B’ever ha’Yarden b’eretz Moav ho’il Moshe be’er et hatorah hazot

On the far side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this Torah (Deuteronomy 1:5)

The English name of the fifth and final book of the Five Books of Moses is “Deuteronomy”. Deuteronomy is a Greek term that means “repetition of the law”. This is an appropriate name, as the entire book – save the very end that describes Moses’ passing – is a recounting by Moses of the previous books of the Torah. The book is in the form of a very long final oration by Moses, in which he recaps the journey of the Children of Israel under his leadership, and repeats and expands upon the ­mitzvot – the laws by which the Jewish People will live.

The Hebrew name of the book, D’varim, is also an appropriate title, and a more evocative one as well. D’varim means “words”. The book of D’varim is filled with Moses’ words. This is the same Moses who, when called decades earlier by YHVH at the burning bush, could only respond, “Bi, Adonai, lo ish devarim anochi” – “Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words – not now, not ever – I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)

I am not the first to notice that Moses, who originally insists that he is not a man of words, is able at the end of his life to deliver a 33-chapter summation and explication of his life’s mission. What a transformation! How did Moses “find his voice”?

The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), points us to the double meaning of the word be’er in the verse I cited above: “ho’il Moshe be’er et hatorah hazot.” The plain meaning of this verse is, “Moses undertook to explain this Torah.” The verb Be’er means “explain, expound, elucidate.” But the noun Be’er means “a well”. Thus a creative alternate meaning dances in the background: “Moses undertook to well up this Torah.”

Listen: “On the far side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, this Torah welled up in Moses.”

Where does inspiration dwell? Is it on some distant mountaintop, or is it deep within each of us? Perhaps Moses earlier in life did not yet know how to let words well up within his soul. The Sefat Emet continues the analogy, and compares those who mistakenly think of themselves as a cistern (bor בור in Hebrew) to those who correctly understand themselves to be a well (be’er באר). A cistern is a closed system; once its contents have been emptied, it is dry. A well is an open system; it taps into a rechargeable, invisible, ever-flowing water source, and siphons it to the surface. A good well brims over with water, and never runs dry. Therefore, if a person thinks of herself as a cistern, she mistakenly thinks that inspiration is a product of her own self. The wellsprings of creativity will not replenish this person. But one who sees oneself as a well comes to understand that he is not the source but rather a conduit for inspiration.

Playing further with the Hebrew, one can say that the difference between a bor בור and a be’er באר is the vivifying aleph א, the Voice of God, the soundless letter from which the remainder of the alphabet, and thus human communication, emerges. Without our connection to the deep, flowing silence of the aleph, our inspiration will run dry.

Prior to encountering the presence of YHVH, Life Unfolding, at the burning bush, Moses labored under the illusion that hampers so many of us in our search for a life of purpose – he thought that he was a closed system, limited to his own resources and resourcefulness. At the burning bush, Moses’ illusory aloneness was shattered, and he became a messenger, a channel, a vessel for a greater calling. He would find his voice by, paradoxically, allowing inspiration to flow through him. We find this understanding in YHVH’s response to Moses at the burning bush. When Moses stammers, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue!” YHVH replies: “Who gives humans speech?…Now go, and I will be with you, in your mouth, and will teach you what to say.” (Exodus 4:11)

Perhaps over the course of the next forty years Moses learns how to allow God to speak through him, as it were. Is this what it means to be a prophet? Perhaps. I think it is what it means to be an artist, as well. And a lover. When we learn how to dig down in ourselves beyond our egos to the wellsprings of inspiration that flow for all creatures, when we tend our well so that we can water others from our particular channel to the Divine, we are liberated from the illusion of our separateness while simultaneously fulfilling our own unique role in the universe.

By the time Moses speaks Sefer D’varim, the Book of Words, Moses has mastered the subtle skill of allowing words to well up in him. He becomes the well. The teachings flow out from his lips, and he is no longer at a loss for words. Indeed, as his oration reaches its climax at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses does his utmost to imbue the Children of Israel with the understanding that they too are wells and not cisterns, and will be able to continue to connect with the Divine after Moses is gone:

[This teaching] is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may do it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us, and impart it to us, that we may do it?” No, the word is in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. (Deut. 30:11-14)

Across a lifetime of struggle and service, Moses came to trust and to allow inspiration to flow through him. He thus found his voice, and his words still resound in the world to this day. He also left us with a charge, as all great teachers will do: Do not think that creative and moral inspiration is some limited resource, secreted in some external, inaccessible source. No, that source flows all around you and within you, waiting to be tapped, ready to well up in your being and flow out into the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Eileh mas’ei V’nei Yisrael asher yatz’u me’eretz Mitzrayim

These are the journeys of the Children of Israel after leaving the Land of Egypt (B’Midbar 33:1)

As we reach the end of the book of B’Midbar, the Children of Israel have arrived at the banks of the River Jordan. The Promised Land is just on the other side. The Book of Deuteronomy will complete the five Books of Moses, but it all takes place at this location; the epic journey that began with the Book of Exodus has reached its destination. Fittingly, this final portion of B’Midbar is called “Mas’ei” – “Journeys”, and it begins with a lengthy recounting of every encampment at which the Children of Israel sojourned during the past forty years.

How are we to read this chapter? As a list, it is pretty tedious. We stopped here, and here, and here… But, as I have endeavored to make clear throughout these commentaries, the Torah is not a Road Atlas. It is rather a map of our inner journey. It is the journey of the soul, as the Haggadah tells us, “from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from darkness to light, from degradation to dignity.”

Looking at the names of the Israelite encampments in that light, one becomes aware that the place names themselves are heavy with symbolism – are they real places, or states of being?

The very first destination sets the tone for this symbolic journey: “The Children of Israel set out from Ramses and encamped at Sukkot.” (Num. 13:5) Ramses is one of the fortified cities that Pharaoh forced the Children of Israel to construct. Sukkotmeans “temporary shelters”. The first step of the journey is the willingness to leave the “fortified city” of the self behind, and instead to dwell in a sukkah, an open and fragile structure. This is the only way we can grow and change: by making ourselves vulnerable and open. Surely there is comfort in staying behind the walls of a fortress, even if it also the place of one’s imprisonment. But for those of us who sense that there is a calling greater than static safety, we must, despite our fears, risk opening ourselves to the unknown, moment to moment. We can only serve YHVH, Life Unfolding, if we give up our defenses. We cannot meet life on its own terms, or find out who we really are, or discover the exhilarating and ecstatic essence of life, if we never venture beyond our comfort zone. Perhaps this is “Rule No. 1” of the spiritual journey.

And it’s not easy! Why do you think the Children of Israel constantly cry that they want to go back to Egypt? Living open to life offers no guarantee of safety. We face an ongoing inner battle between choosing greater aliveness versus retreating into the constraints of fear. The famed Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “Moses and Pharaoh are both within you: You need to look for these two adversaries within yourself.”

Many of the encampments that then follow in this chapter are named in evocative ways. For example, the Children of Israel journey on from Sukkot to Pi HaChirut, which can mean The Opening to Freedom. Elsewhere they reach Marah, Bitterness, and later Mitkah, Sweetness. Kivrot Ha’Ta’avah means The Death of Craving; Haradah is Trembling; and Rephidim is interpreted as Weakness. What stories might we weave about our sojourns in each of these places, and about the hard lessons learned at each stop along the way?

“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel…” We are the Children of Israel, and so these are also our journeys, from constriction to expansiveness, and from fear to faith. Let’s keep walking.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Friends,

I am pleased to report that we are making progress in our work to fill the position of Executive Director here at our Synagogue. I am anxious to tell you about our efforts so far.

At the request of the Board, Myrna Sameth has agreed to serve as the chair of the Search Committee. She has gathered a diverse and enthusiastic group to assist her, they are: Jerry Lerner, Judy Lewis, George Swain and Kathi Wood. Working with the Personnel Committee and our outgoing director, Karen Tashman, the Committee has created the attached posting for the position. After discussion with the Board, the decision has been made to entertain the possibility of hiring an Interim Executive Director in order to assure the smooth day to day operation of the Synagogue while a thorough and careful search is mounted for a new ED.

We welcome your help! Please disseminate this job posting to anyone whom you feel would be appropriate for the position. Also, if you have an idea of a good outlet for this posting, please let us know.

