Hanukka Celebration and Crafts Faire

Everyone is invited to this fun-filled event on Sunday, December 10th from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Enjoy children’s games and activity tables, homemade latkes with all the trimmings, a raffle with fabulous prizes, Hanukkah gifts and artisan, hand-made items and homemade baked goods.  Enjoy live entertainment beginning at 12:30 with the Jewish Folk Chorus, followed by singer-guitarist Scott Holiday.



Posted in Hanukah, Interfaith Event, Jewish Holidays, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Parshat Balak: Prophecy or Sorcery?

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered July 8, 2017 by Frank Kurtz.


How fortunate is the congregant assigned to comment on Parshat Balak. There is so much material for discussion, ranging from the words of a talking donkey, to the perfidious collusion of Balak and Balaam to curse B’nai Yisrael, to the sexual profligacy of Israelite men with Moabite women, ending in the homicidal zealotry of Pinhas and a nasty plague as G-d’s retribution.

Much consternation can be expended over commentary by those who take divine literality over the words of the donkey and the extrajudicial actions of Pinhas. My choice is always to let the literalists go their way and cast my gaze elsewhere. The principal character of this story is Balaam, a complex and contradictory personality whom Jewish tradition teaches us to despise while at the same time whose words we should revere. When we enter the synagogue, our first words are:

מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל – How good are your tents, O Jacob and your dwelling places, O Israel.

And another nugget: מְבָרְכֶיךָ בָרוּךְ, וְאֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר – Blessed are those who bless you and cursed are those who curse you. Other excerpts of Balaam’s words have found their way into our liturgy.

According to the story, Balaam needs extra persuasion to leave his home in Pethor, some 20 days journey away from the scene of the action, to be the visiting dignitary in the nefarious deeds that Balak king of the Moabites was planning. Balak is sparing no expense to find a major celebrity to accomplish his objective: to inflict the most potent curse on his enemy. So who was this celebrity formulator of curses? Obviously not a local guy; they had to schlep from Moab to the Euphrates to reach him; not one to be summoned at the request of ordinary messengers (מאלכים), but rather requiring intercession of more distinguished emissaries (שרים רבים ונכבדים). Balaam claims that he is unable to act without approval from HaShem, who comes to him in dreams and lets the divine will be known. How does this person who is not an Israelite come into such direct contact with the Israelite deity that he can claim authenticity by invoking that G-d by name? For all intents and purposes, he comes across as a נבאי, a prophet, who claims to speak and act in the name of YHVH.

Then the narrative undercuts his authenticity in two ways. First, he agrees to travel to Balak after supposedly receiving divine permission matched by promises of open access to the Moabite treasury. Then, as he sets out on his way, the angel of YHVH blocks his path three times with an upraised sword, but these appearances are seen only by the famous talking donkey, who does her best to swerve out of the way, and gets a thrashing for her trouble. Only after the donkey collapses and explains her evasive action to Balaam with the miraculous gift of speech, does he see the angel as well and ultimately gets a pass onto the road to Moab with the instruction that he would pronounce only what G-d would approve. So Balaam was prepared to do his blessing and cursing for a handsome fee, but he was less perceptive of G-d’s presence than his poor donkey. Maybe not a נבאי after all.

Rabbinic commentary about Balaam disparages him because of his use of sorcery, which is hugely forbidden in the Torah. This is based on Parshat Mattot two weeks from now, in which Balaam is slain as part of the campaign against Midian (led my our zealous friend Pinhas), after which Balaam is identified as the cause of the Israelite men taking up with the Moabite women, followed by the plague (הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם, לִמְסָר-מַעַל בַּיהוָה, עַל-דְּבַר-פְּעוֹר – Yet they (the Moabite women) are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam induced the Israelites to trespass against YHVH in the matter of Peor.) His demise is also noted in the book of Joshua, chapter 13, verse 22 with the words: וְאֶת-בִּלְעָם בֶּן-בְּעוֹר, הַקּוֹסֵם–הָרְגוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּחֶרֶב, אֶל-חַלְלֵיהֶם – and B’nai Yisrael killed the sorcerer Balaam son of B’or by sword among the slain. So we finish him off with a brief and highly negative epithet, seemingly to discount any significance of his pronouncements in Moab.

Which leads me to two underlying issues: first, what kind of relationship can a rather unsavory person like Balaam have with HaShem?; and, second, what is the difference between prophecy – implying the high moral tone we associate with the Hebrew prophets – and sorcery, which is forbidden by the Torah?

Balaam is certainly blatant in invoking the name of the Israelite deity when describing his powers. Why would he choose this path rather some local pagan god or goddess? Perhaps he has gained some understanding that YHVH is a source of connection to the divine not available elsewhere; after all, this G-d is invisible and a certified success in the liberation of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Balaam  certainly is not an advocate of observing G-d’s mitzvot in pursuit of justice and holiness. And yet there is some kind of connection. He claims to be able to know G-d’s will through dreams and visions, and the story inserts YHVH at several points – in addition to sending the angel, it is YHVH who puts words in Balaam’s mouth to turn his attempts at cursing into blessings. So perhaps Balaam is an unlikely and unwilling vehicle for G-d to reveal G-d’s self in the drama of the moment. I wonder if Balaam is an example of G-d’s back channel available to us through sources that we might not otherwise expect. Paul Simon wrote that “the words of the prophet are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” Our world is inhabited with many people and ideas that claim to be divinely inspired that are way outside what we view as Jewish tradition. Balaam is an example of acquiring G-d’s message from a highly unqualified source and making it our own. The rabbis go to great lengths to acknowledge Balaam’s skills (often comparing him to Moshe) while strongly condemning his moral character. This could very well mean that listening to the words of “the other” could be a source of blessing for us in a Jewish context without having to compromise our values and identity to that of another tradition. One might draw some comparison to the relationship between Jewish religious values to those of modern science, which in our culture is a non-theistic tradition. By studying and understanding the principles of biology, physics, and chemistry, we have the potential to use them for good or evil; the science itself has no moral component. By combining the scientific knowledge with Jewish tradition and values, we are enhanced as knowledgeable human beings with increased power to act in a moral and potentially holy way. We could even surmise that G-d’s back channel is speaking to us in a manner that we can put through a set of Jewish filters for a blessing.

