Thursday, June 23, 2011

KORACH 5771: Guest D'var Torah by Michele B., WRT Congregant and Torah Study "Regular"

Dear Friends: I'm away this week and pleased to share with you the following remarks by Michele Braun who studies Torah at WRT and who offers this week's D'var Torah.

Yours very warmly,

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Shabbat Shalom.

This week’s Torah portion covers Numbers chapters 16 - 18. It is called Korach, after the first [major] word in the section and after the protagonist. This is the story of a rebellion against Moses’s leadership. A rebellion that is put down completely, after which none of the rebels are left standing.

Here’s the short version, told in a few excerpts from the text:

“Korach…, Dathan…, and Abiram… took up, and they rose before Moses, and two hundred fifty men of the Israelites, community chieftains, persons called up to meeting, men of renown. And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron and said to them “You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is the Lord, and why should you raise yourselves up over the Lord’s assembly?”

Shortly thereafter, “the ground that was under them split apart, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households and every human being that was Korah’s, and all the possessions.” … “and they perished from the midst of the assembly.” … “And a fire had gone out from the Lord, and consumed the 250 men….”

On the following day, “all the community of Israelites murmured … against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You, you have put to death the Lord’s people.” Then it appears that God unleashes a “scourge” – a plague of some sort? And, finally, to reaffirm Aaron’s authority as religious leader, God arranges a dramatic display: staffs from each tribe’s leader are collected, and Aaron’s staff -- but only Aaron’s staff -- sprouts flowers and almonds. (This latter bit is reminiscent of the trick that Moses and Aaron performed for Pharaoh back in Egypt – remember the staffs that turned into snakes and gotten eaten by Moses’s staff/snake?)

That’s the story. Reading it a few time through prompted me to start musing about the nature and value of dissent. A few questions come to mind:

1 – Why tell this story?

2 – Why rebel?

3 – Was God’s response appropriate?

First: It’s a story. Why tell it?

We don’t know if the events related here took place, took place during the 40 years that the tribes of Israel spent wandering in the desert, or if the story developed later. All we can know is that by the time the book of Numbers was redacted the story was there.

Scholars suggest that these passages may actually recount several rebellions, somewhat awkwardly compressed together. One of these rebellions would have been led by Korach, a member of the Levite tribe that served in the tabernacle. His rebellion appears directed at Moses and Aaron, at their religious leadership. These rebels, along with their families and possessions, are swallowed up by the ground that split open under them.

The second rebellion would have been led by Dathan and Abiram, of the tribe of Judah. This rebellion appears directed at Moses alone and was supported by “community leaders and men of renown.” Perhaps this rebellion reflected dissatisfaction with the civil leadership. These rebels were consumed by fire.

The most obvious reason for telling these stories is to show that God’s choice of leaders is not open to discussion and the punishment for objecting to the designated leadership is absolute. No objections are permitted. The message was delivered in a very public way: The text says that “…they perished from the midst of the assembly. And all Israel that was round about them fled at the sound of them, for they thought ‘Lest the earth swallow us.’ ” Rebels dead. Message delivered. What’s not to understand?

Not satisfied with these two accounts of rebellion followed by swift and final retribution, the text tells that the next day, all the community “murmured” against Moses and against Aaron. That is, despite the very dramatic evidence that rebellion doesn’t pay, protests continued, even spread. (Sound familiar?) The protests, this time, were about the unfair nature of the retribution. Let’s call this a third rebellion against the leadership. Because the “murmuring” is widespread, so too is the response, which comes in the form of a plague. Message reinforced: It’s not just the leaders of the rebellion who were destroyed but anyone who supported them… even if that support was limited to being appalled by the punishment.

For a second reason for these events, let’s look though the lens of political economy. Thus: this is a story about the formation of a people and its institutions. If this collection of tribes, plus perhaps some non-Israelite peoples, is to survive to become the nation so often promised in the Torah, it will need institutions, tools for continuity and permanence. God’s goal, or that of the redactor, is to create a group, a people, and ultimately a nation, unified. All effort must be toward that goal and significant attempts to undermine those goals and that unity must be suppressed. Any deviation, any distraction cannot be countenanced.

Next question: why rebel?

The text says that “Korach…, Dathan…, and Abiram… took up, and they rose before Moses….” The phrase that these three men “took up” is unresolved. A word -- a noun – is missing. We’re not told what they took up: Arms? Protests? The turn of phrase is discordant and unsettling.

