Friday, July 15, 2016

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Study Session for Sisterhood Shabbat at Etz Chaim/Monroe Township Jewish Center, Parashah Chukkat

Numbers 20:1-2
The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon and the people stayed at Kadesh.  Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation and they joined against Moses and Aaron.

AND THERE WAS NO WATER FOR THE CONGREGATION - Since this statement follows immediately after the mention of Miriam’s death, we may learn from it that during the entire forty years they had the “well” through Miriam’s merit.         
--Rashi’s commentary on Numbers 20:2

As soon as the well ceased flowing, Israel gathered around Moshe and Aharon, who were weeping for Miriam.  G’d told them: “Because you are mourning, shall all Israel die of thirst? Stand up, take your staff, and give water to Israel.”
 -Tzena U’rena

Numbers 20:10-12
Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod.  Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.  But G’d said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them”.

BECAUSE YOU DID NOT TRUST ME — Scripture discloses the fact that but for this sin alone, they would have entered the land of Canaan, in order that people should not say of them, “Even as the sin of the generation of the Wilderness (a term used of those who left Egypt) on whom it was decreed that they should not enter the Land was the sin of Moses and Aaron” (cf. Rashi on Numbers 27:13). But was not the doubting question (cf. Rashi on Numbers 11:22), “shall the sheep and oxen be slaughtered for them?” a more grievous lack of faith in God than this? But because that had been said in private (no Israelites being present and therefore it could have no evil influence upon them), Scripture (God) spared him (and did not make his lack of faith public by pronouncing punishment for it), but here, where all Israel were standing by, Scripture does not spare him because of the Hallowing of the Divine Name.       
 --Rashi’s commentary on Numbers 20:12
The sin consisted in their saying: “Are we to extract water for you from this rock?” They should have said instead: “G’d will extract water for you.”. In Exodus 16:8 Moses had been careful to phrase the announcement of the forthcoming phenomenon of manna by attributing it to coming directly from G’d. Similarly, when predicting any of the other miracles which had been announce beforehand, Moses had carefully attributed the miracle to G’d. By failing to do so this time they left the way open for some of the people to think that the water when it would gush forth would be the result of Moses’ and Aaron’s combined knowledge.
--Rabbi Chananel on Numbers 20:12

His whole sin lay in erring on the side of anger…when he used the expression, ‘listen, you rebels!’ The Holy One, blessed be, censured him for this, that a man of his stature should give vent to anger in front of the whole community of Israel.
 –Moses Maimonides, Shmona P’rakim

Judaism teaches that the greater the man, the stricter the standard by which he is judged, and, if he does not measure up, the greater will be his judgment and punishment.
–Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Day I Drove Elie Wiesel Across Los Angeles County

