Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Of Talking Donkeys and Miracles - Parashat Chukat-Balak

It's a double portion this week (Chukat-Balak), but I am choosing to focus my remarks on the passage from Parashat Balak in which, lo and behold, we encounter a talking donkey!

What is a miracle? How can this fanciful story help us to think deeply about the nature of miracles in nature and in our lives?

Wishing you a week of deep consideration,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

This week's video will be displayed here, on YouTube.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

KORACH: The Spiritual Life in the Material World

Dear Friends,

I'm spending this week away from the office. In lieu of a video message, I am re-posting an essay about the weekly portion, Korach (Num. 16:1 - 18:32). This article first appeared as one of last year's "Reform Voices of Torah" submissions for the Union for Reform Judaism's weekly "Ten Minutes of Torah" program. I welcome your comments and questions!


Rabbi Jonathan Blake

The Spiritual Life in the Material World

The title figure of this week’s portion, Korach, is one of four rebels to launch an ill-fated coup-d’etat against the leadership of Aaron and Moses. Korach repudiates Moses and Aaron's authority, claiming that "all the community are holy" (Num. 16:3). Moses initiates a contest pitting himself and Aaron against Korach and his followers. Participants will ignite incense to determine which leaders represent God’s elect. God is seen to have rejected Korach’s claim to holy authority when “a fire went forth from the Eternal and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.”

More than a few have observed that Korach’s spoken grievance appeals to a sensible reader’s notions of fair play. “”For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself about the Eternal’s congregation?” he protests to Moses and Aaron (Ibid). Indeed, the Torah has already implied that all Israelites may lay claim to holiness: “… you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).

So what was Korach’s big mistake? We could propose many answers: an unbridled lust for power and prestige; a failure to honor God’s selection of Moses and Aaron for leadership; arrogance, evident in Korach’s dissatisfaction with his already high station in Israelite society. (The man was, after all, a Levite and a first cousin of Moses and Aaron – a person of influence even without the mantle bestowed on his more illustrious cousins.)

To these customary explanations we could add one more. Korach’s fatal flaw was his allegiance to the Material over the Spiritual. Korach got caught up in the material trappings of power when the actual job called for acute sensitivity to the spiritual dimension of leadership.

We derive this teaching from a Talmudic legend that identifies Korach as the richest man to depart Egypt in the Exodus. In a classic example of Rabbinic hyperbole, Rabbi Levi taught that it took three hundred mules to carry just the keys to Korach’s treasure chambers—and these were keys of leather! (Sanhedrin 110a). As to the source of his wealth, the same Talmudic tradition suggests that Joseph had stored up treasure in Egypt, some of which fell to Korach; another midrash proposes that Korach had served as Pharaoh’s finance minister and thus had access to his riches (Bemidbar Rabbah 18:15). To this day, if one wants to exclaim in Yiddish that a person is extremely wealthy, one says that “he is as rich as Korach” (“Er is reich vi Korach!”).

Such folklore paints a picture of a man who privileged the Material over the Spiritual, who related more to possessions than people, and who despite his riches would have made the poorest of Jewish leaders.

Make no mistake: Judaism understands and values the world of material things and even money. Our religion discourages asceticism. Judaism urges us not to disengage from the “real world,” but rather to work and earn industriously, and then enjoy the fruits of our labor. Jewish law frowns on vows of poverty—in fact, one should not give more than twenty percent of one’s income to charity lest he place his household in a precarious financial state. The paramount mitzvah of tzedakah presupposes that money makes a real difference in the lives of people in need and is essential to the ongoing repair of the world. The way in which our religion consistently downplays concern about a purported afterlife in favor of the pursuit of holiness here in the physical world further attests that Judaism is rooted in the material world.