The next sentence helps a bit: “And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron and said to them “You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is the Lord, and why should you raise yourselves up over the Lord’s assembly?” This sounds like Moses and Aaron being accused of centralized control, of taking too much power. This could be a real – perhaps legitimate? – complaint.

Were Moses and Aaron making bad decisions? Were they keeping too much day-to-day control of rules and decisions, on issues both large and small? Were they giving prominent roles or power to only a chosen few? Were they unfairly restricting access to the tabernacles, which could be seen as limiting access to God? Remember that only certain people (Aaron’s descendants) could serve in the tabernacle, could lead the sacrifices. But this is supposed to be everyone’s god.

The rebels did ask “why should you raise yourselves up over the Lord’s assembly?” Could the rebels have meant: who are you and yours to be so special? Alternatively, was the leader of the rebellion a malcontent who wanted more power? What did the chieftains and community leaders who supported the rebellion expect to get out of it? What were they promised in exchange for their support? Status? A closer relationship with God? Something more tangible? The text provides no hints.

I’ve been using the word “rebellion” to describe these events. Rebellion is a strong word; it conjures up images of violence and revolution. However, we don’t actually know that these events were “rebellions.” Maybe a different, more nuanced, word is appropriate. How about “dissent?” Dissent is milder. It encompasses action, perhaps non-violent protests, or civil disobedience, or letters to the editor, or tweets of complaint.

Maybe our protestors just wanted a greater voice in the creation of this new entity, the “people of Israel.”

Third question: Was God’s response appropriate?

Here’s another Bible story, with a different response to dissent: This week’s Haftarah portion recounts the prophet Samuel’s answer to a leadership challenge. In the face of military threat from Nahash, king of the Ammonites, the people ask for a king. Samuel takes pains to affirm the quality of his leadership, to make sure that there are no civil, religious, or military blotches on his record. Then he anoints Saul as Israel’s first king. Although both King Saul and Prophet Samuel are beholden to God, now, for the first time, the Israelite people have separate civil and religious rulers. Although the populace does worry about God’s response, God takes no action, does not objection.

Looking again through the lens of political economy, the Samuel story shows that dissent can motivate societal change.

Sociologists and theologians like to talk about “response to modernity.” Usually, this question focuses on the last hundred years or so. Or maybe on more current -- “post modern” -- times. But response-to-modernity occurs as every generation faces the challenges and innovations of its “modern” world. Even to a now-ancient world.

In the case of Moses and Aaron, the loose-knit tribes had just faced change. The leaders were trying to build stability, structure, and permanence. The Samuel story, on the other hand, suggests that the dissent indicated a need for change; the dissent was a force motivating that change.

One final observation: Despite the rather fantastical ways in which these rebellions were put down – swallowed by rifts in the ground, toasted by heavenly flashes of fire, these stories have a ring of reality about them.

If they didn’t occur precisely as told, I would still posit that these are based on real events. Objections to leadership, dissent, protests against centralized power, complaints and murmurings… these sound credible. And familiar.

Michele Braun

June 24, 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011

INTERN BLOGGING: Parashat Shelach-Lecha

Dear Readers,

I'm very happy to share with you some Torah reflections from Maqy Quartner and Anna Blitstein. Maqy and Anna served for six weeks as interns in residence at WRT as part of Scarsdale High School's mandatory Senior Options program for all graduating seniors. They assisted the clergy with preparations for Confirmation, Adult Education, and 20s/30s programming; they shadowed me for several weeks and learned the ins and outs of our synagogue behind the scenes. Most of all, they brought an eagerness to help out in any way possible, tremendous intellectual and spiritual curiosity, and a positive attitude! It was a pleasure working with them.

I join the professional staff of WRT in thanking Maqy and Anna for their contributions and service. Their remarks (below) are very kind. I promise I did not tell them what to say.


In Sh’lach L’cha, God instructs Moses to send some emissaries to scout the land of Canaan. Much in the same way, we—Maqy Quartner and Anna Blitstein-- have been “spies” in the temple for the past 40 days.

All seniors at Scarsdale High School must participate in internships or independent projects for the last six weeks of school. As part of this program, called “Senior Options,” we have worked with Rabbi Blake, as well as other temple clergy and administration. As such, we were much like the spies from this week’s portion. We had insights into the inside life of the temple. Some of our peers took a more typical route than we did. They found “normal” internships at places such as stores, schools, or companies. Working for Rabbi Blake was a break from the norm, as his job is far from typical.

