D’var Torah Marjan Helms May 2020

“I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.
I am the Lord who sanctifies you.”
Leviticus 22:32

“I will be made holy among the children of Israel.
I am the Lord who makes you holy.”

What do we mean when we speak of holiness? What is holiness? Really?
If you could close your eyes for a moment—or let them drift unfocused into the inner spaces of your mind, with no hurry—and no forced attention… If you could simply rest …quietly…and listen to your own unique truth, what answer would come to your question, “What do I mean when I say, “holy?”
Before you reach too quickly for words or labels, try to sense your answer outside of words. When have you experienced holiness? Where? What did it feel like? What does it feel like now? Whatever you know or remember or imagine as holy, stay with that awareness. Rest in it. Savor it.

“I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel. I am Adonai who sanctifies you.” When we consider this glimpse of holiness, how do we respond? Is there a change in energy, an emotion, an inclination to do something or act in any particular way? The holiness code established in Leviticus calls for recognizing boundaries between what is sacred and what is profane. Both priests and the people at large are called to maintain a
purity that allows the Presence of God to be known.

What do we do to act on our experience of holiness? Or, to put that another way, What rituals do we observe to allow the Presence of God to be known?
We live now in troubled and frightening times, and there is no escape from the tragedy and madness that surround us. But I think escape is not what we want anyway, not really. I find myself drawn instead to an old-fashioned word—Redemption. It is redemption that we long for, not escape—not easy answers, not quick-fixes, not hiding our heads in the sand nor hoping in vain—but Redemption. And how can that happen? How do we reclaim the sanctity of our lives and our world?

Every day for two months I have marked on my calendar the latest numbers of Covid cases and deaths. I write the numbers, reaching out for some sense of connection, but I cannot comprehend their meaning. To reduce human suffering and lives lost to a series of digits is obscene. Like you, I read and listen to news and commentaries until my mind is saturated. I whipsaw from sadness to anger, outrage to despair. It’s far too easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed. So where is holiness in this moment? How do we find it?
How do we recognize it? How can we make ourselves available to receive it?
If we are to sense a boundary between sacred and profane, maybe we have to start by purifying our own minds.

When I first read through this Parshah, the thing that caught my attention was the repeated command to rest—to do no labor. It’s as if the glorious ideal of Shabbat is meant to infuse each festival throughout the year. I wonder if it is not also possible that Shabbat can breathe its grace into the smaller moments of day-to-day life. We need rest. And nourishment. We need moments to remember who we are—to know that we are not the news feed or the bickering, to know that we are separate from the anger and hatred and fear. We need boundaries—even the briefest of moments—to remember the Presence of God and to rest beside still waters. Surely this is the place where Redemption is born.

From the refuge that is Shabbat, I offer a suggestion:
Sometime soon, give yourself a few minutes to rest and lean back into your own heart.

Listen there for holiness—your own holiness, with your own  understanding. And then see if there is anything at all that you would like to do in response. Whatever that might be, no matter how small or simple, consider making it your own private ritual for a day or a week or for as long as you like. Let this gesture be for you as the fire offerings and purifications from so long ago. Let it mark a sacred boundary in time, a moment to
recognize what is holy, a moment to offer yourself to the work of Redemption.

I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.
I am the Lord who sanctifies you.”

Kedoshim 2020 May D’var Torah

Kedoshim 2020

I want to look at Chapter 19, verses 17 to 18.  Etz Chaim translates these lines: You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.  Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countryman.  Love your fellow as yourself.  I am the Lord.

I am not a Hebrew scholar but I do want to point out a few features of the Etz Chaim translation.  In the first line the referent for Etz Chaim’s “kinsfolk” is unambiguously “brother” in the Hebrew, as the note clearly indicates.  Perhaps the decision to go with “kinsfolk” is gender flattening.  In fairness, Etz Chaim does point out that “brother” creates a level of closeness that surpasses the broader “kinsfolk.” Where Etz Chaim has “countryman” and “fellow” most translations that I have seen use “neighbor.”

The other intriguing grammatical point that I see is that in the famous “Love your neighbor (or fellow) as yourself”, the object of the verb is expressed in Hebrew not, as you would take it from the English, as a direct object but rather indirect. Sort of Love ‘to’ your neighbor as yourself.  This use of the preposition ‘le’ may be idiomatic, but commentators, like the Rambam think the usage illuminates Hillel’s famous negative restatement of this sentence: What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.  Hillel’s version puts emphasis on specific acts that one could do and not on a general feeling of “love”, or in Hillel’s case hate.  The suggestion from Rambam is that the sentence in Verse 18 does not refer to a general feeling of love but rather to the requirement to do gemilat chasadim, deeds of lovingkindness, for one’s neighbor or fellow.  So one should demonstrate one’s with action, even actions of remonstration and criticism, rather than letting perceived bad behavior go unremarked.

At first glance this passage may seem a bit of a jumble, perhaps even contradictory.  But Rashbam, a grandson of Rashi, and many other commentators regard them as a unit. “If you are someone’s friend (or neighbor, or kinsman or –woman), and they do something that you consider wrong, reprove them, admonish them.  Do not plot against them or harbor animosity.   And do not look the other way or you will be culpable for their wrongdoing also.  The negative statement, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart” that begins the passage is balanced at the close by “Love your fellow (or neighbor) as yourself.”

As many of you know, Rabbi Akiva regarded the statement “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a major principle of the Torah, one that is predicated on the two words that follow: Ani Adonai.  The implication is that Hashem, God, Yud Hay Vav Hay is the creator of you and also the creator of your neighbor or fellow or kinsman or woman.  There is a fundamental, creaturely equality that necessarily binds us one to another, even when this other is annoying or even antagonizing us through their actions.  And we are enjoined to act on the basis of that equality.  Our “love” of our fellow creature must overcome our annoyance, even our hatred.

It is apt to reflect on this principle these days.  At this time of great stress in the land I am finding that my own relationships with my neighbors and fellows has become less flat and anodyne than I confess it usually is.   People don’t stand 6 feet away from me and I get annoyed.  I can estimate 6 feet pretty well; but why do I assume that others can as well and are deliberately violating that policy?  Ont the other hand, people do decent things and I feel perhaps a little more warmth and fellow feeling than I suspect I would normally. This face covering, policy, if that is what it is, which I am by and large observing, is creating for me, and probably for others, an additional barrier.  The innate ability to acknowledge and establish fellow-feeling with a stranger is greatly impeded when your mouth is covered.  It is a barrier in more ways than one.

I have absolutely no qualifications to ascribe or suggest appropriate actions to others.  But I am going to resolve that I will try to be more understanding of the behaviors of others at this time.  I have to acknowledge that the large university where I work has never been more divorced from the reality of the surrounding community than at this moment.  Yes, we have undergone enormous and swift change.  We are unsettled and apprehensive too.   But the vast majority of people connected with MSU, at least so far, are feeling little of the stunning financial hardship that many of our neighbors are feeling.  I will try to remember: Ani Adonai.

Of course, we are also witnessing and perhaps experiencing deeper divisions between people who don’t seem to be living in the same country as us, even though they are.  Even within the same state some seem capable of regarding their countrymen and women as strangers.  It is disease for New Yorkers, for minorities in Detroit or Chicago, for people in prisons.  I guess for some might say for the old and the infirm.  On the other side, there are people who I know are thinking or even saying, wait till really hits in Georgia or Florida.  Do we wish that it will?  I hope not.  Today’s parsha speaks to these feelings as well, and to the reality of many minority workers in newly essential or essentialized industries like meatpacking, foodservice, hospital laundry and maintenance.  This week’s parsha reminds us (verse 34 in chapter 19) that God is also the creator of those who are very different from whoever we are or think we are: The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens.  You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, Ani Adonai Elohaychem.