But there is also the spiritual dimension of human existence—that which Korach neglected. The very story of the Jewish people evinces a religious evolution from worship of the physical to veneration of the spiritual. Beginning with Abraham, who, legend says, shattered his father’s idols, through Jacob, who pried a blessing from the night messenger and became Yisra’el, the one who Struggles with The Divine, to Moses, who demanded of God, “Show me Your Face!” but whose request was rebuffed, to the Ten Commandments, the second of which forbids graven images, we have progressed from reliance on the visible to reverence for the hidden.

Even our most sacred Biblical relic undergoes a transformation from artifact to idea: Jewish law begins as a set of tablets—a one-of-a-kind totem, words literally engraved in stone—later becomes a Torah scroll, mere ink on parchment—and from there is transformed into the precept, “These words which I have commanded you this day, shall be upon your heart.” So does our faith proceed from stone to parchment to the human heart. Even as we parade the Torah around our congregation with joyful singing, arms outstretched, and affectionate kisses, we adore not the scroll itself nor its finery, but the hallowed words within—the mythic narrative, legislation, and poetry that midrash aptly calls “black fire on white fire.”

For the thoughtful person the Spiritual matters at least as much as the Material. Think of how many of our most excruciating struggles transpire with intangibles. Are these any less “real?” We call the toll of lost love “heartbreak.” We suffer mysterious malaises brought on not by virus or bacteria or injury, but by the dark force of stress. We are as much thought and emotion as we are blood and bone and skin. Grief can bend the back; shame, lower the head; surprise, make the hair stand up on end; rage, simmer within; joy, warm the soul.

Without cultivating the life of the spirit—without striving to apprehend the invisible, the essential, we become hollow men and women, all flesh and no soul. We become like Korach—obsessed with mere things, unable to attain holiness, unfit for the blessings that attend a “kingdom of priests.”

Antoine de St. Exupery’s Little Prince said it best. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Monday, June 15, 2009

Viral Culture, Then and Now: Musings on Parashat Shelach-Lecha (Num. 13:1 - 15:41)

Please note: Video link follows at the end of this written message.

Dear fellow students of Torah,

This week's commentary interweaves ideas from Bill Wasik's new book "And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture" (New York: Viking, 2009) with thoughts inspired by this week's Torah portion, Shelach-Lecha. The story told in this week's Torah portion comments intriguingly on the viral culture of our time. The way in which the spies are able to spread a "viral story" through a mass population in certain ways resembles the way in which Internet-driven phenomena can take hold of the public in our day with astonishing speed and effectiveness, which is the subject of Wasik's book. Is this where the similarity ends (or perhaps is there more)?

Given that we live in (and are the products of) a culture in which the latest "nanostory" (Wasik's neologism) is positioned to occupy the center of our attention, what can we do to create and hold onto narratives of more lasting meaning and value, stories that are not ephemeral but enduring?

I'd like to propose our ongoing study of Torah itself as one such source of an enduring narrative, a bulwark against the frenzy of nanostories bombarding us every day.

With shalom and wishes for meaningful study and reflection - Rabbi Jonathan Blake

I have posted the video here.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Levites, Laity, and Parashat Beha'alotecha


Please see Num. 8:13-19, an excerpt from this week's Torah portion, Beha'alotecha. In this passage, the entire tribe of the Levites is designated in service to God in place of the first-born sons of every household. This appears to have represented a transformation in the notion of sacrifice and service within the religious community of ancient Israel.

From this transformation, I draw inferences about the "double-edged sword" of a professionalized clergy class within liberal streams of Judaism. In most Reform and Conservative Jewish communities, a professionalized rabbinate and cantorate has led to disproportionate expectations of religious service placed upon the clergy and removed from the personal responsibilities of lay members of the congregation.

What do you think? Please comment!


Rabbi Jonathan Blake

PLEASE NOTE: I am having trouble uploading the video I recorded this week. In the meantime I have posted it on YouTube, here. Thanks for your understanding!


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sin, Guilt, and Confession: A Meaningful Passage in Parashat Naso

If you have a Bible nearby, check out Num. 5:5-7 as you take in this week's message.

May your week be one of blessing....
- Rabbi Jonathan Blake