Shalom,

Ron David Gold
President

Click here to view the full job description and instructions for applying.

Dear Friends,

I could not help but feel stirred last night as I watched Hillary Clinton become the first woman ever to be nominated by a major political party for the office of President of the United States. As with Barack Obama’s nomination 8 years ago as the first African American ever to receive the nomination, Hillary Clinton’s nomination is another dramatic and historic step toward a nation in which any person, regardless of gender or skin color or any other marker of identity, can occupy positions of leadership. (Golda Meir, how did you do it, almost 50 years ago?!)

Which brings us to this week’s Torah portion – the timing is uncanny – in which the daughters of Tzelofechad approach Moses and demand their right to inherit a share of the Promised Land. I share with you here my teaching on this portion from a year ago, as it bears repeating on this historic occasion.

And I dedicate this teaching to my parents, Dr. David Kligler of blessed memory and Dr. Deborah Kligler Krasnow. My father was always completely supportive of my mother’s academic and professional career. He encouraged her to finish her dissertation before they started a family. My mother’s doctorate in Sociology, completed in 1953, studied the effect of working women on the family. When my brothers and I were still quite young, my father again encouraged my mother to enter the workplace, and she began a long and satisfying career, serving for many years as the highly respected Associate Dean of Albert Einstein Medical School. My mother never trumpeted her accomplishments, but she raised three staunch feminists simply by the power of her example. Mom, this is for you!

 Vatikravnah B’not Tzelofechad…

The daughters of Tzelofechad came forward… (Numbers 27:1)

We encounter a remarkable passage as Sefer B’Midbar, the Book of Numbers, draws near its conclusion. The forty years of wandering have passed, and the Children of Israel are approaching the banks of the Jordan River. Miriam and Aaron have passed away, and Moses knows that his own death is approaching. A new generation has arisen during the decades of wandering, and they are preparing to claim their inheritance, the Promised Land. Soon the manna will cease to fall and the cloud of glory will cease to guide them. The Children of Israel will need to claim the land and then work the land with their own efforts. They will need to follow the commandments without Moses to instruct them. Are they finally ready?

The daughters of Tzelofechad, descendants of Joseph, step forward. Their names are Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. They stand before Moses and all the chieftains and leaders of Israel and they say: “Our father died in the wilderness and left no sons. Shall he lose his inheritance of the land just because he has no male heirs? Give us a holding!”

The daughters’ plea is unprecedented, and Moses does not know how to rule, so he inquires of God. “And YHVH said to Moses, ken b’not Tzelofechad dovrot! – The daughters of Tzelofechad speak rightly! – transfer their father’s share to them.”

I – along with countless other commentators – am struck by several elements of this passage. This is one of the rare passages in the Torah where women take center stage. And, these women take center stage with force. The language of the Torah emphasizes their assertiveness: Vatikravna, they drew near; Vata’amodna, they stood before the leadership at the Tent of Meeting; and they said “T’nah lanu achuzah”, “Give us a holding!” (This is the command form of the verb – they are not asking, they are demanding!)

Equally unusual is God’s response to the women’s demand: “ken b’not Tzelofechad dovrot!” – “The daughters of Tzelofechad speak rightly!” Avivah Zornberg, in her book Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, points out that this is the only time in the entire Torah when God enthusiastically affirms the words of any Israelite. The Children of Israel make many demands on their journey: T’nu lanu mayim! – “Give us water!” (Exodus 17:2); T’nah lanu basar! – “Give us meat!” These demands are accompanied by weeping and moaning, and always by a desire to go back to Egypt. God never affirms their demands, but rather criticizes and bemoans their constant complaints. The tone of Tzelofechad’s daughters demand is clearly different: give us the Promised Land. The daughters are not whining in victimhood, they are claiming their power, and God can finally say “ken!” – Yes!

Tzelofechad’s daughters reappear in the final verses of the Book of Numbers, on the banks of the Jordan, and are praised once again for their commitment and faith. On that note the Book of Numbers concludes. It is interesting to reflect that both at the beginning of the Exodus journey and now at the end women take center stage. The exodus from Egypt is insured by the brave women of that episode: the midwives Shifrah and Puah, Moses’ mother Yocheved and sister Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses’ wife Tziporah. And now on the cusp of the Promised Land Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah model the courage and faith that will be necessary to now cross the Jordan River.

Perhaps these women, whose appearance is so relatively rare in the Torah, appear at these key moments as the feminine archetypes and agents of choosing life, God’s greatest desire for humanity.

In addition, to me, the daughters of Tzelofechad represent the common person, the average citizen, the foot soldier, as it were. They have no special status. In fact, they are among the least enfranchised members of their society. Yet they approach the leaders directly, stand upright and without groveling before them, and declare their complete readiness and right to participate in the challenges ahead. They are empowered.

This is what we need to enter a Promised Land, to make a better world. Every person, regardless of public station, must view himself or herself as a leader. Each one of us must ask ourselves, “What is needed here, and what am I equipped to do to make it happen?” Each one of us must locate and act upon our own reservoir of determination and courage. We can no longer wait to be told what to do, and then to complain about it.

Moses will soon be gone, and the Children of Israel must finally grow up and take full responsibility for their destiny as a people. The daughters of Tzelofechad lead the way. And God enthusiastically approves!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

From the Board of Directors

Over the years the WJC has had the pleasure of working with student rabbis from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. This year we are delighted to welcome Kami Knapp, a final-year student at RRC. Kami will join us for numerous Shabbat weekends throughout the year, as well as for High Holy Days. Her first weekend with us will be September 2-4, Labor Day Weekend. Kami will be working under the guidance of Rabbi Jonathan, and as the year goes on, will occasionally lead our services and classes when Rabbi Jonathan is away. Student rabbis add all of their knowledge and enthusiasm to the life of our community, but the WJC also performs a service to the Jewish world by giving these emerging Jewish leaders safe and loving environments in which to grow and learn.

We hope you will make an effort to welcome Kami to our community.

Appreciatively,
The WJC Board of Directors


Kami's Letter of Introduction to the Congregation

“Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Shalom! My name is Kami Knapp and I am a senior at the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College. I am thrilled to join you (the Woodstock Jewish Congregation) this year as your student rabbi. I hope this brief introduction is merely that…a brief introduction that will be followed by many in-person introductions, meetings and coffees which will deepen my relationships throughout WJC.

I was born and raised outside Seattle, WA. Following college I worked at the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center where I was introduced to and fell in love with Judaism. I immediately started teaching at local synagogues while continuing to work with Holocaust survivors in telling their stories to local groups. In 2007 I decided to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of London in International Studies and Diplomacy and concluded my studies with a Master’s thesis on the political implications of the emigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. While living in London for almost two years I worked and taught at a local synagogue, West London Synagogue, and fell in love with British Jewry! Upon returning to Seattle, after receiving my Masters, I spent two years working hard to break into the field of international politics - yet, it was not to be! I continued to teach at local synagogues in the evenings and weekends while working at a local mental health hospital during the day.

Life was not turning out how I had planned…but while working at the mental health hospital I realized that I had a burning love of Judaism that remained consistent in my life regardless of my different day jobs. I also realized through my work that I had a passion for being with people in deep relationship, supporting them in good times and bad, helping them explore the depths of their soul with Judaism as my guide. Therefore I decided after two years of self-exploration that rabbinical school was the right step for me. I wanted to continue to expand my Jewish knowledge while being in close relationship with Jewish community as a confidant, Rabbi, chaplain and support person.

While in rabbinical school I have had the pleasure of serving in many different capacities: education director, teacher, Hillel rabbinic intern, chaplain, Ritualwell intern, and summer day camp counselor. All of my previous positions have contributed to who I am today. I am thrilled to join WJC as this year’s student rabbi and am looking forward to enhancing my skills in the area of congregational life. I am excited to be serving a community that welcomes everyone regardless of Jewish practice, race, sexuality or disability. I am excited to learn from and receive mentorship from Rabbi Jonathan. And I am excited to learn from and get to know the wonderful people who choose to be a part of WJC.

I am eager to meet the many people who make up the WJC. As a rabbinical student my goal is to know you and work with you so that we can all be our best and fullest selves, thus bringing our much needed and unique holiness to our world!