On the question of prophecy versus sorcery, Torah is clear that Balaam was very much in the latter category. His connection with YHVH is tied to his singular and esoteric powers. Until the last of his four proclamations, he must isolate himself to gain the divine communication he needs. The story also tells us that Balaam is in opposition to G-d through his deeds and intentions. That someone can hook up to a divine “network” to perform nefarious deeds is the essence of sorcery that the Torah forbids. To be a prophet, the Rambam (Maimonides) sets up criteria as follows:

Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind, he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times. He must [also] possess a broad and correct perspective. A person who is full of all these qualities and is physically sound [is fit for prophecy].

The extent to which Balaam does not fulfill these requirements was elucidated by Ismar Schorsh, former Chancellor of JTS in his commentary on this parsha:

Within the monotheistic framework of the Torah, Balaam can utter only what G-d imparts to him. Hence, he ends up in rapturous praise of Israel, to the consternation of Balak. In an imaginative midrash, the Rabbis expatiate on what brought Balak to seize on this particular tactic. Awestruck by Moses, he inquired of the Midianites, among whom Moses had once found refuge when fleeing Pharaoh’s wrath, as to the man’s strength. They responded that Moses’ strength resided in his mouth; that is, his prayers were able to move G-d to act in his behalf. To neutralize that weapon, Balak turns to sorcery. Balaam’s strength also resides in his mouth. His curse will trump Moses’ prayers. Without divine assistance, Israel is eminently beatable (Rashi on 22:4).

As so often, the midrashic genre yields rich insight. Words are weapons when they carry conviction. As long as the prayers of Israel embody deep faith, a sense of chosenness, and real dialogue, they have the capacity to keep chaos at bay. With the information at hand, Balak intuited that the ultimate source of Israel’s dominance was spiritual and not military.

At issue in these conflicting world views is clearly how we live. For the Rabbis, Balaam personified a lifestyle that turns on the self. The other is always secondary. In contrast, Abraham’s virtues combine to contract the ego. Compassion, humility, and self-restraint not only privilege the other but also devalue material possessions. Judaism strives for self-control. Nobility of character requires a touch of asceticism.

In his commentary to this passage, Judah Goldin posits that such virtue is not a function of biological descent, but persistent effort. Jewishness is defined by wat we do with our lives. Like Abraham, we can choose to follow G-d’s voice as refracted in the sacred texts of Judaism.

Incomparably, that same value scale is enunciated by the eighth-century prophet Micha, whose words constitute our haftarah for this week’s parashah. The superficial link is his glancing reference to Balak and Balaam. In a deeper vein, he espouses the primacy of ethics over ritual. The goal of genuine religion is not to mollify G-d with escalating numbers of sacrifices, culminating in the offering of one’s own firstborn child. On the contrary, what G-d has long demanded is “only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your G-d” (6:8). Again, the thrust runs diametrically counter to our penchant for self-absorption. The best way to infuse the world with holiness is by harnessing the self. As long as ritual is tethered to that aspiration, it can provide us with the discipline to move beyond ourselves.

So let us conclude with the theme that outside influences can evolve into essential Jewish characteristics. I offer four examples, two of which are ancient and two more contemporary.

First, we are currently in the Hebrew month of Tammuz. Where did that name come from? If you look it up you will find the name of a Mesopotamian god whose festival took place around the summer solstice. In fact, the names of the months in the Hebrew calendar are derived from the Babylonian pantheon. Does that mean that we are somehow revering pagan gods? We could say that it is the equivalent to using the terms Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday does not revere the Norse gods after whom they are named. And yet, even though no one worships Tammuz any more, it has become religiously incumbent on Jews to preserve the name as a piece of a calendrical system that is the absolute foundation of Judaism.

Second, the High Holy Days were originally a Babylonian import. Rosh Hashana, which we consider the New Year, occurs in the seventh month – Tishrei – a name with an Akkadian root meaning beginning. The themes of spiritual renewal, inscription in the Book of Life, and purification from sin mirror a similar festival called Akitu, a 12-day event dedicated to the god Marduk, that the Jews experienced from their time in Babylonian exile. Pre-exilic texts do not mention Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but we can surmise that the references in Torah to these days were inserted with the restoration of the second Temple in the time of Ezra and the Masoretic scribes as these rituals were being created.

Third, we have the American concept of voluntarism. American Jews have largely defined themselves through the organizations we have created over the past century and a half. These organizations include cultural, educational, social service and religious orientations. What they all have in common is that their constituents volunteer time, talents and money to allow them to function. Their efficacy is delimited primarily by their ability to gain and retain volunteer support in both quantity and duration. If they lose a critical mass of volunteers, they cannot survive.

Fourth, our Jewish life is infused with the value of democracy. We would be unhappy to be subject to the edicts of a Chief Rabbi or rabbinic court to impose rulings on us without any say on our part. Yes, we hire rabbis to express their knowledge and authority, but ultimately we want individual choice to mediate such opinions through our own understandings. When it comes to making decisions in the structures and expressions of Jewish communal life, we expect to exercise our franchise directly or through representatives whom we elect. We expect to voice our opinions in a debate and have them taken seriously. This is not the Judaism of the Torah or the Talmud, but we cannot conceive of being Jewish without it.

So thank you, Balaam, for saying what you said. You were a very shady character whom we were taught to detest, but as Jews we have taken great inspiration from your words.

Posted in Jewish Learning, Sermons, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Parsha Chukat: On Loss, Goals and Continuity

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered July 1, 2017 by Andrew Nusbaum.

[Dedicated to the memory of Gerald Levene (1935-2017)]

In life, many of us can struggle with the tendency towards perfectionism. This is perfectly understandable—who doesn’t want to both do their best and avoid making mistakes? But, as anyone who has spent time trying to do everything perfectly will tell you, this approach is ultimately self-defeating, to say nothing of exhausting. So how do we guard against this temptation, while also not being too quick to let ourselves off the hook?

This week’s parsha is Chukat, from the Hebrew word chok, or decree. When establishing Jewish law the rabbis of the Talmud created two major categories of commandments: mishpatim, or statutes, are commandments whose purpose was self-evident or understandable by human beings. Chukim, on the other hand, are commandments whose purpose seems to be a mystery—or at the very least, not easily understood.

The classic example of a chok is the Red Heifer, introduced in the first section of today’s parsha. And in a way, it relates to our theme of perfectionism. The Torah says that after finding a Red Heifer (which is its own challenge), the priests are supposed to slaughter it, sprinkle its blood toward the tabernacle, then burn the carcass. The ashes are then to be stored so they can be used to make a decontamination potion, the mei niddah or “waters of separation” (also called “waters of lustration”,) which is used to purify Israelites after contact with the dead. Besides the fact that using dead animal ashes and water to purify yourself from death seems confusing already, there’s also the odd detail that in the process of slaughtering the heifer, the priests themselves become impure.

