Recent Sof Drashes

Drasha Ki Teitzei

September 1, 2021

By R Daniel Lev

Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira Like a number of rabbinically-inspired parshiot, this one will take a circuitous route from the first pasuk / sentence through a number of apparently unrelated ideas until it finally lands right back to the pasuk itself and provides a new meaning for it. And on top of that, we may end with a theme from the coming High Holidays.

The teaching I want to share with you today comes from Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira who lived in early 20th century Poland and died on November 3, 1943 in the Trawniki concentration camp. Some say he was the last new Rebbe in eastern Europe. He is best known as the Piazetsna Rebbe, named after the Warsaw suburb where he lived and provided care for children and other community members. Before he was taken to the concentration camp, he was able to have his writings buried in a large milk canister which was found after the war.

The Rebbe commented on the first pasuk of the Torah portion in Deuteronomy 21:10 that says: “When you go out to war against your enemies, and HASHEM delivers them into your hands, and you take them captive…”

כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ; וּנְתָנוֹ יְיָ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּיָדֶךָ–וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ

Ignoring in this sentence the themes of war and triumph, the Piazetsna Rebbe brings up the idea of Chesed meaning Infinite Love. He offers a teaching from the second-generation Chassidic leader, Reb Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich, who quoted Psalm 110:4 that says, “You are a priest forever” – Ata Kohein Le-Olam.

Maggid of Mezrich SignatureThe Maggid taught that the word for priest, Kohein, is the attribute of Chesed, Infinite Love. This notion probably comes from a midrash describing Aaron the Priest as a loving guy who served the community from the depths of his heart. In light of this, the Maggid re-translates the verse as saying, “You are Infinite Love forever.” From this we can understand why the Men of the Great Assembly, a semi-legendary body of priests, prophets, scholars and other leaders constructed many of the prayers we have today to include the formula: Baruch Atah… ”Blessed are You…”

These leaders offered this in order to bring us closer to the “You” who is Infinite Love. What is this “love?” Or, for that matter, what does it mean to “love G-d” or that “G-d is Infinite Love?” On the most intimate level it means connection. I’m sure you don’t feel connected to your loved ones because they look a certain way, are rich or give you things. What love is for most of us is a connection with our beloveds. Similarly, the Men of the Great Assembly wanted us to feel closely connected to HaShem – so they invited us to address the Divine as “You.”

In doing this they shifted us away from the third person relationship we had with the Biblical-period G-d, such as, “He is Loving and Jealous.” Now, the closer relationship we have allows us to experience the Chesed / Infinite Love of the Divine Presence. As Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish of Piazetsna said: “When we utter the blessing, ‘Blessed are you HaShem our G-d…,’ surely G-d is truly facing us.”

The Rebbe further differentiates our relationship with the Holy One by labeling the third person approach as Nistar, or hidden. We can also understand the more personal second person, “You,” relationship as meaning Nigla, or revealed. The Piazetsner said that at Mount Sinai, HaShem gave all of us the Torah as a community; it was Nistar, in the third person. However, the Torah teaching that is specific to each of us individually is hidden within the whole Torah given to the community. Though I received the general Torah like everybody else, my personal piece of Torah is usually inaccessible. However, when I am in more direct relationship with HaShem – by addressing Her as “You” (in the second person) – then the Nigla happens, my individual Torah is revealed.

The Piazetsna Rebbe expresses this by saying: “Although HaShem Teaches Torah to the entire Jewish people, this is not a teaching that is personal and individual to each person…so it is up to each of us to work to achieve that level where the (Infinite Presence) speaks to you individually.”

So how do we do that? The rabbi’s answer is simple: “through Prayer. By saying ‘You’ to HaShem a person achieves a revelation of G-d…He speaks directly to you…teaching you your individual Torah, directly and immediately. G-d says ‘you’ to the individual in return. When this happens, you can see and comprehend a part of the Torah that is uniquely yours…

I’d add that this can also occur at times when we are not formally praying. We do it when we bring the consciousness and awareness that imbues our prayers into other moments of the day.

