Torah Study Notes 10-31-15

October 31, 2015
Today’s NY Times – an illustrated guide to the 613 Jewish Commandments. Class: Seventeen congregants in attendance – plus Doi Cohan.
Page 132
RB: See And Hannah Wept by Michael Gold at response to a Jewish wife’s infertility per question raised last week. He also wrote Does God Belong in the Bedroom.
21:1 The Eternal now remembered Sarah… LL:  Can God forget? SamF: more “ignores” or “overlooks.” AF: It is a question of scheduling. RB: This notion of scheduling works with the Hebrew translation for “the appointed time.” SamF: It could also refer to human time – God’s time is unknown to us.
21:6 Hagar the Egyptian bears a son to Abraham. This is Ishmael. It is unclear what he was doing that disturbed Sarah. Note that she was the one who “set up” Abraham and Hagar and promised to accept Ishmael as her own. Why is there frequently a perceived threat from the second born? There is no story in Genesis in which the first born is dominant. This radically undermines the notion of primogeniture. The authors seem to be looking at attributes of leadership instead of birth order. It is notable that Isaac does not seem to be a high achiever and is most famous for almost being sacrificed.
21: 14 Early next morning…Hagar “places her son on her shoulder”, leaves and, when they run out of water, casts Ishmael under a bush. An Angel leads them to a well. Ishmael then becomes a bowman. Consider Ishmael in Moby Dick as the harpooner. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) is a novel by Herman Melville considered an outstanding work of Romanticism and the American Renaissance. A sailor called Ishmael narrates the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, a white whale which on a previous voyage destroyed Ahab’s ship and severed his leg at the knee. Although the novel was a commercial failure and out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891, its reputation as a Great American Novel grew during the 20th century. William Faulkner confessed he wished he had written it himself,[1] and D. H. Lawrencecalled it “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world”, and “the greatest book of the sea ever written”.[2] “Call me Ishmael” is one of world literature’s most famous opening sentences. CL: It is notable that the Ishmael in Moby Dick is also an outsider as well as the only survivor of the voyage. Does the discarding of the second wife and her child perhaps constitute a criticism or even a rejection of polygamy? RB: Polygamy was not banned in Judaism until the 12th C. And that only applied to the Ashkenazic community – it continued among the Sephardim.
21:22 Abimelech and the water well. Abraham gives him seven lambs and calls the place “Beersheba” which means “they took an oath.” but is also a play on words for seven sheep.  Remember that Abraham also negotiates for Sarah’s grave. He is a negotiator and abjures force. This is an exemplary form of leadership. These vignettes also are fundamental to the Jewish right to the land. The land is purchased – not stolen or taken by force. This in contrast to the ultimate subjugation of the Canaanites.
21:32 Abimelech returns to the land of the Philistines. Abraham plants a tamarind tree.
22: 1 God tests Abraham by challenging him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. Here is the famous phrase “Here I am.” An angel of the Eternal calls out to him and releases him from the obligation to sacrifice his son so Abraham offers a ram instead. LL When and why do the authors use the trope of an angel as messenger rather than have God speak directly? Is there a clear distinction between God and human? God takes on the manifestation of human? See the Essay The Messenger on page 138. RB: This is a major problem with the divinity of Jesus for Jews. Maimonides rejected the idea of God taking on human form as a way of rejecting Christianity. The Reform movement also rejects the notion that God can take on human form. SF There is a cabalistic notion here of an angel as a manifestation of divine force. There is a real force in nature that is beyond our consciousness. Note that Abraham returns to Beersheba without Isaac. The next time we read of Isaac he is in a place associated with his brother Ishmael. This account has been construed as an argument against child sacrifice – which still existed in other cultures.


Trick or Treat: Halloween and Audacious Hospitality

Rabbi Berkowitz’s d’var Torah on parashat Vayera from our Shabbat evening services. Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Each year, I get into an argument with my students about the merits of Purim versus Halloween. If you think about it logically, it makes far more sense to dress up and go house to house giving people candy than to bang on people’s doors and demand it. I never win this argument; just as I never win the argument that a headband with ears on it does not turn a mini-dress into a cat costume.

I don’t have anything against Halloween—or Jewish children’s participation in it. I don’t necessarily think Jewish schools should include it in the curriculum, but an American Jewish child trick-or-treating poses no spiritual threat for me.

I have happy memories of attempting to keep my costume visible under a puffy winter coat, of the spooky house where the local Drivers’ Ed teacher served hot apple cider out of a cobwebbed punch bowl, and of the annual post-trick-or-treat candy exchange with my brothers.

Now, for the first time, I’m preparing to experience Halloween from the other side of the door. And as I read this week’s Torah portion, I wondered: How would Abraham and Sarah welcome their trick-or-treaters?

Abraham and Sarah are known for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, or what our movement now calls “audacious hospitality.” That distinction stems from this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, where Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers into their home, who tell them that, after decades of infertility, they will finally have a child of their own.