After the Temple was destroyed, there was no way to complete this ritual, and so for thousands of years, people have usually been presumed to be in states of impurity unless they’ve just immersed in a mikvah. This is further complicated by the fact that the Torah requires the priests to use an animal that is extremely rare. Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, written in the twelfth-century, mentions only nine red heifers having existed in history up until that point.

So what do we make of this? Some might say, so what, we’re impure, we can’t do anything about it, just forget it. Others, both Jews and Christians, are currently hard at work trying to breed purely red cows that can be used to re-establish ritual purity, which in turn, the thinking goes, will either help speed up the arrival of the Messiah or facilitate the building of the Third Temple. While I appreciate their dedication, I have to wonder whether they may be missing part of the point, overlooking the metaphor of creating deliberately impossible conditions to attain “perfection” in favor of genetic engineering and modern animal husbandry. Perhaps one reason the Torah makes it so hard to achieve perfection—or purity— is that the concept should be seen as something we work towards, not a physical item to acquire and then check off a list.

Another theme in this parsha, a theme that carries its own share of mystery, is death. Right after we learn about the Red Heifer ritual, the prophetess Miriam dies. Unfortunately we don’t receive much information about her death, but we are told about a problem it causes: the miraculous well that followed her through the desert has disappeared and the Israelites are suffering from extreme thirst. This, in fact, is what leads to the famous scene of Moses striking the rock at Kadesh, and being told that he and Aaron will not be allowed to enter the land of Canaan. Soon afterwards, Aaron dies as well. Interestingly enough, the rabbis of the Talmud add that the pillar of cloud, which had followed the Israelites, disappeared at Aaron’s death, echoing the loss of Miriam’s well.

How often do we, too, only truly appreciate the gifts we receive from each other, from friends, from family, until they are gone? It is so easy to take people and their contributions, whether physical, emotional or otherwise, for granted—and the fact that this is apparently not a new problem is not much comfort.

Also not of much comfort is the attempt to rationalize Moses and Aaron’s deaths by connecting them to the sin of striking the rock. Some argue that perhaps Moses needed more faith, or was too angry, or unnecessarily engaged in name-calling. Perhaps, they add, Aaron should have stopped him, and that was why he was punished as well. And perhaps, the argument goes, both of them actually show true deference to God by accepting their fates relatively calmly.

This, too, is a very human reaction— if something bad happened, it must be a punishment. What did I do to deserve this? Again, we seem confronted with very different assumptions and logic than we are used to.

Frankly, I don’t care much for exercises of theodicy, the attempt to explain why the world (or God) is still ultimately good despite the apparent existence of evil or injustice. And therefore, I don’t have very much interest in the possible rationales for why Moses and Aaron deserved punishment from the incident at the rock. Instead, I prefer to examine Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s observation that while Moses does eventually protest against his punishment (though not in this parsha), he only asks for the decree to be annulled—not that he be forgiven for his sin. Moses, Leibowitz concludes, does not seem to recognize that he sinned in the first place.

Some might see this point as evidence of Moses’ hubris. Even after being told that he was unfaithful and lacked trust in God, he still doesn’t get it. And if Moses, the great and wise leader of the Jewish people, can’t notice when he himself has made mistakes, how much more do us rank-and-file Jews need to guard ourselves against such blindness?

But couldn’t there be a simpler explanation? Perhaps Moses doesn’t recognize his sin because… it actually wasn’t all that bad! Perhaps Moses and Aaron simply died because it was their time. Death does not have to be seen as a punishment, nor God as a divine disciplinarian. I have known people in my life living with chronic illnesses that have asked me if I thought God was punishing them. And I have always told them, “I don’t believe in a God like that. I can’t.” If that ends up getting me in hot water later on, I suppose I’ll just have to follow Moses’ example and take my punishment.

The rabbis teach that when the Israelites were mourning Aaron, they spoke of him as a peacemaker, not only teaching people about God, but also helping solve disputes and even serving as a sort of marriage-counselor. The rabbis add that thanks to Aaron’s help, thousands of potential divorces were avoided, and that by his death, grateful parents had already named over 80,000 children after him. I think we can all appreciate the idea that, whatever our theology about the afterlife, one way we do live on is through others’ memories, and that one of our tasks as Jews is, to paraphrase Debbie Friedman and the Book of Proverbs, to live a life—and create a memory—that will “be a blessing.” How would the world be different if more people prioritized that sort of goal when ordering their lives?

When Aaron is about to die, what does God have Moses do? He takes Aaron’s priestly uniform and puts it on his oldest son, Eleazar, passing the torch (or staff) to the next generation. Eleazar is not told that he has to become a clone of Aaron, just that it is now his time to play his role. Those of us who have lived long enough to take on tasks for relatives or mentors know how challenging it can be to fill their shoes—as well as how necessary it is to, eventually, be able to chart our own way. Many are familiar with the Torah’s refrain that “there was no prophet in Israel like Moses.” I would suggest that not only should this be read as praise of Moses, but also a warning for us not to become too absorbed with trying to emulate him. Remember, his bones, unlike Joseph’s, were not brought along with the people into Canaan. His grave, unlike his siblings’, was not even marked. The Torah recognizes that while we should honor our dead, we should not create personality cults around them, and that if we focus too hard on following in their footsteps, we may never find our own path.

In a sense, all of Chukat is a chok. From protective magic like the red heifer to the copper serpent (an early precursor to the staff of Asclepius which is so common on contemporary medical symbols) to the deaths and punishments of one of the Jewish people’s royal families, we have no easy solutions. What we do notice, though, are the paradoxes. Purity isn’t without a cost—of time, of effort, and of resources—all to address an invisible problem that many of us struggle to fit into our modern framework. Many may also wrestle over how to reconcile our modern perspectives with the Torah’s approach to death, punishment and leadership. We are supposed to admire and respect our heroes, but not too much. We are supposed to consider God merciful and just, even as we see Aaron killed and Moses punished for what seem like trivial offenses. As in life, we search for answers. Though we may not be able to find definitive explanations, just as we may not be able to achieve perfection, we can at least offer attempts at meaning.

Last week I attended Taste of Limmud, and one of the classes dealt with the idea of impostor syndrome: the concept is that some people can be so insecure about their own abilities that they develop a profound fear of being exposed as frauds, not competent in their own rights or deserving of praise or acknowledgment. This is the dark side of perfection: paralysis. Thankfully, this is not the path our tradition points us towards. As the Hasidic master Zushe of Anopol said when dying, he was not worried that God would ask him why he was not more like Moses, but why he was not more like Zushe.