Shalom,
Kami Knapp

Balak: Mah Tovu – How Good It Is

Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael

How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel (Numbers 24:5)

The Israelites are journeying toward the Jordan River, and pass through the territory of King Balak of Moab. Balak is terrified, and hires the prophet Balaam to lay a curse upon the Israelites. Three times Balaam climbs up to a promontory from which he can survey the Israelite encampment. Each time, instead of a curse, only words of blessing issue from his lips. King Balak is furious, of course, and reprimands Balaam. But Balaam reminds him that as a prophet, Balaam is only capable of uttering the words that God puts in his mouth.

On the final attempt, as Balaam gazes from the highest peak out on a veritable sea of Israelite tents, he utters: “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” – “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” Our sages plucked this phrase from the Torah and placed it at the beginning of our morning prayers.

Missing from our prayer book, however, is the continuation of Balaam’s blessing. In fact, a more appropriate translation ofMah Tovu is more likely in the form of a question; here is the entire passage, opening with a question, and then answering:

How goodly are your tents, Jacob,

Your dwelling places, Israel?

Like palm groves that stretch out,

Like gardens beside a river,

Like aloes planted by YHVH,

Like cedars beside the water,

Their boughs dripping with moisture,

Their roots have abundant water. (24:5-7)

 

I feel so refreshed by this imagery. I am drawn into an oasis of water and shade. And as I recall the arid and forbidding landscape of the steppes of Moab where the Israelites are camped, the picture that Balaam’s words paint becomes even more enticing.

Our sages who placed this verse at the opening of the siddur – the prayer book – understood that the purpose of communal prayer is to refresh our spirits. Life easily becomes a slog through the wilderness, depleting us and distracting us, sucking us dry, so that we forget how good it is to be alive. The purpose of prayer, the purpose of Shabbat, the purpose of entering a synagogue sanctuary (or any other place that feels like a restorative oasis to you), is to ask the question, “How good is it?” and then to list all the ways in which it is truly a blessing to be alive.

This activity does not ignore or negate the difficulties that we face. Rather, it grounds us, refreshes us, and fortifies us so that we might not wilt in the heat of our struggles.

We are certainly traveling through frightening and distressing times. But it is also true that life is good and that we are each immeasurably blessed, and if we can regularly focus on the goodness that sustains us we will be better able to stay sane and kind and strong as we face the uncertain path ahead. The world needs us, our loved ones and our communities need us, but what have we got to give if we are dried up and distracted? Join us on Shabbat (and if you cannot join us, then may these words help sustain you) as we create an oasis together, sit in each other’s healing shade, drink life in deeply, and help each other remember that, with all its challenges, life is so good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Chukat: Confronting Mortality

Va’yavo’u B’nei Yisrael kol ha’edah Midbar Tzin bachodesh harishon vayeshev ha’am b’Kadesh. Vatamot sham Miriam vatikaver sham. V’lo haya mayim la’edah.

And all the Children of Israel arrived at the Wilderness of Tzin on the first new moon, and stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the community. (Numbers 20:1-2)

Thirty-nine years have passed since Moses, Miriam and Aaron led the Children of Israel out of bondage. Thirty-nine years since Moses raised his staff and split the Sea, since Miriam led all the women in dancing on the other side. Now, Miriam dies.

Aaron will also pass away later in our portion. And Moses will learn that he, too, will not enter the Promised Land. A generation is passing – are the Children of Israel finally ready to “grow up”, and find a new generation of leaders?

The Torah tells us that immediately after Miriam’s death, the community’s water dries up. This link between Miriam and water, which goes back to her protecting her baby brother Moses as his basket floated down the Nile, and continues with her singing and dancing at the edge of the sea, is noted by Jewish tradition, and Miriam becomes known as the keeper of Miriam’s Well, a miraculous water source summoned by Miriam that travels with the Israelites through the Wilderness. Now that Miriam is gone, the well dries up. The Torah relates that God tells Moses and Aaron to take his staff, and to speak to the rock and tell it to yield its water so that the people might drink.

In one of the more perplexing moments in the Torah, instead of speaking to the rock, Moses shouts at the assembled community “Shim’u na, ha’morim המרים! Ha’min ha’sela ha’zeh notzi lachem mayim?” – “Listen up, you rebels! Can we get water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10) Moses then strikes the rock with his staff, and water gushes forth.

But there is no celebration. Instead, YHVH says to Aaron and Moses, “Because you did not trust me enough to affirm my sanctity in front of the Israelites, you shall not lead this people into the Promised Land.” (20:12) Is this not too harsh? After a lifetime of selfless leadership, Moses lapses once and is thus condemned to never reach his goal? Readers of all eras are troubled, and puzzle over God’s decree. How could Moses possibly deserve this fate? I find the many efforts to justify God’s decree to be forced and unsatisfying – on the surface, the punishment simply does not fit the transgression. I am much more drawn to a more subtle reading of the text – “a story beneath the story”, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, that we find encoded in so much of the Torah.

Miriam has just died, and a very human Moses is beside himself with grief. His big sister has protected him since birth. Moses never led alone; he always had his sister and his brother by his side. And now, Miriam is gone, and the water of life has stopped flowing. An all-too-human Moses lashes out in anguish and despair. This is a story about mortality and grief.

In this telling, read “God” as “Life”, proclaiming not a punishment but instead describing reality: “And Life said to Moses, indeed, Miriam is gone and your time too is soon coming to an end. You will not live to see your most cherished goal. This is the way of Life. It is time to pass the mantle to the next generation.”

In this telling, read the odd Hebrew usage with care: when Moses exclaims, “Shim’u na, ha’morim המרים!” “Hamorim” certainly appears to mean “rebels”, but this is the only time in Torah that this usage is found. Note that in the unvocalized Hebrew of the Torah, this word could just as easily be read as “Ha’Miriam”, thereby rendering the verse as “Hear me, please, Miriam! How are we going to get water out of this rock for these people?”

In the story beneath the story, Moses cries out to his sister. The fact is, Moses knows how to get water from the rock – he accomplished the same task back in Exodus 17:5-6. Something else is going on here: Miriam has just died, and Moses at this moment is utterly bereft. In the aftermath, Moses realizes that he will not be able to complete this journey without his sister. His time too is approaching. There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time for every purpose under heaven.

Aaron is then informed that it is his time to die, and Moses escorts his brother to the peak of Mount Hor. Aaron dies on the summit and the people mourn. Now only Moses is left of that triumvirate of siblings, and as the Israelites journey onward, it is imperative that they learn how to summon the waters of life into their midst. Life must go on. They arrive at a place simply called “The Well”, and there they sing a song to the well…and the waters appear!

In this telling, a close reading of the Hebrew is again key: “Az yashir Yisrael et hashirah ha’zot” – “Then Israel sang this song” (Num. 21:17) is the very same phrasing, with a key difference, as the song of liberation at the Sea of Reeds: “Az yashirMoshe uv’nei Yisrael et hashirah ha’zot” – “Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song” (Ex. 15:1). Nearly forty years later, the Children of Israel are now called simply Israel, no longer children, and are singing without Moses!

And what do they sing? “Alei be’er, anu la!” – “Spring up, Well – Sing to it!” (Num. 21:17), reminiscent of the celebration with drums and dance that Miriam led the women in after crossing the Sea. But there it says “Va’ta’an la’hem Miriam” – “And Miriam sang to them” (Ex. 15:21). Now, Miriam is no more, and it is the people themselves who are singing, and the waters now flow for them.

In this telling, mortality is confronted, grief is expressed and acknowledged, and life is affirmed. In this telling, the story is about our own journey through life. The waters that dry up when we lose a loved one are not forever lost, but we each face the challenge of having to resume the song of life on our own, despite the fact that the loved one who taught us the song, who sang with us, and whose loving presence we drank from, is no longer singing. We must journey through our grief, through our own desiccated wilderness, until we can return to the well, and then we must allow to rise within us the song that others used to lead. In this telling, after our beloved teachers and parents are gone, it is up to us become the singers who summon and keep the waters of life flowing for the next generation.

