It is too easy to label Korah evil and dismiss his claims. There is nothing in the pshat, the simple reading of the biblical text, to castigate Korah as the embodiment of evil. In fact, it is suspicious how ready everyone is to get rid of him. What are we covering up? What truth does Korah know?
We've come to expect that anything authentically Jewish must be hard, painful, difficult. No chrain, no gain.
"Therefore" connects all our fine sentiments and deep wisdom with the reality of the world. "Therefore" binds us to bring our values out of the vague realm of our subjectivity and into the hard objective world of work, family, politics and power. "Therefore" tests all our spiritual aspirations and visions against the limits of our courage, imagination and resolve. "Therefore" makes religion real. Every day, someone confesses, "Rabbi, I'm a deeply spiritual person."
I worry about children who are told they must get every answer correct. I worry about kids told there's no room for second best. I worry about the child who must always be the star. If we demand success each time, and leave no room for failure, our children's dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul.
The Torah has no title page. It has neither an author's introduction nor a preface -- nothing to tell us why the book was written or how it is to be read. The very first line begins with a complete lack of self-consciousness: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).
On this line we find a remarkable comment by the most famous of Jewish Bible commentators, Rashi, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of 11th century France. Rashi cites a classical midrash: "Rabbi Isaac asked: Why does the Torah begin with Genesis? The Torah should have begun with the verse (Exodus 12:2): 'This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months,' which is the first commandment given to Israel. For what reason does the Torah begin with Genesis?"
Rashi's commentary on the Torah provides the Jew with a broad survey of law, theology and wisdom -- a basic curriculum of Jewish learning. Rashi's genius is to state the most penetrating questions in the most concise idiom. This one is a gem. Within this innocuous question is a world of debate on the nature of Judaism and purpose of the Torah.
The Building of the Tower of Babel Today
A bright and otherwise articulate second-grader was having night terrors.
"Please understand, rabbi. I'm very spiritual. I'm just not religious."
It is the anthem of a generation.
I'm spiritual: I wrestle with the meaning of my existence. I cultivate my inner life. I feel God is very close. I sense my connectedness to others and to the earth and I try to live compassionately.
But I'm not religious: I'm uncomfortable in the institutions and structures of organized religion. Formal religion binds my freedom and gets in the way. I'm eclectic. I take the best of all traditions but I belong to none.
The Grinch Who Stole The Latkes, a story.
When we arrive in heaven, the talmudic sages wondered, what will God ask of us?
A gentleman died and his family asked me to officiate his funeral.
Each morning and each evening, the people of the daily minyan gather to recite the obligatory prayers. It isn't exciting. The melodies aren't particularly uplifting. Sometimes there is a word of learning, but no sermon; none of the flourishes, trappings and trimmings of professional homiletics.
We leave well before dawn and as we speed through darkness I keep asking myself how it is that I'm now the parent of a college student -- I can still remember vividly the details of my own freshman year almost 30 years ago.
Try this experiment: Put your hands in your pockets and try to explain to someone -- verbally -- how to tie shoes. It's an exercise in frustration, because there are certain things you can learn by description, and there are others that can only be learned in the doing -- learned not by words and concepts, but by involving fingers, hands and heart.
A poster of Moshe Dayan hung in my childhood bedroom. Growing up in the light of the Six-Day War, I adored this new Jewish hero -- tough, cocky, a Jew without fear.
As I wheeled my shopping cart down the aisle of the local
market on my weekly grocery run, a toddler riding in his mother's cart
came up the other side. He was one of the students in the
nursery school, and when he recognized me, his mouth dropped open. He pointed
and shouted, "Mom, look, it's God!"
Ancient Greek democracy created the "citizen." Renaissance Europe invented the "gentleman." Colonial America produced the
It is the Torah's most exciting, most cinematic story. The Israelites, newly freed from slavery, were camped at the shores of the sea when suddenly the sounds Pharaoh's approaching chariots filled the air. Realizing they were trapped, the ex-slaves cried bitterly to Moses, "Were there too few graves in Egypt, that you brought us to die here?" (Exodus 14:11) Moses prayed for deliverance, and was commanded: "Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up the rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it." (Exodus 14:15-16)
It began with the first two human born into this world, the world's first brothers.