Abraham, in this scene, is 99 years old, and recovering from major surgery. And yet, these few lines are punctuated with words for speed. Abraham runs from his tent to greet the wayfarers, he hurries to Sarah and tells her to hurry and make cakes for the guests. He runs to the flock and chooses a calf to serve the travelers, which his servant hurries to prepare. Though he does not yet know that the strangers are messengers from God, he offers them the royal treatment: water for drinking and bathing their feet, curds and milk and fatted calf to eat—there is no kashrut yet—and a place to rest under a shady tree. And though he is a pretty important person himself, Abraham even waits on the men as they eat (Gen. 18: 1-8).

The plain text shows that Abraham and Sarah go above and beyond to make their guests feel welcome. The rabbis craft legend upon legend of Abraham and Sarah opening their home to strangers and going out of their way to help those in need.

Some say that Abraham and Sarah’s tents were open on all sides, so that no one would have to go around in circles looking for a way in. They provided not only what the guests were accustomed to, but the finest of everything: wine, wheat bread, and meat. And they did not simply sit there and wait for guests to arrive: they went out into the world to invite people in, even setting up way-stations along the road where people could eat, drink and rest, wherever they happened to be (BOL 679:361, Avot 1:15/ARN 7).

In fact, the tamarisk or eshel tree that Abraham plants at the end of chapter 21 is said to be a wordplay on she-al, “asking,” as in “whatever you ask for, I will give you.” Or eshel could be an acronym for achilah (eating), shtiyah (drinking), and linah (lodging) or l’vayah (accompanying) depending on which rabbi you ask (Legends of the Jews v. 248, n. 225, EC 117, Plaut 145). Once the travelers had finished enjoying whatever Abraham and Sarah had provided for them, they were encouraged not to thank their hosts, but to praise God who had provided everything (Sotah 10a). Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality reminds us that food and drink and shelter are not ours to give, but God’s to share.

Is this how it feels to approach our door?

So how might the Jewish tradition help us to practice hachnasat orchim in our homes on Halloween? And what can the opening of our homes on Halloween teach us about audacious hospitality in our Jewish community?

First of all, what do you say when you open the door? I was an imaginative kid who loved dressing up, and often trick-or-treated as obscure literary characters or in costumes I had made myself, long after I should have been “too old.” And I speak from experience when I say that there is no more heartbreaking question for a costumed child than, “What are you supposed to be?”

These people weren’t trying to be mean or dismissive. They were just curious. They wanted to know what I was trying to be so that they could react appropriately.

Likewise, when people come into our synagogue, we’re curious to know who they are, so that we can respond accordingly. We strive to welcome people of all ages and backgrounds, all gender identities and sexual orientations, and from families of all shapes, sizes and compositions. Naturally, when we meet someone whose identity doesn’t fit into our preconceived notion of Jewish-ness, gender, or family, we’re curious.

When we ask questions like, “How did you become Jewish?” “Are your children adopted?” “Why is your last name McCarthy?” we may just be trying to get to know someone. But even our most basic questions may hit a nerve: when we ask a single person where his or her partner is, when we ask an infertile couple about their children, or when we ask a person of color when he or she converted, not realizing that this isn’t always the case.

Just as we might better welcome a trick-or-treater by saying, “What a great costume! Tell me more about it!” we might better welcome a new person to our synagogue by saying, “We are so glad you’re here! Tell us about yourself!” This sends the message to our children, and our guests: You are welcome in our home, we want you to be comfortable being whoever it is that you are, and we hope that you will tell us your story in your own time.

Click the pumpkin for more information.

Once someone is in the door, we, like Abraham and Sarah, want to provide them with the best of everything, and whatever it is that they need. This year, the Food Allergy Research and Education organization has asked that houses put out a teal pumpkin (or a sign with a teal pumpkin on it) to let trick-or-treaters know that there are non-food treats available for children with life-threatening food allergies.

This, also, has applications in the synagogue. We should strive to meet the needs of our guests: with allergy-friendly snacks, accessible facilities, and transliterated or large-print siddurim for those who struggle with Hebrew or reading. This also applies to the language we use: “partner” and “parent” rather than wife, husband, mother or father; “person from another faith background,” rather than “non-Jew.” By expanding our language, we are less likely to exclude someone who doesn’t fit into our original boxes.

And like putting the teal pumpkin on the porch, we need to let potential guests know that we are welcoming. What does it say on our lawn, on our door, on our website to let people know that we have what they need, and that we can provide a safe space for people in the LGBT community, for interfaith families, and for people with special needs. What would it be like to put on our front door: Come in! We have an elevator and gluten free cookies!?!

And if we were truly to be like the Abraham and Sarah of legend, we may not even want to make our trick-or-treaters come all the way to our house. In some communities, neighborhood groups set up a “trunk-or-treat” so that younger children can go from car to car in a lighted parking lot, rather than wander through a dark cul-de-sac, ringing doorbells.