Parshat Chukat begins with an entire chapter about the arcane ritual of the Red Heifer. The heifer’s ashes, when properly prepared, are to be used in a ritual to restore to wholeness those who have come in contact with the dead. On the surface, these instructions seem quite obscure, oddly inserted into the narrative that follows it. But in the story beneath the story the connection becomes obvious. The ashes of the Red Heifer bring us back from the limbo of grief and death, and restore us to the community of the living. The chapter of the Red Heifer serves as a prelude for our portion. In the next passages Miriam and Aaron die, Moses encounters his own disabling grief and confronts his own mortality, and the Children of Israel must finally grow up and restore their own sense of wholeness, knowing that death is a part of life. Chukat teaches us how to keep singing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Yiddish Art Trio to Perform at Woodstock Jewish Congregation

Monday evening August 15, at 7:00 pm


The sanctuary of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation will come alive with the full and vibrant tones of Klezmer music as only the Yiddish Art Trio can produce them. We will hear melodies of longing and of celebration, enhanced by cantorial kvetches, flying runs, heartfelt lyrics, and powerful bass lines. Whether mournful or foot-tapping joyful, these melodies and songs will transport you to another time while shining a light into the future of klezmer music.

Since 2009 the Yiddish Art Trio — Patrick Farrell (accordion), Benjy Fox-Rosen (bass and vocals) , Michael Winograd (clarinet) — has been redefining the scope of contemporary Yiddish music. Deeply rooted in klezmer and Yiddish music, the trio uses traditional idioms to explore new forms and harmonies, vastly expanding klezmer's musical language. The music, whether ecstatic or introspective, is thoughtfully composed and brilliantly performed.

Recognized globally as authorities within their field, the musicians are known for their ability to harness the full range of tonal and expressive possibilities of their instruments, individually and as a trio. Trio members have recorded and performed with such noted artists as Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Frank London, Adrienne Cooper, Cantor Yaakov Lemmer, Alicia Svigals and others. The band has toured throughout the United States and Europe, performing their music to appreciative audiences and critical acclaim. We are especially honored to be able to host this world-renowned ensemble.

What they are saying:

"Yiddish Art Trio takes otherworldly cantorial and Jewish folk themes and adds a jolt of 21st century energy." — New York Music Daily

"The Yiddish Art Trio is forging a new kind of klezmer music. With its astute blend of harmonically complex contemporary chamber music, klezmer colors and rhythms and a certain underlying folk aesthetic, the band is both more cerebral and yet earthier than similar configurations; the result is exhilarating and thoughtful." — George Robinson, The New York Jewish Week

"Yiddish Art Trio may just be one of the most sophisticated young Klezmer collectives around." — Jake Marmer, The Jewish Daily Forward

Recap of June 16, 2016 WJC board meeting and June 23 Evening of Sharing

Dear WJC family and friends,

At the June 16 WJC board meeting, one of the main topics was the transition we will set in place as our beloved Executive Director Karen Tashman prepares to leave us in early August for her move to Florida to care for her mother. It will be a multi-pronged effort in the short term with Education Coordinator Dee Graziano and Executive Assistant Anna Langford each picking up more duties in the interim. At the same time, the board is in the midst of hiring a new bookkeeper, who will also support the Treasurer and Finance Committee to fulfill the functions of a business manager for the time being. At the helm, of course, will be your board, who are all resolved to increase their duties as necessary during the changeover.

Meanwhile, the board will begin the search for a new executive director with a reevaluation of the shul's needs at the current time. The WJC's requirements ten years ago when Karen was hired may not be exactly the same as our needs today, and a reconfiguring of the position's duties may be warranted. Once we determine this, we will begin seeking the individual who will help the shul move forward in the long term. The job posting will then be available at the office so you may see what it is we are searching for to fill the position.

In other business, the WJC is moving forward with our day-to-day business. As you all know, our annual yard sale — one of our two major fundraisers — is scheduled this year for Sunday, July 17. Go to, https://wjc.memberclicks.net/assets/events/yard-sale/2016/2016- 05%20-%20yard%20sale%20calendar%20revised.pdf for a list of drop-off dates and items that are needed, or those items which cannot be accepted. Please bring us your goods and find time to volunteer for this important event that is also very much a gateway to the larger community who are our guests that day.

The board is looking for volunteers for a committee of three individuals to comprise a Cemetery Committee, who would regulate the sale of plots in our section of Kingston's Montrepose Cemetery that adjoins other Jewish sections there, meet with families who want to purchase a plot, and carry on communications with the cemetery to ensure the section and records are properly and respectfully maintained. This is an important role and, if you have an especially loving nature, we want you. Please speak with Anna Langford in the office, (845) 679-2218.

The WJC Finance Committee, under the leadership of Danny Rubenstein has launched a Legacy Builders Initiative with the roll-out meeting on June 5 at the shul. A group of about 40 members listened as Rabbi Jonathan discussed tzedakah, sharing the story of a man who wanted to plant a tree that wouldn't bear fruit for 70 years. When asked why he was doing this when he wouldn't be here to eat the fruit, he responded that others before him had planted trees in the past, whose fruit he was enjoying now.

Our guest speaker, Beryl Chernov, Executive Director of Manhattan's Park Avenue Synagogue, made a pro bono presentation, explaining that everyone can and must participate, even in a small way, for the shul to be sustainable. Donors can remember the WJC in their will, or name the shul as a beneficiary or co-beneficiary in an insurance policy or IRA. Another legacy method involves a charitable gift annuity, through which the donor continues to receive the interest during his or her lifetime.

Joe Toochin was the original impetus for this initiative. For more information, please speak to Joe, Danny, or our President, Ron-David Gold. The June 5 legacy building meeting was the first of several the Finance Committee plans to schedule.

The Ritual Committee is seeking individuals to chair specific holiday functions at the shul. Ellen Triebwasser stepped up recently to oversee Shavuot and a volunteer has been found for Simchat Torah. Please contact Gail Albert to take on a holiday in this special way of giving.

At our Second Evening of Sharing on June 23, the group of over 60 participants broke into smaller groups of eight people, who discussed the day-to-day things they would like to see happen at the shul. The overriding message was clear: members want better communication and more events — not all of which need be religious — where they can interact as a community. And a great way to be part of the community is to join a committee or take on a specific task if that suits your schedule better. As always, contact Anna or Ron-David Gold to see what is needed.

Remember, you always have access to the full board minutes and are welcome to attend the regular meetings in person on the third Thursday of each month at 7:00 P.M. (If you would like to address the Board at a meeting, however, please contact Board President Ron-David Gold at [email protected] in advance so he can put you on the agenda.)

Some upcoming dates to remember:

  • Annual Yard Sale: July 17 and 18
  • Shabbat Service and Luncheon honoring Karen Tashman: August 6
  • Annual Keter Shem Tov: November 19.

Shalom,

Your WJC Board of Directors

Korach: Demagogue

Vayikhalu al Moshe v’Aharon vayomru aleihem: “Rav lachem, ki chol ha’edah kulam kedoshim u’v’tocham YHVH – u’madua titnas’u al k’hal YHVH?”

And [Korach and his followers] gathered against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! Is not the entire community holy, and is not YHVH in their midst? Why do you raise yourselves up above the community?!” (Numbers 16:3)

Demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. (Merriam-Webster)

Korach assembles 250 Israelite leaders and publicly confronts Moses and Aaron: “Why do you merit to be the leaders?” Korach’s argument sounds reasonable – did not YHVH speak to all of the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai? Did they not all enter into covenant with YHVH at the mountain? Does not the Divine Presence dwell amongst them all? Why then should the brothers Moses and Aaron have the power of Chief Judge and High Priest? How about a little more power-sharing here? And did not Moses himself recently exclaim, “Would that all YHVH’s people were prophets!” (Num. 13:29)

It sounds good, but the Sages and Jewish tradition don’t buy it. Instead, the Sages examine what can be learned about Korach elsewhere in the Torah, and determine that his words are hollow and self-serving. They then read between the lines and midrashically paint Korach as the embodiment of demagoguery, a phenomenon they clearly are deeply acquainted with, (when it comes to human behavior, there is nothing new under the sun), and they hold Korach up as the example of the political leader not to follow.

The commentators note that Korach is not an ordinary citizen. He is Moses and Aaron’s first cousin. He is part of the priestly elite, and his role is to care for and transport the Ark of the Covenant and all the other sacred objects that furnish the Holy of Holies. Korach is clearly among the most privileged of the Israelites. The midrash describes Korach as exceedingly wealthy, as well.

Parshat Korach opens with an unusual wording: Vayikach Korach… – “And Korah took…” (16:1). Took what? Why does the Torah not say “And Korach arose”, or “And Korach gathered around himself…” The midrash expands upon this strange opening and explains: Korach took people with words. His followers were taken in by Korach’s rhetoric. Korach, the rabbis assert, possesses the gift of gab. He knows how to inflame his followers’ grievances and reinforce their sense of entitlement. He distorts and selectively ignores the truth in order to win people over.

For example, the other named leaders that Korach gathers around him have their own reasons to be aggrieved at their exclusion from the highest echelons. Dathan, Abiram and On are all of the tribe of Reuben. If you will recall, Reuben was Jacob’s first-born. Yet descendants of the tribe of Levi are in control. Doesn’t the Torah explicitly direct the inheritance to go to the first-born son? Shouldn’t they be in charge?

But their emotion ignores history. Their patriarch Reuben long ago fell from grace, after he slept with Bilhah, one of his father Jacob’s wives. Jacob stripped him of his first-born privileges (see Genesis 49:3). Yet perhaps Korach knew just what to say to appeal to the Reubenites’ humiliation, to promise them restored status, and to get them to stand by his side.

The midrash further elaborates on Korach’s casuistry (specious argument), creating passages in which he picks apart Moses’ instructions and laws, making them seem pointless and burdensome. He proclaims Moses’ choice of Aaron as High Priest to be pure nepotism, a brazen attempt to consolidate all the wealth of the priestly tithes into Moses’ own family. Korach incites the people, commenting on how well fed these leaders appear to be.

As always, the demagogue mines a kernel of truth, which is what gives his argument momentum. Moses does possess great authority; Aaron does receive the best cuts of meat. They are privileged. But Korach also ignores the greater truth: Moses has never governed for his own enrichment. He carries the burden of leadership without fanfare, just as his brother Aaron carries the sins of the entire People on his shoulders when he seeks God’s forgiveness. Aaron and Moses serve a higher purpose, and resist the aggrandizing temptations of power. But Korach, despite his compelling rhetoric and his populist appeals, serves no one but himself.

Thus Jewish tradition uses the contrast of Korach and Moses as an object lesson in leadership, teaching us to be wary of self-serving leaders. In Pirkei Avot, The Teachings of the Sages, Korach becomes immortalized as the example of the wrong path: “Any dispute that is in service of the common good will have enduring value. A dispute that is not in service of the common good has no lasting value… And what is an example of a dispute that has no lasting value? The dispute of Korach and his companions.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17)

In our portion, we are rewarded with a satisfyingly fantastic and wish-fulfilling ending to Korach’s rebellion: the earth opens its mouth and swallows him up along with his cohort. Problem solved, I suppose! But we don’t get to expect any miracles in our own political dramas. Rather, we have to remain vigilant against the Korachs of our day. We must shun the fleeting satisfactions of self-righteous rage that cloud our own good judgment, and hone our abilities to argue with reason and to work with passion for the common good.

Love and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Va’nehi b’eineinu kachagavim, v’chen hayinu b’eineihem

We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we certainly must have looked that way to them. (B’midbar 13:33)

The Children of Israel are preparing to enter the Promised Land. Moses sends twelve scouts, one from each tribe, to scout out the land and bring back a reconnaissance report. Forty days later the scouts return. They bring back an enormous cluster of grapes as evidence of the land’s fruitfulness. But then ten of the scouts offer a damning report: The inhabitants are enormous, titans. They will devour us. We cannot do it. Another scout, Caleb, vigorously disputes their claim: “We must, we must go up to the land and take possession of it, for we surely, surely can do it.” (13:30) But the ten then deliver their coup de grace: no, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we certainly must have looked that way to them.” (13:33)

At this, the entire community bursts into wails, and weeps through the night: We’re going to die! “If only we had died in Egypt!” they exclaim, “Let’s turn around and head back to Egypt!” (14:2,4) Total bedlam ensues.

As a result of this breakdown, YHVH declares that the people are not ready to enter the Promised Land. They will instead wander for forty years, until the slave generation has passed away and a new generation raised in freedom comes of age. Only then might they be ready to enter the land. Of the generation that left Egypt, only Caleb and Joshua, who were among the twelve scouts, and who were the only ones who believed that the Children of Israel could attain their goal, would live to see the Promised Land.

The moral of this tale is clear: if you think of yourself as a lowly insect, you are unlikely to attain your goals. But if you are also convinced that everyone else thinks you are an insect, then you are certain to fail. You are unlikely to even try. You might as well head back to Egypt, the place where crushed spirits dwell.

So many of us were conditioned or even abused as children such that we concluded that we were less worthy, less intelligent, or somehow less deserving of a place in the sun than most everyone around us. So many of us learned to enter a new social situation in fear, assuming that we were somehow uniquely unwelcome. This is certainly the adolescent nightmare that almost every one I know once faced or faces today. That sense of smallness is disabling in and of itself. But then we project our own self-judgments onto the people around us: “I’m sure no one wants to hear what I have to say. After all, it is obvious to everyone how unimportant I am.”

Says who? How did we get this damning idea in our heads? Why do we do this to ourselves? It is a tragedy – are we not all children of God?

In chapter 6 of Exodus Moses makes a stirring speech to the Israelite slaves, promising that YHVH had heard their cries, and that their liberation was coming. “But the people would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Ex. 6:9) Now, in our portion, the Israelites have certainly left slavery, but has the crushing imprint of slavery left them? This is the lifelong challenge we each face: to contest our “learned powerlessness”; to recondition ourselves, day by day, to think of ourselves and to act as fundamentally equal and worthy as those around us. Only then will the Promised Land appear attainable to our eyes.

Let’s practice together. Assuming that most of us are still feeling like grasshoppers a certain amount of the time, let’s remind one another with encouraging demeanor and words that, however lowly you may think of yourself, your projection that we share the same low opinion of you is unfounded, even ridiculous. As we worship the Power in the Universe that liberates the slave, let us serve that Power, and work to heal one another’s crushed spirit.

In Leviticus 26:13 YHVH declares, “I, Life Unfolding, am your God who brought you out from Egypt to be slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke so that you might walk erect.” As with the slaves in Egypt, the first and necessary step is to liberate the oppressed and the abused from the yoke of cruel oppression. But that is only the beginning. We must also help liberate one another from the yoke of a crushed spirit, so that we might feel cared for and confident enough to straighten our backs and walk upright together towards our Promised Land.

Ken y’hi ratzon – So may it be.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

My Fellow Congregants,

I want to thank all who participated in last week’s Evening of Sharing. It was a beautiful, well-attended gathering of the WJC family from which was mined a wealth of deep feelings, openness and great ideas for the enrichment of the congregation. The positive energy was absolutely invigorating.

One of the most important messages that emerged from our discussions was that an easy and meaningful way to contribute to our community is to just “be here.” Come to services. Attend classes. Join in our many spiritual and just-plain- fun events.

I look forward to the next time we get together in this way. I also want to reiterate that I’m always available to you for any questions and/or suggestions you might have.

Thanks again for helping to make WJC such a vital and welcoming home for all of us.

With gratitude,

Ron David Gold

Va’yehi ha’am k’mit’onenim ra b’oznei YHVH.

The people took to complaining bitterly before YHVH (B’midbar 11:1)

After more than a year encamped at Mount Sinai, the time has come for the Children of Israel to march to the Promised Land. Transformed from a throng of refugee slaves, they are now organized into tribes and troops, bound by laws, a newly covenanted community. Their task is to follow the protecting Cloud of the Divine Presence. The Cloud lifts, the Children of Israel break camp, and they follow the cloud three days journey.

And then, they begin complaining. This week’s parsha along with the following three parshiyot vividly describe a series of escalating complaints, betrayals and outright rebellions by the Children of Israel against Moses and YHVH. The outcome of this recalcitrance is catastrophic: instead of entering the Promised Land, the Children of Israel are condemned to 40 years of homeless wandering.

There is nothing dry about these portions. They are filled with high drama, pathos and also humor, and the stories are deeply true about the human condition. They are vividly poignant and resonate on every level of experience.