He awoke from the nightmare with a scream, as he had every night for almost 40 years. His heart
raced, his body drenched in sweat, his mind filled with vivid images of fiery destruction. He saw rivulets of blood flowing through the streets of Jerusalem, the Holy Temple ground into ashes, the lifeless bodies of the priests scattered about the Temple Mount.
This is a slightly abridged version of an address delivered to a crowd of 2,000 people at a rally for Israel at the Milken Jewish Community Center, April 16, 2002
The great Israeli author, Shai Agnon, related a fable about a little boy and his old father, who together tended a goat. Each day the goat wandered off and returned at evening, its udders filled with the sweetest of milk. The boy wished to know where the goat went, and on what grass it grazed to give such extraordinarily sweet milk. So he tied a string to the goat's tail and followed.
Surfing the TV one night, two powerful images caught my eye: On one station were Afghan women draped from head to toe in the traditional black burka. On another, Britney Spears, very much undraped, projected live across the world in a televised concert.
There once was a man who could provide only potatoes for his family's subsistence. As the monotony and the poverty wore on, he prayed, and his prayers were answered. There fell into his hands a mysterious map to a magical Island of Diamonds.
To know the mind of Israel today, you needn't consult a Gallup poll. Just jump into any taxicab and ask the driver about ha'matsav (the situation). His first response, "Milchama [war] -- there's going to be a war. We need a war," he'll carefully explain, "to show them we're still stronger. It's the only language they understand." Then, shifting gears (literally and figuratively), he turns reflective: "On the other hand, what happens after the war? What do we do with all the Palestinians? Maybe we have to talk after all." But a moment later he answers himself: "But talk to them? How can you talk to them? The only language they know is the language of power. So there has to be a war." And as he begins all over again, I reach my destination.
What we seek for our young Bar Mitzvah boy is a new paradigm of Jewish masculinity.
Sarah Winchester abandoned her comfortable society life in Connecticut, moved to the wilderness town of Santa Clara, purchased a six-room farmhouse and began a 50-year project of constant construction and reconstruction.
How the Grinch Stole Shabbat
God created the animals and brought them, one by one, before man to see what he would name them. Man examined the essence of each creature and assigned its name. So teaches Genesis.
We believe in a God who dreams. The Torah is the story of the transaction between God's dreams and human reality. God dreams of a world of goodness. God creates humanity - fashioned in the divine image - to share the dream. But human beings betrayed God's dreams. We filled the world with violence and murder. God despaired of having created humanity and decided to wash the world clean. But one human being caught God's eye - one good man. So God saved Noah and his family, together with a set of earth's animals to begin the world again.
Sixteen strangers are left on a wilderness island to fend for themselves. They endure starvation, infestation, exposure to the elements. Each night they gather in council to vote one of their company off the island. Finally, only two are left. The castoffs are brought back as jury to choose the sole survivor. Conniving, manipulation, betrayal, deceit - that's entertainment! And 48 million Americans stopped to watch. A media sensation, "Survivor" made the covers of Newsweek and Time and the headlines in every newspaper.
Stuck in endless urban traffic, the radio news ticks off the day's toll of rape, murder and mayhem, governmental ineptitude and unfathomable moral lunacy. Welcome to the wasteland. Welcome to Bamidbar.
For many years, the Allen School was the worst in the Dayton, Ohio, system. Located in the dilapidated inner city, the dropout rate was astronomical.
Exiled from Paradise, Adam and Eve lived together east of Eden, struggling to raise children, to scratch a living out of the hard earth, to stay alive.
The first time I saw a beggar on the streets of Los Angeles I was shocked. The man, disheveled and filthy, stood on the freeway offramp with a tattered sign: "Will Work for Food." Sure, there are beggars in Calcutta and panhandlers in New York, but not here! I stared at him for a long time until my children began to question: "Why is that man standing there? Why is he so dirty? Why does he look so sad?" That was some years ago. Now, we don't notice. Now, we cruise down the offramp and don't see. The beggars and bag ladies have become part of our urban landscape: There's the tree, the traffic light, the indigent. Perhaps even more disturbing is that the kids don't notice any more. They've grown accustomed to the presence of poverty and degradation in their midst. It no longer shakes them up. And should they notice, they feel no connection, no compassion, no obligation. The poor are another species, citizens of another dimension. They have no claim on us. They are invisible.