This is my most recent Huffington Post Article which can be found at:
 On Sunday, March 29, 1998, Elie Wiesel spoke in Bridges Auditorium
at the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California. Days before
Wiesel’s scheduled address Rabbi Leslie Bergson, Hillel Director and
Chaplain for the colleges, with profound generosity asked if my
daughter, Jesse, and I would like to drive Mr. Wiesel to his next
speaking engagement. We immediately accepted her invitation.
The Rabbi would also accompany us.
Claremont, California, is at the far eastern edge of Los Angeles County.
Mr. Wiesel’s next speaking engagement was on the far northwestern
border of Los Angeles County. Under normal circumstances the drive
could take up to two hours. Normal circumstances could not possibly
have applied to this day in 1998. I felt an all-consuming terror filled
with what ifs. What if I made a mistake? What if another driver made
a mistake? What if the Jeep broke down or had a flat tire? What if
he didn’t like riding in a Jeep Cherokee?
What if he preferred riding in a vehicle with automatic transmission
instead of one with standard transmission? What if? What if?
What if?
My vehicle then and now is a 1996 Jeep Cherokee. There’s nothing
fancy about that Jeep. I doubted if it was ‘good enough’ for Mr. Wiesel.
Surely he deserved the very best mode of transportation I could provide.
I considered renting a Lincoln Town Car or some other worthy
automobile. And then the night before his scheduled speech I read
the weather forecast. Rain. Lots of rain. I decided that we would all
be safer if I drove a vehicle with which I was familiar.
That Sunday morning I went to the car wash. It was, of course, closed.
Car washes generally do close when it rains. So Jesse and I cleaned
up the Jeep as best as we could. Then off we went to Claremont.
When we pulled into the Bridges Auditorium parking lot I informed the
security guard that I would be driving Elie Wiesel to his next
speaking engagement. The guard, although appropriately doubtful,
told me where to park.
Once inside the auditorium my daughter and I first located Rabbi Bergson
who pointed us to the man in the front row.
“Hello,” I said to him. “I’m your driver.”
Elie Wiesel took my hand and thanked me. He hoped driving him
was not too terrible an inconvenience. I mumbled something incoherent
and then sat down.
A security guard approached me with instructions.
“Go backstage when he’s finished. I will guide you out the door to
your vehicle. It will be cordoned off by security. No one will be able
to approach.”
Mr. Wiesel’s address was amazing. In it he movingly spoke of years after the
liberation placing his hands on the same cement balustrade as Hitler. He
reminded us that history often lacks justice but frequently contains irony.
His speech ended and we followed security to the parking lot. My Jeep
was, indeed, cordoned off. Even though his address had ended just
moments before, a crowd had already gathered in the rain.
A man shouted out, “Elie, you taught me to play chess in the camps!”
Mr. Wiesel stopped and in the rain asked the man if he still played. The man
said that he did. Mr. Wiesel encouraged him to keep playing.
And then we were in the Jeep. I assured Mr. Wiesel that my research had
indicated that he was safest in back of me. He replied that he felt safe
regardless of where he sat. Headlights and wipers on, we left Claremont
with Rabbi Bergson in front with me and Jesse in back with Elie Wiesel. I
drove with white knuckles and depended on my passengers to make
conversation. He and Rabbi Bergson shared the latest news from
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. My daughter pointed
out sights such as the Rose Bowl. They chatted. Jesse confided to him that
she felt challenged by her math class. He confided to her that he had also
been challenged by math. They formed a bond born of common challenge.
Later my daughter shared that she felt fascinated by his hands and all that
they had touched including Hitler’s balustrade.
I did not speak until we arrived at his next engagement.
We got out of the car and in the rain I said, “Mr. Wiesel, I would love to take
a picture of you. I hate to do it out here in the rain but I’m afraid they won’t
let us take pictures inside.”
This incredibly humble man said the only thing that hinted of his awareness
of his place in the world.
“Mary,” he said. “They will let you take my picture wherever I want you
to take it.”
Once inside and out of the rain, Elie Wiesel put his arms around Rabbi
Bergson and my daughter and I took the picture. I then told him that I was
reading his book “Night” to my sixth grade religions school class.
His reply was, “Never stop reading and never stop remembering.
He then thanked me for the ride, hugged us all, and went off to speak
My friend Carole later asked me how it felt to drive a world treasure and
have his life in my hands.
I thought a moment and then told her that it felt a lot like driving my daughter
and having her life in my hands because they were both world treasures.
My friend agreed with my reasoning. I suspect so, too, would the very humble
and very real man I drove across Los Angeles County on that rainy
March day.
We are blessed by the life and memory of Elie Wiesel. I am blessed to
have been his driver.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Stop Must Start Somewhere

We are a violent society.  This isn't news.  We don't need mass shootings to remind us that we are violent.  Our language is violent.  Our entertainment is violent.  Our lives are violent.  I've been giving this situation a lot of thought lately and decided that I must start somewhere.  Here is the somewhere.  I will be writing about domestic violence on a regular basis.  I don't that that at this point it much matters where we focus our attention as long as the focus is on decreasing the violence in our society.
I have chosen the following organizations as resources for my writings:
The Joyful Heart Foundation -
NoMore -
And to get us started, here's some important information.  We've got to start someplace.  I'm starting here.

Need help?

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault or domestic violence you can call to speak to a counselor or be referred to local services:

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Let's All Be Gay For A Day

I am shocked by the events in Orlando, Florida.  This is unspeakable.  This is unacceptable.  This is not surprising.  We are becoming an increasingly violent society.  Our violence is fueled and even encouraged by political diatribe.  The NRA holds unimaginable power.  Those among us so gentle they help bugs cross sidewalks and those among us not quite that gentle but nevertheless trying to be that gentle understand that no one except possibly our armed forces ever needs an assault weapon.  On social media we cry for an end to violence.  We condemn human slaughter.  Our voices seem lost in the winds of violence.
And so we despair.  We hope for a return to civility.  We hope for peace.  However, hope is not a plan.  We do have voices and in the political world our voices can be heard.  Our voices matter.  Each and every one of us is represented on the local level and on the national level by someone elected to office.  Those elected folks care about votes.  We can let them know we've had enough.  Keep writing.  Keep calling.  Even if the responses we receive are scripted and seemingly meaningless, keep on the pressure.  I further believe that we must create or reclaim and certainly nurture our own gentleness -- our own acceptance.  What if for one day everyone flew a rainbow flag?  I don't have any answers right now.  I may never have answers for this type of horror.  However, I did not want to be silent.  I, too, have a voice.  May my voice always speak kindness and peace.  And may my actions reflect and embody my voice.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Torah Thoughts on Bamidbar

When I go to my synagogue for services, I always sit in the same place: left side of the pulpit, second row, first seat.  One Shabbat morning, I sat down and found that the legs of the chair in my usual spot were uneven, and the chair moved back and forth as I shifted my weight.  It was quite uncomfortable, but it was my place and I sat in it.  I’m not the only one who does this.  Many people have “their seats” in their house of worship, and if they find someone else sitting in their place, they can get pretty upset.

This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, (Number 1:1 – 4:20) begins with a census of the Israelites.  The second thing that God requires of the Israelites is that they find their place. God tells Moses where each tribe shall place their encampment around the Tabernacle, and when they move, they will march in the same order so that when they come to their next stop, they are in place to encamp in the same order once again.

In the Etz Chaim commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Harold Kushner notes that “the details of tribal encampments are a way of emphasizing the need for order and organization in achieving a spiritual life.” The Israelites, not long away from the chaos of slavery and the exodus, are finally given their own place.  Maybe our own needs are not so different from theirs.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Not Just Another Hole In The Ground

My home was built in the early 1800s about the time Abraham Lincoln was born.  The house was once the main residence on a 400+ acre farm.  It reflects farmhouse architecture.  There is nothing fancy about it.  It was built simply to withstand all types of weather.  The 400+ acres are gone and the house sits on only one acre of land.  It holds many stories and surprises all for me still in the discovery stage.
Not too long ago I noticed that a small area in my front yard covered with pavers appeared to be sinking.
Naturally I had to find out the source of the sink.
Here it is.  In my front yard was a well at one time open and bricked in.  I think at some point the folks got tired of lowering a bucket and sunk a pipe down into the water and doubtless used a hand pump to pull up the water.  They then filled up most of the well with dirt.  You can see the pipe on the left side of the well.
I would loved to have somehow preserved the bricked in well.  It was and remains beautiful.  However, reality won over my desire to keep the well available and I filled it with dirt.  I still know where it is.  The pavers are back in place and I've put flower pots on them.  The well, bricks and all, remain safely under dirt.
Life and front yards often offer amazing surprises.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Torah Thoughts on Bechukotai

This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai (Lev. 26:3 – 27:34) is the final portion in the book of Leviticus.  The bulk of the portion consists of a list of blessings which will come if the people follow God’s laws, and a list of curses which will come if the people disregard God’s laws.  Notwithstanding the severity of the curses, at the end of the passage, we receive the reassurance that God will not reject or destroy Israel, because of the covenant (Lev. 26:43-44).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in an essay on this Torah portion, writes that the only other nation in the world besides ancient Israel which sees its fate in terms of covenant is the United States of America.  He quotes John Schaar’s book Legitimacy and the Modern State, describing the faith of Abraham Lincoln:

We are a nation formed by a covenant, by dedication to a set of principles and by an exchange of promises to uphold and advance certain commitments among ourselves and throughout the world.  Those principles and commitments are the core of American identity, the soul of the body politic.  They make the American nation unique, and uniquely valuable, among and to the other nations. But the other side of the conception contains a warning very like the warnings spoken by the prophets to Israel: If we fail in our promises to each other, and lose the principles of the covenant, then we lose everything, for they are we. 

This coming week will bring the last of the primary elections for president of the United States, an election in which the principles of the American covenant are in peril.  I urge everyone in those states holding elections on Tuesday to vote, and until the November elections, to work to keep American principles and promises alive and well.