Shabbat Shalom.

d’var Torah from April 4

Before I leave KI, I will request the library to purchase a book that is 1200 pages long, and is not likely to be read by anyone except the next rabbi and any aspiring Biblical scholars among you. I doubt if anyone will try to delve into it for b’nai mitzvah preparation. Still, the library owns volumes 2 and 3, so the set would not be complete without volume 1.

The book I am talking about is the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to the study of the sacrificial rituals in Leviticus by rabbi and preeminent Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, who passed away in 2010. The work is an exhaustive, and frankly exhausting to read, analysis of every verse, every term, indeed every imaginable detail in Leviticus in three massive volumes. This is not reading for the faint of heart.

Fortunately, Milgrom also left us a 10-page essay called “Israel’s Sanctuary: The Priestly ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’.” Based on close reading of the text and studies of contemporaneous middle eastern practices, Milgrom concluded that the sacrifices served to purifty the sanctuary. Sinful behavior by individual Israelites created a stain on the community’s overall well-being. When inappropriate behaviors become rampant, these stains accumulate and create an aerial miasma in the sanctuary. And when the air in the sanctuary becomes too toxic, it could no longer sustain the presence of God’s Glory, which dwelt above the ark in the Holy of Holies. To quote Milgrom:

Since of course people are only human, it becomes inevitable that the pestilence of aerial miasma would accumulate far beyond the danger level. It was therefore necessary to constantly purge the sanctuary, and that was the role of the sacrifice, especially the Chattat, or purification sacrifice.

Milgrom draws an analogy with Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey, in which every time a rakish young man committed debaucheries and really nasty crimes, the image of Dorian in a painting of him becomes more and more repulsive and disfigured. By the end of the novel, either the real Dorian Gray or the picture of him could no longer survive. Ultimately Dorian could redeem himself only by taking his own life, which mysteriously restored the image in the painting to its original glory.

Fortunately Leviticus does not demand such extreme measures from us. Nonetheless, it is only the offerings of the Israelite community that stand a chance of eliminating enough of the aerial miasma to sustain God’s presence in the sanctuary.

We can certainly talk about the aerial miasma alluded to in Leviticus in terms of environmental devastation. Too much pollution, wanton exploitation of natural resources, and spewing of carbon and methane into the atmosphere eventually destroy the natural environment and make life for those who inhabit a particular region untenable. I’ve given that d’var Torah a number of times over the year.

This year is different. Our way of life has been sabotaged by an aerial miasma that can leave a residue on everything we touch, and poison contact with other people and the air they breathe. One can easily argue that the pandemic can be traced to human sins: inadequate funding for medical research, failure to respond to the warnings years ago, prioritizing military defense and corporate profit over human needs, waging wars that destroy lives and habitats while wasting precious resources, fostering a culture of greed, selfishness, and consumption rather than looking out for our neighbors and for the common good. You get the idea. And, as the polluted sanctuary in Leviticus becomes unable to fulfill its holy mandate, so are we no longer able to enter our synagogue, and need to worship in exile and isolation.

So what sacrifices can we make to purge the sanctuary and restore a society where we can pray in synagogues and sojourn without risk of severe coronavirus? We can start with the sacrifice of social isolation, protecting our community from contamination and slowing down incidents of new cases. We can follow executive orders and CDC guidelines. We can support the elderly with acts of kindness. We can advocate for necessary medical research, reater availability of testing for COVID-19 and protective equipment for health care providers, and safeguards for the poor and those who could lose their home or their livelihood. Rather than devolve to scapegoating, rumormongering, denial, panic, or profiteering, we can create a caring society. And in the words of Malachi, we can reconcile parents and children by listening to the cries of our offspring and bequeathing them the legacy of a green new deal.

This is not the time to succumb to fear. We need to follow the injunction in Deuteronomy, to “Choose life, that you and your offspring may live” – taking all precautions to remain healthy and avoid the spread of the contagion. At the same time, we need to muster the courage to follow the example of Jacob, to wrestle with the ominous stranger that threatens us in the night, not running away from the threat, but learning its ways, what it has come to teach us, and what it will take to vanquish it. When the sun finally rises after the dark night of global pandemic, we will must not just go on as if the whole thing never happened, but like Jacob, take the time to reflect and learn until what we have just lived through leaves us with a blessing.

D’var Torah Rabbi Zimmerman 3-28-20

Our congregation alternates between a Reconstructionist and Conservative prayerbook for our Shabbat services. While our Reconstructionist and Conservative services are essentially the same, the major differentiation is that the Reconstructionist prayerbook has made alterations to the text to conform to the values of progressive Jews today, while the Conservative prayerbook retains language familiar to the overwhelming majority of religious Jews.

An example is in the Gevurot section of the Amidah. The phrase Mechayey metim appears four times. Since we will repeat this prayer in Musaf, we will say “Mechayey metim” 8 times this morning. “Mechayey metim” means “bringing life to the dead.” Since most contemporary Jews do not believe in reincarnation, the Reconstructionists changed “Mechayey metim” to “Mechayey kol chai” – bringing life to all that lives. The Reform movement does something similar: “Mechayey hakol” – bringing life to all.

Although I am a passionate Reconstructionist, I side with the Conservative movement. As Rabbi Simcha Paull Raphael has taught us, there is rich tradition in Judaism around life after death, and those who have dabbled in Eastern religions are comfortable with the notion of rebirth. But there’s another reason I like “mechayey metim.”

Last week we had a brief snap of gorgeous spring weather, and after over a week of intense work moving our activities online and reaching out to a community struggling with a global pandemic, I allowed myself a much-needed afternoon on our land. In early spring I clear out what I can from the past year’s explosion of growth. And whether it is our beloved peonies or the swarm of intruders with unknown names, I am always impressed by the tenacity of living things. Not only does every type of flora give rise to a new generation of saplings, but even the unwelcome shrubs that I cut down to a stump last year and appeared dead for months now have new sproutlings growing out of them. Seeing life emerge from the dead like this, I recognize that “mechayey metim” is not an eschatological speculation; rather it is a description of, literallly, a “garden variety” natural phenomenon.

Life and death is a terrifying topic, certainly for us at this time. So we may not find comfort from today’s Torah reading about the sacrifice of bulls, pigeons, and sheep. There are many difficult themes in the Torah, but the roots of our faith in a perpetual round of animal sacrifice may be the strangest and most alien of all.

I found insight on this topic in a book by my friend and colleague Rabbi Maurice Harris called Leviticus: You have no idea. It contains a wonderful story leading up to the realization by a cynical teenager that animal sacrifice is actually a lot less gross than what we do in our society: to mass-slaughter animals hidden from view of those destined to eat them; now we seal their body parts in shrink wrap, and display them luridly on supermarket shelves, where the earthly remains of those once sentient beings are thumbed over and selected by shoppers casually chatting on their cell phones.

By contrast, the animals sacrificed in Leviticus are selected from herds that provide necessary sustenance to those who care for and ultimately slaughter them. These pastoral consumers have looked into the eyes of their animals, heard their squeals and shrieks. However we may be appalled by the sacrificial rituals, it is likely that it served to reconnect those who routinely kill and eat their livestock to the sacredness of life and death, to atone for the necessity of carnivorous living, to warn us of the awesome power of creation and destruction in our human hands.