This is our task: to use the gifts and strengths we have been given and to shape our lives according to our values and community. The goal is not to become Moses or Aaron or Miriam, but to become our best selves.

There are two quotes from the Talmud that speak to this idea of moderating expectations and taking ownership and responsibility for our own lives: Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it.” And Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, “If you try to grab too much, you grab nothing, but if you try to grab a little, you may keep it.”

If instead of grasping for perfection or trying to live up to lofty expectations (whether from others, our ancestors, or even God), we work towards steady improvement and think about how best to leave behind blessings for others, we, too, may have a better chance of making it to the Promised Land.












Posted in Jewish Learning, Sermons, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Parashat Korach

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered June 23, 2017 by Sharon Bleviss.

This parashah is a packed one. It is filled with rebellious Jews, people begging for mercy, others falling on their faces, the wrath of G-d, a plague, commandments and laws of the Priesthood. It comes on the heels of other parashiot , which also involve rebellious Jews and the wrath of G-d. And all of this causes one to ponder the purpose these repetitive actions.

First, a summary:

The Levite Korah son of Izhar joined with the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On, son of Peleth and 250 chieftains of the Israelite community to rise up against Moses. Moses told Korah and his band to take their fire pans and put fire and incense on them before God. Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, but they refused to come.

The next day, Korah and his band took their fire pans and gathered the whole community against Moses and Aaron at the entrance of the Tabernacle.

The Presence of the Lord appeared to the whole community, and God told Moses and Aaron to stand back so that God could annihilate the others. Moses and Aaron fell on their faces and implored God not to punish the whole community. God told Moses to instruct the community to move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and they did so, while Dathan, Abiram, and their families stood at the entrance of their tents. Moses told the Israelites that if these men were to die of natural causes, then God did not send Moses, but if God caused the earth to swallow them up, then these men had spurned God. Just as Moses finished speaking, the earth opened and swallowed them, their households, and all Korah’s people, and the Israelites fled in terror. And a fire consumed the 250 men offering the incense. God told Moses to order Eleazar the priest to remove the fire pans — as they had become sacred — and have them made into plating for the altar to remind the Israelites that no one other than Aaron’s offspring should presume to offer incense to God. The next day, the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron for bringing death upon God’s people. A cloud covered the Tabernacle and the God’s Presence appeared.

God told Moses to remove himself and Aaron from the community, so that God might annihilate them, and they fell on their faces. Moses told Aaron to take the fire pan, put fire from the altar and incense on it, and take it to the community to make expiation for them and to stop a plague that had begun, and Aaron did so. Aaron stood between the dead and the living and halted the plague, but not before 14,700 had died as a result of the rebellion.

God told Moses to collect a staff from the chieftain of each of the 12 tribes, inscribe each man’s name on his staff, inscribe Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi, and deposit the staffs in the Tent of Meeting. God said, “The staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout.” The next day, Moses entered the Tent and Aaron’s staff had sprouted, blossomed, and borne almonds.

God instructed Moses to put Aaron’s staff before the Ark of the Covenant to be kept as a lesson to rebels to end their mutterings against God.But the Israelites cried to Moses, “We are doomed to perish!”

God spoke to Aaron and said that he and his dynasty would be responsible for the Tent of Meeting and the priesthood, and accountable for anything that went wrong in the performance of their priestly duties. God assigned the Levites to Aaron to aid in the performance of these duties. God prohibited any outsider from intruding on the priests as they discharged the duties connected with the Shrine, on pain of death. And God gave Aaron and the priests all the sacred donations and first fruits as a perquisite for all time for them and their families to eat.  And God gave them the oilwinegrain. God’s covenant with the Aaronic priesthood was described as a ‘covenant of salt‘, but God also told Aaron that the priests would have no territorial share among the Israelites, as God was their portion and their share.

God gave the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their share in return for the services of the Tent of Meeting, but they too would have no territorial share among the Israelites. God told Moses to instruct the Levites to set aside one-tenth of the tithes they received as a gift to God.

(Of special note: The description of the Aaronic covenant as a “covenant of salt” in Numbers 18:19 is mirrored by the description in 2 Chronicles 13:5 of God’s covenant with the Davidic kings of Israel as a “covenant of salt.”)

This continues the theme of Israel’s unhappiness and rebelliousness. Ramban theorizes that it may be that a series of discouraging events—including the deaths at Taberah (11:1-3) and at Kibroth-hattaavah (11:10-34), along with the terrible episode of the scouts (13-14)—have demoralized the people to the point at which they are vulnerable to this uprising.

Our chumash commentary explains: “The uprising is put down only after two miraculous events. Once miracle destroys the rebels and affirms the primacy of Moses and Aaron, and a second miracle authenticates the primacy of the Levites for the divine service.

In Jewish lore, Korah is the arch-demagogue, lusting for power to inflate his own prominence, not to serve the people. The Mishnah describes illegitimate controversy for personal gain “not for the sake of Heaven” as being “like the dispute of Korah and his followers.” (Avot 5:17) Each faction in the rebellion had its own agenda. They were united only in their opposition to Moses and Aaron. They defined themselves by what they were against, not a vision of what they stood for.”

A Midrash (Num R 18:4) pictures Korah complaining about the tithes and offerings Moses demanded of the people, saying, “You lay a heavier burden on us than the Egyptians did.” He never mentions that these taxes were designed to help the poor, to maintain the sanctuary and to give the Israelites ways of expressing their gratitude to G-d and their dependence on G-d. Another midrash (Num R 18:3) portrays Korah as caricaturing the rituals of the Torah by making them extreme: Does a library full of Torah scrolls require a mezuzah on the doorpost? Does a completely blue tallit need the required blue thread added to its tsitzit? Korah was thus challenging not only Moses and Aaron’s authority, but that of Torah and, ultimately, of G-d.”

There is some discussion about what is meant by “community” when referenced in this parashah. The 20th century Reform Rabbi Gunther Plaut read the words “Korah gathered the whole community” in Numbers 16:19 to indicate that the people did not necessarily side with Korah but readily came out to watch his attack on the establishment. Plaut noted, however, that Numbers 17:6 indicates some dissatisfaction rife among the Israelites. Plaut concluded that by not backing Moses and Aaron, the people exposed themselves to divine retribution.

So why did Korach revolt? There are many possible answers.

Professor James Kugel of Bar Ilan University wrote that early interpreters, including the 1st or 2nd century CE author Pseudo-Philo, saw in the juxtaposition of the law of tzitzit in Numbers 15:37–40 with the story of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16:1–3 a subtle hint as to how Korah might have enlisted his followers. Forcing people to put a special blue tassel on their clothes, ancient interpreters suggested Korah must have argued, was an intolerable intrusion into their lives. Korah asked why, if someone’s whole garment was already dyed blue, that person needed to add an extra blue thread to the corner tassel. But this question, ancient interpreters implied, was really a metaphorical version of Korah’s complaint in Numbers 16:3: “Everyone in the congregation [of Levites] is holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” In other words, Korah asserted that all Levites were part of the same garment and all blue, and asked why Moses and Aaron thought that they were special just because they were the corner thread. In saying this, Kugel argued, Korah set a pattern for would-be revolutionaries thereafter to seek to bring down the ruling powers with the taunt: “What makes you better than the rest of us?” Kugel wrote that ancient interpreters thus taught that Korah was not really interested in changing the system, but merely in taking it over. Korah was thus a dangerous demagogue.

In addition, the Jerusalem Talmud read the commandment to wear tzitzit in Numbers 15:37–40 together with the story of Korah’s rebellion that follows immediately after in Numbers 16:1–3. The Jerusalem Talmud told that after hearing the law of tassels, Korah made some garments that were completely dyed blue, went to Moses, and asked Moses whether a garment that was already completely blue nonetheless had to have a blue corner tassel. When Moses answered that it did, Korah said that the Torah was not of Divine origin, Moses was not a prophet, and Aaron was not a high priest.[42]

One may have noted that, as a Midrash taught, Numbers 16:1 traces Korah’s descent back only to Levi, not to Jacob, because Jacob said of the descendants of Simeon and Levi in Genesis 49:5, “To their assembly let my glory not be united,” referring to when they would assemble against Moses in Korah’s band. On his deathbed, Jacob prayed, “If any of my descendants turns out wicked, may my name not be associated with them.” Such a person is not worthy of being called “an Israelite.”

Another explanation? The first-century Roman-Jewish scholar Josephus wrote that Korah was an Israelite of principal account, both by family and wealth, who was able to speak well and could easily persuade the people. Korah envied the great dignity of Moses, as he was of the same tribe as Moses and he thought he better deserved honor on account of his great riches. Josephus further wrote that Moses called on God to punish those who had endeavored to deal unjustly with the people, but to save the multitude who followed God’s commandments, for God knew that it would not be just that the whole body of the Israelites should suffer punishment for the wickedness of the unjust.

Similarly, according to the Qur’an, Korah (who is called Qarun) acted insolently towards his fellow Israelites. God had bestowed such treasure on him that their keys alone would have been a burden to a body of strong men. Korah’s people warned him not to exult in his riches, but to do good and seek the wealth that God bestows in the Hereafter. But Korah said that he had been given riches because of his knowledge, so he went among his people in the pride of his worldly glitter. Those whose aim was the life of this world envied him, but those who had been granted true knowledge pitied him. Then God caused the earth to swallow him and his house, and those who had envied his position the day before began to say on the next day that God rewards or punishes God’s servants as God pleases and could have caused the earth to swallow them up as well.

Another Midrash answered that Korah took issue with Moses because Moses had (as Numbers 3:30 reports) appointed Elizaphan the son of Uzziel as prince of the Kohathites, and Korah was (as Exodus6:21 reports) son of Uzziel’s older brother Izhar, and thus had a claim to leadership prior to Elizaphan. Because Moses appointed the son of Korah’s father’s youngest brother, Uzziel, the leader, to be greater than Korah, Korah decided to oppose Moses and nullify everything that he did.

 The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot deduced that the controversy of Korah and his followers was not for the sake of Heaven, and thus was destined not to result in permanent change. The Mishnah contrasted Korah’s argument to those between Hillel and Shammai, which the Mishnah taught were controversies for the sake of Heaven, destined to result in something permanent.

The parashah ends with clarification regarding the roles of the priests and Levites, as if to define how to battle chaos. It includes the following 5 positive and 4 negative commandments, according to Sefer haChinuch.

One cannot help but draw parallels to today’s political situation. Some would say that a person who is like Korah, ‘the arch-demagogue, lusting for power to inflate his own prominence, not to serve the people,’ now occupies the Presidency. And as stated previously, “Each faction in the rebellion had its own agenda. They were united only in their opposition to Moses and Aaron. They defined themselves by what they were against, not a vision of what they stood for. “ This could easily describe the Republican party. Although Korah perhaps clearly had nefarious goals, people eagerly rallied around him and, when the earth swallowed him, Moses and Aaron were blamed for his destruction. Again, one can find many parallels today.

I will close with this reflection by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat:

“Torah teaches us in this portion that when people jockey for power as did Korach and his followers, damage is done to the entire community. Torah shows us a model for leadership in Moses and Aaron, who act in the best interests of the people they serve, even though the community has added insult to injury by blaming them for the damage experienced by those who attacked them. And Torah offers us a path to healing from this kind of communal division.

When ugly behaviors have rent a community asunder, Torah calls us to center ourselves in a place where we can access the flow of holiness. Torah calls us to ensure that the community can be a safe place for healing. And Torah calls us to open our hearts to the miraculous flowering-forth of new possibilities and community renewal that can unfold when we are safe, and our hearts are open, and we have trust in the One.”

My benediction: May our community continue to be a safe place for healing, and may we all look forward to the new possibilities and community renewal that may result from communal division.

And as a community, I look forward to celebrating with you the 33rd anniversary for Kirk and me, the retirement after 36 years of teaching for Kirk, as well as the birthday of Hal Tauber, and the anniversary of Frank and Linda Kurtz.

Shabbat Shalom!






Posted in Jewish Learning, Sermons, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Friendliest Synagogue in San Francisco” put to the test!

B’nai Emunah was featured in the latest Jew in the Pew column by the J’s David A. M. Wilensky:

The website of Congregation B’nai Emunah proclaims it “the friendliest synagogue in San Francisco.” A bold claim, but they pride themselves on it. Many congregations talk a big talk about being welcoming; there is a whole cottage industry of welcoming best practices and welcoming initiatives and whathaveyou. B’nai Emunah doesn’t need any of that. The people I met there on a recent Shabbat morning are just plain friendly. Start-to-finish, almost every single person in attendance greeted me warmly.

…When we reached the paragraph of the Musaf Amidah that begins “L’dor vador,” Melamut and several children and adults rushed the bimah to dance in a circle while singing that section of the prayer. This completely blew me away. And in a Conservative shul! At the end of the dancing, the children remained on the bimah; while a congregant continued leading Musaf, Melamut gathered the kids to give them a blessing and some candy.

…Start to finish, my visit to B’nai Emunah was one surprise after another. Their history is fascinating. Their Shabbat morning service is full of delightful quirks. And their boastful slogan about friendliness is absolutely true.

It was a pleasure to have David and Rachel visit us for Shabbat and we hope to see them again soon!

Posted in Congregation News, Members Achievements, Rabbi Mark, Shabbat | Leave a comment

Shabbat Symposium Wrap-up: Touring the Jewish Afterlife

This past Shabbat, a small crowd gathered following kiddush for a guided discussion examining various Jewish beliefs and approaches to the afterlife. Some topics included depictions of the underworld in Tanakh, resurrection and the World to Come in the Talmud, and reincarnation in Kabbalah. A complete source sheet can be accessed here.

A few quick highlights:

  • The term “She’ol”, or underworld, occurs 65 times in Tanakh, but only six times in the Torah itself– four of them are in the Jacob story when he is mourning Joseph.
  • The Talmud has several debates over which people make it to the World to Come. The general consensus is that both righteous Jews and non-Jews are rewarded after death.
  • One Talmudic commentator resolved the problem of Jews buried in Diaspora making their way back to Israel in the messianic age by saying “the resurrected will roll underground.” When another rabbi objected that this would hurt, the first rabbi responded, “The Almighty will create tunnels for them.”
  • The Talmud contains varied descriptions of what Gan Eden (Heaven) and Gehenna (Hell) might look like– ranging from a lavish banquet, to a heavenly study hall, to a purely spiritual existence basking in God’s presence. Gehenna is described as being thoroughly unpleasant, but also having many sub-categories designed to “purify” souls for specific misdeeds.
  • The rabbis of the Talmud established the belief that most wicked souls are only punished in Gehenna for a maximum of twelve months; following this, the custom is to observe Kaddish for only eleven months, to avoid the perception that one’s relatives were wicked.
  • The afterlife hasn’t been without controversy: Saadia Gaon, a medieval commentator, considered reincarnation to be “nonsense.” Maimonides so downplayed resurrection that he was publicly criticized for it and had to write a treatise acknowledging it to be an important Jewish belief.
  • Dante had a Jewish contemporary named Immanuel ha-Romi, who wrote vivid depictions of Heaven and Hell for his Jewish readers.
  • Early Reform rabbis eliminated references to the afterlife in their prayerbooks, but in recent years liberal liturgy has begun including these references again to offer worshipers a wider choice.

Many thanks to those who attended this month’s symposium! If you’d like to teach a class or have an idea for a topic, please get in touch with Rabbi Mark or Andrew Nusbaum.

Posted in Jewish Learning, Shabbat Symposium | Leave a comment

DIY Omer Counter – I Count, You Count, We All Count!

We are counting down the days until the next holiday of Shavuot when we celebrate receiving the biggest present of them all, the Torah!  49 days in total between Passover and Shavuot.
This week our Hebrew school made their own Omer counters– and you can make them at home for yourself, as well!
Materials:  poster board/side of cardboard box, markers, sticky notes with numbers 1-49 (#50 is Shavuot)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Blessing for each evening:
Blessed are You, Holy One, who teaches us to number the days of the Omer, to count the blessings in our lives and to be grateful for each day.
Say, “Today is the # day of the Omer.”
[If you’ve missed a few days and need to catch up, tonight will be the day after the tenth day. 😉 ]

May we count and treasure each of our precious days,
Rabbi Mark
Posted in Jewish Holidays, Shavuot, Sunday School | Leave a comment

Shabbat Symposium: Touring the Jewish Afterlife

Save The Date: April 22 Symposium at B’nai Emunah. Presenter: Andrew Nusbaum

Does Judaism believe in an afterlife? Many people, including Jews, may be unsure– and surprised– about the answer. Together will descend to She’ol, ascend to Gan Eden, visit The World To Come, and sneak a peak at the Messianic Age.


We will start around 1:00 pm following kiddush and go for about an hour, leaving time for any questions.

Do *you* have a topic you’d like to learn about or teach to others? Get in touch and let us know!

B’nai Emunah believes all members of the community have something to teach each other. One way of putting this into practice is through our Shabbat Symposium program, a rotating adult education opportunity happening every fourth Saturday following morning services. Each class is led by a knowledgeable community volunteer on a topic of their choice. From holidays to history to religious studies, Shabbat Symposium is a fun chance to learn something new from fellow CBE members. Join us for engaged learning and enthusiastic discussion!


Posted in Jewish Learning, Shabbat Symposium | Leave a comment

Parashat Devarim — The Art of Giving and Receiving Rebukes

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered August 13, 2016 by Bonnie G. Lindauer

Deuteronomy, also called Seifer D’varim, the Book of Words, combines a repetition of earlier sections of Exodus and Numbers with new material relating to laws for living in their permanent home. Parashat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the fast day on which we read the Book of Lamentations, lamenting the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem and other tragic events in Jewish history. There is even a verse in today’s complete parashah, Deut 1:12, that is traditionally chanted to the plaintive melody for the Book of Lamentations. This verse begins with the Hebrew word Eikhah, variously translated as Alas! or How, as in How on earth! and continues with Moses saying “how can I bear unaided the trouble of you and the burden, and the bickering!”

Not only is Moses bemoaning the burden he’s carried, but we notice that Moses does all the speaking. The entire book is composed of 5 discourses of Moses’ words to the newer generation of Israelites.  Most striking is the change in voice.  We find mostly the first person:  “I said to you.  You replied to me: I sent messengers. I pleaded with God…etc.”  Gone is the passive voice of the narrator in previous books of the Torah.

Deuteronomy is Moses’s story to tell.  As other commentators have remarked, Moses’s voice and words in Deut. make it clear that he is the first of the great prophets. Quoting a rabbi we first met at Limmud two years ago, Rabbi David Kasher, “he has become a man of words because he now knows how to speak the language of Torah. He knows what to say, how to communicate ideas. By serving as the mouthpiece of God, and speaking out the words of the Torah so many times, Moses has learned what it means to speak with power and conviction. The Torah has been inside him, and it has changed him.”  And citing another person, the late Rabbi Pinchas Peli of Ben-Gurion University, ““Moses realizes that only a leader who had risked his own life and brought much good to his people has the right to rebuke them for their shortcomings. He must have wanted to say these “words” earlier, but he waited for the right moment.”

I’ve titled my drash “The Art of Giving and Receiving Rebukes” because the speech of the mature Moses offers a good model for how to give criticism/rebukes. No one likes to be criticized or be taken to task for shortcomings, but we also know that it’s important for ones growth and development to get constructive criticism from those we respect and who respect and care about us.  Like you, I obviously have been the recipient of criticism plenty of times over the years, but there are two instances I can recall so vividly from my past: one graduate school and one in my early career.  I think the reason I still remember the emotional context and even the words is because in both cases I hoped that the persons criticizing me respected and cared for me the way I did for them.

What can we learn from the mature Moses about offering criticism?  Why did he speak so harshly to the Israelites on the border of the Promised Land?  My first thought was he was tired and frustrated with their constant complaints, maybe even a bit angry that he wouldn’t be joining them. I also think that because he cared for them, he was worried about how they would be living their lives in the Promised Land, since he would no longer be around to guide them.

A footnote in Etz Chaim, which credits Midrash,  gives us a clue about another aspect of his speech.  The Midrash points out that the first verse in Deuteronomy says “These are the words— d’varim —that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…”  The Midrash finds a  similarity between the sound of the Hebrew noun d’varim (words) and d’vorim (bees).  The Midrash comments that Moses’ criticisms and rebukes of the people are like the stings of a bee.  A bee’s sting hurts the person stung but it hurts the bee more, causing its death.  This midrash suggests that Moses dies at the end of Deuteronomy because criticizing Israel has taken so much out of him.  It also suggests that “we should judge the validity of criticism not only by its factual accuracy but by how much it pains the critic to say it.  The harsh criticisms of Moses are spoken with love.” 

Rabbi Bradley Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, offers additional points about giving criticism. He states: “Pointing out someone’s shortcomings should not be a chance for insults or a sense of superiority.  It should not become an opportunity to humiliate or gloat.  Instead, a rebuke, if properly intended and given, becomes an act of affirmation and love, an affirmation that the person is worth the effort in the first place, and a faith that he or she remains capable of improvement. Offered with love and a sense of humility, a rebuke is a gift and a challenge.” Notice his phrase “a rebuke, if properly intended and given,” again it is the intention that the critic has — it must be an intention to constructively help the person being rebuked because the critic cares about the person and believe that he/she is worthy and capable of improvement. 

From these commentators we learn four  important aspects of how to offer criticism/rebukes:  1.  Timing is everything….Moses waited until the time was right.  We should avoid offering criticism to someone in a time of weakness, anger or suffering, for example.  2.  In order to be taken seriously, the critic should respect and care about the person he/she is criticizing;  3. The rebuker’s intention should be to offer criticism in a humble, helpful way, never from a position of superiority or righteous judgment;  and 4. the person criticizing another should make it clear that he/she feels the person is worth the effort and capable of improvement. 

A certain person who will remain nameless and I have disagreed about offering criticism to someone that one doesn’t know that well or particularly care about.  My position has always been: if you aren’t involved in some positive way in that person’s life, why offer criticism? The chance of hurting, rather than helping, is too great.  As the Babylonian Talmud says: “Just as it is meritorious to offer reproof when it is known that it will be heeded, it is meritorious not to rebuke when it is known it will not be heeded”  Or as written in Proverbs 9:8:  “Reprove not a scorner lest he hate thee; reprove a wise man and he will-love thee.”

What about receiving rebukes?   Since our egos get involved, it may be harder to accept criticism then offer it. I don’t know about you but receiving criticism from those I admire or respect has always been more challenging for me to handle because I want the person to think well of me. However, if the criticism comes from someone I don’t think knows me that well or that I don’t respect, the words just roll off me. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said, “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.”  It seems that in Rabbi Eleazar’s time, he observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love. Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the person receiving the rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error. 

QUESTION for the group:  In your experience what makes receiving criticism difficult?

When I looked for Biblical examples and wisdom about receiving criticism, nearly everything I found was from Proverbs.  One of the great themes in Proverbs is that those who embrace rebuke are wise, while those who despise reproof find themselves to be fools.

Here are just a few selected examples from Proverbs:  Proverbs 10:7  He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, but he who ignores reproof goes astray; Proverbs 29:1 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice and from Ecclesiastes 7:5:  it is better for a person to receive a rebuke from those who are wise than to listen to the song of fools.

There are also many positive statements from Proverbs about accepting criticism. “Whoever heeds reproof is honored” (Proverbs 13:18) “He who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Proverbs 15:32), To the one who embraces rebuke, God says, “I will pour out my spirit to you” (Proverbs 1:23).

In closing, I echo many others in stating  that Devarim — words — are powerful and as we learned from the mature Moses, words offered as criticism require the wisdom of a caring person who knows when and how to speak them.  And on the receiving end of criticism, a willingness to listen carefully, suspend knee-jerk reactions, and believe that the critic has your best interests at heart might go a long way to truly understanding and maybe even benefitting from the words spoken. 


Rabbi Bradley Artson.  “Rebukes and Responses.” My Jewish Learning   http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/rebukes-and-responses/

Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen. “Words of Admonition” My Jewish Learning   http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/words-of-admonition/

Posted in Jewish Learning, Sermons | Leave a comment

Parashat Matot – Mas’ei Numbers 33:50 to 35:13

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered August 6, 2016 by Bonnie G. Lindauer

We have a double Torah portion today: Parashot Mattot and Mass’ei.  Etz Chaim footnotes explain that these final chapters inaugurate a new phase in the history of ancient Israel: the settlement period when they began to find permanent homes for themselves.  Since our triennial cycle reading is only from Masei, I’ll briefly summarize what we missed in Parashah Mattot. 

It begins with a series of regulations emphasizing the importance of oaths and vows, making special provision for oaths and vows that women make. Then a description of the battle against Midian follows with details about how to purify soldiers and captives before they can enter the camp. Next is a request by two of the tribes —Gad and Reuben — to settle outside of the designated borders of the Promised Land because they feel it’s better grazing land.  These two tribes and the half-tribe of Manasseh are the only ones living outside of Canaan.

Just prior to today’s reading in Parashat Masei is a lengthy record of the places the Israelites have been over the 40 years of travel and detours. The section we read today picks up with God’s instructions to Moses about the conquest of Canaan and instructions pertaining to the division, settlement, and inheritance of land among the tribes. The boundaries of Israel are described and the 6 special cities of refuge for unintentional manslayers are discussed in some detail. Parashat Masei ends with God’s decision about  the inheritance of women, based on the situation of the daughers of Zelophehad — which is that in order to protect their inheritance they must marry within their tribe.

I am so impressed and amazed at the wisdom embodied in the laws of the six cities of refuge that I’ve decided to offer a drash about these cities and the importance of intention in our lives. These cities are yet another example of Israel’s responsibility to carry out social justice, rather than allow the basic instinct for personal revenge. I credit some of my comments that follow to the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from the Sacks web Archives and Rabbi Neil J. Loevinger from My Jewish Learning.

First, let’s review the details surrounding these cities of refuge. God commanded Moses to assign from the lands apportioned to the 12 tribes, 48 towns for the Levites, including some surrounding pasture land. Among these 48 cities God commanded six for refuge: three cities to the east of the Jordan and three within the land of Israel itself. There, people who had committed homicide could flee and find protection until their case was heard by a court of law. If they were found guilty of murder they were sentenced to death. If found innocent because the death happened by accident or inadvertently, with neither intention nor malice – then they were to stay in the city of refuge “until the death of the High priest.”  I can imagine how difficult it must have been to prove the lack of intention or malice, but we do know that more than one witness was required to give testimony.  Within the walls, the manslayer was protected by law against any revenge or additional punishment. But if the person left the city of refuge, the deceased’s relative could kill him and not face punishment.  In this way, the Torah makes clear a distinction between deliberate murder and unintentional manslaughter.  As we know, contemporary American law makes a similar distinction, mandating a different degree of severity to correspond to the different levels of responsibility due to intention and circumstance.

Were these cities of asylum unique in ancient times?  We learn from footnotes in Etz Chaim that the notion of a place of asylum was not unique to the Torah. Other law codes of the ancient Near East had places of asylum and even allowed deliberate murderers access to them as well as allowed offering monetary payments for some types of killing. For example, ancient Greece, Sumer, and Phoenecia permitted a murderer to flee to a local shrine and gain protection at the altar of the local deity. Whether or not the death had been intended was irrelevant to the power of the shrine to protect the murderer. But the Israelites did not accept monetary payments for the loss of life and required  intentional murderers to pay with their lives. 

Also diverging from other ancient law codes, the Torah does not use the status of the victim to determine the severity of punishment. Murdering a free man, woman, child, slave, or foreigner all resulted in the same penalty. Since all human beings reflect God’s image, all people deserve equal protection and possess equal worth.

Other ancient Near Eastern peoples also did not seem to share the notion of how murder pollutes the land.  As we read in Numbers 35:13 “You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it”  Etz Chaim’s footnote on p. 965 explains further that the land becomes polluted so that neither God nor Israel can abide there.  As Rabbi Sacks wrote, “Even justified acts of bloodshed, as in the case of war, still communicate impurity. A Cohen who has shed blood does not bless the people. David is told that he may not build the Temple “because you shed much blood. Death defiles.”  To our modern minds, it’s seem barbaric and contradictory to connect the killing of the original murderer to the unpolluting  of the land.

The laws and procedures for being protected in these cities of refuge are extraordinary and demonstrate such wise compassion and a social justice system far in advance of other cultures.  As Rabbi Sacks wrote,
   “The Torah inserts one vital element between the killer and the victim’s family: the principle of justice. There must be no direct act of revenge. The killer must be protected until his case has been heard in a court of law. If found guilty, he must pay the price. If found innocent, he must be given refuge. This single act turns revenge into retribution. This makes all the difference…and is what was introduced into civilization by the law of the cities of refuge, allowing retribution to take the place of revenge, and justice the place of retaliation.”

He continues by explaining how the cities of refuge functioned as both a place of protection but also a form of punishment because exile was commonly used as a form of punishment.  However, Maimonides emphasizes their primary purpose as protection.  He comments  in The Guide for the Perplexed, “The reason the man goes into exile in a city of refuge is to allow the passions of the relative of the victim, the blood-redeemer, to cool. The exile stays there until the death of the High Priest, because his death creates a mood of national mourning, which dissolves the longing for revenge – for it is a natural phenomenon that we find consolation in our misfortune when the same misfortune or a greater one befalls another person. Amongst us no death causes more grief than that of the High Priest.”

Clearly, the cities of refuge served both purposes and I think locating them in the Levite towns was an ingenious solution, since the Levites served as assistants to the priests. Perhaps the fact that these cities had a special “religious” designation helped those exiled there to understand that they were not rejected by God for their actions. One could even imagine that these accidental criminals would form a kind of community and provide each other support. Connecting their freedom to the death of the High Priest was also wise, as Maimonides pointed out, because everyone would be focused on mourning his death. There’s a  touching story in the Mishnah that says that the high priest’s mother would traditionally supply clothing and food to those claiming asylum in the cities of refuge, so that these individuals would not wish for the death of her son.

Finally, I’d like to end my drash focusing on the importance of intention in our own lives.  What is extraordinary on the part of the Torah, as we learned from the cities of refuge, is the notion that inner intention determines the meaning of an action. Unique among ancient law codes, the Torah consistently maintains its emphasis on kavvanah (intention)  which manifests itself through ones concentration and focusing ones mind on the meaning of words uttered or acts performed. The areas where we traditionally are expected to demonstrate intention is in prayer, particularly the Shema and part of the Amidah, and in performing mitzvot.  I would suggest that just as important is the intention we show in our personal relationships — an intention to listen carefully and to reach out with empathy and compassion to the needs of others.  How many of us recall having said at one time or another: “Well, I didn’t mean to do that or I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings?

To help us increase positive intention in our daily lives, there’s a teaching in Mussar related to silence that I think is helpful. It states that one should try to practice considered speech — that is withholding speech long enough for a conscious decision about whether what we say could hurt or benefit another.  This practice develops intention because it encourages the speaker to focus on the meaning of his/her words as they may affect another.  Indeed, nearly everything we do in our daily lives would benefit from our being more aware and showing intention instead of mindless speech and unintentional behavior. 


Rabbi Sacks Archive. “Retribution and Revenge.” http://www.rabbisacks.org/mattot-masei-5775/

Rabbi Neil J. Loevinger. “Cities or Sanctuaries.” My Jewish Learning. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/cities-or-sanctuaries/

Posted in Jewish Learning, Sermons, Shabbat Service | Leave a comment