OK – now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for: The Rebbe is about to directly comment on our Torah verse. Here it is again: “When you go out to war against your enemies, and HASHEM delivers them into your hands, וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ – and you take them captive…”

First of all, there is a long rabbinic tradition of re-imagining the “enemies” spoken of in this pasuk, and in the Torah in general, as representing our own inner struggles with harmful habits, destructive emotions or confusing thoughts. This has been further developed by Jews in the Musar ethical movement and those who hold Chassidic mystical perspectives. This pasuk invites us to do what we can to defeat these inner enemies.

Next, the Piazetsner Rebbe comments on the end of the pasuk that says: “…so that you will take captives.” – וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ – Literally, you could read that Hebrew phrase as “You’ll captivate the captives.” But the Rebbe doesn’t read the meaning as coming from the Hebrew root-word, SHAVA – to capture. Instead, he reads it as SHUV – to return or restore – they both have somewhat similar letters. The Hebrew root word for return is related to TESHUVA – which can be translated as “turning your life around” from the misguided directions that do not serve us well. It is a foundational practice that we engage in during the High Holidays and beyond.

The Rebbe underscores this by translating the captives phrase into: “You will restore his restoration…’ He then goes on to cite other supportive Torahs: “And in the book of Aycha / Lamentations (5:21), the Jewish people say, ‘Restore us to You, and we will be restored’  – or “Return us to you and we will be restored” –

הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְיָ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה

The Rebbe continues: “And HaShem answers in Malachi 3:7 with ’Return to Me and I will return to you.” And apropos of Martin Buber’s philosophy of “I and Thou,” when we address HaShem as “You,” from a personal, heart-felt place during prayer, or at any moment, we can experience a return to the Source who will draw us back to Him even more closely.

I’d like to bless you, and please bless me back, that as we approach this coming Rosh HaShanah we should all receive our own, personal Torahs by taking a moment to talk with the Holy Presence. And that each of us, in our own way, will return to a higher level of who we are on the inside – to return to a better version of ourselves. Shabbat Shalom.

Parashah Pinchas – Zelophehad’s Daughters

August 1, 2021

Drash by Robert Littman

The Torah is the sacred story of the Jewish people for a period of our first 500-600 years, from our origins with Abraham to the death of Moses. It is a sacred story because it relates the interaction of God and history. The Torah contains a narrative, and woven into the narrative a law code, ranging from basic, almost universal laws of civilization, that is the Ten Commandments received by Moses on Mount Sinai, to mundane regulations such as separation of mixed fibers, and inheritance laws.

The fundamentalist view of the Torah is “Torah from Sinai,” which sees the Torah as a document dictated to God on Sinai: “This is the Torah that Moses put before the people of Israel, from the mouth of God by the hand of Moses” (Numbers 9:23).

Modern analysis of the text has shown that the Torah contains material from many periods and the text we now have reached its present form by the end of the 7th century BCE, though smaller additions and changes continued on until the text was finalized in the last centuries of the first millennium BCE. Minor changes continued until the complete fixation of the text in the 6th – 10th century CE by the Masoretes. For example, Goliath in the Hebrew texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) was 4 ½ cubits (6 ft. 9 in.), versus 6 ½ cubits (9 ft. 9 in.) of the Masoretes.

The story of Zelophehad’s Daughters relates to inheritance, particularly of land. While semi-Nomadic tribes like the B’nei Yisrael had inheritance of moveable property and wealth (as is the case among modern Bedouins), the description of inheritance seems to relate to land ownership and a period when the Israelites had settled in Israel. The laws set up for Zelophehad’s daughters represent inheritance of a settled land. The story in the Torah acts as the theological justification for the legal rights of inheritance that were practiced in ancient Israel.

Many commentators throughout the ages have held Zelophehad’s daughters and their inheritance rights as some extraordinarily modern recognition of women’s rights. In fact, nothing could be further from the reality. The ancient Israelites organized their society as a patrilineal, patrilocal kinship group. Membership was assigned based on descent from a common male ancestor.

The Israelites were formed into 12 tribes. These tribes were a kinship based group, where membership was conferred on those who descended from one of the children of Jacob. This kinship group, called the shevet or matteh, meaning tribe, had smaller patrilineal kinship groups, the mishpachah (extended family) and beth-av (immediate family).

One of the overriding principles of the kinship group was the maintenance of the land within the family, and a strong prohibition against alienation of the land from the kinship group. A man would bequeath his land to his sons. However, what happens if he dies without sons, only daughters or no heirs. In the case of no heirs, the land would pass to his nearest patrilineal relative – father, brothers – or their patrilineal descendants. In the case of daughters, the daughters were married off to their nearest patrilineal relative, usually patrilineal first cousins.

The land would then pass to the husband of the daughter, and thus remain in the patrilineal lineage of the beth-av. This also was a means of providing assurance that daughters would share in the benefits of their father’s property. This system of inheritance was almost identical to that practiced by other ancient patrilineal societies, such as the Greeks and the Romans. It was not unique to ancient Israel.

Sacred narratives thus are used to reinforce societal practices. How then do we react to the societal practices in the Torah that differ from our own? Today, in most of the world, women can inherit in the own right, and we follow this practice even in modern Israel. The Torah tells us to stone homosexuals. We no longer do this, nor many other laws of Numbers and Leviticus. How do we pick and choose what laws we do follow? That is a issue that Jews have struggled with for the last 1500 years. The answers are not simple, and the debate will continue as long as there are Jews.

Balak-Balʻaam Drash

August 1, 2021

By Marlene Booth

I’ve been thinking about storytelling a lot lately, about why we tell the stories we do, about who tells those stories, and about what we can learn by shifting the point of view of the storyteller. And the parshah of Balak is a perfect place to begin. Why, for starters, is there a story about a talking donkey? Why does this story appear here in Ba’midbar in the midst of the Israelites still wandering in the desert and kvetching to Moshe for more food, more water, and, with Korah and his followers, more power? Who is telling the story in Balak? What difference does that make?

A donkey showing his teeth and braying.

Just to refresh your memory, in this week’s parsha, Balak, King of Moab, is afraid that the Israelites will attack his nation. He asks help from the pagan prophet, Balʻaam, to come to his nation and curse Israel.  God does not allow Balʻaam to go but then he lets him go as long as Balʻaam prophesies only what God commands. So Balʻaam goes with Balak’s emissaries, riding on his trusted donkey. But 3 times en route, the donkey sees an angel with a drawn sword blocking the way and the donkey prevents Balʻaam from moving forward. Each time, Balʻaam beats his donkey. After the third time, the donkey speaks to Balʻaam, protesting his beatings and pleading her case as an always loyal donkey. In that moment, the angel the donkey has seen finally appears to Balʻaam and makes clear to him that if the donkey had not stopped moving, the angel would have killed Balʻaam. Nonetheless the angel allows Balʻaam to go to Balak but only to say words that God puts in his mouth. So Balʻaam goes to to do Balak’s bidding but all of Balʻaam’s curses toward Israel turn to blessings, including the famous poem we read at shachait, “ma tova ohalecha yaacov,” “how beautiful are your tents Jacob, your dwellings Israel. Blessed are they who bless you.” Balʻaam goes so far as to promise that the Israelites will triumph over their enemies, including Moab.

So, in this parshah, we have a talking, sensible donkey who sees more than her master can see, a pagan prophet who, though a pagan, blesses Israel and predicts the triumph of the Israelites—what’s going on here? Why is this story included in Ba’midbar, sandwiched between parshat chukat that deals with Moses’ sister Miriam dying, Moses’ brother Aaron dying, and Moses being punished for his anger in striking a rock by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land, and next week’s parshat Pinchas in which a census is taken, the daughters of Zelophechad plead for and gain their rights of inheritance, and Moses’ successor, Joshua, is named? Those parshiot seem on one level at least to deal with the founding generation passing on, a new person assuming leadership, rights of inheritance established, and the story set to continue in the Promised Land with a new generation. Parshat Balak proceeds as if untouched by the story of the wandering Israelites.

One possible explanation for Parshat Balak comes from storytelling. Who is telling the story? Whose perspective are we hearing? In Balak, we move away from the Israelites being the central characters and we see one part of the story of their wanderings not from their POV (or the omniscient narrator’s POV with the Israelites being the central actors) but from the POV of their enemies. What are they thinking about the Israelites? The scene of the action shifts, we leave the Israelites behind for a moment, and we see how others, in this case Balak, king of Moab, perceive them. Outsiders are beginning to fear the power of the God who protects the Israelites. Even a pagan prophet like Balʻaam listens to God and his angel and succumbs to God’s intervention. No less a scholar than Nechama Leibowitz argues that the pagan Balʻaam ultimately “gives himself up to the divine prophetic urge.”