This can be compared to Abraham stocking his warehouses on the side of the road. And it can inspire us to imagine ways that we can rush out to greet the people who need us. Where are the travelers passing through that we could go to meet them? And what kind of physical and spiritual sustenance can we provide for them along the way?

A Conservative colleague of mine once shared that, coming from a traditional household, trick-or-treating had not been an option. Instead, she stayed home with her family and passed out candy to the neighborhood children. How was this explained to her? “My father told us we were practicing hachnasat orchim.”

In the Genesis text, Abraham gives the calf to a servant to prepare for the guests. A midrash tells us that this servant was actually his son Ishmael, and that Abraham delegated this task so that Ishmael could learn the importance of welcoming guests (Gen. R. 48:13).

Centuries later, we are still learning from Abraham and Sarah how practice audacious hospitality. As we celebrate Shabbat as a community, and as we look forward to welcoming trick-or-treaters into our homes, may our doors be open wide, may our treats be both safe and sweet, and may we imagine new ways we can run out of our tents to do the mitzvah of welcoming guests.

Shabbat Shalom and, for the first time from the bimah, Happy Halloween.

Torah Study Notes 10-17-15

October 17, 2015

page 69 The Tower of Babel and the genealogy of Abraham. What questions is this trying to answer and what message is it trying to send? In some respects it is very political – even with application to modern times..

11:1 Let us confuse their speech – the eternal scattered them over the face of the earth. See:  GT: The question is why there are different languages – it is an attempt at an explanation. SB: This sounds like midrash to me – an explanation instead of a pure narrative. MS: There is a contradiction here. They wanted to not be scattered but were scattered by God. MaryS: The notion of a tower to the sky seems to challenge God. LL: I agree. There seems to be a bit of hubris here and a punishment by being scattered. CL: This is not how bricks were made in ancient times. Tar as such would not have been used. It was bitumen – which is different. See:

AF: The people are organized and self managed and God worries that “no scheme of theirs shall be beyond their reach.” It is as if the tower is an idol and they are reaching beyond God. Shira – the language is reminiscent of Pharaohs’ in the sense that the people are becoming a threat. RB: Modern scholars believe this is a description of the construction of a ziggurat – a place where the divine and human can meet. That is a Babylonian notion and should be contrasted with the idea of man and God as separate – not mating with each other and having very special interactions. RB: We are still a people that like to make big things and are periodically warned about that. Look at global warming as an unintended consequence of human activity – or the loss of species. This could also be considered in praise of diversity. We have a dichotomy between a tower culture and a mountain culture. Ours was more of a mountain culture where our focus is nature – but we should not bow down before the leafy tree. We do build a structure for God – the mishkan and the Temple – which is destroyed. If this is being compiled in exile it may be an indirect reference to the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of the people. Throughout the Torah there is a conflict between focus on the man-made vs spiritual values. SF: This is also a contrast between an agrarian and municipal structure of society. Our faith is people centered – neither tower or mountain. CL: The writers may have been seeing themselves differently than the people living between the Tigris and Euphrates. There the land was flat and each town had a patron God and was controlled by a priest. The Hebrew people clearly saw themselves and their society in contrast. SB: Nothing is permanent. LL: Acceptance of constant change is a very modern concept – starting with the Enlightenment. There were Egyptian societies and feudal societies that were very long –lived. It is just a matter of mind –set; what we are willing to accept. RB: There is a good deal of word play here based on the word “babel” for towers. They are mocking the Babylonian culture. This can also be viewed as rampant capitalism vs socialism – a focus on profit and outcomes instead of on people.

11:10 The line of Shem. See footnotes on page 70 and 71.. Noah had three sons. We are assumed to descend from Shem. AF: They seem to be establishing a basis for primogeniture here by emphasizing the importance of the first born. RB: That may be the norm but the rest of the Torah speaks against the norm by favoring the second son or, in the case of Joseph, the next to last. The writers seem to be intent upon contradicting the norm. LL: What is the purpose of establishing this lineage? It seems to place a premium on pedigree? What about the illegitimate child? Note that a “momzer” has a very defined meaning in ancient times. It was a child conceived illegally by contact with a married woman. A single woman was effectively married to whoever fathered her child.

11:27 The chronicle of Terah… The naming of the wives is a first. Terah only makes it halfway to his goal and there is much midrash about that. Abraham was able to complete his journey. Note that the midrash on the origin of Abrahams name dwells on where he came from, who his family was and where he stands. His people are called “ibri” – the people from across the river i.e. foreigners.

Torah Study Notes 10-10-15

October 10, 2015

Page 29

We are now in the 3d of the triennial reading cycles.