On one level, this is the story of a family. The Children of Israel are literally the children, and Moses and YHVH are the parents. The children are impulsive, they continually fall apart, they fight, they complain. They say they will follow the commandments, then they forget, then they make excuses. I often think of them in the back of the station wagon, while YHVH and Moses take turns driving on this long road trip, made to feel endless by the constant whining and bellowing from the rear of the car…Moses and YHVH alternate losing their tempers, threatening consequences, and calming each other down. Are we there yet?

The journey through the wilderness is a crucible in which the children must grow up. The certainties and constraints and lack of responsibility of Egypt are gone, and they are being forced to enter into adult relationship with the world and with each other. They must learn to control their impulses, to delay gratification, to learn empathy and trust. The journey is not a straight highway, but rather years of wandering, three steps forward, two steps back. And Moses and YHVH, out of their love for their children, hang in there, and continue to forgive the kids and give them another chance. But it is tumultuous, to say the least…remind you of any family you know?

In one of my favorite passages in this chapter, completely undone by the complaining, Moses speaks to God out of a frustration that every parent probably recognizes:

“What have you done to me?…Am I supposed to carry this people on my bosom like a nursing mother all the way to the Promised Land?…I can’t do it. If this is the way it is going to be, just kill me now!” (11:11-15)

YHVH responds with a promise to expand Moses’ leadership circle, or we might say, make sure there is more childcare available!

This is the level on which I explain these stories to children. It is their experience, and they get it, and they laugh, and they love it. Parents do too.

On another level of human experience, Beha’alotcha and the succeeding portions are about political leadership.* From where does Moses draw his authority? What makes him a leader? How can he carry the burden of leadership by himself? YHVH tells Moses to gather 70 elders, and “bring them to the Tent of Meeting, and let them take their place there with you…and I will draw upon the spirit that is in you and put it on them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.” (11:16-17)

All is going well, the spirit rests on the elders and they begin to speak in ecstasy, filled with the word of God. But two others, Eldad and Medad, who are not in the Tent of Meeting but rather back in the camp, also begin to prophesy! This is not authorized; Joshua, distressed, tells Moses to stop them. Moses famously replies: “Are you distressed on my account? Would that all of God’s people were prophets, and that the spirit rested on all of them!” (11:29)

Here we witness Moses as a model of political leadership at its best. He is a true public servant. He does not wish to hoard power, or to elevate himself above the people he serves. His only wish is that every one would be so imbued with the spirit of leadership that Moses himself would not need to wield that authority over others.

Nonetheless, his brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron, immediately challenge Moses again: “Has YHVH spoken only through Moses? Has YHVH not spoken through us as well? (12:2) God afflicts Miriam for her challenge – and Moses responds by praying for her healing. Despite his bouts of frustration and despair, and episodes in which he powerfully asserts his authority to quell rebellion, Moses always has his heart with his people. He always keeps his eye on the prize of creating a “nation of priests, a holy people” (Ex. 19:6), a description that could be rephrased as “a society based upon justice, fairness, and human dignity.”

Finally, this story is about each of us on our own spiritual journey. We are the Children of Israel. We sense there is a better way, a way of trust, a Promised Land to which we aspire to merit and to inhabit. Yet our commitment to this path is constantly impeded by our own resistance, our own pettiness, our own learned powerlessness. The path forward is hard, with no certainties or guarantees. We romanticize the past (Egypt?), and wish to abdicate from the present, and from the future. We complain, we cower, we want to bolt. We know that we often seem ludicrous, even pathetic, but we also often can’t help it. Let’s have some compassion for ourselves, and keep a sense of humor! However, in order to pursue our destinies, we have to confront all of these failings. We must stand upright, face the unknown, trust that the manna will be there to sustain us and that the Cloud is leading us in a worthy direction, even though we have never been there before. This battle rages within every single human heart, every day: leave Egypt behind, despite the certainty it gave you in your smallness. Choose trust over fear, choose agency over paralysis, choose courage over cowardice. Choose life.

Fortunately, each of us not only is an Israelite, but is also Moses. That voice resides within us as well. That voice knows that going back to Egypt is not our destiny. That voice cajoles and encourages, demands and nags: You can do this! You can take the next step. You can learn from your mistakes. You can grow in wisdom, no matter what your chronological age. Every moment, this very moment, is an opportunity to look up from your preoccupations and see where the Cloud of the Presence is leading you next on this great and unpredictable journey.

I breathe. I pause. I look out my open window at this beautiful June day. I’m ready for the next step.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

*See, for example, Moses as Political leader by Aaron Wildavsky, Shalem Press 2005

Dear Friends,

I pause from my weekly Torah commentary, compelled to speak about pressing matters, locally and nationally.

Locally, here at our beloved Kehillat Lev Shalem, we learned this week that our executive director Karen Tashman will be leaving us after 9 years. Karen’s mother Harriet, who lives in Florida, is aging, and Karen has decided to move to Florida to be near her and to assist her.

This decision, which I know is terribly wrenching for Karen, is a reflection of Karen’s deep integrity and rock-solid values. Over the years that I have known her, I have watched Karen fulfill the mitzvah of honoring her mother and father – as well as her husband Jeff’s parents – with tireless devotion. Karen’s loving commitment to her family’s well being is boundless; her desire to do well and do right by them inspires me and teaches me. Over these years, in addition to our countless discussions about the synagogue, planning and evaluating and strategizing, Karen and I have also shared personally with one another about the struggles, joys and lessons of parenting, married life, and supporting aging parents. Karen is wise. I will miss her as a gifted colleague, but also as someone who welcomed me into her office to listen to me wrestle or sort out or kvell about my own family’s journey. I know she is now making the choice that feels truly right to her, despite the disruption this move creates in her and her family’s life.

We hired Karen as we moved into our new building. The Board spearheaded a strategic planning process for the congregation, and one of the clear directions that emerged from that process was that, as we moved into this much larger space, we needed to upgrade our administrative and management systems. Fortunately for us, Karen and her family were looking for a move to the country from Atlanta, and Karen was ready to leave her position as executive director of a large synagogue there and take over our “mom-and-pop” operation. Karen’s devotion to her family is only matched by her devotion to Judaism and the Jewish People. Because of this, Karen is much more than an administrator. She is a superb Jewish educator and a caring pastoral presence. Karen brought all manner of Jewish and organizational expertise into our midst.

I will miss her for all of these reasons. But as I reflect on Karen’s imminent departure, beyond all her skills, my mind circles back to her character, her desire to be the best person she can be, and her commitment to always wrestle with ethical dilemmas, to figure out which path will be the highest, and to take that path.

Thank you, Karen. When you head to Florida this August, our love and our prayers go with you.


I also feel compelled to speak during the week when 49 people enjoying an evening at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which serves the gay and lesbian community, were gunned down by Omar Mateen, an automatic rifle-toting, hate-filled man. Today is also the one-year anniversary of the cold-blooded murder of 9 people during a prayer service at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylan Roof, who claimed after he was captured that he wanted to ignite a race war.

Both of these killers were American-born U.S. citizens. Both appear to have histories of anti-social, violent behavior. One was of Moslem origin, the other Christian, neither apparently particularly observant. Each seems to have latched on to the most hateful ideologies of their respective heritages, the “radical Islamist” death cult of ISIS, and the Christian white supremacist and neo-Nazi hate groups that lurk on the margins of American society. These murder sprees are aided, as we all know, by the easily availability of automatic weapons; maybe this time sensible laws can be put into place that will limit the number of rounds a murderer can shoot per second. These murderers are also abetted by the increasing presence of hateful rhetoric in the public sphere. As Judaism teaches, and as history and common sense attest, human nature is a dangerously mixed bag. For humans to successfully live together and thrive, we need social norms that enforce mutual tolerance and that marginalize hateful behavior. And we need leadership to model and enforce those norms. When public leaders legitimate hateful and violent behavior, the resulting increase of hateful violence can be predicted. As the Rabbis put it, “When the Destroyer is let loose in the land, guilty and innocent suffer alike.”

So, here we are: a narcissistic, bigoted, demagogic bully has won the Republican nomination for President of the United States. He feeds on stereotyping and intolerance. He speaks to our lowest nature, our yetzer hara. He is both a product of and a generator of this terrifying geopolitical moment. I find myself transfixed, even obsessed, as I watch the current election drama unfold. I have never seen the likes of it in my lifetime, but as a Jew I hear the faint echoes of Adolf Hitler running for chancellor in 1933, at a time when many simply considered him a goose-stepping buffoon. We have seen this movie before, in nation after nation: self-serving demagogues and tyrants managing to hide their aspirations for wealth and domination under a civilized veneer until they have grasped the reins of power. Politics is a corrupting business, I know. But it is necessary, too, and I refuse to be so cynical as to not participate, particularly in this election cycle. I will be doing what I can as a citizen of this nation to prevent the purveyors of hatred from winning elective office this coming November.

