Parashat Korach • Numbers 16:1-18:32

High Noon and Holiness

Inspired by my father’s penchant for citing parallels between narrative themes in Judaism and film, this week’s parashaKorach, brings to mind the climatic conclusion to the iconic Western High Noon. But instead of a dusty Western’s Main Street in which good triumphs over evil, the Torah story occurs before all of Israel. Korach, a leader amongst the Levites, challenges Moses’ authority with a familiar plea to modern ears. Korach asserts that if all Israel is, indeed, holy, why should only Moses lead? The Orthodox sage Rav Soloveitchik sees in this argument echoes of the contemporary emphasis on egalitarianism and democracy, both of which were foreign to most of humanity until the last few centuries. The Rav continues by delineating types of holiness. There is a common holiness which all of Israel possesses. But there is also a singular holiness that only Moses maintains emerging from his special skills, virtues and commitments. Even for contemporary, Reform Jews and Americans ardent in their autonomy, this is a critical insight. We want leaders to whom we can relate, but who transcend our capacities, discipline and self-sacrifice in bearing the burden of leadership. I may want a president with whom I can have a beer—for 20 minutes! Afterward, I want him or her to ramp up their expertise to deal with issues and challenges that far surpass my abilities to respond. Korach’s error is an object lesson in the hollowness of ambition as basis for leadership, and Judaism’s distinct insistence on a counter-intuitive, but nonetheless morally and intellectually superior leadership.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Parshat B’haalot’cha • Numbers 8:1–12:16

One of the clichés of modern capitalist society is the struggle to “fill the void” – that is, to quench the thirst for personal completeness with material objects or gain. I fall into the trap all the time – maybe if I get this piece of technology, that pair of shoes, this new internship, I’ll finally feel complete. But maybe there’s another way to look at this feeling. The Hebrew word for prophet, navi (נבא), is related to a Hebrew root that means hollow, navav (נבב). This makes sense in a basic way. In order for God to speak through a person, his or her identity and ego had to step aside – they had to become hollow. As we get further into the prophetic books, the n’viim even begin speaking in first person as God, losing their personal identity entirely. In this week’s Torah portion, B’haalot’cha, the relationship between prophecy and hollowness takes center stage.

While the Israelites continue to kvetch their way through the desert on their journey towards freedom, Moses finally begins to bend under the pressure. He asks God to spread n’vuah, usually translated as prophecy, amongst the people. Seventy elders are chosen to receive a portion of the spirit of n’vuah that rested upon Moses, and to therefore take over some of the responsibilities of running the nascent Israelite society. Apparently Eldad and Medad, two of the selected elders, were too busy that day to make their meeting with God, so only 68 of the selected honorees show up. Being from God, the spirit of n’vuah was able to reach the two absentees anyway, and to the surprise of all around them they began prophesying in public. Joshua, Moses’ rabbinic intern, ran straight to Moses and said, “These two guys are prophesying out in the camp! We’ve gotta stop them.” Moses, in his wisdom, replied, “Stop them? If only all of God’s people were prophets, then we’d be in good shape.”

What Moses was experiencing was not, as Joshua assumed, an attempt at overthrow (that comes in a few weeks). Instead Moses was finally seeing some of the other Israelites, if only momentarily and in a lesser version to that of Moses, allowing into themselves a more holistic vision of their world. This vision, this n’vuah, is reliant upon hollowness. It is simultaneously more attainable and more personally challenging than the prophecy of prediction. N’vuah is rooted in radical empathy, viewing one’s own desires as only one part of a greater Oneness.

In those moments where we strive to fill the hollowness we feel by having seeking to be more, have more, or control more, maybe we’re avoiding that which is really trying to get in. Menachem Mendel of Koretz, one of the great Hasidic masters of Kabbalah, once said, “God dwells wherever we let God in.” In B’haalot’cha, Moses and the Israelites find that n’vuah is not only about God imbuing someone special with power, but it is also about individuals allowing that hollowness, that space inside that seems unfillable, to be filled with chesed, loving-kindness. These elders of Israelite society invited in that divine Oneness of which each and every person is a part, so that they too could share the burden of responsibility that had rested solely on Moses’ shoulders. In this, the elders not only fulfilled their own roles more fully as leaders, but we may surmise felt more fully actualized, and more personally in touch with God and each other. In a world so often focused on individuality, this message of n’vuah beckons us to look into the hollowness we may feel, and to seek to allow God to fill it with chesed – with the spirit of God that touches all, including ourselves, with love.

Andy Kahn, Rabbinic Intern


Parshat Naso • Numbers 4:21–7:89

In this weeks Torah Portion, Parashat Naso, we read the priestly benediction: a threefold blessing we recite on Shabbat over our children, at conversions, and other moments of blessing. The blessing goes as follows:

May God bless you and keep you

May God’s presence shine upon you and be gracious to you

May God’s presence be with you and grant you peace

How might it change your reading of this prayer if we understood God not as a noun, but rather a verb or adjective? What if “Yud Hey Vav Hey” was not God’s divine name as often is said but rather are the divine actions we are capable of performing. That we are not praying to God, but rather to our best selves. That God and prayer become the actions we do that allow holiness to enter our world.

This idea was proposed by a Rabbi in the 1950’s named Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan suggested that “To believe in God means to accept life on the assumption that it harbors conditions in the outer world and drives in the human spirit which together impel man to transcend himself. To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man’s destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief, God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.” (Sonsino, Rifat. The Many Faces of God: A Reader of Modern Jewish Theologies. 2004, page 22–23).

In other words, God is the spirit within all of us that compels us to act for good. Therefore when someone acts in such a way as to destroy or uses God to carry out an act of hate they are not acting Godly. One way to understand the shooter in Orlando this past week is to say he was shutting out the Godly in himself by doing what he did. With understanding God not as force that commands us from outside, but rather a voice that commands us from within to act upon the world, we can see these murderess actions for what they actually were, the acts of a selfish narrascist. The mark he left was mark of destruction not divinity. It was not an act of transcendence. He did not rise above anything internal. Rather he merely used God as an excuse to rationalize what he wanted to do, which was to destroy. When we understand God as a noun this type of fanatical behavior becomes much easier to justify. However, when we begin to understand God as a verb or adjective suddenly we become much more responsible for our actions. Therefore rather than the priestly benediction being award for acting out God’s will, perhaps it is call to a certain action that will bring a certain reward. Therefore perhaps we should understand the priestly benediciton in the following way:

May you cause through your holy actions blessing and protection

Your sacred actions will cause holiness and graciousness to emanate from you

External holy acts will allow divinity to turn inward towards you, and as a result you will granted peace

Rabbi Micah Ellenson

Parshat B’midbar • Numbers 1:1–4:20

“Come on now, count the Omer

You can count the Omer

Come on now, count the Omer

1, 2, 3, 4 Count with me!

Think of us as having just left Egypt (a narrow place)

Liberation’s precious — not a gift to waste

Think about the ways in which we can do our share

The world still needs all of us to work on its repair…”

With this week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, we begin the Book of Numbers. Moses was commanded to take a census, to count the Israelites who had left Egypt. In the later rabbinic mind, the Israelites being counted were also themselves counting, numbering the days between Passover and Shavuot as they awaited acceptance of their sacred obligation. They knew the narrow straights (mitzrim in Hebrew) of Egypt (mitzrayim), and with the acceptance of the commandments on Sinai, learned their role in saving others from the same predicament. These song lyrics, written by Juliet I. Spitzer, remind us that we, too, count. Can we count on you?

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parshat B’har • Leviticus 25:1-26:2

One of my most beloved movie heroes, Ferris Bueller, delivers the following line in the 1986 film which bears his name: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” What Ferris is speaking to in that particular scene could be summarized as justification for an epic day off from school. But what I really think Ferris is speaking to – and, what I believe makes that line so endearing, thirty years later – is the very essence and complicated nature of time.

At one moment, time slips away so quickly – the days pass, the years fly by, and before we know it the reflection staring back at us in the mirror is not the one we expect to see. And alternately, the movement of time can be a gift to those in mourning or recovery seeking distance from a particular episode in their lives; the phrases “just give it time” or “time is a great healer” come to mind.

Judaism is unabashedly obsessed with time and this week’s parsha highlights it. We read in Leviticus 25:8-10: “count off seven sabbath years – seven times seven years – so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land … it shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.

This portion of the parsha speaks to the yovel, or jubilee, occurring every forty-nine years in Jewish tradition. It is in this unique year that the world is to go right again – slaves to be freed, property to be returned. It’s a fresh start, a do-over, proclaimed by the same instrument – the shofar – which calls us to be mindful of so much during the Days of Awe. The medieval Torah scholar Nahmanides, also known as Ramban, explains the purpose of this jubilee year: “it should be a “bringing” for all of you, a year that brings you all back to your holdings and to your families … it shall be a jubilee, a year for bringing you home – and nothing but that.

With due respect to B’har, we need not wait forty-nine years for such an opportunity. Let us seize these precious moments and return “home” – whether that home be physical, emotional, spiritual, or within ourselves. Perhaps inspired by Ferris Bueller himself or by words of Torah brought to life, life does move pretty fast – let us remember to pause, look around, and to bring ourselves home.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen