A WORD OF TORAH -PARASHAT PINHAS
A Word of Torah - Parashat Vayikra
Merely to have survived is not an index of excellence,/Nor, given the way things go,/Even of low cunning./Yet I have seen the wicked in great power,/And spreading himself like a green bay tree./And the good as if they had never been;/Their voices are blown away on the winter wind.
Those familiar with the old Reform mahzor, Gates of Repentance, will recognize these lines from the poem “Words for the Day of Atonement” by Anthony Hecht. They remind us that, even if lacking in other virtues, survival itself is the necessary component and, at times, a lofty enough goal.
Mere survival is the underlying theme of this week's parashah, Pinkhas. The various threats to that survival that have arisen over time – the sin of Ba'al Peor, the sin of Moses, Korach's rebellion, the strange fire of Nadav and Avihu – are cataloged here. Most particularly, the sin of the spies is recalled in the census that captures the changing – and in most cases decreasing – numbers among the tribes since their arrival in the desert forty years earlier. We have come a long way from the single, extended family that, in the course of four generations, grew into a mighty nation that could threaten the world's greatest military power.
But of all the Israelite sins of which this parashah reminds us, the one that struck me the hardest was the oldest. From the census: “The sons of Judah were Er and Onan. And Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan.” (Numbers 26:19)
I had always thought of the story of Er and Onan, as told in Genesis 38, as the prelude to the more important story of Judah and Tamar. Yet seeing this single verse. amid the counting of all the other tribes and clans that made up the Israelite nation, impressed upon me the dimensions of their misdeed. Er and Onan are cut off from history; their lines, their heritage, whatever good was in them lost for all time. How might the tribe of Judah been different – and with it, all of history – had they but survived?
At first, I had a hard time figuring out why that might be relevant. After all, where are the Zephonites of the tribe of Gad, or the Jachanites of the tribe of Simeon, or the clans of any of the other tribes now lost to history? Does it really matter if one disappears now or twenty generations hence? And besides, did not Er and Onan make a more enduring name for themselves through sin than their cousins through continued propagation?
But then I realized, were it not for Shelah – Judah's youngest son – we would not remember any of this. Lost would be Er and Onan, together with Zephon and Jachin and all the rest. Lost would be the Jews themselves, and with them, the Christians and the Muslims. As Hecht quotes Isaiah,
Except the Lord of Hosts had left unto us/A very small remnant, /We should have been as Sodom/We should have been like unto Gomorrah.
There is no joy in this week's parashah, but neither is there the longing and the murmuring that has marked the various rebellions that have kept Israel in the wilderness for a generation. Instead there seems to be a hardened, almost grim determination – both on the part of God and the Israelites – to achieve their destiny. An entire generation may have died off; twenty-four thousand may have fallen in the latest plague; their leaders – Miriam, Aaron and now soon Moses – may have departed. None of that seems to matter any more. Only one thing remains: survival.
Of course, merely to have survived is not an index of excellence, or even of low cunning. But at times survival is all we can manage. And it is the necessary precursor to any good which may yet happen. The Jews are a great people; perhaps the greatest the world has ever known. And the source of that greatness is an endless discontent with the world as it is. Our nature is to strive continually to make this world more just, more compassionate, more wise, more caring. And perhaps the greatest testament to that nature is our determination – when none of those lofty goals is within our grasp – to survive. We survive as our ancestors did: stubbornly, even at times angrily and spitefully. But we survive because we will never give up on the faith that life is worth living and it is our duty to see that our children live it better.
Egg yolks, oil, water, flour, sugar, and yeast. For nearly twenty years I have been adding these ingredients to my bread machine on Friday morning. When I return home in the afternoon, I have dough with which to braid and bake challah.
The bakers among you may notice that I have left out an ingredient; by far the smallest of all. Yet that one teaspoon of salt is the difference between a challah that tastes rich and sweet and one that is poor and flat.
What got me thinking about challah and salt are the detailed descriptions of meal offerings and their preparation in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra. I was struck particularly with this verse: “You shall season every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Leviticus 2:13).
This verse points me toward an understanding of something that perplexes me, not only about this parashah, but much of the book Vayikra. This parashah goes into great detail concerning the offering of sacrifices: how they are slaughtered, their blood dashed about, their innards washed, their fatty parts burned up. How can something that is so literally visceral leave me so cold?
Looking to the Rishonim, I find their commentaries only deepen my challenge. Rashi speaks of a covenant God made with the waters of the sea for them to be offered in the tabernacle. Salt, the residual of evaporated sea water, is the fulfillment of that covenant. For Ramban, covenant is the salt of the world, by virtue of which it either comes into existence or is destroyed.
For me, both these commentaries make this subject all the more obtuse. I have a hard enough time relating to tabernacles and priests, guilt offerings and peace offerings. All this commentary on water and covenants merely adds another layer of abstraction to what is already distant and foreign.
But this much I do know: salt is what gives my bread taste. So if God commands us to always add salt to our bread, it must be because God wants our bread to taste good. This strikes me as the obvious purpose for the commandment. And this purpose has its impact not to our intellect, but to our senses.
For many years, I have tried to read this parashah with my intellect: which types of offerings require which types of animals prepared in which manner. Such a reading has always proved cold and unmoving. But if I try to read this parashah through my senses, the picture is much different. I see actions motivated by powerful emotions of peace, sin and guilt. I feel the power of both life and death placed quite literally in our hands. I see violent sights and I smell intoxicating aromas. And in so doing, I am reminded that this faith of ours, which typically expresses itself in the intellectual activities of fixed prayer and study, is truly intended to be very tangible and very sensuous.
We are now in the weeks leading up to Judaism’s most tangible and sensuous of holidays. Not relying on abstract notions of freedom or deliverance, what makes Pesach by far the most observed of the festivals are the sights, sounds and smells, the feelings and the tastes in which it is observed. We actually taste slavery’s bitterness and sorrow’s tears. We feel our joy diminish as our wine clings to our fingers and drips on to our plates. Aromas trigger memories formed in childhood as do the sounds of our favorite tunes for Had Gadya and Adir Hu.
The message that I take from this parashah is the same one I take from the romance that engulfs my Pesach preparations: that Judaism is intended to appeal to our senses as much as it does to our intellect. Indeed, it must do so. As it expands our minds and deepens our understanding, it must also minister to us in the ways in which the sacrifices detailed in thisparashah are intended. It must answer our emotions and instill in us a sense of awe at life’s miraculousness and its fragility at our hands. It must, like the salt in our bread, add the flavor and richness and depth sought from a life lived not only in the mind, but in the heart.
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778
By Rabbi Alpert
In Hebrew, the word is קהילה .It means community. In the more than hundred years this congregation has existed, much has changed. We have gone from Orthodox to Conservative to God-knows what. Our method of Shabbat observance is totally altered. Our standards of kashrut are looser and our attitude toward interfaith marriage has undergone a complete reversal. I view all of these changes as good. And I view them that way because they have preserved Beth Israel’s most important function: as a קהילה - a community.
Last year on this day, we unveiled plans to rebuild this synagogue of ours. My cousin Jay’s model - now on display in our lobby - inspires our members to work toward its realization, and speaks to potential members of our hopes and dreams. What remains is to instill in all of us not merely the beauty of our vision, but its importance as well. That importance rests in our being a community. Each of us needs a community: a place where we can stand face-to-face, arm-in-arm, and hand-to-hand with others who share our journey. Beth Israel is such a community. And to watch it work - as I am privileged to do - is an inspiration. I see how the groups that make up our community - our children, our parents, our empty-nesters and our elders - each play a different yet vital role in the lives of all the others. Growing through these roles becomes an ongoing source of purpose and fulfillment that graces our days with meaning.
For those of us who did not grow up among the proliferating forms of social media - Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the rest - the idea of a virtual community is a contradiction in terms. To us, physical presence is what makes a community a community. We know how hard it is to be physically present in someone’s life - especially when that someone is sick or scared or grieving. Yet knowing how important that presence is in precisely in those moments, we face our own fears and show up anyway. In doing so, we comfort others, and strengthen ourselves. I worry that our younger generation, for whom the virtual world is native ground, are not being pushed to learn how to be present in the lives of others. And this is where I think that the importance of what we do here rises to the beauty of the physical space to which we aspire.
This past Spring, I met with some of our parents to brainstorm ways in which I could broaden the exposure of the school and the shul to the unaffiliated Jewish community in Wallingford and beyond. One of our parents, Lauren, told me that she and her daughter Galina spend a lot of time in the public library and suggested that I look into doing some kind of programming there. Perhaps something on parenting, and she recommended a book that I might want to look at. The book is entitled The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings To Raise Self-Reliant Children by Dr. Wendy Mogel. For fifteen year Dr. Mogel was a practicing child psychologist dealing with troubled children and, to a large extent, their equally troubled parents. Then she had two kids of her own and, between parenthood, marriage and career, she found herself frenzied and exhausted. A chance invitation to join a friend for Rosh Hashanah services at a nearby shul turned her life around. Convinced from childhood that she didn’t like synagogues and didn’t like rabbis, she couldn’t believe that the service moved her to tears. She returned on Yom Kippur. And then she started attending Friday night services. And then she and her family started lighting candles on Shabbat. And eating dinner in. And avoiding shell-fish.
Some time later she decided to take a year off from work to explore her Judaism in depth. These studies would coalesce into a theory of child rearing drawn from Jewish practice and Jewish ethics. The book’s title provides a beautiful understanding of the most common of childhood experiences. The skinned knee is a blessing when it teaches our children a degree of personal strength and courage. Dr. Mogel draws a parallel between this common childhood trauma and God’s call to Abraham to leave behind everything he knew to pursue his mission in life. “Unless your child ventures forth into the world,” she writes, “he won’t get a chance to learn how to master it and find his place.” This is but one of the many lessons Dr. Mogel believes Judaism teaches us about raising children.
In the Torah’s command to honor one’s father and mother she sees the need to provide our children with role models and the expectation that they will treat their elders with respect. In Judaism’s teachings on the human struggle between our good and bad inclinations, the טוב יצר and the הרע יצר ,she sees the need to teach our children the difference between what we need and what we want - cultivating a sense of gratitude toward the one and blessing toward the other. In Judaism’s laws of kashrut and its many blessings over food she sees the opportunity to raise our children’s consciousness about what they eat and encourage moderation. And in Judaism’s sanctification of time she sees an opportunity for family members to slow down and be present in each other’s lives. In relying as she does on religious teachings, Dr. Mogel rediscovers, I believe, some essential truths about parenting. Looking back at our own skinned knees - which my brother Jay and I earned together trying to jointly coast a tricycle down Saddle Ridge Road’s steep and curvy hill - I suppose we did learn something about carrying on in adversity.
But while I agree with most of the lessons she draws about child rearing, I feel she has missed the larger context into which they are intended to fit. The problem is evident in her subtitle: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. Ultimately, the purpose of Jewish teachings is not to raise self-reliant children; it is to raise Jews, and Jews have a very different take on self-reliance. As I got deeper into the book, I had the increasing feeling that something was missing. Where was the synagogue? Where was the community? My answer came four pages from the end of the book. Here is what she writes: despite the fact that bringing Judaism into my life has yielded astonishing blessings, I have not achieved unambivalent enthusiasm for organized religion. I still carry baggage. It bears the labels “Dislikes being part of a group,” “Squirms when sincerity verges near the corny,” and “Finds getting through the day hard enough hard enough without extra restrictions or obligations.” Sometimes the goodness of the congregants at my synagogue makes me feel venal, cynical and selfish by comparison. Sometimes the idea of ritual and religious obligation annoys or exhausts me.
I am sympathetic to Dr. Mogel’s plight and to the baggage that weighs her down. But if her much desired self-reliance has left her unable to cope with others’ emotions or her own sense of ritual inadequacy, what is its point? The truth is, for Judaism, the idea of “self-reliance” makes no more sense than that of “virtual community.” Judaism emphasizes personal responsibility and moral accountability and it does so precisely because it recognizes that we all need each other. Judaism is not about living alone. The divine covenant - membership in which is what makes us Jews - is not between God and each of us, but between God and all of us. It is between God and the entire nation of Israel. The bulk of Judaism’s laws that remain operative since the destruction of the Temple deal with relationships between and among people.
As it happens, these are the lessons our kids need the most today, for reasons having to do mostly with a three-by-five rectangle of glass and metal we implant in their hands right around the time they hit adolescence. Dr. Jean Twenge has dedicated her twenty-five year career in psychology to studying the changes among the generations. Using data that have been collected on teenagers since the 1930’s, she has been able to monitor differences in such things as self-perception and social interaction. Generally, these differences have expressed themselves as gradual changes from year-to-year.
Then, beginning in 2012, they became large and abrupt. Not coincidentally, 2012 was the year that smartphone ownership crossed 50% of the US population. Some of these changes are positive. Teen birth rates last year were down 67% from their peak in 1991. Today’s teens are significantly less likely than their parents to get into car accidents, and they have less of a taste for alcohol. This is the positive side of what has been, essentially, a drastic fall in the actual face-to-face interaction between and among teens. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of kids spending time each day with their friends dropped by 40%. 12th graders in 2015 went out less often than 8th graders in 2009. High schoolers wait longer these days to get their driver’s licenses, and fewer of them take part-time jobs to earn a few bucks for themselves.
Rather than date, kids “talk” which is actually a euphemism for sending text messages and Snap-chatting each other. 56% of today’s high schoolers go out on dates compared with around 85% two and three generations ago. So if kids aren’t driving and aren’t dating and aren’t seeing their friends, what are they doing? “They are,” writes Dr. Twenge, “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.” She reports that the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future report - which has surveyed high schoolers since 1975 - finds that all screen related activities make kids more unhappy, while all non-screen related activities make them more happy. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook can all exacerbate feelings of isolation and being left out. The statistics are devastating. From 2012 to 2015, depressive symptoms in boys increased by 21%. In girls, they increased by 50%. And between 2007 and 2015, twice as many 12 to 14 year old boys and three times as many girls committed suicide.
My daughter Sarah, who brought Dr. Twenge’s work to my attention, explained it to me this way. “The lives of the people I know,” she says, “have become performances. They go on Facebook and their friends are all posting picture of their vacations and the parties they are going to and the food they are eating and my friends ask themselves, ‘Why am I not enjoying life like they are?’ So their own Facebook posts become a performance to convince themselves and others that they are as happy as everyone else seems to be.” This is obviously a major challenge to parents and to our society as a whole. I am not here to tell you that church or synagogue membership is a cure to the isolation and depression that is at the heart of this problem. But I am here to tell you that this synagogue’s very existence is built on the idea of community involvement and caring; that to live a fully and meaningfully Jewish life requires that you interact personally and directly with others.
This synagogue, in the year just past, offered each of us the chance to put up our sukkah with Larry Hyatt and to put out our candles and challah with Tammy Kahn; to allow a new family observe Pesach, and to allow an old friend say Kaddish; to help Bob Gross bury old siddurim and machzorim and to help Shirley Glasner send out happy birthday or anniversary wishes; to give Jack Huber one last hug and to give Nancy Huber or Mimi Bloch one more hug; to have a slice of lox with the Torah study crowd and to have a slice of birthday cake with Saul Freilich; to explore the meaning of love on Shavuot and to explore the meaning of loss on Tisha B’Av; to plan a celebration with Phyllis Gordon and Sue Burt; to celebrate with Ethan Thomaswick and Josh Rodriguez. Each one of these actions is a mitzvah in the truest sense of that of that misunderstood word. As such, they are not incidental to this synagogue’s existence. They are the very reason for it. To bring your children up as participants in such a community is to necessarily raise their gaze beyond the glow of their smartphone screen. Some of the things a community asks of its members bring great joy. Others are painful and scary. Each exposes us to a new person or a new experience or a new idea - and so each forces us to grow. And each implants within us a sense of meaning in our lives. That is what Beth Israel is all about. Achieving that is what makes us worthy of the noble designs standing before us.
For all the changes that have taken place in this synagogue over its long history, we have remained a קדושה קהילה - a holy community. We are present for each other and interdependent on one another. As this community has been there for each of us as we have progressed through this lifelong journey of ours, so, with God’s help and our own dedication, may it be there in the lives of our children - to instruct them in their youth, to gain strength from them in their vigor, and to honor them and draw wisdom from them in old age. This is the noble task of our community. Our ancestors’ work, and God’s blessing, have given it to us as an inheritance. For our children’s sake, may this community grow and thrive and be stronger for having been in our care.