Parshat Balak seems to be in BaMidbar not to move along our narrative but to interrupt it. Perhaps in the midst of establishing succession in Israel and showing repeated complaints and rebellions among the Israelites, the Torah wants us to take a breath, stop the action, and consider the scope of God’s influence, specifically from the point of view of outsiders. It is as if the Torah is saying, “nu, stop kvetching for a moment and look at what even our enemies say about God.” If God can turn curses into blessings, maybe we will make it to the Promised Land despite ourselves. Maybe Balʻaam and our talking donkey have much to teach us about seeing what’s in the road ahead and about listening, even when complaining is much more fun.

Shabbat Parashat Matot-Masei 5781

July 29, 2021

By Dina Yoshimi

Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av

Parashat Matot opens (BaMidbar 30:3) with God’s commandments regarding the making of vows to H”S (אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה) and the taking of oaths imposing an obligation on oneself (אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ).  

BaMidbar, Chapter 30, verse 3 begins: אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי֨     a man who (makes a vow, etc.)…

BaMidbar, Chapter 30, verse 4 begins: וְאִשָּׁ֕ה כִּֽי   and a woman who (makes a vow, etc.)…

Verse 3 addresses all concerns regarding a man who undertakes a vow or an oath; all matters regarding a man are accounted for in a single verse.

As for a woman, the matter begins in verse 4, and continues on until verse 16 (BaMidbar 30:4-16), addressing the various circumstances that may apply in the case of אִשָּׁ֕ה כִּֽי, a woman who makes a vow, etc.

What can I say? Women are complicated!

The text addresses when a woman’s vow or oath stands, and when it may be annulled; and, while the very fact that a woman’s vow or oath may – under certain circumstances – be annulled by her father or by her husband may send readers down the path of condemning “the traditional patriarchal society” or protesting “the treatment of women as property”, both of these purported “readings” of the text completely ignore what is actually written, to wit, that there are different laws regarding the taking of a vow or the swearing of an oath for men and women: 

אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי֨     a man who (makes a vow, etc.)…

אִשָּׁ֕ה כִּֽי   a woman who (makes a vow, etc.)…

NOT אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי֨ where the laws are only for men and there are NO laws for women because women cannot make vows to H”S or swear sacred oaths; and

NOT אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי֨ and we have to wait for the Rabbis to explain whether אִישׁ here only refers to men, or whether it refers to men and women alike.

No, it’s as clear as day: The Torah is telling us that there can be different laws for men and women, and, most importantly, that women can make vows and swear oaths.  

Perhaps the most well-known example of a woman making a vow to H”S comes from the very opening of I Shmuel; the story comprises the haftarah we read on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, the story of Hannah.  The story relates how Hannah, married to Elkanah, was childless while his second wife, Peninah, had given birth to his children. While on their annual pilgrimage to Shiloh to make an offering to H”S, Hannah is overcome with מָ֣רַת נָ֑פֶשׁ (marat nefesh ‘bitterness of  heart/soul’) – she is inconsolable, even after her husband assures her of his unconditional love, whether she bears him children or not.

In the depths of her despair, pouring out prayers to H”S through her tears, she makes a vow (I Shmuel 1:11, וַתִּדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר): If H”S will grant her a son, she will dedicate him as a nazir to the service of H”S. 

A married woman, in emotional turmoil, bordering on existential distress, vows to dedicate a child – the offspring of a mother and a father – and a male child, no less — the potential inheritor of the family name and inheritance –, without consulting the husband and father-to-be.  If ever there was a vow to be annulled by a husband, this would be it.  

And yet, when Hannah finally gets around to sharing this vow with her husband, after the child already has been born and named, her husband’s response is unpaternalistic, unpatriarchal, and unauthoritative.  He says, עֲשִׂ֧י הַטּ֣וֹב בְּעֵינַ֗יִךְ “Do what is good in your eyes.” (I Shmuel 1:23) – not quite the image of woman as a downtrodden, dominated, powerless piece of property that some would read in the plain sense of the text. 