The greatest gift a religious community can give its children is their sense of God. The troubling question is: What kind of God do our communities and institutions share with our children?
A story is told of a man who came to his rabbi complaining of depression. His life lately seemed like an endless string of failures, disappointments and missed opportunities.
When we arrive in heaven, the Talmudic sages wondered, what will God ask of us?
Write a letter. Address it to those you love -- your spouse, your children and grandchild, your friends, your community. Put into this letter what life has taught you: What you learned from childhood, from growing up, from your education. What you learned from marriage and raising children. What you have learned from work, from your triumphs and successes in the world, from your failures and disappointments. What you have learned from the death of loved ones, and the path of mourning and grief. What has life taught you? What is the meaning, the lesson, the wisdom of your life? What is your message?
What is it in the human soul that kills our dreams and turns us into bugs?
The great rabbi of 16th-century Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Loew, received word of a coming blood libel, an attack on his community.
They sat like any other family in the noisy restaurant, trading conversation, stories, tales of the day past. But when the waiter brought their meal, something remarkable happened: The conversation stopped, hands were extended and grasped to form a circle around the table, eyes closed, and a quiet prayer was whispered.
Once, a stranger approached Hillel and Shammai, the great sages of the first century, with a request: "Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot."
Among those who left Egypt, there were two -- Berel and Shmerel. As slaves, these two had grown so accustomed to looking down at the ground, they could no longer lift their eyes.
The word "m'od," which means "very" or "much," is a very common biblical word.
Every textbook of religion will tell you that death is the great catalyst of spirituality. Religion, it is argued, comes to answer the problem of death. But, if that is so, where is the tractate of Talmud that deals with death? Talmud Shabbat details the laws of Sabbath, Ketubot describes marriage law, Baba Metzia treats torts and litigation, but there's no volume on death.
There is a difference between love of tradition and an obsessive habit of looking backward.
It is the story of a young Jew who lived in Germany at the beginning of the century -- a brilliant student of philosophy at the University of Berlin.
We live in what writer Michael Ventura describes as "the age of interruption." There is a mismatch between "inner time" -- our personal sense of the rhythms of time -- and "outer time" -- the regimented time society imposes upon us.
Have we the tools to meet the impending crises of environmental degradation, population explosion, nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, ethnic and racial slaughter?
Is it any wonder that in education, andparticularly in Jewish education, there is an astonishingly highprofessional mortality rate?
Enter a cathedral, and what do you feel? Thesoaring vaulted ceiling, the giant columns, the colossal statues ofsaints and martyrs, the luminous stained-glass images of scripturalheroes -- the architecture articulates a spirituality of contrast. Weare small, insignificant, ephemeral creatures, no better than insectson the floor. We are impure, corrupt, stained with sin. Who are we toapproach God? God is magnificent, distant and fearsome in judgment.In the cathedral, it is only the figure of Christ that mediatesbetween my miserable condition as human being and God's majesty.Holiness, argued the scholar Rudolf Otto, lies in the contrastbetween our "utter creatureliness" and God's frightening "tremendum."Holiness is the shiver of vulnerability in the face of theinfinite.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
The Nazis took my uncle Henry at the beginning ofthe war. He survived more than five years as a slave. Young andstrong, he was a carpenter, and they needed carpenters. At first,they moved him from camp to camp, including a stay at Pleshow, whereSchindler's people were kept. And, finally, Auschwitz. A slavelaborer, he built parts of the camp. When the Allies advanced, he wastaken on the infamous Death March from Poland into Germany. He wasliberated from Buchenwald by the U.S. Army in 1945.
Seeing Beyond Our Culture.
Pity Esau. One moment of weakness, one moment ofimpulse, and his birthright is gone. He goes out to fulfill hisfather's dying wish for a savory meal of game, and while he's outhunting, his mother and brother conspire and rob him of his blessing.Returning to his father with the feast, expecting at last to gain hisdue position as head of the clan, he is met with his father's emptyexcuses. And so Esau cries: "Have you but one blessing, Father? Blessme too, Father!" And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:38). Tears ofbetrayal, of pain, of rage, of broken dreams.
He is our first forefather, the progenitor of the Covenant, and, yet, we do not call ourselves B'nai Avraham, the children of Abraham.
In 1620, our Pilgrim ancestors escapedthe tyranny and religious persecution of the Old World and braved atreacherous journey to find freedom on this continent.
Who was the first Jew? All of us learned in Sunday School that thefirst Jew was Abraham. It was our father, Abraham, who detected thepresence of the one true God and championed monotheism in a paganworld. It was with Abraham that God established the Covenant,defining our identity, our mission, our destiny. That's true. But thefirst Jew wasn't Abraham. The first Jew was his son Isaac.
A Letter to Sarah
You know me, Rabbi. You know how important thesynagogue is to me, how much I enjoy services; you see me at yourTorah classes. You know what kind of Jew I am: I am the only one atthe family seder table who can read the Hebrew side of the Haggadah,but they won't accept me, because I wasn't born Jewish!"
Every rabbi has heard these painfultestimonies.
One of my favorite things to do is write children's songs. Over the years, I have written lots of innocuous little ditties for kids as a way of teaching them about Jewish holidays and rituals, ethics and values, and how to treat families and friends.
Did the first people to read the Bible know they were reading "The Bible"? And if not, what was it they thought they were reading?
One Sunday morning, many years ago, as parents came to pick up their kids from the Hebrew school where I taught, I overheard a conversation. "How was class?" A father asked his son.The child began to whine. "I hate Hebrew school," he said. "It's boring and stupid, the teachers are mean, and the kids aren't nice. I don't want to go any more." The father stopped, turned to the kid,and said: "Listen, when I was your age, I went to Hebrew school and I hated it. It was boring, the teachers were mean, the kids weren't nice, but they made me go, and, now, you're going to go too!"
What a tragedy.
Before God created the human being, according to alegend of the Midrash, He consulted the angels of heaven. The angelof peace argued, "Let him not be created; he will bring contentioninto the world." But the angel of compassion countered, "Let him becreated; he will bring lovingkindness into the world." The angel oftruth argued, "Let him not be created; he will be deceitful and fillthe world with lies." And the angel of justice countered, "Let him becreated; he will attach himself to righteousness." What did God do?He threw truth into the Earth and proceeded to create the humanbeing.
According to my son, Disney's "The Lion King" is the greatest film ever made. He saw it three times in the theater,and insisted on playing the soundtrack every morning on our way to school. All the way to kindergarten, we sang the film's stirring theme song, "The Circle of Life," until, one morning, I listened to the words.
Who is your spiritual hero? Asked this at a recent conference, Irecalled a story from the Talmud.
Is the story true?
A professor in seminary once asked us to find themost important section in all the Torah. We offered Creation, theShma, the Exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai. No, he argued, it'ski teze l'milchama (Deuteronomy 21): "When you go out to war against yourenemies, and the Lord God delivers them into your power and you takesome of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautifulwoman, and you desire her, and would have her. You shall first bringher into your house, and she shall cut her hair and her nails, anddiscard her captive's garb. She shall spend a month's time in yourhouse, mourning her father and mother...and then you may come to her,and marry her, and she shall be your wife. And if not, you mustrelease her."
Pay attention to the Torah's questions.
First, please understand that it has nothing to dowith health. The laws of kashrut -- the food restrictions imposedupon Jews by the Bible and the Talmud -- were not intended to keep ushealthy.
"So, tell me, what are you looking for in awoman?" I ask.
"Someone kind and gentle, intelligent, educated,cultured, witty, fun, a professional, independent, but interested intraditional things, Jewish, haimish, warm, family-oriented...andthin, tall, attractive, blond, well-dressed." He continues, but Irealize already that I know him. He's my 3-year old. The open mouthof the infant: "I want, I want, I want."
I know what he wants: a Playboy playmate who willadore him, cook like his mother but make no demands on hissoul.
He isn't alone. He belongs to a whole culture ofchildishness.
Child rearing, it turns out, is a relatively short-term project. The truth is that we don't have them for very long. Eighteen years, that's all. Eighteen years, from birth until they move away to Stanford. If your child is 5, you've got 13 years left. If your child is 8, you've got 10 years. If your child is 11,you've got only seven years -- just a few years to put them to bed with a story and a song, to make them breakfast, to stick artwork upon the fridge.
Love answering children's questions. I'll visit a classroom and face an eager chorus of "DidGod create dinosaurs?" and "Where do people go when they die?" Then,at the end, there's always one wise guy, who smirks and asks, "What'sthe meaning of life?" I love that kid. I admire his chutzpah, and Ilove the question.
Once, I was a revolutionary. I belonged to the generation of long hair and crazy ideas. We did more than invent rock music and protest an unjust war. We believed that we could create a new society, populated by new people -- people freed of the prejudices and life-choking rigidities of the past. We believed that we could change the world, and bring greening to America.
America did change. But our dream went unfulfilled.
One afternoon, as I wheeled my shopping cart down an aisle of the local market, a 3-year-old riding in his mother's cart came up along the other side. He was one of the students in the nursery school, and when he recognized me, his mouth dropped open, he pointed, and he shouted, "Mom, look, it's God!" My young friend's comment is instructive. We imagine God in the image of those who teach us about God. And we perceive the world of religion in the image of those experiences that introduce us to spirituality, ritual and faith.
A yeshiva outgrew its downtown quarters and moved to the former site of an upstate boys' academy. Finding a boathouse on the property, the Rosh Yeshiva called in one of the rabbis and ordered him to organize a rowing team.
My neighbors completed an around-the-world trip. It was their dream, the trip of a lifetime. When we gathered to welcome them home, they eagerly described the journey's highlights -- the Sheraton in Bangkok, the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing, a Clint Eastwood film in a Calcutta theater, Budweiser in Holland and Kellogg's Corn Flakes in Great Britain.
I learned most of my theology not from my teachers but from my children. When my daughter, Nessa, was 3 years old, we had a routine. Each night, I would tuck her into bed, sing our bedtime prayers, kiss her good night and attempt to sneak out of the room. Halfway down the hall, she began to scream, "Abba!" An avid reader of Parents magazine, the Torah of parenting, I knew what to do: I walked back to the child's room and turned on every light. I looked under the bed. "No alligator, Nessa." I checked the closet. "No monsters, Nessa." I surveyed the ceiling. "No spiders, Nessa. Now go to bed. Tomorrow is coming, and you've got to get to sleep," I'd say. "Everything is safe. Good night." "OK, Abba," she said, "but leave the light on."
Everything in Creation has a purpose, teaches the Midrash. But when someone gave us a gift subscription to People Weekly magazine, I was left to wonder if I had found the first truly purposeless thing in God's universe.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells of the time he brought a nursery-school class into the synagogue sanctuary for a tour. He showed them the bimah, the ner tamid, the cantor's and rabbi's lecterns. Finally, the tiny kids stood before the huge doors of the Holy Ark.
Because of our sins were we exiled from our land, and displaced far from our soil."
We don't know who discovered water," Einstein said. But we do know one thing: "It wasn't a fish!"
A fable: There was a king who collected jewels. One night, he dreamed that somewhere in the world, there was a ring with strange, magical powers:
Why is it that when Jews seek spiritual wisdom, they'll go almost anywhere except their own traditions? Look into any cult, any radical new therapy, any metaphysical society or meditating community, and you'll find Jews far beyond our proportion in the population. And should they come to Judaism, there is a thirst for the esoteric. "I want to learn your spiritual secrets!" an impassioned searcher says to me.
A couple with whom I'm close had their first child, so I ran to the bookstore to get them our favorite book on child care. I had forgotten the exact title (it was always "the baby book") and the author's name, so I thought I'd just scan the shelf until it turned up. Shelf? Try shelves -- six of them, each 8 feet long and 10 feet high, and all on parenting. Need advice on building self-esteem, teaching morals, successful potty-training? There are volumes to teach it.