In the ancient worldview, sacrifice was meant to restore balance in a world that human beings keep desecrating ever since Cain slaughtered his brother Abel. This is not to say that natural balance is not always pretty. The wolves who capture the weakest members of a caribou herd strengthen its gene pool. Spontaneous fires enable grasslands to flourish. At the same time, centuries of civilization have led to perilous imbalances in the ecosystems of a planet crying out for restitution from something like wolves or fire. As we recite in the Shema prayer, our greed and contempt for the well-being of the land inevitably lead to destruction. As our children have been warning us, we have neglected to safeguard their future. Now they need to conduct their Friday protests online.

Our duty for future generations is to commit our efforts to the well-being of our planet and its inhabitants. Our hope, our courage, our trust, and our commitment to the future will see us through this current crisis.

Although it is too early to gauge the environmental impacts of the pandemic, Stanford environmental resource economist Marshall Burke has calculated that the improved air quality around Chinese cities like Wuhan may have saved more lives than were lost there to COVID-19. And while claims of dolphins in Venice’s canals are preposterous, the lack of vehicle traffic, tourist overrun, and industrial pollution have given the air and water in the ancient city a much needed cleansing. There may be a flicker of method within the extraordinary madness of coronavirus, just enough to give us a spark of hope. We must ignite that flame of hope, confident, in the words of Valarie Kaur, that “this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb.” That in this trying period, we can learn to be kinder, more compassionate, less shortsighted and selfish, more appreciative of this extraordinary planet and our need to care for her. When we create a caring society that commits its resources and priorities to funding medical research, investing in protective gear for all healthcare workers, and providing testing and treatment to all who need it, rich and poor alike, our sacrifices will restore life to those in the jaws of death. Just as sproutlings emerge from inert stumps, we will get through this and be better and stronger for it, keeping faith in that power of divine rightness as we pray “Baruch Atah Adonai mechayey ha’metim.”

Rabbi Zimmerman’s dvar Torah for MLK Service

It may be hard to believe, but this is our eighth annual joint Martin Luther King service for St. Stephens and Kehillat Israel. It is also my last MLK service before I retire. I’m proud that we have created a new tradition, and I certainly hope that our two congregations will keep this tradition alive in the years to come.


I don’t need to remind you how important it is for us to pray together and to stand together at this time in history. Our faiths are being challenged by shrill voices of chauvinism, of intolerance masked as scriptural rigor. Our rights are under siege, as our adversaries invoke age old prejudices and stereotypes that justify our mistreatment by denying our full humanness. And even those of us who should know better are susceptible to the strategy of divide and conquer, as it sews discord and mistrust between Jews, Muslims, immigrants, persons of color, indigenous peoples, and disadvantaged white Americans.


Doctor King knew better. As he preached in Memphis on the last full day of his life:
We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.


Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.


Yes, Doctor King knew better. He preached that we cannot fight fire with fire, that we will never defeat our adversaries through vengeance or retaliation, that the antidote to hate is love, and that our greatest threat is not that others succumb to groundless hatred, but that we ourselves succumb to groundless fear.


When God called upon Moses to return to  Egypt, to stand before Pharaoh and demand an end to slavery, Moses came up with a whole array of excuses:  I’m not worthy of this assignment, I can’t persuade folks to follow a God when I don’t even know that God’s name, I don’t know what to do if people don’t believe what I say, I’m a lousy speaker, and finally, I just don’t want to do this; go find someone else. We’re talking here about Moses, the greatest leader in history, the most steadfast servant of God. But even Moses, when first called to act, demonstrated that he did not follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but rather the God of fear, powerlessness, and despair.


Moses’ great moment was not when he succeeded, but when he failed. He and Aaron went before Pharaoh, Pharaoh not only refused to free the slaves, he even increased their burden. The people all turned on Moses and told him to stop shaking up the apple cart. And Moses himself went back to God, whining about his failure. So why was this Moses’ great moment? Because despite it all, he did not give up. He took the risk, he stepped into the role, confronted pharaoh ten more times as God’s agent, and eventually his mission succeeded.


I can’t tell you what you will be called to do in the next year; you will know when the time comes. It may be to stand up for a friend at school who is being mistreated; or it may even be enough just to be a friend to that person. Let me confess to you that I am not really a political activist. I don’t do well marching or facing angry crowds or getting arrested. But in my years in the community I’ve learned that this is not my role. There are different ways to lead or to take action. So I try to use my limited time and energy doing what I do best.


Is it enough for the members of St. Stephens and the members of KI to pray together once a year, to get to know each other, to build friendships, to sit down to a lunch together that we all helped to create and, hopefully, that at least a few of us are willing to clean up after? Maybe. Maybe not. But either way, we are sending a powerful message into the community. We stand together. We demonstrate that everyone in our communities deserves respect and receives respect. I also know, if, God forbid, something disturbing happens in either a Jewish or an African-American community, we are there to offer each other support. We have each other’s back, as demonstrated by the touching messages Kehillat Israel has received from St. Stephens over the years.


Sometimes familiarity and friendship are all it takes to move a few mountains. To give an example, just a few years ago a huge majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, and for the most part gay men and women were feared, mocked, or harassed. Then the LGBT community decided to go public, to let folks know that they were good neighbors, responsible citizens, reliable friends, and outstanding parents. They communicated their need to marry because, like everyone else, they need and deserve love, caring, and stable family life. Once gay and lesbian folks were seen as friends and neighbors, rather than as strange and different, attitudes quickly changed, both among the public and among our lawmakers, and same-sex marriage became legal.


I’d like to close with a parable shared by Rabbi Jen Feldman for Martin Luther King Day, 2012:

One day, an old Sage asked his disciples the question,. “How do you know when there is enough light to see?”
One of them answered: “There is enough light to see when you can see the current of the river move through the morning mist.”
A second replied: “When you can tell an oak tree from a sycamore.”
The third said: “When you can distinguish the young lambs from the goats as they romp in the morning light.”
Then his followers looked at the Sage and were silent. Finally the old master raised his eyes and spoke quietly and with deliberation. “There is enough light to see when you can look into the eyes of another person and understand that he or she is your brother or sister.”


May all of us radiate so much light that even our adversaries can recognize us as their siblings.


The Akeidah RH2 Doug Moffat

As I began thinking about this d’var this past summer, I spent a little time considering not only today’s Torah portion but also the one from yesterday as well as the culminating reading for the High Holidays, from the Torah more largely defined, namely Jonah.

I was struck by what we might call the different faces of God that we, and the human protagonists, encounter in these 3 stories and also how these three stories provide an emotional counterpoint to the arc of our High Holy Days.

We celebrate the rebirth of the world on Rosh Hashanah.  We feast.  We buy new clothes.  We greet each other with hopeful reference to being sealed in the Book of Life: Leshanah tova tikatevu.  “May you be inscribed for a good year!”  Some of us grouse about the discomforts of long services in a steamy, un-air-conditioned shul, but in the larger scheme of things, and there is no larger scheme than the rebirth of the world and inscription in the Book of Life, these complaints are addressable.

And yet, right at the heart of the service on Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading, we are confronted on both days not only with death, but the impending death of a child, apparently sanctioned by God, and today even ordered by God.  Yesterday Hagar and Ishmael were cast out into the desert, scapegoat-like.  Today, we are forced to contemplate the sacrificial killing of Isaac, and, what’s more, the extinction of the most important line of descent in Judaism.  Really the line of descent of Judaism.  In the Torah stories of yesterday and today, for a time at least, neither Hagar nor Abraham can be contemplating the prospect of a good and sweet year, let alone Isaac and Ishmael.  Both of these stories “end well” through the intervention of God, but they remain dark and bitter reminders not only of mortality but also of the fundamental unfairness of life, how sudden the final ‘cutting-off’ can be, even in a God-filled world.  And more complicating than that universal concern, today’s story in particular is evidence of the uncertain rollercoaster nature of the life of faith.