This pushback against ascribing a male dominant, patriarchal system to ancient Israel resonates with the work of Dr. Carol Myers, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at Duke University.  Myers, in her 2013 Presidential Address to the Society of Biblical Literature (‘Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society?’, Journal of Biblical Literature, 133(1), 2014) provides archaeological and textual evidence to argue that, “In the aggregate, [tasks undertaken by women in Ancient Israel] likely required more technological skill than did [those undertaken by men].” (p. 21) She cites anthropologist Jack Goody’s comment that, “…because women could transform the raw into the cooked and produce other essential commodities, they were seen as having the ability to ‘work … wonders.’” (p. 21).

Annul my vow at your peril, o spouse of mine!

But seriously – the point Myers aims to make is that, rather than seeing Biblical text as presenting us with a male-dominating-female society that has no place for women’s independence or voice, we would do better to conceptualize a society where “female–male relationships are marked by interdependence or mutual dependence” such that “…for many—but not all—household processes in ancient Israel, the marital union would have been a partnership.” (pp 21-22, emphasis added)

Aaah, the marital union…this phrase from Myers resonates with the closing verse of the section on vows in our parashah (BaMidbar 30:17):

אֵ֣לֶּה הַֽחֻקִּ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֵּ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ לְאִשְׁתּ֑וֹ בֵּֽין־אָ֣ב לְבִתּ֔וֹ בִּנְעֻרֶ֖יהָ בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽיהָ׃ 
These are the chukim (the decrees) that H”S commanded Moses, between a man and his wife, and between a father and his daughter in her youth, in her father’s house.

The mitzvot of Torah are often identified as falling into two categories: bein adam l’Makom (between a person and H”S) and bein adam l’chavero (between a person and his/her fellow); but here, this closing verse teaches us to see that there are other sacred relationships that must be recognized, valued and protected — relationships that form the very fabric of our family units, relationships that are as old as Creation itself. 

The first and primary relationship is that between husband and wife.  Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz reminds us (Biblical Images: Men and Women of the Book, p. 5) of the Talmudic teaching that “Adam and Eve came into being as a single creature with two faces or sides – the one, male; the other, female…woman was created from Adam’s tsela [a word that can mean “rib” or “side”] because she was to begin with a tsela, or a side or aspect of  [adam ha-rishon] primordial man, who thus came to be two distinct persons.”  R. Steinsaltz continues, “The upshot is that the relationship between men and women…has the character of the quest for something lost…male and female are essentially parts of a single whole, originally created as one being…”

As for the relationship of parent to child, Steinsaltz (ibid., p. 6) argues that procreation “is a secondary function [of the male-female relationship]…the birth of a child is a kind of bonus, a new creation…wondrously brought into being by the very act of reunification.”

These sacred relationships then are primordial and mysterious, they are the stuff of ongoing acts of creation – leaving (the house of one’s father) and cleaving (to one’s spouse).  Perhaps it is no surprise that the laws regarding these relationships בֵּ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ לְאִשְׁתּ֑וֹ בֵּֽין־אָ֣ב לְבִתּ֔וֹ (bein ish l’ishto, bein av l’vito, between a man and his wife, and between a father and his daughter) are presented as חֻקִּ֗ים (chukim, decrees), that is, those decrees that transcend rational reason, that we are not meant to fully understand.    

Thus, even as the Torah sets out with an appeal to our rational sensibilities – what could be more natural than differentiating rules for men from those for women? – this closing verse אֵ֣לֶּה הַֽחֻקִּ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֔ה (eileh hachukim asher tzivah H”S et Moshe…) teaches us to challenge our expectations and question our assumptions; and, rather than accepting division and dominance, push ourselves to see, to learn, and to understand that we are inevitably bound up in relationships of oneness, of reconnecting with something lost, a wholeness we can only regain by seeing ourselves as tzela, as sides that seek to reconnect with each other. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Drash—Shabbat Hazon

July 28, 2021

Special Guest Drash by Rabbi Natan Margalit, son of Fran Margulies

ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה  Zion shall be redeemed with judgement and those that return to her with righteousness. 

Why the repeat? If Zion is redeemed, don’t we already know that those that return to her will also be redeemed? 

So asks the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro. He is most famous for being the Hasidic Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. His sermons from the time of the war are preserved in a book called Esh Koshesh, the Holy Fire. It was buried in a metal canister and hidden when he knew that he, too, would be taken out of the ghetto. He was brought to a the Trawniki work camp where he was part of a group of Jews, both secular and religious, who formed a mutual aid pact with one another. He swore that he would not accept a path to freedom without the whole group being free. And indeed, the underground came in a tunnel and offered, begged him to escape with them to freedom and life. But he had made a bond and an oath to the whole group. He was killed in the massacre of all the Jews in the Trawniki camp on November 3, 1943. 