As a religious leader, I know I am constrained by law against endorsing specific political parties or candidates. But in the name of the victims in Orlando and in Charleston, and every other victim of hateful ideologies, I encourage each of you to listen to your own conscience, and do what seems right to you to ensure that our nation lives up to its highest ideals rather than succumbs to its worst impulses.

Finally, amidst the constant noise and fury, I want to remind you about the weekly oasis of Shabbat. I invite you to join us anytime in our sanctuary, so that you can refresh your spirit and restore a sense of balance. May we strengthen and support one another during these difficult times.

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan

Dear Friends,

This morning I submitted my notice of resignation to the Woodstock Jewish Congregation's Board of Directors.

Below is the letter that I presented to the Board. It is important that you hear this from me directly.

I am so grateful to have served this congregation for these past nine years and for the opportunities I have been blessed with in working with you.

Wishing you all the best,

Karen


June 14, 2016

RonDavid Gold, President
Woodstock Jewish Congregation
1682 Glasco Turnpike
Woodstock, NY 12498

Dear RonDavid and the WJC Board of Directors,

After great soul searching and reflection, I am submitting my notice of resignation as Executive Director of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. My last day of work will be August 8, 2016.

I have truly loved serving this holy community for the past nine years and am incredibly grateful for the opportunities we have had to vision, nurture, mature and flourish together. I am very proud of what we have achieved together over these past many years.

I will cherish the friends and relationships I have made and hold onto the many accomplishments that are part of my history with the Woodstock Jewish Congregation.

My plans include relocation to Florida in August. I will do my best to complete projects and transfer over all details of our systems & procedures to encourage a smooth transition before I leave.

It has been my great privilege to work with this exceptionally dedicated and skilled team of staff and lay leadership. Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your Executive Director these last nine years.

Best wishes,

Karen Tashman
Executive Director

B'midbar: Everyone Counts

Se’u et rosh kol adat B’nei Yisrael…

Take a head-count of the entire community of the Children of Israel… (B’midbar 1:2)

Sefer B’Midbar, the fourth book of the Torah, begins and ends with a census count. This is why the book is known in English as the Book of Numbers. The Hebrew name, B’midbar, means “In the Wilderness”. B’Midbar is an apt name for the book, for its chapters cover 39 of the 40 years that the Children of Israel sojourned in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. But the Sages also occasionally refer to this book as Chumash Ha’pekudim, “The Book of Countings”.

The historical reasons for these precise census counts are not clear, and Biblical scholars can only speculate about the politics of ancient Israel that might have made it necessary to enumerate the population of each of the twelve tribes.

But beyond the realm of history, the wanderings of the Children of Israel in the wilderness are a spiritual journey, from the dehumanized, fragmented condition of slavery to the restoration of our full humanity as a holy community in conscious relationship with the Source of Life. Through this lens, Torah commentators understand God’s desire that we be accurately counted as a sign of love.

Commenting on our verse, the medieval commentator Rashi explains that, “Because they were dear to God, God counted them often.” God is here a teacher with her class on a school trip, constantly counting to make sure no one gets left behind. God is a loving parent, gazing repeatedly at each of his children until they complain, “Why do you keep looking at me?” This is the thrust of the midrashic understanding of why God wants to count us over and over.

It’s beautiful. God counts us because of love. And we are not just numbers – our verse says, “Se’u et rosh kol adat B’nei Yisrael”, which literally means “Lift up the head of every person in the community”. That is to say, take account of them one by one, every single individual. If you are counted, then you count, you matter. To YHVH, every single person matters.

With this understanding, the opening of the Book of Numbers offers a stark contrast to the opening of the Book of Exodus. Exodus’ Hebrew name is Sefer Sh’mot, The Book of Names. Sh’mot opens by describing the degradation of the Children of Israel under the rule of Pharaoh. The title Sh’mot can be read as ironic, as Pharaoh thinks of, describes, and reduces the Children of Israel to a nameless swarm, a mass source of undifferentiated labor. Pharaoh dehumanizes the Children of Israel, treating them as unworthy of individual value. Pharaoh takes away their names, and they become interchangeable cogs in his designs. (I am thinking of the Nazis tattooing numbers on Jews’ forearms. I am thinking of Muhammad Ali rejecting his name Cassius Clay as his slave name, imposed upon him by white folk who did not think he really counted as a person, and instead claiming his own unique identity by taking a name of his own choosing.)

The process and desired result of liberation is a society in which no one is reduced to an interchangeable number, but rather a society in which everyone counts and is accounted for. The Book of Numbers begins with a people now free from forced bondage, and the Creator wants every single one of them to lift their head proudly, to let their face be seen in its utter uniqueness, and to know that they are equally worthy of love as any other child of God. The journey to the Promised Land is the journey towards a society in which we all remember that everyone counts.

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach, and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

All are welcome at every WJC service and event. If you have any questions, please contact us!

Welcoming and Celebrating Shavuot: Saturday, June 11 (6:30 pm)

The Festival of Shavuot begins this evening. We will welcome the Festival with a lovely evening of activity:

  • 6:30 pm – Pot Luck "Seudah Shlishit": Seudah Shlishit ("The Third Meal") is the final communal gathering for every Shabbat, and leads us to Havdalah. We don't celebrate Seudah Shlishit too often at the WJC but this is a wonderful opportunity. Bring a dairy/vegetarian dish to share, and we will eat and sing around the table.
  • 8:00 pm – Torah Study with Rabbi Jonathan: In honor of Shavuot, Rabbi Jonathan will teach some inspiring Torah.
  • 9:30 pm – Havdalah and welcoming the Festival: We will welcome the festival with the tradition of eating dairy foods - please bring some cheesecake, ice cream, or anything else delicious - dairy-free options are welcome too, of course!

Shavuot Sunrise Service: Sunday, June 12 (5 am)

The Hebrew name for the morning service is "Shacharit", which means dawn - that is really the time when we welcome the day. Once a year, on Shavuot, we actually do greet the dawn with our prayers and song. If you don't mind rising early, join us outdoors at the WJC for this magical service. Light breakfast follows.

Yizkor Service: Monday, June 13 (10 am)

As is customary, we gather on the second day of Shavuot for a Yizkor service. We will not be holding a regular festival service, but instead take an extended time to remember our loved ones, and reflect on their continuing place in our lives and our hearts.

On Thursday, June 23 at 7 PM, we will gather for a second Evening of Sharing at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. The comments of many of the 85 participants during our first meeting revealed that congregants want to stay connected and involved, want to feel heard and understood, and want the lines of communication with the Board of Directors and WJC staff to be open and reciprocal.

You were heard. Your ideas will now be the catalyst to develop new ways to connect within our community. Please bring your suggestions on June 23 to discuss plans for our spiritual, educational, and social growth at the Congregation of a Full Heart. Your input will provide a key to a continued joyous Jewish experience at WJC.

Looking forward to seeing you on the 23rd!

B'chukotai: Fear Itself

V’radaf otam kol aleh nidaf…V’chashlu ish b’achiv mipnei cherev v’rodef ayin

The mere sound of a wind-driven leaf will put them to flight…even though no one is pursuing them, they will stumble over one another as if fleeing the sword. (Leviticus 26:36-37)

Last week’s portion, B’har, laid out the need for the earth to receive a sabbatical year every seventh year, and our responsibility to let the land rest so that we might live in proper balance with the earth. B’chukotai now describes the consequences we can expect if we do and if we do not fulfill these directives. If we give the land its sabbaths, we will live in peace and harmony. If we deny the earth its sabbaths, the outcome will be dire. In terrifying detail, B’chukotai describes a cascade of misfortune that will befall those who exploit the land without pause. The land will reject us; it will literally spit us out. We will become homeless and hounded, and lose all dignity and self-respect. As our exile reaches its nadir, we will become so debased that we will be consumed by anxiety and fear: “The mere sound of a wind-driven leaf will put them to flight…”

As always, the Torah then offers a message of hope – there will ultimately be return and renewal, and another chance for redemption. But the vivid language of fear is what stays with the reader: “…even though no one is pursuing them, they will stumble over one another as if fleeing the sword.”