4:25: “Adam was once again intimate for his wife… had knowledge of her… Then it was that the people began to invoke the Eternal…” This is a bit confusing in that Abraham is generally considered to be the first monotheist. Here the Eternal is invoked before Abraham. “There is no before or after in the Torah.” There is also a suggestion that this section marks the beginning of humankind. BR: Do the Rabbi’s discuss when life begins? What does this portion suggest as to that issue? RB: There is a reference elsewhere to the penalty for hurting a pregnant woman – that is not murder. The content of her womb is considered property – not life. Maimonides said that even during the birth process the fetus can be destroyed to save the life of the mother. The word “begot” here means “gave birth to.” So in that sense life begins at birth.

5:1 Genealogy with very long lives – leading to Noah.  Note that all of the numbers do not add up in the English translation – but they do in Hebrew. Life spans are drastically reduced after the flood. That was part of humankinds punishment for corruption.  See The Blue Zone for a discussion of longevity in the modern world. Note that there is no mention of woman being born. Adam begat sons and daughters but the daughters are never identified. What does “walked with god” mean here as to Enoch? It could mean a prolonged illness – a deep spirituality- or righteousness. JB At this pre-commandment time there were very few rules so it makes “walk with god” even more mysterious. This was prior to the giving of the Law. “God took him” could also mean that God took him so he would not be involved in the subsequent corruption.  The gematria here is extensive. See The Message Behind the Numbers at page 42.   One Hundred Twenty, seen as the ideal age, is 1 times 2 times 3 times 4 times 5. SN:  Methuselah’s longevity was enshrined by Gershwin see:

Methus’lah lived nine hundred years

Methus’lah lived nine hundred years

But who calls dat livin’ when no gal’ll give in

To no man what’s nine hundred years

I’m preachin’ dis sermon to show

It ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa

Ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa

It ain’t necessarily so

Some of these names are not seen again. See the software “Bibleworks.”

Note that Rabbi Berkowitz’s Midrash class starts on October 20th.

6:1 Finally there is mention of daughters. Strange references to “divine beings” here. No divine female creatures. The rabbi’s don’t want to talk about all of this so there is very little midrash. Nepthali means “to fall.” Consider A Wrinkle in Time – the 4th book is really a midrash on this section. This can also be read as a strong statement against the mythology that is found in other cultures – such as the Greek. It argues that there is no such thing as “superhuman.” See also Madeline L’Engel’s “Many Waters.”

6:5 I will wipe the humans I have created off the face of the earth… but Noah found favor in God’s sight. See Midrash on handout sheets.

Celebrating Shabbat, Preparing for B’nai Mitzvah

One of the most exciting parts of being a rabbi is working with families as they prepare for b’nai mitzvah. It is possibly the most time I get to spend with a child and his or her family, and because of my involvement in Religious and Hebrew School, I have the honor of watching our young people transform from children to adults right before my eyes.

Our students and parents at the Metzgers' house.

Our students and parents at the Metzgers’ house.

This can be an exciting and a challenging process, and we are doing our best to keep it from becoming scary. Throughout this year, the 7th grade and their families will be meeting with me, and with each other, to engage in a conversation about what it means to become b’nai mitzvah and how we can best get ready.

This past Shabbat, our seventh grade class came together to celebrate and learn together. We began our morning by praying with Betty Gibbs as she became bat mitzvah. Betty took her responsibilities as a prayer leader very seriously and also led the service with joy, which set an incredible example for our 7th graders as they begin their journey to become b’nai mitzvah.

Over lunch at the Metzgers’ house, we looked at Pirke Avot 1:2: “The world stands on three things: on Torah (learning), on Avodah (prayer) and on Gemilut Chasadim (acts of lovingkindness).” This started a conversation on how each of these elements are a part of our own everyday lives, and how they are a part of becoming b’nai mitzvah.

Carolynn and Jeremy Frankel.

Carolynn and Jeremy Frankel.

Then each parent paired of with his/her own child(ren) to talk about what they had seen at the service and what they were excited for and nervous about for when it was their turn. Hearing their answers was a reminder of something incredibly important: that each student is so different, and that a bar or bat mitzvah experience–both the preparation and the ceremony–should reflect who each student is and what his or her family values.

This brought up a lot of great questions: Does it matter if I wear a suit and tie (or a dress and heels) if that’s really not my style? How can a tzedaka project create an ongoing, meaningful connection rather than just a one-time event? How do I make this special for both of my children when we are celebrating their b’nai mitzvah together? What role do I play as a parent if I never became bar or bat mitzvah myself? What if I don’t like to sing? What if I really like to sing?

Sam, Joel, and Mariel Kelson.

Sam, Joel, and Mariel Kelson.

Perhaps one of the most profound moments was when parents and students both answered the question: “How can I best support you and help you as you prepare for this moment?” The parents and students admitted that they thought they were in separate corners: the students preparing to read Torah and lead services, the parent planning a party and driving carpool to services and Hebrew School. Taking the time to spend Shabbat together reminded us that we are in this together, and that each person on the team needs to support the other as we prepare for this sacred moment.