It wasn’t only his sermons from the ghetto that were buried in that metal canister. It was his whole life’s work. He had one published book that had come out before the war—on education of younger children, Chovot HaTalmidim—and it had established his reputation as a leader in progressive religious education at the time. But the rest of his life’s work including the book that I am citing now, Derekh HaMelekh, was buried in that canister. 

So, coming back to our Haftorah, what exactly was the rebuke that Isaiah was giving Israel? They were doing all the rituals but it made God sick. It wasn’t just that they were hypocrites—they didn’t believe what they were saying in their prayers—but it was their actions which spoke louder than words. Violence, lies and theft were the actions of these supposedly pious worshippers. 

The destruction has to do with their actions, and if we are to learn from this Haftorah, our actions as well. But looking deeper—what was it about those actions that were so wrong? They were self-centered. They ignored the good of others for their own gain; they trod on the dignity of the poor, they cheated the orphan and the widow, they profited from violence and lies. They put themselves at the center. 

In his commentary on Shabbat Hazon, the Piaseczner writes about the importance of our actions, and how actions and thoughts are intertwined. 

He is writing this commentary in 1936.  As the leader of his Hasidic community, he feels the need to help his followers keep their faith strong even as they see very little evidence of God’s justice and mercy. Quite the opposite, they see evidence all around of evil seeming to be rewarded and the good being punished. He describes how even in people who want to believe that God is just and loving, thoughts of doubt can come into their minds. Even though they want to keep their faith strong, eventually these thoughts will wear it down, just as dripping water will eventually wear down a stone. 

He asks: How can one avoid this almost inevitable weakening of faith through stray thoughts? 

He answers: It depends on how much we put ourselves, even our thoughts, at the center?   

He says if we put ourselves at the center in our day-to-day actions: when we want to sleep, we sleep, when we want something, we take it—then we’ll also be at the mercy of our own wandering thoughts because in our actions we’ve put ourselves at the center of our lives.  The only way to not be at the mercy of our stray thoughts, and to keep ourselves solid in trust, he says, is to get in the habit of acting for others, giving of ourselves to serve others will reorient our sense of self and help us from putting ourselves at the center. 

It reminds me of the Buddhist meditation bumper sticker I’ve seen: “Don’t believe everything you think.” When we center our sense of Being beyond our personal selves, we gain perspective and strength to not listen to all our stray thoughts.    

When we do Tzedakah, he says, we give of ourselves. Not only do we help others, but we also reorient our own being, decentering ourselves and putting our energies into the larger whole. 

So, he comes back to our verse from Isaiah: ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה “Zion will be redeemed with justice, those that return to her with Tzedakah.” But שביה, “those that return to her,” can also be translated, “those that have gone backwards”.  So, he interprets the second half of the verse to say, “Even after they are redeemed, they could backslide into their old habits of self-centered behavior… but, through Tzeddakah, that backsliding can be avoided and they can be redeemed.” Giving of ourselves for others changes us, makes us solid and keeps us on the path to redemption. 

As we prepare for T’isha B’Av on this Shabbat Hazon, we reflect on the way that disaster comes into the world through habits of putting ourselves first, isolating ourselves from community, from those in need, from the earth and all its inhabitants. The way out of this is to reorient ourselves to the whole, toward giving of ourselves for the good of all. This shift in focus from isolated self to connected relationship is the key to going from the destruction of T’sha B’Av, and the destruction we see coming upon our world today, toward healing and building a thriving, flourishing world.    


Shlach L’Chah

July 2, 2021

Drash by Alex Golub

Shabbat shalom. Today we exist at the intersection of two remarkable events.

DesertFirst, the remarkable story we have just heard: Moses sends twelve spies to scout out the holy land, only to find that all of the spies but Joshua and Caleb believe the local people are too strong and an invasion will fail. The Israelites believe them and complain bitterly that Moses should have left them in Egypt. God decrees that the Israelites will wander for 40 more years in the desert and all the haters will die, so that only Caleb and Joshua will get to enter the promised land.