B’chukotai, along with its companion portion B’har, offer eerily prescient warnings for our own era of the potentially devastating consequences if humanity is unable to live in sustainable balance with our planet. Will the earth spit us out until “it makes up for the Sabbath years that were denied it”? (Lev. 26:34) What manner of terrifying consequences are we facing if we fail to find a sustainable rhythm of rest to balance our drive for attainment and consumption?

These questions haunt me as I reflect on the Torah’s narrative. But the teaching that I want to pursue at this moment is less about our collective fate then about our individual psyches as we each confront the unknown horizon. The Torah describes our very lowest condition as one in which we are driven by fear and anxiety. That is, even more debilitating than being actually terrorized is the state in which we perpetually live in fear, permanently adrenalized, unable to distinguish a real threat from the sound of a leaf blowing in the wind. In this condition we are unable to manifest that most sublime and central aspect of being a person: the ability to remain aware of our surroundings, assess what our next action might be, and then act with volition. To be reduced to anxiety-driven, fight-or-flight reactivity, unable to assess what might actually be going on around us, disables our greatest human gift: the ability to think, to decide, and to act.

Many of you will be familiar with the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav that we sing every year at Rosh Hashanah: “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, v’ha’ikar lo l’fached klal” – “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.” The message is noble and inspiring. The melody was composed in Israel by Rabbi Baruch Chait during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. If there was ever a moment that called for Jews to cross that narrow bridge fearlessly, it was at that terrifying moment when Israel’s life hung in the balance.

Yet many have pointed out that the instruction to “not fear at all” is unrealistic. Truly, courage is the ability to act despite one’s fears. When standing on the cusp of important decisions, even decisions that are not life threatening, who is not afraid? Georgia O’Keefe famously said, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” So maybe Reb Nachman’s instruction needs to be more nuanced.

And, in fact, Reb Nachman’s original statement is more nuanced. Baruch Chait created an eminently singable lyric, but, as I learned from Rabbi Aura Ahuvia, he did so by simplifying Reb Nachman’s original words.

Reb Nachman taught:

V’da, she’ha’adam tzarich la’avor al gesher tzar me’od me’od, v’ha’klal v’ha’ikar – she’lo yitpached klal.

And know, that a human being must cross over a very, very narrow bridge, and it is critically important that he not fill himself with fear(Likutei Tinyana 48, italics mine)

Ah, the difference a verb construct can make! L’fached לפחד means “to fear”; l’hitpached להתפחד means “to cause oneself to fear”. Reb Nachman was not telling us not to fear. Reb Nachman was telling us that, despite life being full of potential dangers, don’t freak yourself out! Indeed, life is challenging enough without us working ourselves into a lather of anxiety about what might happen next. Not only does filling oneself with fear not help in any way at all, it actually makes us less able to navigate the narrow bridge. We all know this of course – the challenge we all face is to remain aware of our anxieties, and not allow them to rule us. We must work on distinguishing between external risks and internal anxieties. Fear makes us rigid. Balancing across the narrow bridge of life requires suppleness as we take each step. There is no guarantee that we will not fall. There are no guarantees. But rigidity inevitably makes us less able to make the subtle shifts of weight and direction that allow us to remain upright as we walk the tightrope of our lives.

Indeed, at the beginning of B’chukotai, as God describes the blessings that will accrue to us if we live in balance with the land, God says “I, YHVH, am your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke so that you could walk erect.” (Lev. 26:13) I see this erect posture, this liberation from the oppressive terror of slavery, as the direct contrast to the debased condition in which we will once again find ourselves if we lose our balance and succumb to fear, falling over one another in flight even though no one pursues us. True freedom includes the inner capacity to distinguish between real and imagined dangers, and therefore rather than cower or flee or lash out indiscriminately, to instead assess our fears and yet walk upright on our paths.

The world is scary enough; you have Reb Nachman’s and my own passionate encouragement not to additionally fill yourself with fear, and I welcome your encouragement in return.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Behar: We Do Not Own the Earth

V’ha’aretz lo timacher l’tzmitut, ki li ha’aretz, ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi

The land cannot be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to Me, and you are but temporary residents on My earth. (Leviticus 25:23)

Last week I argued for the importance of understanding the expansive evolution that Jewish law and practice has undergone since the days of the Bible. I discussed how Judaism as it evolved in its understanding of the preciousness of human life overruled the many examples of physical and capital punishment that the Torah dictates as law.

But human history is not a continuous march of progress. While we have advanced in certain understandings of what is good and just, we have regressed in others, and none more so than in our relationship with the earth. Here, the agrarian culture of the Torah has critical lessons to teach us, ancient wisdom that must be reclaimed. As our need to relate to our Mother Earth in a more humble and integrated way becomes desperately urgent, this week’s portion, Behar, calls out to us from our earth-based past with forgotten truth.

Most central to our modern misconception is the idea that we humans can actually own land, and the resources beneath that land, as if the earth was only a commodity to be exploited, rather than the living matrix from which we ourselves spring. In contrast to this contemporary delusion, Psalm 24 opens, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it contains, the world and all who inhabit it.” For our ancestors, everything comes from and belongs to the Creator. We are here by God’s grace, and owe a debt for the gift we have received of being able to glean our sustenance from the earth.

Behar lays out the framework by which we might constantly remind ourselves that we are not the masters of creation. Every seventh year, the earth gets a Sabbath. We relinquish our control over the land and let it rest. The land becomes ownerless, and all are free to eat its fruits. Just as the Torah instructs us that every seventh day is a day of rest for us and for all the people and animals that work for us, the seventh year is an even broader sabbatical for the entire ecosystem.

The Torah gives a clear rationale for these practices: we are to observe the Sabbath to remember that “YHVH created the heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11), and to remember “that you were a slave in Egypt, and YHVH your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15). That is, by holding to the weekly and yearly Sabbath cycle, we regularly remind ourselves that we owe our lives and our sustenance to the Creator. This establishes a societal corrective against our innate pull to exploit the world for our own benefit. Unchecked, that aspect of human nature brings us out of balance with each other and our world. The Torah teaches that, as with Pharaoh, an unchecked lust for control, for security, and for power is in direct conflict with God’s plan for an earth and a society in sacred balance. Limitless taking leads ultimately to calamity.

Behar also instructs us to count seven cycles of seven years, and explains that after 49 years, the 50th year is the Jubilee. In the Jubilee year, any family that has lost their landholding over the previous years due to debt or misfortune is able to reclaim their land and begin again. This may be the most radical commandment in the Torah: if you are a wealthy landowner, and even if you have come by all of your holdings fair and square, after 50 years you have to give back what you acquired. The Torah explains that you do not actually own that property – you only possess the yield of the land, not the land itself. We are all leaseholders from God. In the Jubilee year, the entire society gets a giant “reset”, and both ecological and economic balance is restored. YHVH declares that, “the land cannot be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to Me, and you are but temporary residents on My earth.” (Lev. 25:23)

The Jubilee is the utopian vision of a society manifesting immense wisdom and fairness. Historically speaking, we cannot verify whether the lofty ideals of the Jubilee year were entirely practiced in ancient Israel. I have difficulty imagining it. But the message and philosophy of the Torah are clear, and represent a sustainable and wise understanding of our right relationship to the natural world. We ignore it at our very real peril.

Ancient wisdom calls out to us as a modern culture that has forgotten our debt to the earth, and instead functions under the unsustainable premise that the resources of the earth are ours to exploit without stint. Our agrarian and pastoral ancestors knew that they were “just passing through” God’s good earth, and as earth’s beneficiaries needed to steward its resources and live in balance with nature’s rhythms. They created legislation to ensure that balance, and along with it enshrined an understanding of our place not as owners but as residents upon that earth. We find ourselves today dangerously out of balance, the earth (and all of us) desperately needing a sabbatical, and the consequences of our failures in this regard are becoming terrifyingly real as our global climate destabilizes. Global solutions appear difficult to achieve, but we have no choice other than to engage this challenge, and the Torah can be one of our guides as we nurture a renewed consciousness to care for our Mother Earth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan