Savor Every Joy for We Never Know When it May Suddenly End

( A thought about Parashat Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

After a lifetime in his younger brother Moses’ shadow, Aaron was finally having his moment! Moses led the people from slavery. Moses received Torah on Mt Sinai. Aaron was always “the second banana.”

But for eight glorious days all of that was behind him as he reveled in the ceremony establishing him as the high priest of the people.

And then in an instant the celebration turned to ashes.

Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu offered “esh zarah” “alien fire” (Leviticus 10:1) on the altar of the Eternal One and in an instant the fire consumed them.


Midrashic and modern commentators offer several explanations:

They wished Moses and Aaron dead so they could take over the leadership of the people (B. Sanhedrin 52a).
They worshipped idols.
They were irreverent.
They were drunk
They attempted—unauthorized–to enter the holy of holies.

But no explanation satisfies.

We will never know why Nadav and Abihu died but the account teaches us a vital lesson illustrated by this story told by Rabbi Jack Riemer!

A weeping man lingered at his wife’s gravesite after her tragic death. In time the rabbi urged him to return to the car waiting to take him home.

“You don’t understand, Rabbi,” the man weeped, “I loved her!”

“I know you loved her,” the rabbi answered…”

“I loved her,” the man interrupted, “and once, I almost told her.”

Tragedy can strike any one of us in an instant.

In a moment our joy can turn to sorrow and our dreams to ashes. No amount of money, power or fame protects us from that possibility.

The tragedy of Nadav and Abihu urges us to embrace and savor every moment of joy and love that life offers because none of us can know what tomorrow will bring.

A Living Torah! Quick Comment: Parashat Massey (Numbers 33:1-36:13)

The Book of Numbers ends with a modification to the ruling that Zelophehad’s daughters could inherit their father’s property (Numbers 27).

The tribesmen of Zelophehad appeal the ruling saying if the daughters marry outside the tribe, the tribe’s holdings would diminish.

God and Moses uphold the appeal and rule that Zelophehad’s daughters are free to marry whom they wish but only within their tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 36:12).

Without diminishing the enormous gain for women’s rights that the original ruling represented, the appeal verdict maintains tribal integrity (perhaps not important to us but certainly important then).

As it turns out Zelophehad’s daughters victory opened the door to the expansion of women’s rights in subsequent Jewish law, a process that the rabbis of the Mishnah (200BCE – 200CE) pursued enthusiastically.

By the first pre Christian century Jewish law instituted the Ketubah, a contract, as the basis for marriage. It’s most important provision was a lien on the husband’s property for a substantial sum to be paid to the wife if he divorced his wife or if he died (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 82b).

Although technically a woman could not divorce her husband, the rabbis approved a broad array of circumstances under which a woman could take her husband to court, which would force the husband to divorce and pay his wife the value of her Ketubah. These circumstances included changing jobs or location without his wife’s consent, (Babylonian Talmud, 52b, 110b; Mishnah Ketubot 13:10) and refusing to try to meet her sexual needs, (Mishnah, Ketubot 5:6).

The final words of the Book of Numbers testify that the Torah must prudently adapt to changing realities while maintaining Torah’s sanctity. The Rabbis of the Talmud and MIshnah were up to that challenge. Are we?

Cloud Control (longer comment, corrected, on Torah portion Va-yakhel – Pekude

In its account of the completion of the desert tabernacle, the Torah includes a startling detail: When the work of the Mishkan (tabernacle) was complete, a cloud of smoke filled the sanctuary. It was so thick that Moses himself could not enter. Only Aaron and his sons had the privilege. (Exodus 40:35)

Professor Ellis Rivkin, z”l, of the Hebrew Union College in his 1971 book, The Shaping of Jewish History wonders: How could it be that Moses who regularly went out to the simple tent of meeting to commune with God and relay God’s instructions to the Children of Israel (Exodus 33:8-9) could not even enter the elaborate Tabernacle whose completion the Torah celebrates?

The answer, Rivkin writes, is that by the time the Torah was actually written, descendants of Aaron had effectively taken control not only of religious life in ancient Israel but political and economic life as well. Moses’ role in our people’s history would never be matched, but it would never be replicated! The cloud in the Mishkan excluding Moses but allowing Aaron and his sons to enter represented this starling takeover.

The Clouds Are Still There

To a significant extent the cloud still fills the sanctuary. There are those who would stifle the Progressive Jewish voice and leave many to regard our precious heritage as a daunting set of rules and regulations which they do not understand.

We must push that cloud up off of the tabernacle that represents our sacred tradition! Each of us should encounter and understand God in our own way as Moses did before the cloud filled the sanctuary.

Before the cloud descended God made a sacred Covenant with Abraham and with our people forever! In that Covenant God promised to:

·     Protect us

·     Give us children

·     Make us a permanent people – 4000 years certainly strikes me as permanent –

·     Give us the land of Israel!

A Reciprocal Covenant

But a covenant is reciprocal; we do not get those wonderful rewards for nothing. In return God charged us to do three essential things:

·     “ברכה והיה Be a blessing!” (Genesis 12:2)

·     “תמים והיה לפני התהלך   Understand and follow God’s teachings as best we can! (Genesis 17:1),” my translation. Literally: “Walk in My ways and be worthy!”

·     Fill the world and teach your children and future generations to fill the world with: ומשפט צדקה Righteousness and justice! (Genesis 18:19)

To Repair the World

When we push the cloud off of the tabernacle, we shall realize that the essential message of Judaism is for each of us to work in our own way and with our own individual talents and interests to uphold our end of our Covenant with God. In so doing our ultimate goal is: העולם את לתקן to repair this broken world, fill it more and more with “righteousness and justice”, and leave for our children and grandchildren a more just, caring and compassionate society than the one in which we now live.

ומשפט צדקה–וצדקה משפט Righteousness and justice – justice and righteousness! These are the values the prophets continually exhorted our people to uphold. These are the values that have inspired the world at large!

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. concluded his most famous speech in August, 1963, on the Mall in Washington DC, he invoked these values in an unattributed quotation from the Prophet Amos (Amos 5:24): “Let (משפט) –justice—roll down like waters and (צדקה) like a mighty stream!”

The Cloud over Israel

Nowhere, perhaps, will the cloud of entrenched religious authority be harder to lift off the tabernacle than in Israel itself. The work of Progressive communities – which I have seen with my own eyes – in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Mivaseret Tzion, Modi’in, Haifa, Rosh Ha-Ayin, Carmiel, and Tivon is inspiring. Our rabbis there have built communities against all odds starting from scratch.

In Israel’s largest city, Tel Aviv. Standing on the balcony with Rabbi Meir Azari of Mishkanot Ruth, with a panoramic view in every direction, he told me, “Within our sight range there are more potential Progressive Jews than anywhere in a similar sized area in the world.”

The Prophet Isaiah taught us more than 3000 years ago (Isaiah 2:3): “From Zion shall go forth Torah and the word of the Eternal One from Jerusalem!” Israel is the birthplace of our history and the symbol of our ideals. Our love for her – with all her imperfections – is without measure!

We Need Israel, but Israel Also Needs Us

Yes, From Zion shall go forth Torah, but the reverse is also true: To Zion we must bring Torah and the word of the Eternal One to Jerusalem! Israel needs our visits, our wisdom, our experience, our encouragement and our support. When Israel appears to fall short of the values of “righteousness and justice” we must stand with those within Israel who offer their loyal critique!

When I first visited Kehilat Bavat Ayin in Rosh Ha-Ayin six years ago, Rabbi Ayala Miron spoke of the difficulties she encountered as a female Reform rabbi in a heartland city in Israel with a strong Yemenite Orthodox tradition. “You can be sure,” she said, “that the City Fathers did not greet me with flowers.” When I spoke there three years ago, I made it a point to greet her with flowers to let her know: “Jews around the world are with you!”

But we have a long way to go!

As Vickie and I sat with the professional staff of Bet Daniel in Tel Aviv they shocked us when they said: “The biggest problem in Israel is assimilation! If we begin our most important prayer: “שראלי שמע, Hear O Israel“ they continued, “an alarming percentage of Israelis would not be able to complete the sentence from Deuteronomy with, “”The Eternal One is our God, the Eternal One alone (Deuteronomy 6:4)!”

We must push the cloud of the Tabernacle and replace it with knowledge and spiritual meaning. We must restore our houses of worship to their original purpose: a place where God’s spirit can dwell (Exodus 25:8) If we wish to meet that formidable challenge, we must offer our people serious study of Torah and an understanding of the meaning of our prayers.

We must make our mishkanot worthy of the description of the word we often sing on entering the synagogue: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your mishkanot –your tabernacles – O Israel (Numbers 24:5)!”

If we are to push the cloud away we cannot simply intone our prayers mindlessly! We must know and teach what they mean, what their historical context is, and how can they help us live more meaningful Jewish lives!

No outside force can destroy us!

As the children of Israel were on their 40-year journey from slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land, Balak, King of Moab was afraid that we would overrun his land.So he hired Balaam, a world famous sorcerer, to put a curse on us so that his forces could defeat us! Despite all the riches Balak could offer, Balaam – try as he might – could only bless us with the words: “Mah Tovu! How lovely are your tents…” When we understand its biblical context, the ancient prayer teaches us a vital modern lesson:

No outside force – no Balak, King of Moab, no Pharaoh, no Haman, no Torquemada, no Tsar, and no Hitler – can ever destroy us!

But Will We Destroy Ourselves?

Only we can destroy ourselves. We can destroy ourselves by turning away from our sacred Covenant! No! No outside force can destroy us, but we can destroy ourselves by failing to keep pushing the clouds that block understanding, purpose and meaning from our lives as Jews! We must always strive to push the cloud off the tabernacle and make real the world of which the prophets Isaiah and Micah dreamed when they said:

“They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal On as the seabed is covered by waters (Isaiah 11:9).”

And all humankind shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees with none to make them afraid (Micah 4:4).”

We Can’t Let This Happen! (Quick Comment on Torah portion (Va-yakhel-Pekude)

Earlier in Exodus we read that Moses would go into to the Tent of Meeting where God would talk to him (Exodus 33:9). By the end of Exodus, though, we read: “Moses could not to enter into the Tent of Meeting because the cloud settled upon it…  (Exodus 40:35).”

As Professor  Ellis Rivkin pointed out in The Shaping of Jewish History this radical shift represents a takeover of Jewish life by the descendants of Aaron who became a hereditary ruling class and usurped complete control of Jewish life. “Any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death (Numbers 3:10).”

What does this teach us?

We must push the cloud off the tent and see God’s instruction as accessible to us as it was to Moses. We dare not cede ultimate authority to priests ministers, rabbis or Imams. Yes, we should respect and study their teachings. But our own conscience and desire, as God charged Abraham, “To do what is just and right (Genesis 18:19)” should determine our actions.

How often in history have people done atrocious things simply because the ruling authorities told them to. The Nazi era was able to wreak its horrors not just because of evil leaders, but because good people unquestionably obeyed an authority that led them down a horrible path.

God’s greatest gift to humanity is a mind we can use to make considered decisions as to how we will act. When we allow “a cloud” to block us from God’s teaching, we impoverish our spirit. If instead we push the cloud off the tabernacle by studying and earnestly seeking the contemporary message of Biblical teachings we can draw closer to the Divine Image in which we were created and make a better world for our children, grandchildren and future generations.

Anti-Semitism: Something We Try to Keep in Check But Can’t Seem to CURE

Me speaking on Kristallnacht , November 9, 2014 at the site in Leipzig where the great synagogue stood before it was burned to the ground by the Nazis on November 9, 1938
 Me  speaking on Kristallnacht , November 9, 2014 at the site in Leipzig where the great synagogue stood before it was burned to the ground by the Nazis on November 9, 1938

My thoughts as I prepare to speak at Shabbat services at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, NJ, in Commemoration of the Shoah. Many thanks to Rabbi Renee Edelman for the invitation 

In Leviticus chapter 10 there is a chilling scene: While Aaron was celebrating his investiture as High Priest of Israel, his two older sons, Nadav and Abihu lay dead before him. Just as Jews in Germany and the rest of Europe enjoyed unprecedented economic and social success, Hitler rose to power and suddenly–within twelve years–European Jewry was no more.

Just as the Biblical text tells us that Aaron was silent in the face of the tragedy, so too, the Jewish world was all but silent about the Holocaust for more than 30 years. The enormity of the tragedy belied any attempt to explain, analyze or understand it.

To articulate the horror was to relive it!

In the biblical text, though, once Aaron had washed off the anointing oil, and the bodies were outside the precinct of the tent of meeting, the Israelites accepted God’s command to publicly mourn the slain boys.

Our experience with the Holocaust again parallels the Bible. With the passage of time the Jewish community has been able to mourn. Moreover, we have sealed in our collective memory the Holocaust’s enormous reality.

So we commemorate it, we build memorials, we build museums, and we conduct programs and rituals of various types. In so doing we try to make sense of the inexplicable.

More than 70 years after the end of World War II survivors are rapidly dying off, and our urgency to remember grows. Pseudo-historians challenge the Holocaust’s validity while we Jews continue to think of each of our children in the words of Zechariah, as “A brand plucked from the fire.” (Zechariah 3;2)

Jews have achieved much since the end of World War II. We are comfortable for the most part, and except in the Arab world, there is no official anti-Semitism anywhere.

But anti-Semitism is a chronic disease!

We can try to keep it in check, but we cannot cure it. Today it is once again on the rise in many parts of Europe. And if it seems to some that we are a bit too sensitive about it, I would rather be too sensitive than oblivious to a force which history proves can rise up to engulf us. We dare not forget that Hitler was the butt of beer hall jokes in the late 20’s. By 1933 he was the Chancellor of all Germany.

In every country where Jews have lived–since we entered Egypt as protected relatives of the Pharaoh’s advisor Joseph–to the present day, our fortunes have been subject to change.

Our protected status in Egypt gave way to slavery and oppression. England, France, Spain, Portugal, Poland–just about every country where we have ever lived–has expelled us from its borders. So if we seem a bit too quick to react to anti-Jewish messages, we trust and hope our friends will understand.

There is a famous Hasidic story of an enthusiastic disciple, who exclaimed to his beloved Rabbi, “My Master, I love you.”

“You say you love me,” the Rabbi replied. “Do you know what hurts me?”
“But Master,” the student responded, “how can I know what hurts you?’

“If you do not know what hurts me,” the Rabbi concluded, “you cannot love me.”

What hurts me? The failure or refusal by so many to acknowledge the reality of history’s lessons and the danger of anti-Semitism today hurt me very much.

The renowned Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, of blessed memory, said it best. For nearly 2000 years the classical Christian message was that Christianity was the only valid religion, and that Judaism was an illegitimate faith.

Because of that belief, Christian governments told Jews in place after place, “You cannot live here as Jews.” And in country after country Christian authorities forced us to convert.

Time went on, and often the message became,“You cannot live here.” And Christian and Muslim authorities expelled us from their lands.

Hitler took the message a step further:

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