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Parshat Balak. To Bless or To Curse (and why I have decided not to celebrate July 4th)

This week's parashah/portion is Balak (Bamidbar/Numbers 22:2-25:9).  In this narrative, Balak, king of Midian, hires the magician Bilaam to curse the Israelites. However, Bilaam tells Balak that he may only utter words provided to him by God. 
Three times Bilaam tries to curse the Israelites.  No matter where he stands or what he is ordered to do, he may only utter the words which are placed in his mouth by God.  His final  utterance curse is instead a blessing: “How good are your tents Jacob; your dwellings Oh Israel.” These words are the ones with which the traditional morning service begins every day.     
To bless or to curse? That was the question. Balak desperately wanted the Israelites to be cursed. Still, all Bilaam could do was bless the beauty of the Israelite camp. Yet, I wonder  what the camp was really like. Was it all beauty, peace and harmony, as the blessing suggests? Or perhaps, based on the Israelites' history of bickering and complaining, was it a place of utt…

Parshat Korach: What Kind of Leaders Do We Need?

This week’s parashah/portion is Korach (Bamidbar/Numbers 16:1 - 18:32). It tells the story of a revolt against Moses’s leadership led by his cousin Korach and 250 elected leaders of the community. They didn’t revolt because Moses was an unjust leader or because the people were being oppressed. Rather, the reason for the revolt can be found in Korach’s statement “All the people are holy...why then do you [Moses] raise yourself above God’s congregation?” In other words, this is a revolt based on jealousy and ego.
Centuries later the rabbis of the Talmud asked what constitutes an “argument for the sake of heaven?” The arguments of Korach and his followers are the prime example of an argument that is NOT for the sake of heaven, which I will define as “for the good of the community.”
Moses’s response to Korach, after his initial shock, is to tell him that “God will make known who is holy and who is not.” And after a ritual which proves to the whole community that Moses is God’s chosen leader…

Parshat Shelach. What a Difference One Month Makes: Reflections on Covid-19, Racism and the Dream of Juneteenth

This week's parashah/portion is Shelach (Bamidbar/Numbers 13:1-15:41). It contains within it the story of the 12 spies who Moses sends to scout out the land of Canaan before crossing the Jordan. Upon their return they all agreed that the land was “flowing with milk and honey.” However, ten of the spies reported that the land was occupied by "giants" which made them feel “like grasshoppers.” Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, disagreed with that negative assessment. The ten spies were able to join together in order to convince the people that they could never conquer the land. That is why the text refers to them as an "evil community." Joshua and Caleb were the only true leaders. Yet, even they may have been just as afraid as the other ten. We don't know. However, they had faith that God would help them face the unknown and guide them to victory as a true community.I first wrote these words in early May as part of a commentary that was to be published …

Parshat Behaalotkha: Compassion, Rebellion, and Healing

This week’s parashah/portion is Beha'alotkha (Bamidbar/Numbers 8:1 - 12:16)  In the parashah Moses calls together 70 elders whom he has chosen to assist him in his duties to join him at the Tent of Meeting. Then the presence of the Divine descends in a cloud and mparts the divine spirit to Moses, which he then then passes to the 70 elders. In this way it was assured that they would rely on the spirit of God in making their decisions.
Not long after, it is reported that two men, Eldad and Medad, had remained in camp rather than going to meet Moses at the Tent of Meeting. Still, the Divine spirit had rested upon them and they too spoke prophecy (Numbers 11:26). A messenger comes to Moses and Joshua to inform them of this. Upon hearing of this, Joshua calls on Moses to “restrain them.” However, Moses responds instead ““Are you upset on my account? Would that all the Eternal’s people were prophets, that the Eternal put the divine spirit upon them!”
In his commentary on this incident, Ra…

we all must breathe

In watching events unfold over the past two weeks the image which constantly came to my mind was that of being able to breathe the air freely.
In Central Park, a white woman tried to prevent Christian Cooper from breathing the air and occupying the space, even though both belonged to him as much as they did to her.
In Minneapolis, George Floyd cried out "I can't breathe," just as Eric Garner did in Staten Island six years ago. In both cases the police ignore the cries and their ability to breathe was taken from them.
Finally, in the early days of the protests in Minneapolis, New York, Washington, and elsewhere, tear gas, pepper spray, and other means were used to prevent the protestors from being able to breathe freely with the hope that they would disperse. They did not. They have not. They will not. Until justice is acheived.
No justice. No peace. We must continue with the cry and remind everyone that until the lives of black people, all people of color, and all who have b…