Team Building – Parshat Korach 5777


Imagine an office environment in which there are three employees who do the same type of work. Each of them is dedicated to completing the assigned responsibilities, but to varying degrees. One of them does the bare minimum, simply checking a box in order to move on to the next task. Another goes further, investing fully in a project and spending time and energy pouring over the details. The third goes above and beyond, doing well more than required. The work they put in is reflected in their yearly bonuses, with the most dedicated of the three receiving the largest bonus. However, in each case the job still gets done, so why should the hardest worker get paid more?

According to Korach, this is the dilemma facing the Israelite nation. This week in Parshat Korach, we read the details of the revolt of Korach and of Datan and Aviram. Korach breaks apart the priesthood and prepares a revolt while Datan and Aviram, two other troublemakers, begin a revolt of their own. Chaos breaks out in the camp, and those who don’t see a purpose to the fight pull away, which turns out to be a pretty smart idea as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

Korach’s problem was that he saw the community as unbalanced. He didn’t understand the need for priests and additional leaders and why holiness played a role in leadership. In Korach’s words, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.” Korach sees the entire community as holy and thus deserving of equal status, including their relationship with God and leadership responsibilities. In Korach’s mind, no one is better or holier than any other community member, which, in a sense, is a beautiful vision of equality.

Unfortunately, Korach underestimates the value of leadership. Everyone may possess some holiness, but without the vision and direction of leaders, what good is that holiness to the community? Working together in general, let alone building a society, isn’t always neat and tidy. Group efforts can be messy and difficult because, holiness aside, everyone is different. Some people will work to the status quo, and some will go above and beyond. But the beauty of true community and teamwork is recognizing that each person has something to contribute. We may each be holy, but the holiness of the community is far greater than the sum of our individual holiness.

Modern Torah commentator Yeshayahu Leibowitz offers a similar take. The model that the Torah sets up is one where communal holiness is the goal, not a given. While we may all have a spark of holiness inside us, our community isn’t truly holy until those sparks come together.

Life Goes On – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5777


Living with a three-year-old leads itself to plenty of melodramatic moments. If the hair is not the right kind of Elsa braid, the world ends. No more purple shirts to wear? How can we possibly leave the house? The carrots touched the mac and cheese? Everything on the plate is unfit for consumption. Moments that make it seem as if the world is going to end don’t go away, they just change as we get older. Of course most of the time, we get over it and move on. The challenge is to find the appropriate reaction to our circumstances.

In the Torah, we’ve now reached the point where the Israelites are ever closer to reaching the promised land and their own new beginning. Parshat Shlach Lechah, our Torah portion this week, teaches us about the nature of change and the emotions that come with it. The text begins with Moshe sending out twelve men, one from each tribe, to look at the land of Cana’an. As the spies venture out, one can imagine Moshe standing and watching them fade into the distance, hoping they’ll come back with a positive report. Like a parent or teacher, he knows they might be nervous or scared, and he hopes that they represent their community with good faith and integrity.

The spies check out the land and all but two come back with a doom and gloom report of what lies ahead. New places can be scary, and the spies admittedly see that. However, new places are also full of possibility; only Joshua and Caleb have eyes to see that. As the spies share their negative experience of the promised land, the Israelites, like the melodramatic teenagers they are, react negatively. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole of the community shouted at Moses and Aaron. Yes, rather than take on the new challenge in a new land, the Israelites, tired, overwhelmed, and scared, would have rather died.

In life there are moments where we feel helpless, inadequate, and unable to deal. But, as a part of a community, we can support one another through these moments and press on. Parshat Shlach Lecha reminds us that we always possess the power to do just that.

Bring Up the Rear – Parshat Beha’alotcha 5777

Bring up the rear

If you’ve visited an early childhood classroom, you know the excitement that comes when a child finds out their assigned job for the rest of the day. These little learners love responsibility, which means that they’ll gladly take on any role they’re given because it is theirs and theirs alone for the day. From line leader to garbage collector, from door holder to clipboard carrier, the kids get excited to see what their responsibility of the day is. For the teachers of classes with 10 or more kids, that means coming up with some creative responsibilities.

I remember having these rotating duties as a preschooler myself. And while you might assume that line leader is the most coveted role, I always loved being the caboose, or in other words, the last one in line. There’s something to be said for the power of being able to see the rest of the line and the fact that everyone else in the class has to walk at least as fast as the person at the end.

This week we read Parshat Beha’alotcha. In this section of text we receive the commandment to light the menorah in the Tabernacle. We also learn of the Levite army, the sacrifice of Passover, and how we might celebrate a second Passover if we miss the first. The portion ends with Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, returning to his own people, the appointing of 70 elders to assist Moshe, and finally Miriam’s punishment for gossiping about her brother. The middle of the text, however, focuses on the Israelites and the way in which they will finally move through the desert.

The directional guides along the journey (the “line leaders”) are represented as a cloud by day and a fire by night, and the Mishkan is a sort of magic wand that also guides the people as they move. Everyone has their place in the line, including the “caboose,” which is the tribe of Dan. In the Torah, Dan is described as “gatherers.” For this reason Rashi comments that the tribe’s task was not only to be last in line, but to gather up lost objects dropped on the way and return them to their owners.

Another commentator speculates that not only would they be responsible for lost objects, but for individuals who may have strayed from the course. Perhaps they were chosen for this role because while the tribe of Dan is portrayed as weak of faith (later becoming an idol-worshipping community) they were strong in love for the community.

The caboose, the last in line, has the job of helping everyone to keep up. The members of the tribe of Dan, while perhaps not as eager as everyone else, were not the stragglers. They still had a job to do. Even if you’re bringing up the rear, wherever you stand in the line, wherever you are on the spectrum, you’re a part of the community. The same goes for our Neveh Shalom community. Whether you’re a service leader, board member, Kiddush maker, cookie baker, or a more casual observer from behind, the role you choose isn’t nearly as important as knowing your role matters.

Godlike – Parshat Naso 5777


There’s something very magical in looking at your child for the first time – that first gaze at the human you created. Especially as a mother, I distinctly remember this moment. I was in awe of what my body could create. I studied every inch of my daughter’s body, her sweet ears that were uniquely shaped liked the letter E on the inside, her silvery eyes, the way her little feet sat together. It was hard to imagine that this body was created inside my own body. And then as she grew, she started to show some features of mine and some that matched Duncan. In fact, there are days when she’ll look particularly like me, other days when Shiri is the spitting image of her daddy, and other times she looks like her grandparents. Sometimes I just don’t know whom she resembles most. It is in all of these moments that I am reminded of the miracle of our very existence in the world. Had it not been for the moment God recognized the need for the creation of human beings, these wonders would not exist.

As we read Parshat Naso this week, we read about the Israelite society trying to move forward after leaving Egypt and about the establishment of a successful community. The narrative picks up with a second counting of the people; laws about how we are to treat one another and the property that we own; the blessing of the priests to the people; and the laws of the Nazir, detailing how we might dedicate ourselves directly to God. Among these laws is the notion of connection to a community, to God, and to the greater “people.”

As the section of text makes its way through the establishment of a new society, we learn about the confession, atonement, and ramifications of wrongdoing. The text teaches, “Any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord.” This small verse becomes fodder for much debate among the commentators, but when I read this verse, I see the reminder that we were all created in God’s image. Therefore, an affront to a creation of God is an affront to the God of creation. Logically, if all human beings are created with the spark of the divine in them, then the person who pushes your buttons in all the wrong ways, and the person whom you can’t live without in the world, were both created with a divine spark.

It’s events like last week’s tragic attacks that occurred in our own backyard in Portland that make it especially hard to reconcile our belief in this inner divine spark. The horrendous news of the brutal attack on Portland public transit reached a new low this week, as it was reported that personal possessions of one of the men slain were stolen off his corpse by someone else on the train.

We are living in a time in which we are constantly reminded of the simple, sad truth that a spark is not enough. A spark is not a flame. A spark dies instantly if it is not ignited, and who is responsible for igniting that spark? We are, not God. God was responsible for placing the spark within each of us, but we are responsible for the flame. I read this single verse in this week’s Torah portion and can only imagine what the world would look like if every time we looked at one another, we not only recognized something greater than ourselves, but also our mandate to make sure that the spark of recognition is never extinguished.

Now I’m Home – Parshat Bamidbar 5777


Ever since I went away to college, I have adopted a regular routine for adjusting to new environments. I’ve created a certain order and process for settling into a space that I would call my own. I first make sure I’m technically prepared, with electrical outlets where I need them so my various devices can work. Then I unpack my clothes, shoes, and personal items, putting everything in its appropriate spot. Then, after all the unpacking, comes the decorating. I put up pictures of my family, I get my bed the way I like it, and last, but certainly not least, I hang up my University of Michigan flag. Whether in my home, my office, or a home away from home, I do not feel settled until each little piece of me has its rightful place in my space.

We each have those routines that help us feel grounded and centered, those items that make us feel “home.” Perhaps for you it is a special picture or a favorite stuffed animal or keepsake. This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar. The Israelites are now in the desert, and the groundwork for the structure of their future has been laid. Army leaders are appointed to lead alongside Moses and Aaron, a census is taken of the people, and we learn that the camps are situated in a specific order, each with a flag in the center that tells us which tribe is there. The time spent in Egypt is a distant memory at this point.

The book of Bamidbar begins: “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting.” The Israelites have left Sinai, the one place where they were certainly able to feel and notice the divine presence. They have moved on in their journey, and now they need a different way to connect with God. So what did God do? God transferred the divine presence from Sinai to the Tabernacle. This move shifted God’s “presence” from a sanctuary established by God (the mountain) to one fashioned by the people Israel (the Tabernacle). And unlike the golden calf, this shift was done under God’s direction. Nothing could replace Sinai, but this new portable Sinai was the next best thing.

The Israelites were able to be at home for so long in the desert because they were able to focus on the Tabernacle at the center of their camp. It gave them the sense of God’s presence they had at Mount Sinai, and more than just a physical structure, it was their comfort, their security blanket, their University of Michigan flag that allowed them to feel at home. We often try to force distance between ourselves and our material belongings; we dismiss property by saying “they’re just things.” But as Parshat Bamidbar reminds us, there is a holiness in those things because they bring us comfort and purpose. Because they bring us home.