And, as your rabbi, I’m excited to be a part of that team!

For more of Rabbi Berkowitz’s thoughts on b’nai mitzvah, read this article on Rabbi Berkowitz’s blog!

Black Lives Matter – by Adam Ciminello

An Explanation of the Black Lives Matter Movement
by Adam Ciminello

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Adam Ciminello. This topic is being approached from the perspective of social justice, NOT from a political standpoint. NO candidate or party is being endorsed or promoted.]

Good Evening, Shabbat Shalom. Members of the Congregation, Members of our larger local community, Binei Mitzvah Betty Gibbs and Family, and Rabbi Berkowitz. Thank you for sharing your Friday evening with me. It is truly a pleasure to be standing before you in a place where so many of my childhood memories were forged. Before I begin discussing my involvement with Black Lives Matter – a movement which has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life to march with – I would like to make it known now and totally of my own fruition that this sermon is NOT one of political urging. NO endorsements of any candidates will be made. I am here to discuss a moral crisis, one which America and its white communities have consistently deflected away from but can no longer outrun, one which involves the continued prejudice and pain of an American race whose history in this country I would wager predates everybody in this room tonight. There is nothing political about this issue that any single candidate could cure. There are solutions on how to move forward as a people which we will discuss, some of which necessarily will be implemented through political means, but this not a ‘blue state’ or ‘red state’ issue. Basic humanity, oppression, and institutionalized racism cannot, and should not, be quantified on a political spectrum. This is America’s issue. On a micro-level – in a community blessed with such proud diversity and multi-culturalism – this is Poughkeepsie’s issue. This is Vassar Temple’s issue. So I hope this alleviates any initial concerns.

To begin, I’d like to read a few statistics that highlight racial biases in our criminal justice system and in the larger context of America’s institutions. Know that these data points are a window into a larger systemic issue, but I am pressed for time. In each larger statistical category, hundreds of additional examples can be found. Please see me afterwards if you’d like the citations/sources.
• When charged with the same crime, a black male is six times more likely to go to jail than a white male. In spite of being only 12% of the population, black people make up 38% of arrests for violent crimes. They are twice as likely to be victims of the threat of, or actual use of force by the police (
• In specific localities, the unequal enforcement of our laws is even starker. Black people make up 15% of drivers, 42% of stops, and 73% of arrests on the NJ turnpike, although they violate traffic laws at almost identical rates. In spite of white people being more likely to be caught carrying guns, drugs, and other contraband, 52% of those stopped by NYC’s Stop and Frisk policy were black (
• Studies show that only 13 % of drug users in this country are black – in line with their share of the overall population – yet they account for nearly 36% of those arrested and 46% of those convicted for drug-related offenses (
• Institutional racism does not stop at the arrest. There is also racial bias in jury selection, which leads to illegally turning away qualified black jurors at rates as often as 80% of the time (
• Black people are sentenced to 20% longer prison terms than white people for similar crimes (
• A black man convicted of a drug offense spends as much time in prison as a white man convicted of a violent offense (NAACP)
• Even black children are treated as second-class citizens. Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white children and make up 58% of children admitted in prisons (
• In the workplace, black college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed as college graduates overall. People with ‘black sounding names’ need to send 50% more job applications than people with ‘white sounding names’ to get a call back (
• A white applicant with a criminal record is ( is more likely to get an interview than a black man with a clean record

I’ve chosen to highlight three different sectors – policing, the court room, and the work place – to hopefully offer a small window into the blatant discrimination that black communities survive and endure on a daily basis. Given these unequal opportunities, and combined with the disastrously shameful effects of larger policy initiatives like redlining, gerrymandering, and predatory practices from the private sector, it should come as no surprise that black communities continue to feel marginalized, oppressed, and as though their lives do not matter. We are not removing personal accountability from black communities or black citizens by acknowledging that this systemic condition is the primary reason white supremacy continues to persist in this country. Yes, white supremacy, the centuries old elephant in the room. Often this term sociologically is prescribed to the Bull Connors, the George Wallace’s, and more recently the Dylan Roof’s of the world, but I’d like you to challenge yourselves here and now to see this term as being applicable to anybody who finds themselves content in the face of such undeniable inequality, where white communities enjoy a higher quality of life than their black counterparts. By extension, friends, that implies that this term is applicable to many of us in this room tonight at one point or another in our lives. White supremacy isn’t merely a deranged man with a Rhodesian badge sh¬ooting up a black church in Charleston; it’s also the guy who calls Black Lives Matter a ‘Hate Group’ because he feels threatened at the idea of a movement seeking true equality for black communities or worse, pretends that our black brothers and sisters already know true equality under the law and its institutions, that racism is a thing of the past. By reading the news yet doing nothing, by throwing our hands up in the air as if to say “What more can we do”, by constantly telling black communities in the words of Martin Luther King Jr “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action,” by arguing on social media and Thanksgiving talks alike with our families ‘It’s time for them get over it,’ when we know very well that ‘It’ is still going on, we too are white supremacists, because we too are content to see the system remain intact.