And then, 9 days from now, as the emotional arc of the High Holy Days reaches its darkest and most uncertain point, as we move through the afternoon toward sunset, when the Book of Life will be sealed, as we repeat the penitential prayers and pleas for forgiveness, along comes Jonah, the would-be prophet of vindictiveness and punishment and excision who is thwarted by a gentle God who not only wants to save all the 120,000 Ninevites, not one of them Jewish as far as we know, but also the cattle.  And also, I think, Jonah.  It has been a Sabbath of Sabbaths, we haven’t eaten or washed.  The shul is still un-air-conditioned.  And we get a comic story.  Comic in the usual sense of amusing but comic also in the way that literary critics sometimes use the term.  A community under threat is saved and reaffirmed. Life, as mortal and precarious as it may be, will go on, just as it will for us, whether this individual or that is sealed in the Book of Life, or not.  On the evening of Yom Kippur, the God of Jonah makes us feel like we have a chance.  And the misanthrope – that would be Jonah – who would disrupt the community becomes a figure of fun, is perhaps even exiled.  Or self-exiled.  Another scapegoat?

With that., let’s have a look at the central events of today’s passage.

Elohim neesa et Avraham.  God tested Abraham.  What does that mean?  At the beginning of the Book of Job God allows the Satan to test Job, who God regards as an exemplary believer, a man of faith.  You will recall that God himself recommends Job as the subject for the Satan’s test.  I am sure much has been written comparing these two tests, the test of the Akeidah and the test of Job, but one important distinction between the two is the relative lack of intimacy in the Job story.  At the beginning of Job, God is a distant figure in his court when the Satan drops by; it almost has the feeling of Greek myth.  The decisions about Job’s fate are made in a Mt. Olympus-like world, a place about which man can only conjecture.  And the decisions that set the narrative moving are made because of some sort of relationship between 2 supernatural beings, God and the Satan, essentially unknowable to us.  But in our text from Genesis we have no framing story, no explanation.  Elohim neesa et Avraham, and a way we go.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th century commentator on the Torah says the following: “The term neesa, when used with reference to physical or moral energies, denotes ‘to try or ‘to test’; that is, to present these energies with problems such as they had not been called upon to deal with before.  Accordingly, a cable that has already withstood the strain of carrying 50 pounds is said to have been ‘tested’ when it has been given 51 pounds to hold, but in the case of moral and spiritual powers, ‘testing’ serves to strengthen and to enhance these energies still further.”

It is a neat explanation.  Abraham, like some sort of tool or servant, is just going to be pushed a bit more.  As much as I respect Hirsch, it is too neat to be satisfying, either in terms of the test itself, or the relationship between Abraham and God.  Because there is a relationship between Abraham and God.  There is no framing story as we have in Job, but we do have a ‘back story’.

To put is bluntly, God and Abraham have a deal.  We call it the Covenant.  “Walk in my ways and be blameless” God says in Chapter 17 of Genesis, in the second iteration of the Covenant.  That is Abraham’s responsibility in this deal.  Your descendants will outnumber the stars in the heavens and sands by the sea and they will inherit the land.  That is God’s part of the deal.  And the lynchpin of this deal is Isaac. No Isaac: no deal.  Abraham is not a tool nor has he shown any cause to be tested in the manner that Hirsch implies.  He walks in the ways of God and is blameless.  This Covenant, this Brit, is assuredly not struck between equals, but neither is this relationship between Abraham and God one of Master and Servant, or more pointedly, Master and Slave.  When one is a partner to a deal, one is, after all, a partner.

So I want to suggest that God’s test of Abraham becomes a con-test between them.  Abraham will not try to run away, like Jonah.  That is futile.  Nor will he give up in the face of apparent implacable inevitability, like Hagar.  Why not?  For one thing, Abraham’s faith is unbreakable.  He is determined to walk blamelessly in God’s ways.  But he also he has a deal.  And he, Abraham, has done nothing to violate that deal.  So God’s test becomes a contest between God and Abraham, over Isaac, the embodiment of the deal and over God’s willingness, not Abraham’s, to abide by its terms.  And I think Abraham wins.  Thank God!

The spareness of the narrative.  The familiarity that characterizes the dialogue. The dramatic irony owing to Isaac, and the two servants, not knowing the former’s apparent fate.  All of these characteristics of the narrative have been remarked on by every commentator.  The apparent acquiescence of Abraham and the coldness, the remoteness, the cruelty of God, have also been frequently remarked upon, not the least in this synagogue.  I want to suggest that Abraham is not as acquiescent as he is often regarded, and that God is not at all remote.  (In fact, if it were staged in an Elizabethan theater, I think God would be in the onstage balcony looking down on the action, in easy earshot of everything being said.)

So when Abraham says to his servants “Wait here with the donkey.  I and the boy will go up to that place to worship and we shall return to you,” it is NOT a statement heard only by the servants nor primarily said to them.  (And I must point out that finicky and old-fashioned grammarians, like me, would be struck by the decision of our translators to use ‘will’ in the first clause, simply denoting a future action, but ‘shall’ in the second clause, denoting a degree of determination that the described action will indeed occur.  Not in the Hebrew, I know.)  Does Abraham make this statement only to keep the rest of his group quiet for a time?  Possibly.  Is it bravado? Coming from Abraham, not likely.  Assertion of how this episode has to come out, unless the other party wants to void the deal?  Yes. Why not?  Abraham has the courage to speak directly to God, and to bargain with God.  Witness the back and forth regarding the fate of Sodom that occurred a little earlier in Genesis.

What is he really saying?  Is it: “We have a deal and unless you are going to break that deal, the boy, Isaac, will be coming back here with me.”

When Isaac asks his question about the very apparent lack of an animal to sacrifice, once again, to whom is Abraham speaking when he responds, “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering?”  I think we tend to regard this statement as a flat response, filled with pathos, or maybe resignation. It could be that, but God is always listening to Abraham.  And I think and contend that Abraham knows that God is listening when he says these words.  Again, what is Abraham really saying with these words?  Is it: “I know you see me. You have searched for me, and I you, and we found each other.  So is this how it ends? Is this how you are going to make it end?”

Abraham knows that God sees, as he binds his son to the makeshift altar and then reaches for the knife, or cleaver or whatever it is.

And then focus shifts, and it is God through his messenger who is doing the talking.  “Abraham!  Abraham!”  He responds “Hineni”: I am here.  With what tone does he say this word?

And the silent one in the drama now becomes Abraham, not God.  The instrument for the destruction, of Isaac, of the deal, of the whole Torah, of us, is in Abraham’s hand.  The whole episode is a crisis of faith, but this is the most intense moment.  Stop for just a minute and imagine if it were Jonah with that knife in his hand: what would he do?  Would he put down the knife?  Would he overcome his anger or would it overcome him?

We have to believe, of course, that Abraham does not want to kill his son.  It is an intense human drama as well.  But this is the voice of God.  As intense as the human drama is, the drama between man and God rivals it.  Abraham decides that he wants, that he needs – and indeed we need – this deal, this Covenant, even with this God whose face continues to shift, whose face is ultimately inscrutable, unknowable.  You don’t always get to pick your partners.  Maybe that is God’s view as well.  I don’t think that Abraham is simply let off.  He is dealt in.  He deals himself in.  And following the sacrifice of the ram, what does God do?  God reiterates the Covenant again, for the third time. There a few add-ons, but essentially it is the same deal offered twice before and accepted. Abraham hears but says nothing.  Isaac says nothing. Does he hear the voice of God as well?  He is there.  He witnessed the miracle of the ram.  It is his deal too.  But we learn nothing from the text about Isaac’s response to this ordeal.  In fact, the text tells us that Abraham returns to his servants, but Isaac is not mentioned.