That is not to say that Rabbi Blake does not conduct his day-to-day work-life much like anyone else. There are many aspects of his job that one could describe as typical. He has a schedule full of meetings with congregants; he attends a weekly staff meeting; he has to make copies; he has conference calls; he attends business luncheons. As we observed him in these roles, we may have received the average senior options experience. However, our experience went far beyond just this, as Rabbi Blake’s job is not limited to these mundane tasks. While his daily schedule may be packed with meetings, it is entirely possible—and likely—that this schedule will completely change on a given day, as special meetings or funerals come up. We observed how adept Rabbi Blake is to changing gears spontaneously, as new things arise that he must attend to. Additionally, Rabbi Blake’s job separates itself from others as he is able to make personal connections with people that may not be possible from other jobs. As a rabbi, he not only relates to congregants but also forms special bonds with them by sharing in the joyous as well as the unfortunate occasions in their lives. Because congregants value their connections to Rabbi Blake, they feel comfortable asking him for advice, guidance, or just a listening ear.

We have had such a memorable experience over these last six weeks and we would like to thank Rabbi Blake as well as everyone else at the temple for giving us the opportunity to work here. We hope that we have helped you to ease your load as much as possible. This has been an experience that we will never forget.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Dear Friends,

Numbers Chapter 11, from this week's portion is all about complaining! The Israelites kvetch (whine) that they miss the delicacies of Egypt -- "We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost--also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic" (Num. 11:5). Their complaining incenses Moses and God; it is a sign of shortsighted ingratitude.

My posting this week is a series of questions:

- How do our complaints get in the way of our gratitude?
- What do you most often kvetch about? How does it make you feel when you complain? How does it make others feel?
- If you could drop one complaint from your life, what would it be, and why? How are your complaints holding you back?
- When is a complaint useful?

Wishing you a kvetch-free Shabbat!

Shabbat Shalom,

Friday, June 3, 2011

NASO 5771

NASO 5771

We are the stories we tell about ourselves. The stories that African-American communities tell about the nature of our great country differ, at least in emphasis if not in major talking points, from the stories that White Anglo-Saxon Protestant communities tell.

Because communities evolve over time to resemble their stories, the oldest stories exert the most powerful influence. This is why the Bible is so important. For almost 2,500 years we have turned to our Master Story in order to understand not only who we were long ago, but also who we are right now.

In the next few minutes I want to share with you two stories from our Master Story. Each depicts one of the most insidious conflicts in Jewish history, the clash between the Israelites and the Philistines.

The first story comes from the Bible’s Book of First Samuel. The Philistine warrior Goliath, “six cubits and a span,” about ten feet tall, emerges from the Philistine camp. “He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and was armed with a coat of mail weighing five thousand shekels of bronze,” about twelve pounds. “He wore bronze armor on his legs, with a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head alone weighed six hundred shekels [almost a pound and a half] of iron” (I Sam. 17:4-7). Goliath challenges King Saul to nix the armies, and instead present one worthy adversary whom Goliath would fight man-to-man, hand-to-hand. We remember what happens next: the boy David approaches and taunts the giant: “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (Ibid, v. 26). David suits up and runs to the line of combat, carrying a sling and a pouch. “Putting his hand in his bag, David removed a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine.... The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground” (Ibid, v. 48).

This is the Bible story that we tell most often about the modern State of Israel, the story that Israel tells to encapsulate her brief and turbulent history: that she is little David while Goliath personifies the entire Arab Middle East: the mighty sea of nations hostile to Israel’s existence, who time and time again have risen up to challenge her, and have been struck down, thanks to Israel’s determination, courage, and surgical precision in battle, not unlike a stone slung square to the enemy’s forehead. We tell the story of David and Goliath especially in light of the ’67 war, the miraculous six-day siege that drove back enemies on every side and dramatically enlarged Israel’s territory to approach, irony intended here, its boundaries under King David.

It is with a further appreciation for irony that I note here that today’s Palestinians derive their name from the Biblical Philistines (by way of the Roman name for the Holy Land, Palestina). The Palestinian cause, a nationalist movement emerging in the mid-1960’s under the banner of the pointedly named “Palestine Liberation Organization,” exhibited remarkable savvy, and chutzpah, by choosing to identify their fledgling “nation” with ancient Israel’s arch-enemies.

