’s the way Rolling Stone magazine recently summarized what we know:

“[Gray was] put inside a Baltimore Police Department transport van, and then, 45 minutes later, was found unconscious and not breathing, his spinal cord nearly severed. Following a seven-day coma, Gray died on April 19th; his untimely death and citizen video of his arrest, which showed Gray screaming in pain, prompted both the peaceful protests and headline-grabbing riots.”

Many of us remember the scenes on television: the huge crowds that had gathered at the Penn North intersection, in the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore. The police moving in a line, trying to push the protesters out. The violence, the beatings, the torching of the local pharmacy.

Three officers involved in the case eventually were acquitted. Last summer, the charges against three others were dropped. And the deaths of other young black men at the hands of police took over the national narrative.

But in West Baltimore, the story of Freddie Gray remains a central focus of life for poor, black citizens. His likeness appears everywhere, on enormous murals that began emerging on the sides of homes and businesses almost immediately after his death. These murals – like the statues in Oriole Park – depict a Freddie Gray frozen in time. Their artistic beauty is almost painful. They speak to the aspirations, the fears, and the tragedies of a community that has been ignored, of lives that have been wasted, of a Baltimore that is only a few minutes’ drive from the ballparks and the Inner Harbor, yet which is essentially another world.

According to a Washington Post report from last summer:

“The Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood covers 72 square blocks and is home to about 9,000 people. About a third of the housing stock is abandoned and boarded up, 20 percent of working-age residents are unemployed, and the neighborhood has more people in jails and prisons than any other census tract in Maryland, according to a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative.”

But here’s the thing. West Baltimore was like this when I lived there, too. The burned-out buildings, the boarded-up houses, the young black men idling on stoops – that didn’t happen just in the last two years. Or even two decades. The damage in Sandtown took place a half-century ago, in the riots that followed the death of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968.

The money and attention that has been lavished on affluent, gentrified white areas of Baltimore has not trickled down to Sandtown. Successive administrations, both on a city and a state level, have not invested in these areas of West Baltimore. It is an area whose residents are unseen, unheard, and unattended.

Walking through Sandtown on Monday, I was very self-conscious and worried about what the residents would think. Why was this group of white women taking in the scene, taking pictures as they went? We’d been told by local activist J.C. Faulk, who took us around the neighborhood and told us its stories, that neighbors might not be kind. But it turns out that they were. They were friendly, engaging, and interested. They welcomed us, because we cared. Because we were there to learn. Because we were there at all.

These were people who were shopping, walking their kids home, and cleaning their stoops. Who showed us the alleys where rat-infested garbage piled up, because they could not get the attention of amyone in the city to clean it up. Who were trying to go about their lives, in and out of the Penn-North transit station, and small shops, and densely parked cars.

Sandtown is alive. It is not a war zone. It is not a dark cave that people should fear to enter. It is a neighborhood like any other, where people go to work and take care of their kids, where neighbors share meals together. Some things have gotten better over time – fewer overt drug deals, more rehabilitation of homes by community groups. Still, wherever we went, the magnificent murals recording the deaths of Freddie Gray, and so many others like him, looked out upon those rows of those burned out buildings and boarded up houses, signs of the neglect of this community over half a century.

The tour of Sandtown was just the first step for us. That night, we gathered again with J.C. and other activists and citizens who have banded together to demand attention, as well as justice. They are part of an uprising, as they call it, a city-wide movement called Circles of Voices. J.C. had each group there – rabbis, citizens, activists – take a turn in the circle, talking about themselves and their lives, while the others listened and later reflected on what they heard.

It’s the least we can do, isn’t it? – Listen to other people tell the stories of their lives? Break down pre-conceived notions about who they are, where they come from, why they care? And we did listen. We listened to Towanda, the sister of another black man killed by Baltimore city police, who has spent more than 200 straight weeks protesting with a megaphone in front of police stations and the city coroner’s office and other agencies – just getting them to acknowledge her presence and her pain. We listened to a man who had come from Ireland, with an abiding concern for those less fortunate than he. We listened to the ever-passionate activist PFK Boom, who told us of threats against him and his family because of his work. We listened to a mother and daughter who just wanted to know what they could do to get those who do have power to pay attention to the basic human needs of those who have none.

Listening in, I felt such an unexpected connection with all of these people. The fact is that each group’s frustrations and challenges come from the same difficult questions: What can I do? How can I help? How do I get the powerful to pay attention? Listening in, and recognizing all that we have in common – This is the beginning of breaking down walls. Of taking apart the silos in which each of our communities lives, one brick at a time.

The conversation was about Baltimore – but then again, it wasn’t. It was really about every city and town with a power structure that ignores the basic human needs of whole neighborhoods. We members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network represent big, wealthy congregations, as well as small, modest ones. We like to think of ourselves as a diverse group – but the fact of the matter is that we are all pretty fortunate. We all make a decent living. We all can afford a nice place to live. We all can raise children in safety and comfort. We all can travel and explore the world with relative ease.

And we all need to recognize that, armed with a life of comfort and a pulpit that affords us some power, we also bear the responsibility to speak out on behalf of others whose voices are not heard. To listen, and then to speak from passion and from knowledge, if not from personal experience.

On the final morning of our conference, we sat with the wonderful Rabbi Beth Schaefer, who is both a marvelous spiritual leader and a great musical talent. And, with her guidance, we started writing a song for ourselves. It’s still in process. But the chorus we created goes something like this:

“See the unseen

Hear the unheard

Count the uncounted

Rise up in word

In song, deed and prayer

This sacred calling we share.”

For us as rabbis, this is our sacred calling – answering the challenge of the prophet Zecharia in this week’s haftarah. It is a prophecy that promises redemption – but not for us alone. As the angel tells Zecharia:

“Look at the stone that I have set before [the High Priest] Joshua, a single stone with seven facets. Now I am going to put an engraving on it – says the God of heaven’s hosts – and in a single day remove the iniquity of this land. On that day – says the God of heaven’s hosts – you shall all invite each other to sit under your vines and your fig trees.”

The ancients apparently believed that a stone carving like this, with the sacred number of seven sides, had special powers. But we know better. The past is not set in stone, nor is the future. The power is not in a carving, or a memorial statue. The power is in us. Redemption, unity, and peace all come to the world when we make it happen, inspired by the prophet’s vision and God’s command.

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


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin