BEHA’ALOTECHA 5779
NEITHER ABSOLUTE NOR PERFECT

June 20, 5779
17 Sivan 5779

In this week’s Torah portion Moses experiences the limits and the pain of leadership. On the first anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt God commands a symbolic reenactment of the event complete with the eating of matzo and bitter herbs, to be shared and enjoyed by the entire community. There were, however, individuals, in the state of ritual impurity, who would be barred from participating in the celebration. They came before Moses with their complaint. While Moses had the authority to rule on his own, and deny their participation, he recognized and accepted his limitation and wisely turned to God for a final decision.

God’s response was that this year and in the future, anyone who could not observe Passover because of ritual impurity or due to being far from the sanctuary, good commemorate the festival one month later by eating matza and bitter herbs. The ruling of what is known as Pesach Sheni, the Second Pesach, affirmed the importance of being maximally inclusive to enable as many as possible to share in community events and commemorations.

Moses by referring this matter to God affirmed that even a”supreme” leader may not always the final arbiter of every issue. Thus Moses to whom God spoke face-to-face accepted that that he was not all-knowing or all-powerful.

This brief incident affirming that even the highest leader is accountable if and when he/she violates fundamental legal or moral norms was revolutionary in its day. Millennia later it was codified by our Founding Fathers in the basic concept of checks and balances to safeguard against the possibility and the tendency of any single branch of our government becoming a law unto itself. This principle is, of course, at the center of our current controversy.

This week’s final episode is the criticism by Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ two siblings, because of his Cushite (dark skinned) woman. The sources offer two views as to her identity. The first depicts her as an additional wife Moses married possibly over the objections of his first wife, Tzippora. The second view is that the dark skinned woman was actually his long suffering wife, Tzippora, who he ignored because of the press of his communal responsibilities.

God strongly condemns this invasion into Moses’ private life and punishes Miriam with leprosy. In our day never-ending news cycles and the glut of social media outlets have made the lives of public officials including the President an open book. Sadly ad hominem and personal attacks are now part of our political culture. While the Torah in this incident clearly condemns such invasions of privacy, it’s a distressing reality that those who aspire to leadership must be prepared to endure painful and often highly embarrassing revelations about their personal lives and relationships.

Regarding this issue and countless others the Torah has much to teach us. Our tradition at its best is a guide to moral and civilized standards and behavior. We are not there yet, but Heaven forbid that we lose sight of these higher standards.

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.

Rabbi Arnold M Goodman


NASO 5779
EMMA AND HILLEL

June 13, 2019
10 Sivan 5779

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘Thus shall you bless the Children of Israel… “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and grant you peace.” So, they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them [Numbers 6:22-27].

The threefold priestly blessing is the centerpiece of this week’s Torah reading. The fifteen-word benediction is not beloved only by Jews; it is also embraced by Christians and integrated into their worship. The Torah is clear that the kohanim (priests) were but conduits to convey God’s blessing upon the community. It was undoubtedly awesome to have been in the Holy Temples when the priests ascended the podium, raised their hands and chanted the blessing.

With the Temples gone, the synagogue is our venue of worship and a significant link between the two is the continuation of the priestly blessing by today’s kohanim. This ancient blessing is also included in the Shabbat Eve blessing of children and grandchildren. And it is a familiar benediction at the conclusion of Services, and commonly recited by rabbis before a radiant bride and groom under the chupah.

Whenever, as rabbi or parent, I recite this beautiful blessing, I am aware that the words are not mine, but those of our Creator. Much like the ancient kohanim, I am a conduit articulating this beloved blessing to others.

An insightful Midrash poses a challenge for each of us. The Biblical command to “walk in My ways” is a mandate to be a conduit of the Divine will by emulating His priorities. Even as He is sensitive to the vulnerable, so must we extend support and protection to the vulnerable in our midst. Thus, whenever we care for the poor, embrace the stranger, and are there for those in need, we are doing God’s work; we are His earthly agents.

This is also the challenge Emma Lazarus placed before our nation in her classic poem, The New Colossus:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

America, that once proudly defined itself as a nation of immigrants, today confronts challenges to its open-door policy. There is concern that our resources are not unlimited. Many are apprehensive about the impact of large scale immigration upon employment opportunities. There is disquiet about the ongoing dilution of the nation’s Anglo-Saxon identity. These are clearly articulated tensions that are not easily dismissed.

There are Rabbinic caveats cautioning us not to impoverish ourselves by being overly generous in our charitable giving. It’s legitimate to set limits on our openhandedness. Thus, one of Hillel’s most well-known teachings is, “If I am not for myself, who will be?” The sage, however, cautioned, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

This tension confronts an individual or a society that wishes to view itself as earthly conduits of the Divine. There is no easy resolution of this conundrum, but since God has blessed us with free choice, it is our lot to struggle with this tension.

The ongoing drama at our Southern border defies an easy solution for a nation that in the past proudly responded to the challenge of The New Colossus. From our highest offices, the call is to be guided by “If I am not for myself, who will be?” The response, “If only for myself, what am I?”, defines the challenge we face along with other democracies, including Israel.

Life’s ongoing drama is the struggle to resolve tensions. How we as a nation resolve this formidable tension will reflect upon our moral character.

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.

Rabbi Arnold M Goodman