Abraham, we are told, names the place Adonai yireh.  God sees.  Once again, with what nuance of meaning does he choose this name?

In his book God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel makes the following statement:

The term ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ is semantically different from a term such as “the God of truth, goodness, and beauty.”  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do not signify ideas, principles or abstract values. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not principles to be comprehended but lives to be continued.  The life of [one] who joins the covenant of Abraham continues the life of Abraham.  For the present is not apart from the past.  “Abraham is still standing before God.”  Abraham endures forever.  We [says Heschel] are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (201)

And, I would add, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.  It is our deal too, this Covenant.

Does this deal ‘only’ promise us a geographically specific share in a land?  Perhaps.  Power and wealth?  Perhaps.  Or is it the promise of a better future, a fairer, safer, and more fulfilling future? Regardless, it binds us to a prospective Judaism of future potential available to us if and only if we do the work to hold up our end of the bargain.  Do we ever cross the Jordan?

For some, traditionally for most, holding up our end of the bargain is the challenge of faith, and it is not such an easy or popular path as some imagine.  And today’s Torah portion makes abundantly clear that faith is not for the simple or the simple-minded.  Faith, in fact, is a risky behavior.  But if we are going to contemplate a life of faith, continuing thereby the life of

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah (and you can do what ever you wish with that order), this is certainly the time of year for such activity.  A time of soul searching, you might say.  I invite you to participate.

But to bring us back to a different plane, let me also say that here at KI we are entering a period of profound transition as Rabbi Zimmerman prepares to leave us.  If we are truly in the Covenant, in the deal that Abraham has with God, we need to show it.  This year and going forward into the future.  We are a small synagogue, and that is fine.  But we can’t suffer too much diminishment.  Our commitment and our resolve to be part of the KI deal must remain strong, if not increase.  I invite you to participate in that as well.

Lashanah tova tikatevu.



D’var Torah for Yom Kippur – Linda Losik

D’var Torah for Yom Kippur

As usual, this time of day, I think: Wow, what a journey coupled with “are we there yet”?  The High Holidays are always a journey within another journey.  We begin with the celebration of the birth of the world and end with accepting responsibilities of our actions both as individuals and as a people after ten days of introspection, shining a light on ourselves to find the dark spots that need to be lightened if possible or accepted as is.  These dark spots are scars within ourselves, all of which have been created by trials, grief and horrors that each one of us has experienced.  Today is the final day of the long journey of introspection.  Tonight at sunset, this journey ends and another journey begins.

When I first began this d’var, I was planning on just giving a d’var just on this Torah portion but then several readings later, I began to see how tightly but subtly all of the readings that we have heard during the High Holidays were bound together.  All contain the message of kindness and mercy within them.  Make no mistake about this: mercy does not always contain kindness but kindness always contains mercy.  While many use these words interchangeably, they are not same.  According to dictionary.com, mercy is clemency or the righting of a wrong; while kindness is compassion or benevolence. On Rosh Hashanah we read the binding of Isaac, in which providing the ram stopped the sacrifice of Isaac. This act was merciful but in no way kind.  However, G-d’s action toward the people of Nineveh in the Jonah story was kind as well as merciful.  The moment they repented, the curse was lifted.  Another example is the creation of the vine for shade for Jonah.   I would like to examine the various forms of kindness and mercy shown in these readings.

As it is stated in the book of Micah 6:8: “What does Adonai require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Adonai”.    Kindness or chesed is the act of practicing being kind and giving of self without any hope of getting something in return.   This is not the easiest task we can ever undertake because kindness is something that needs to be practiced every hour of every day, even without anyone demanding or needing kindness and it must be directed to everybody in the world.

In the portion of Leviticus we just read, there are many laws that seem to devote themselves not only to kindness, but to the mercy that is contained within each law.  I would like to look three verses from this parashah.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.

Both of these verses are acknowledged as excellent descriptions of kindness.  But why?  What’s so kind about not having to do the work? Wouldn’t it be kinder if we made a huge effort to give? By allowing the less fortunate to do the work in our fields themselves, we are not only giving them food but also hope.  Hope that someday they will be able to provide for themselves   by using the same skills that they developed when gleaning our fields. Also, there is no shame or shaming involved.

But how can we do this today? After all we are not, as someone said earlier, “outdoor Jews”.  A good start is to continue to do what we have done today; giving to the food bank or by supporting Advent House or the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing, not just today but the rest of the year as well. Another way to help is to donate non-food items like sanitary supplies or diapers or personal care products.  Most women have extra purses that once we just could not live without but are now collecting dust.  Why not fill them with sanitary supplies or diapers or personal care products? Or maybe sanitizer or a bus token?  A few little things, which like food, are necessary for living and that make life feel good while giving hope without shaming the person who needs the help.  Another way is to get active in our local schools to demand that they feed hungry children.  No child should either go hungry or be shamed because their parents cannot afford hot lunches.

You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

After copious amounts reading and research, it was very evident that most, if not all, that I was reading was written before the advent of social media, especially Facebook.  Although, I do think that Rashi would have had fun using social media.

This verse, as well, is a very complicated one. On the surface this seems straight forward. But like everything else in Judaism, it’s not simple.  Let’s start with the deaf. The literal meaning refers to the physically deaf.  But what about other types of deafness?  Deafness is not just of the body, but of the mind and soul as well.  Is not the inability to hear the pain or the laughter of others, deafness as well?  What if we are so locked into our own little world, that we no longer hear the words of others?  What about the deafness that comes from not listening to our own instincts; what our conscience is telling us to do or not to do?  What about the deafness that comes from our reluctance to hear the song our soul sings to us?  These and other non-physical forms of deafness that we suffer from binds us to this thought: to insult those who suffer from all forms of deafness is to insult ourselves.

I once asked Walter Kron how this verse, particularly the part about placing a stumbling block in from of a blind person, was even needed.  His answer: maybe some people thought that it was funny.  We both agreed that we considered the Three Stooges as three good Jewish boys gone bad.

Blindness, as with deafness, is not only of the body but of the mind and soul as well.  Our inability to see others as they are or as they need to been seen is a stumbling block for them as well as ourselves.  Last summer, I was at Kroger’s in Okemos, where there was a woman behind the counter who was wearing a hijab.  It was very beautiful and the needle work was done by an expert.  I went up to her and complimented her on her hijab.  A family member had made it for her to wear at her first day of work; she had just started in the bakery.  After chatting for a bit, I left and went towards the checkout.  As I passed thru the pharmacy, I was accosted by two women who were livid that I dared to speak to this employee of Kroger’s in such a manner.   One of them asked if I was not a patriotic American.  She also stated that she was so offended by the hijab; she wanted to rip it off her head.  I asked if she wanted to do it to other women of faith, like nuns.  I told her that pulling the veil off a Buddhist nun might not be dangerous, but a Catholic nun could be vicious; I would not advise that move.  I also asked if she would pull the shidel from a Jewish woman or pull off the babushka of an eastern European woman.  I pointed out that no one was making the employee wear the hijab and that it was her choice.  Here in America we have freedom of and from religion.  The second woman spoke up to agree with me as the first woman said: “I never saw it that way.”  My answer:  “the question remains, now that you can see, what are you going to do about it?”  Then I left to check out of Kroger’s.

By being kind to those who are deaf and the blind in any form, we further ourselves. Why? Because in some way, we all are deaf and blind, which does lead to us being unkind.  So how do we become kind?  We start by being kind to the one person in our life to whom we rarely give kindness.  First we need to look in a mirror, for we are own worst critic.   After the introspection of the last ten days, it should be somewhat easier to see ourselves as we really are.  However, even knowing where the flaws are and vowing to correct them will not really help as much as it could unless we start being kind to ourselves.  When was the last time you were kind to yourself?  We have been trained not to brag but to be humble about what we accomplish.  So why not, instead of saying to yourself, “I could have done better”, say “good job”?   Why not acknowledge the good that we do privately to ourselves so that no one hears our words but us?  By acknowledging the good we do within the privacy of our own minds, we begin to heal the blindness and deafness that are contained within all of us. If we are going to be doing and spreading kindness we need to start with ourselves.  Then we will truly know how it feels.  Then we can practice kindness to our family, friends and community with the knowledge of the good feelings we are spreading.  Who knows, this might even start trending?



Rabbi Michael Zimmerman

Congregation Kehillat Israel, Lansing, Michigan

contact:    517-303-1260, kirabbiz@gmail.com

At Rosh Hashanah, when Steve Weiland climaxed his d’var with an ode to pot roast, all I could think of at that moment was that it’s a good thing he wasn’t slated to speak at Yom Kippur. Imagine trying to focus at this moment on a multisensory communion between the poet and his mother’s hamisch culinary masterpiece!

And yet our liturgy challenges us even more than the idyllic dreams of mama’s pot roast. It mocks our well-intentioned attempts at piety and self-sacrifice on the one day of the year that we try as hard as we can to be contrite, to be reverent, and hopefully to be forgiven for the past year’s fumbles and foibles. Just as the absence of breakfast is really starting to get to us, we are told that fasting simply by abstaining from food, even if we followed all the instructions in the book, is not really what God wants from us. This of course creates a conundrum – we know we’re doing it wrong, and for the most part there’s not much we can do about it, at least not until tomorrow at the earliest when we can presumably start to implement some of Isaiah’s injunctions:  unlocking the chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation, and so on. But we know that the solution is not to go out and order a falafel; that would only make things worse. Plus, if we can hold out fasting until this afternoon, we know that we will read in Jonah that fasting for the sake of repentance is actually a good thing. So next year at this time we’ll find ourselves fasting once again, and once again being mocked by Isaiah for not doing it right.

Still, I really don’t think that Isaiah’s goal is to make us feel guilty, even if that’s what we may expect from a Jewish author with an acid wit. No, Isaiah is not so much a literary superego as a visionary, a political spiritual radical who recognizes that the world we accept as real is not the world to which we aspire, and that a world of love and balance is within our grasp.

Reading this Haftarah every year, I thought I understood it. I even thought that its message—that doing social justice is a good thing—is too obvious to even discuss. This year though, I’m  reading a new book by Rabbi Michael Lerner with the modest title Revolutionary Love: A Political Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World, and this is giving me a much fuller appreciation of what Isaiah is trying to tell us. Written nearly 2000-3000 years apart, these two works carry essentially the same message, the same assessment of what’s broken in society, the same analysis of the causes of the contributing factors, and to a large degree the same solutions. The metaphors and undefined terminology of the ancient religious poet and the detailed interdisciplinary working out of analyses and solutions by a contemporary scholar may read very differently; yet Lerner reveals hidden facets of Isaiah’s vision just as Isaiah demonstrates the deep Jewish roots of Lerner’s lifelong project to heal society.

To see how Isaiah and Lerner line up, it helps to back up one chapter from our Haftarah, and take a look at Isaiah 56. Two key elements in this chapter are a vision of inclusivity and a condemnation of the evils of society. The inclusivity passage starts with a welcome to eunuchs, in other words those who were dismissed as sexual outliers and had been excluded from the community. This passage is frequently cited by religious leaders who advocate for LGBTQ rights:
“As for the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to My covenant; I will give them, in My House and within My walls a monument and a name, better than sons or daughters; an everlasting name that shall not perish.”

Next are pious foreigners. They are not detained at the border, but embraced:
“I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. For my House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Isaiah then rails against greed and lack of communal concern, and mocks mindless pleasure-seeking:
Everyone has turned his own way.

Every last one seeks his own advantage, saying:

COME, I’ll get some wine, let us swill some liquor, and it will be just like this tomorrow or maybe even more.”

Our ancient prophet will settle for nothing less than a society that is based in compassion and social responsibility, in which greed and exploitation are curtailed, and empty diversions are no substitute for the bliss of divine blessing. This coincides perfectly with Lerner’s vision of a society that no longer privileges financial gain as the be all and end all, but rather embraces a new bottom line, QUOTE “that judges every aspect of our society as productive, efficient, or rational to the extent that they maximize our human capacities to be loving, generous, and caring toward each other and toward the Earth, ethically and environmentally responsible, and committed to justice; and promote joy, playfulness, compassion and empathy, self-acceptance, humor, creativity, health,” ENDQUOTE. There are more criteria, but you probably get the idea by now.

Lerner’s core premise is that all human beings seek love, acceptance, and purpose. However, throughout history those with more power and resources have subjected the rest of society to exploitation, and have fostered an ethos of selfishness, rugged individuality, and alienating competitiveness. As a result, we’ve become conditioned to believe that the only true reality is that everyone is out for themselves, that one needs to compete to survive, and while the few succeed, the majority have only their own inadequacies to blame for their economic deprivation, meaningless jobs, loneliness, and lack of purpose. Meanwhile, commercial interests create a longing for lots of stuff we don’t really need, and people escape the emptiness through entertainment, diversion, and addictions, like Isaiah’s liquor-swilling party-goers.

The most debilitating element in this model is the powerful notion that the only reality is based in what is tangible and measurable:  money, rank, status, reward. All contributing to a state of existential despair Lerner calls “the great deprivation.”

One thing is clear: this cannot be the way people want to live. Transformation is needed, and the first step, to use Isaiah’s words, is to “Remove the stumbling block from my people’s way.”

In last month’s KI newsletter, Leon Puttler wrote in his co-president’s column: “I don’t know about all of you, but there is an underlying something (depression, numbing, etc.) that invades my daily life regarding the state of the world and our country. And I don’t really know what to do with these feelings and thoughts.” I’ve noticed something similar in recent weeks: people are agitated, short-tempered, depressed, forgetful, more than usual. Or as Michael Lerner describes it, “All over the world, psychotherapists are beginning to notice a pervasive depression in many patients. People feel hopeless about the possibility of saving our planet and are more inclined to abandon any involvement in societal processes other than extracting as much pleasure for themselves as possible before our planet becomes unlivable.”  Isaiah’s response:  “As for the downtrodden and the destitute, I shall revive the spirit of the lowly, and the heart of the depressed I shall restore.”

We may be lulled into silence, but Isaiah reminds us that we must not succumb:  “Cry from the throat, do not relent, raise up your voices like a shofar.”

So here’s the deal. The world we experience is not the world that is our birthright. Michael Lerner describes the goal as “The Caring Society,” or “A World of Love and Balance.” Isaiah speaks in metaphors and similes:  “From me shall my spirit drip like dew. I shall create the breath of life.” “Your light shall shine in darkness.” “The Righteous One will satisfy your thirst in desert wastes, will give your bones new life, and you’ll be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail.” These water images are especially poignant in an era when climate change is rapidly producing desertification and life as we know it on this planet hangs in the balance. Clearly  this imagery sends a powerful message of hope, just as Michael Lerner has continued for decades to send a message of hope, even as so much in human society seems to just keep getting worse.

In Lerner’s vision, that hope stems from the recognition that people in all segments of society, including those who subscribe to hateful ideologies or perpetuate oppression and exploitation, basically hunger for love, respect, and purpose. They may seek it in counterproductive ways, which is why Isaiah said that “The wicked are like a troubled sea, they cannot be at peace, their waters stir with mire and mud.” But if we engage with those whose worldviews we find problematic, doing so in a spirit of “prophetic empathy” that is both respectful to others and clear about how things are and how they need to be changed, people can start to find their way out of the mire and mud.

Isaiah’s program is comprehensive: “To unlock the fetters of wickedness. To let the oppressed go free.  V’CHOL-MOTAH T’NATEKU “And to break EVERY yoke.” Lerner is equally uncompromising, convinced as he is that indecisive compromise positions will not inspire people to work for the vision and will probably not lead to substantive change. As he writes, “Martin Luther King Jr. did not become the major icon of social change by giving a speech to 300,000 people in which his main line, repeated several times, was ‘I have a …complaint.’”

Lerner’s program is not only far reaching; it is radical by any measure, because it is clear that so-called “realistic” solutions are inadequate for the state of today’s world—new family support policies, new economic models, new systems for education, health care, and criminal justice, and more. Just as the Book of Isaiah scans two or three centuries of Israelite history, so does Lerner jump ahead from 2019 to the mid-22nd century, inspiring us to work for future outcomes that would be inconceivable in today’s world. What more fitting tribute to the spirit of the Biblical prophet who envisioned a world in which the wolf would dwell with the lamb, the leopard would lie down with the kid, and nation would not take up sword against nation or ever learn war again. In his closing chapter, Lerner spins off of Isaiah’s prophecy:  “In the 22nd century China, Russia, the United States, the European countries, and the Islamic countries are all working together to repair the damage of the past and to ensure that there are no more hot wars, trade wars, or diplomatic struggles.”

But as Lerner repeatedly emphasizes, strong transformation requires a soft touch. The program he outlines must reflect love and generosity. And in every step of the campaign to bring the caring society agenda to realization, debating those who oppose it, implementing it, and generating the mechanisms to sustain it, love and caring must pervade every interaction. It is only by promoting kindness and human decency at every turn that Isaiah’s vision of a people pervaded by the blessings of the Almighty can truly come to be.


D’var Torah: Vayeshev

Our parashah this week begins the story of Joseph, a man destined for greatness by virtue of his extraordinary gifts and good luck. It certainly was not his political acumen that got him into power. Quite to the contrary, he repeatedly proved to be his own worst enemy, getting ahead in the world in spite of himself.

The story opens with Joseph bringing bad reports about his brother to their father Jacob. Jacob for his part, with a long track record of a disastrous insensitivity to family dynamics, rewarded the snitch with lavish gifts. Needless to say, his brothers weren’t crazy about him.

When I first visited KI as a student rabbi for Rosh Hashanah, knowing nobody in Lansing or at this shul, a man came up to me after the services and let me know how much he appreciated my d’var Torah. After that he kept smiling at me, to the point that I was almost getting embarrassed. In any case, he could have taught Joseph a lesson that it’s a lot easier to get ahead in the world if you show your appreciation and friendliness.

Joseph next bungled whatever good will he had left by telling not only his brothers, but his father as well, of a dream in which all of them would be bowing down to him. It’s one thing to brag about one’s power, and quite another to quietly demonstrate it. On my next visit to KI after Yom Kippur, a late afternoon Shabbat walk had been planned through Scott Woods, to be followed by havdalah and cider back in the social hall. The plan was to end up at Hawk Island, where cars were parked to shuttle us back to KI. Unfortunately, since we didn’t make it to Hawk Island until after sundown, the gate leading to the county park had been locked for the night. Don’t worry, said a man in our group – you’ll never guess who. He got on his cellphone and ten minutes later a patrol car came around and an officer opened the gate. “Good evening, Mr. Wiener,” the officer said. David greeted him by name, asked about his family, and we were on our way.

Through Joseph’s naïve boasting and bungling, he nearly got himself killed. While it was only good luck that saved his hide, his extraordinary managerial powers got him a position as caretaker for a prominent Egyptian official. And even though house-slave is usually considered a dead-end job, Joseph managed to rise to a position of increasing responsibility, prestige, and benefits. At this point, our two stories converge for a while. On my next monthly visit to Lansing, I picked up a copy of City Pulse, intrigued by the cover story, “Is this the most powerful man in Lansing?” The article suggested that the quiet man with inside connections had more going for him than I realized. It also depicted man behind the mayor in words reminiscent of the retired volunteer who has given so much to this congregation:

The mild-mannered David Wiener has become a familiar face in Lansing over the last ten years.

Former Mayor David Hollister said. “It was really important for me to leave someone behind who could keep the continuity that we had built in the city, and David was that person. He understands the big picture when it comes to politics and this city.”

He has emerged as more of a public figure. During the Capitol Loop controversy, for example, Wiener was clearly running the show for the city. Such activities smack of political ambition. “The idea of running for office has been brought up from time to time,” Wiener said, “but in order to run for office, I would have to give up what I’m doing, and that’s just not what I’m looking for right now.”

His announcement comes as welcome news to his supporters, especially the leadership of neighborhood groups who say that Wiener has become an integral part of their relationship with the city.

“We know that we can go to Mr. Wiener, and that he’ll make every effort to get things done,” said Anita Beavers, president of the Colonial Village Neighborhood Association.

“He’s always got a handle on everything,” Benavides said. “He knows this city inside and out and he’s incredibly committed.”

Incredibly committed might be putting it mildly. Wiener says that he spends an average of 12 hours per day doing his job.

“It’s not all at the office. I do a lot of reading and writing at home and I also spend a lot of time out with the neighborhood groups and other city organizations,” Wiener said.

In the public arena, any kind of corruption or scandal can ultimately be disastrous to one’s career. Joseph understood this, so he wisely kept his distance from his boss’s gorgeous wife. Unfortunately the usually clever and calculating Joseph did not cover his bases and let Mrs. Potiphar hold on to circumstantial evidence that landed him in prison. Many commentators have pointed out that the florid Torah trope sign on the word meaning “but he refused” her seductions suggests that Joseph hesitated. Also, the side commentary in the Torah text “Now Joseph was well built and handsome” suggests that he may have in some way provoked the woman’s advances.

What a different story when we talk about a man with 150% integrity, as this excerpt from the City Pulse article makes clear:

In the little spare time he has, Wiener says that he and his wife enjoy ballroom dancing and traveling, especially to Lansing’s sister cities.

“And by the way, we all pay our own way when we visit sister cities, unlike a certain other publication reported,” joked Wiener.

Note here that unlike Joseph, when a ludicrous accusation was thrown at David, he could easily make light of it because he was so obviously beyond reproach.

Like our former KI president, Joseph remained as active off the job as he was on the job. Instead of just festering in prison, he made himself available as counselor and dream interpreter. David still shows up at KI nearly every day, whether it’s to replace light fixtures, tutor our b’nai mitzvah candidates, lead great books discussions, roll the Torah scroll, or spread de-icing salt in the parking area. Unlike David, however, Joseph boasted to the point of playing God. As he told the cupbearer before interpreting his dream, “Surely God can interpret! Tell me your dreams.” David’s bearing is more like Gideon in our haftarah. He showed up incognito at the enemy camp, let the others play the role of the brilliant interpreters, and left them to draw their own conclusions when his dream prophesized their defeat. This kind of low key approach, empowering others to excel and giving them room to find their way to a solution, was typical of David’s leadership style as board president.

Finally, our parashah suggests that Joseph was a political opportunist. When he recognized that the cup bearer would soon be returned to power, Joseph used the man’s influence to secure his own release from prison. That much is understandable; we would all do the same thing if we were in his predicament. But what I find striking in contrast is that after he gave the chief baker a terrifying prediction of his future, he broke off contrast with the poor guy. Just imagine what a state the baker must have been in after hearing he would be impaled in three days. After the workshop I just took at the rabbinical convention on dealing with trauma, it’s clear that one can never just walk away from someone who has received such shocking news. Here I picture David taking the time to sit with him, listening patiently and with equilibrium as the baker unleashed waves of distress, rage, and powerlessness, and letting him know that he cares about him and, if there were anything he could do, he at least would try.

So in next week’s episode, Joseph will rise to become the number two man in Egypt, accountable to no one except pharaoh himself, kind of like being executive assistant to the mayor. As we’ll read in two weeks, the way Joseph used his power wasn’t always pretty. In contrast, our congregation, like our city, can be grateful to have been guided by the most humane, compassionate, gentle, and life-affirming of leaders. David is reminiscent of the sun in the Aesop fable about the sun and the wind trying to get a man to remove his cloak. Soft power is a very Jewish thing. It empowers others to be the change they want to see, and creates no collateral damage.

— Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
December 2018

D’var Torah: Tzav

Inspired by Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra by Marjan Helms*

Ascent # 1:
There are glimpses of a lost spiritual heritage in Jewish practice. We find it in the psalmist’s glorious depictions of nature and the cosmos, and in the mysteries of the sacrifice. Our practice was established to enable us to remain in constant intimacy with Divinity. We have lost that divine intimacy nowadays; many of us don’t even believe that a Divinity exists with which we could be in intimacy. And still, we struggle to keep the ancient practices alive, not always certain if they are accomplishing what they are supposed to, or for that matter, what it is that they are supposed to accomplish. Yet we do understand that our lives are fraught with tensions and uncertainties, that life in modern society is grossly out of balance, and that these imbalances may drive the world to economic collapse and environmental disaster. And so, we seek solace, we seek wisdom, we seek to reconnect with the part of us that has not forgotten what we were seeking for in the first place. Chadesh yamenu kekedem.

Ascent #2:
Seeking requires sacrifice, and sacrifice is scary. When we offer up our first fruits, there’s no guarantee that these won’t be our last fruits of the season. To offer the Shlemah, the sacrifice of well-being, we place on the altar, with our own hands, the breast that had cradled the living, beating heart of a creature that we had fed and cared for. When crisis in our lives causes us to bottom-out, to seek help and change our ways, we may need to abandon our friends, our sources of pleasure, and all that’s familiar. Our Torah reading repeatedly threatens us with being cut off from our kin, and indeed, anyone who goes forth on a journey of purpose and discovery, who, like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit leaves his pipe and easy chair to go on an adventure, may encounter a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. Min hametzar karati yah.

Ascent #3:
The world can be a scary place. There have always been enemies, highway robbers, and malicious beasts. Today we live in gated communities with encrypted unrememberable passwords on our software. The nightly news keeps us apprised of spectacular meteorological threats, serial killers, and suicidal terrorists. Yet statistically we face far greater danger every time we get behind the wheel of a car…and for the most part we do this without fear and in the vast majority of situations we reach our destination unscathed. In a scientific age, it may seem preposterous to speak about guardian spirits, and yet we experience making perilous car trips without fear when fear is not called for, even though we immediately snap into defensive mode to deal with genuine threats in the road. Somehow we know how to find repose despite potential dangers. We are nourished when we find this repose in wild places, rather than on I-96. There’s a special tranquility in nature at night, fearing nothing, yet poised to react at the first stirrings of a potential cougar or copperhead. Esa einai el heharim me’ayin yavo ezri.

Ascent #4:
After describing the proper preparation of the well-being sacrifice, our Torah reading tells us that a pure person may partake in the sacrificial offering. However, “the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his or her kin.” In other words, it’s not enough to do the right thing in the wrong state of mind. We may recite our prayers in perfect Hebrew, unaware what the words mean, and say them so fast that no one else can understand them. And we’re likely to be rewarded with as much blessing as we put into the prayer. To quote Marjan’s commentary on Ascent IV: “Deep sadness and fear mingle with irrational anxiety but are met by two opposing energies: first, a formulaic and borrowed determination that is too shallow for the task, and second, a more authentic courage that is willing, finally, to accept pain.” Vetaher libeinu l’ovdecha be’emet.

Ascent #5:
The courage borne of authenticity is extremely energizing. In our Haftarah, the formulaic form of action is described as “defrauding God,” going through the motions without doing the hard work. In contrast, we do authentic work, such as providing food to those in need, the floodgates of the sky open up and blessings pour down. Hafachta mispadi lemachol li pitachta saki ve’te’azreni simchah.

Ascent #6:
It has become something of a cliché to speak of atonement as “at-one-ment,” yet the language is compelling. Feeling in harmony with one’s self and one’s world is a joyful state in which self-care and ethical action become inseparable, in that the same impulse of maintaining and deepening homeostasis expresses itself in relaxing tight shoulders, taking seconds on salad and avoiding the dessert table, picking candy wrappers off the floor, and serving meals to the homeless. Ashirah l’adonai be’chaiyai.

Ascent #7:
Many believe that claims that introspection and contemplation have no place in Jewish observance. The examples of Jacob, Elijah, Daniel, Shimon bar Yochai, and the Baal Shem Tov suggest otherwise. It is only by going deeply into our souls that we find the insight to repair the world and the courage to act upon that insight. Re-entry is difficult; when we come down from the mountain and see how others are living, our first impulse may be to smash the tablets. After twelve years in a cave, Rabbi Shimon was so disgusted by the unexamined lives of his fellow Israelites that he fixed his gaze on everyone he saw and knocked them dead. He therefore needed to spend another year in the cave to develop compassion. It is this compassion that enables us both to shed a tear and to burst out in laughter when we encounter human foibles, to dedicate our new strength and insight to the benefit of others, and to reconcile our differences. In the closing words of our haftarah: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.”

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman, March 28, 2015

* Commentary on Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra by Marjan Helms

Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra

Ascent I speaks of disquiet and leave-taking—of choosing a path seemingly at odds with what is familiar and comfortable. Drawn from unease by the mysterious Other of the insistent birdcall, the music establishes a determined pace of escape and ascent, marking the beginning of exploration and discovery.

Ascent II presents a pause in the climb. Here, a first backward glance suggests tender regard for the simplicity and goodness left behind. Opposing this sweetness, however, fear, insecurity, and doubt come to dominate a surreal soundscape where turning back is no longer possible. The flute struggles in this eerie atmosphere, ultimately overcoming fear by boldly singing its own echo of the birdcall. Terror passes, and the movement ends quietly, although unsettled and cautious.

Ascent III unfolds while the protagonist’s energy is at rest. The music hints at a realm of guardian spirits where love never slumbers and where the wakeful Spirit watches over all wandering.

Ascent IV reiterates with a vengeance the terrors of the second movement. Deep sadness and fear mingle with irrational anxiety but are met by two opposing energies: first, a formulaic and borrowed determination that is too shallow for the task, and second, a more authentic courage that is willing, finally, to accept pain.

Ascent V begins by startling the almost broken character of the flute back into intense wakefulness. The entire brass section resounds in a tumultuous but ambiguous fanfare, to which the flute responds by almost jokingly transforming march into dance. Redemption is close at hand.

Ascent VI crosses a threshold into a world unforeseen. An encircling Presence arises from the fundamental chant of the earth and all souls resident and nearby. Here, music leads to the edge of Silence.

Ascent VII pours irresistibly out of the sixth movement. The flute hurls itself headlong into a joyful re-imagination of everything previously encountered. This music speaks of hope and laughter and joy, of return and renewal. The mountaintop, after all, is only a resting place. Life does not end. The music goes before us to say that all is well. That all shall be well.

©2014 Marjan Helms