There is another famous Biblical story about Israelites and Philistines and therefore, by extension, about Israelis and Palestinians: the story of Samson and Delilah. Samson, the Bible’s great strongman, is a Nazirite, a person dedicated to God through certain oaths: foremost, that no razor shall touch the Nazirite’s consecrated hair. The law of the Nazirite comes from this week’s Torah portion Naso and with this in mind, the Haftarah for this Shabbat tells the story of the most famous Nazirite.

You know this story, too: Samson--he of the rippling muscles and Rapunzel tresses--comes of age during a fever pitch in the Israeli-Palestinian, I mean, Israelite-Philistine, conflict. (You see how it easy it is to conflate the two.) As a young man Samson roams into enemy territory, falls in love with a Philistine woman (not Delilah), and marries her despite his parents’ objections. Given access to the enemy, he promptly ditches the wife and begins to aggravate the Philistines, burning their crops, engaging in lopsided skirmishes in which he kills up to a thousand of them single-handedly, and foiling a Philistine ambush.

He falls in love again, this time with Delilah, whom the Philistines bribe to discover the secret of Samson’s strength. After a few aborted attempts, her feminine wiles overcome him and he confesses. While Samson sleeps, the Philistines sneak in and cut off his hair, rendering him impotent as Superman in the grip of Kryptonite. The Philistines capture him, torture him, put him to forced labor.

While in captivity his hair slowly grows back. At a festival in the temple of the Philistine god Dagon, where the enemy has displayed Samson for the amusement of a jeering public, Samson grips the pillars, pulling them to the ground, destroying the temple, decapitating the Philistine elite, and martyring himself.

Many people sympathetic to the Palestinian cause have embraced this Bible story as the definitive narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, depicting Israel as bloodthirsty brute, unmatchable in military strength but more easily tripped up through plots and schemes that make it easy to accuse Israel of deploying disproportionate force, answering sticks and stones with tanks and gunships. In these circles, Israel is portrayed as Samson, responding to the slightest of provocations by slaying a thousand at once.

We, of course, bristle at the comparison. We know that Israel trains its soldiers rigorously in the ethics of combat. I do believe that Israel agonizes over how to respond to rockets fired from Gaza into Sderot, how to preserve the dignity of Palestinian laborers trying to get through a West Bank checkpoint while remaining vigilant against the one rogue terrorist who could obliterate dozens of innocent civilians in the blink of an eye.

We can say to ourselves, Israel is not savage Samson, the muscleman with the itchy trigger finger; no, Israel is little David! Israel is the boy warrior with his slingshot, facing down all these other hostile countries, especially the giant Iran.

But the point is that we are the stories we tell.

And if we resent the appropriation of the Samson story to serve the Palestinian cause, we had better approach with equal caution before adopting the David story as our own master narrative.

For while both stories have much to say about Israelites and Philistines, about Israelis and Palestinians, in the final analysis all stories prove ill-equipped to address real-world complexities, nuances, and ambiguities.

In this week’s Sunday Times Review of Books, Adam Kirsch summarized some trends in recent books about World War II. In concluding his essay, he wrote: “… [T]he present is always lived in ambiguity…. It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth — because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a ‘good war,’ and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat.”

Simply put, the stories we tell, particularly about great and brutal conflicts, tend to oversimplify: to speak of heroes and villains, aggressors and victims. We populate our stories with literally outsize characters like Goliath and Samson.

When it comes to Israelis and Palestinians, we need to stop with the stories. We need a major reality check. Israelis and Palestinians are enemies, no less antagonistic than the Israelites and the Philistines before them. But, as Moshe Dayan said: “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” It’s a saying I wish both Netanyahu and Abbas would take more to heart; their overarching “strategy” seems to be the indefinite preservation of the status quo: the same old story.

Real peace will require that that we put our entrenched narratives aside for a moment, our parables with their accusations and recriminations, and start talking to our enemies about the real world, about borders and water rights and settlements and security and Jerusalem.

The Arabs are not Goliath. Israel is not David. Israel is not Samson. The Palestinians are not Delilah. For that matter, speak not of Israelites and Philistines but of Israelis and Palestinians: two peoples forged in the crucible of modern-day nationalist movements.

We are what we are: real-life enemies who have a lot of work to do in order to live side by side without violence, without the shroud of occupation casting a shadow upon the Middle East’s greatest democracy.

We are what we are: two peoples, with two irreconcilably different stories to tell, but only one destiny to fulfill.