We have witnessed some truly shocking displays of police brutality over the past year, and sadly they are displays that are not a new phenomenon to black communities. They are not a revelation to which naturally begs sudden admonishment or newfound sadness, or even collective outrage. They are an everyday part of black history in this country. We just simply now have the technology to fully capture its breadth and horror. And yet, after every single fatality, we immediately see the media, local government, law enforcement, and concerned white citizens everywhere defame, dehumanize, and demonize that fallen citizen’s character. As though marijuana in your blood stream is a tangible reason to take a life. As though a series of minor, non-violent arrests is a tangible reason to take a life. As though a legal switchblade is a tangible reason to take a life. As though holding a toy gun in Wal Mart is tangible reason to take a life. Not too long ago, the media and government once used these tactics to justify Emmett Till’s murder – ‘he shouldn’t have whistled at that white woman that way, what was he doing in that shop unaccompanied, he was asking for trouble’ – and sadly we already know it worked there too.

So this is why we say Black Lives Matter. This is why we march. This is why we are blocking traffic with our hands up. This is why we are filming police and yes, this is why we’re getting arrested. White Supremacy – this idea of being comfortable with the work we’ve done while completely disregarding that which we didn’t, that which we elected not to, that which we looked the other way from, or that which our silence allowed to persist – is alive and well in this country and we have a moral obligation as Jews to play an active role in its total eradication. All Lives Matter – this we know and need little reminder of from the naysayers worried their own life somehow now matters less – but over 200 years after the American Dream was constitutionally created, as our founding fathers so boldly set out to create a better world, the oldest demographic of Americans are still fundamentally denied its most basic opportunities. It’s most basic principles. We’ve seen distinctly defined waves of immigration come to America and define Americanism in search of opportunity, in search of a better life. We’ve seen Irish peasants escape famine, Italian merchants in search of economic freedom, Eastern Europeans seeking political escape, Central Americans escaping crime and cartels, South Americans running from corrupt governments, East and Southeast Asians fleeing from classism and caste systems, all driven by the rightful and just idea that in America, your merit and your worth are measured by your drive. By your character. And yet, we continue to restrict the opportunities to which black merit, black worth, and black character are measured amongst its everyday citizens, all while extolling and appropriating the virtues its exceptional citizens – the LeBron James’, the James Brown’s, the Maya Angelou’s of the world – produce for this country. We cannot proudly support black celebrities while in the same breath ignoring the oppression and injustices the communities from which they were raised continue to endure in 2015. Black Lives Matter is simply a movement attempting to change this. Attempting to change a country which still treats individual circumstances of implicit racial biases against its own citizens – from the casual, to the grotesque, to the sometimes fatal – with callous indifference.

It is NOT about black lives mattering more. It is NOT about hurting police officers. It is NOT about starting a ‘race war,’ whatever that means. It is about urging America and by extension all of us in this room tonight to come to terms with our country’s original sin, to understand that we have not done nearly enough and mostly, to understand that TOGETHER WE CAN CHANGE THIS. If you truly value human life – the life of your neighbor no less – you will have no problem outwardly supporting our cause.

As heirs of a people biblically enslaved for 400 years, as an ethnic race of Jews who escaped political and religious persecution worldwide, as descendants and survivors of the most diabolical genocide mankind has ever known, and most importantly as community members of a progressive synagogue right here long dedicated to civil rights and social justice, I call on you now to act. I call on you now to challenge yourselves. I call on you now to make yourself uncomfortable. I call on you now to think about racial inequality every single day, as our black brothers and sisters are forced to, to understand that racism in this country is still systemic, and that our silence is the loudest form of consent we give towards its perpetuity. As American Jews, we have been fortunate enough to never know in this great country the level of oppression that black communities have endured – the antisemitism that has plagued us globally thankfully never made its way fully onto American shores – but historically as a people we know all too well what it is like to be treated as second-class citizens, to cry out our plight while our neighbors remained silent. From Egypt, to the Inquisition, to the Pogroms, to the Nuremberg Codes, we understand the pain it feels to be judged by your race and your physical appearance. In Midrash Devarim Rabbah, it is explained that God loves justice even more importantly than sacrifice. It is explained, “To do what is right and just is MORE desired by the Lord than sacrifice.” Not as much as sacrifice, MORE than sacrifice. How we treat those who are less fortunate is forever a core foundation of what it means to be Jewish, but it is not enough to treat those less fortunate with tsedakah, as though to imply this condition will never change. We must work to change the condition itself. As the Torah in Deuteronomy Shoftim insists “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” I call on you tonight to carry out this virtue for our black friends, for our black families, and for our black citizens right here in this community. I call on you now to pursue justice.

So, in a practical sense, what does this mean? We can agree that human suffering is inherently wrong, that racism is inherently bad, but what does Black Lives Matter want, and what can we do to help? First and foremost this means supporting communities of color, giving them the space to speak for themselves, and truly listening to their concerns, even if they seem to contradict yours. When you’re walking home and you see a black man walking in your direction, in more cases than you might be willing to realize, he is a lot more afraid of you than you are of his presence. He’s afraid of walking home in a society where he is 15X more likely to be targeted by the police. He’s afraid because his father sat him down when he was ten and said “The world will come to fear you when you’re older son, you will be scary to most who aren’t black, and law enforcement will assume you’re up to no good.” He’s afraid because his mother is terrified every second when he’s not home. Because of the color of his skin. Because of the demonization of his character which leads to the denial of his basic humanity. I cite this day-to-day example to illustrate a basic component that contributes to our collective racial ignorance. I implore you to meaningfully interact. Reach out to communities of color and ask them the question “What does being black in America mean to you?” And then, listen. Really listen. Listen to what they are saying. Too often, conversations about race are directed and dictated by white people with little consideration for the black community. Again, so we can feel better about ourselves. Often, even the perspectives on what it is like to be black in this country will be spoken for by white people. From Woodrow Wilson, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to Bill Clinton, to most recently Jeb Bush claiming black communities vote democratic for the ‘free stuff,’ – ironically coming from a man who’s experienced traditional wealth and free stuff his whole life – white politicians and social leaders have continued to speak for, and on behalf of, black communities instead of giving their leaders the support and separation to speak for themselves and call discriminatory policies for what they really are without fear of being labeled a Black Panther, or otherwise radical. You can be an ally in this regard by reaching out to your local black leaders in Poughkeepsie. Listen to what they are saying. Do not dismiss it as conforming to an “angry black male” or “crazy black lady” stereotype if you don’t automatically agree. Challenge yourself to understand fully. Do not confuse this with blind agreement or support, either. Dialogue and love are our greatest weapons against ignorance and fear.

Second, recognize that white people have the luxury of being white and appreciate that this privilege is real. Recognizing that allows us to engage on a platform where social hierarchy might start to change. I proudly wear a BLM shirt today to prove this point. Riding the subways to marches, I am often ostracized by all groups of people. White people think I’m crazy, Black people think I bought it for fun, and police officers think I want to kill them. None of those are remotely true, and it can feel deeply hurtful at times to see a movement founded on love be treated with such hate and vitriol. But when I’m feeling overwhelmed from the pain and sadness of these wildly untrue stereotypes, friends, do you know I do? I put a sweatshirt on to cover it up, and instantly I’m simply another white male in America living the American dream and appreciating the privilege that being white affords me when I choose – that being the ability to not think about race. Our black friends and family have no such luxury of escaping the toxic stereotypes placed on them solely by the color of their skin. They cannot escape the color of their skin. They cannot escape the implications it brings each day in this country.

Thirdly, support the political processes – not the candidates – engendering change. Make this one of your ‘issues’ when going to the polls and evaluating candidates. Pay attention to who’s talking about racial justice and more importantly, pay attention to who’s avoiding talking about it at all costs. Pay attention to who’s risking alienating their political base to make people uncomfortable. A radical social intervention is needed nationwide when it comes to talking about race. Urge your local leaders to allocate funding for body cams to help us understand fully what happened when violence is used, to provide additional training for de-escalation practices, to adopt methods of advanced psychoanalytical screening for incoming officers using techniques like word association to ensure that all law enforcement officers – black or white – have a better understanding of the implicit racial biases they may be bringing with them into the field. It can save lives. It can build bridges of trust in communities that need them most. Police forces should look like, and be actively involved in the communities they are sworn to protect. Blatantly discriminatory policing policies like Stop and Frisk and Broken Windows must end, or be more transparently monitored.

Finally, once we move beyond this, we are not finished. Two years ago, 5 conservative Supreme Court justices eviscerated critical parts of the Voting Rights Act, and now in local, state and federal elections we are seeing basic denials of America’s most cherished liberty. Alabama recently passed a law requiring a license for voter registration, and then promptly closed DMV’s in ‘black belt’ communities, to very little uproar. See these atrocities for what they really are and urge your local, state and federal leaders to understand that this is not a ‘red state’ or ‘blue state’ issue. This is America’s issue. This Poughkeepsie’s issue. This is Judaism’s issue. This our issue.
As I close tonight, ultimately, friends, I want all of you to do more. None of us in this room tonight have done enough. I want you to see yourself in the faces of black communities, to see your children in the faces of their children, to see their plight and continued oppression as your plight and continued oppression. We’ve all built this country together, woven a fabric that tells a mighty tale of triumph and exceptionalism. We are the greatest country in the world, and despite our imperfections the world is a better place with America leading. And yet, despite our patriotism, despite our global standing, despite our financial security, none of us will ever know freedom until all of us know equality. We will never be truly free until all of us are truly equal. So tonight I will leave you with this: Let us join together as Jews and Local Citizens of the Hudson Valley to do what we can right now to push ourselves slightly closer to that goal, to creating a country which fully establishes in the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren “That Black Lives Matter, That Black Citizens Matter, That Black Families Matter.” For if we ever get to that place – that sacred heaven of radical love, universal humanity, and colorblind equality – All Lives might actually start to matter. Thank you, Shabbat Shalom.

Torah Study Notes 10-3-15

October 3, 2015

Page 1420

Epilogue: The Death of Moses. This is not a portion that would be read at a service. There is a Jewish tradition of not ending a reading or service with tragedy – that applies to all denominations. The author here is speculated to be the 2nd Deuteronomist. It is similar in some ways to the ending of the Book of Genesis which ends with a blessing of the sons. Here there is a blessing of the tribes. We should consider who the author is favoring – if any. Note that the poem predates the rest of the text. Also, there is recitation of the fate of the tribes in the song of Deborah (Judges 5.)

33:1 This is the blessing of Moses and each of the tribes is named. The blessing of Reuben has a mixed messages here. His is one of the tribes that stay east of the Jordan with Gad.  Judah – a play on the word for “hands.” His descendants become the entire southern nation of the Promised Land – the southern kingdom. See Chart on page 1430 which summarizes how each of the tribes is characterized in Genesis, Judges and Deuteronomy – if they are mentioned at all. SF: There is an incident in which Judah slept with Tamara. RB: There are two incidents in which Judah did a wrong but later took responsibility for it.  Judah has sent Tamara away after her husband dies, she disguises herself as a prostitute and slept with Judah by tricking him. She took some identifying material from him which she later used to exonerate herself from a charge of prostitution. Judah owns up to his own mistakes and takes responsibility.  Hence, he is a flawed leader. SF: You need humility and courage to be a leader.  Judah means “now I will give thanks.”

The Levites: The reference here is to Moses striking the rock to obtain water. They are of the tribe of Moses; have responsibility for the Temple and have no land. The suggestion is one of rebelliousness with phrases like “who you tested” and “challenged.” LL:  I find the obscure reference to “Thummin and Urim” fascinating. Why would a society that was so strongly monotheistic and opposed to worship of other gods have oracular stones to reveal God’s will?

33:12  Here we see just a short comment about Benjamin and a very elaborate recital about Joseph. A glowing report for them. Joseph “rests between God’s shoulders…”  Note the poetic parallelism and merismus. Also, the tropes such as “… the favor of the Presence in the bush…”  The tribe of Joseph is subsequently divided into Ephraim and Manasseh.

33: 18 Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Naphtali, Asher…  Again, the poetry is pre-exilic. According to the modern documentary hypothesis the poem was an originally separate text, that was inserted by the Deuteronomist into the second edition (of two) of the text which became Deuteronomy (i.e. was an addition in ‘Dtr2’).

The poem notably does not describe Simeon, which may provide a date for the composition of the poem, as Simeon are believed to have gradually lost their tribal identity, since its traditional territory was wholly within that of Judah. The poem also only mentions each tribe briefly, except for the tribes of Joseph and Levi, which may indicate both that the poem originated within the Levite priesthood, within the territory of the Joseph tribes, or more generally the northern kingdom of Israel where Ephraim, part of the Joseph tribe, was the most prominent.

It is difficult to establish the connection of the blessing of Moses with that of Jacob. Most authorities maintain that the former depended directly upon the latter; and their chief argument is based on the passage on Joseph, part of which is contained also in Jacob’s blessing. But there can hardly be a doubt] that the passage on Joseph in Jacob’s blessing was amplified from the material contained in the blessing of Moses. Otherwise a similar argument might be based upon the same arrangement in each blessing of the tribes of Zebulon and Issachar, and upon other points of agreement which, however, indicate a similarity of the matter rather than any direct connection. At all events, there are striking differences between the two blessings.

AF: What is the basic purpose of a blessing. See: SF: Blessings are conveying God’s energy to that person who is blessed. RB:  A form of channeling. There was a feeling that the border between human and divine was permeable. This is in the nature of a last will and testament – favoring one or the other children. This is an “ethical” will charging the “children” with responsibility. Blessings are frequently accompanied by a “laying on of hands.” This is done in the ordination of  rabbis and priests.

34:1 Moses ascends Mt. Nebo. God speaks to him further identifying the land but warns him that he shall not cross the Jordan. He dies at age 120 and his burial place is unknown.  Never again was there a prophet like Moses who the Eternal spoke to face to face. RB: There are four different authors here including the Yahwist – who we haven’t heard from in quite some time. Authorship is suggested by style and tone.(LL: There is a modern technique that uses computerized word frequency analysis.)  There is a transition here from a prophetic model to a rabbinic model. RB: This is her favorite Torah text because it relates to Genesis and God burying the dead. Moses dies by “divine kiss.”