The second remarkable event taking place this week is, of course, the reopening of our shul with a full service and an in-person minyan. It has been a long process and I want to thank all the other people in this room with me today for making it happen — especially Sandy (who I’ll come back to in a bit). I’d also like to thank everyone watching, and everyone who kept up our observances virtually during this past COVID season, observances which, I’ll be the first to admit, I totally didn’t observe.

The theme that connects these two events is doubt. The Talmud compares the spies’ doubts to a man who worries his wife is a sotah: a woman suspected of adultery. The spies think of God like a partner who you suspect of infidelity. Did they, or didn’t they? Will they, or won’t they? On the one hand, it seems amazing that even now — after the ten plagues, after crossing the Red Sea, after receiving the ten commandments, and after eating manna from heaven — even now after all of the that, the Israelites are unsure of whether or not they can trust God. On the other hand, I imagine that after all that, my baseline sense of reality would be totally destroyed as well. When you live in unusual times, it’s hard to tell what’s normal and what’s not.

God, on the other hand, believes the spies doubt themselves rather than God. The spies say that they are too weak to defeat the Canaanites. “They are giants,” they say. “They looked on us as if we were grasshoppers.” A story in Numbers Rabbah has God replying to the spies, “How do you know what you appeared like to them? Maybe they thought you looked like angels compared to them!” In this drash, the spies’ greatest error is not that they do not trust God, but that they do not trust themselves: they project their own self-doubt onto others, assuming that other people have as low an opinion of them as they do. On this account, the spies’ lack of self-confidence is self-defeating. As Rabbi Sacks observes, “Those who say, “We cannot do it” are probably right.” Or, as Wayne Gretzky puts it: you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe makes a slightly different argument: The spies’ negative report is the result of their fear of change. This is the theme of Molly Gloss’s excellent novel Dazzle of Day. In the novel, a group of Space Quakers flee an environmentally damaged earth in a giant space ark to find a new planet to call home. For centuries, they carefully tend gardens trying to keep the ship’s ecosystem balanced. When they finally arrive at their new home, they find the planet is brutal: cold, wet, and stony. They will probably spend the first five years of their lives eating nothing but kelp. Even though the colony ship’s ecosystem is collapsing, some people (like the spies in our sidra) want to stay on the ship forever and slowly succumb to extinction, since it would be easier than embracing the harsh reality of living in an actual world. I can identify with this fear of change. When I studied at the University of Chicago, I was a promising student with great potential. The day I graduated, I was just another unemployed person!

Transitioning to a new stage of life can be difficult. Rabbi Sacks calls this ‘fear of success’ — an often unconscious fear of the changes and new responsibility success brings.

Ladies and gentlemen, Sandy Armstrong is (metaphorically, of course) God. (I am sure this is not the first time Don has heard this). The minyan in this room today are the spies. Those of you joining us from home are Israelites. Today, we begin a transition to the ‘new normal’ of a pandemic world. Hawai‘i nei is our land of milk and honey, or as Matt Sgan suggests, Torah and kalo. We have the difficult task of doing what is safe. Doing what is safe is very different from doing what makes us feel safe. We need to move past what is comfortable and do what makes us successful. We must overcome our fear of change. We must not give in to our fear that we are grasshoppers and COVID is a giant. Instead, we must, like Caleb and Joshua, look at the challenges of reopening and say, “they are our bread” — the biblical Hebrew for “we’re gonna eat these guys for breakfast.”

One shakaWe are a people who have lived through a lot of suffering. As daunting and scary as reopening can be, we are reminded this Shabbat — and whenever we study Jewish history — that we are, as the saying goes, “lucky we live Hawai‘i.” The challenges we face are nothing compared to the challenges we have read about today in Torah, or the challenges that our parents and grandparents lived through in the 20th century. My grandmother lived through the Russian revolution — the Russian revolution. Surely, I can summon the courage to eat at Zippy’s without a mask after being vaccinated. This shabbat we remember that entering the promised land is hard…. and also, possible.

Shabbat shalom.


July 2, 2021

Drash by Mat Sgan

MezuzahHow come I am so ‘lucky.’ I get to follow Alex’s sprightly return-to-normalcy drash about spies or scouts, Sid Goldstein’s marvelously variegated and important Sof Newsletter, and Dina’s spiritual summary of what a return of a face-to-face with fellow congregants and with Torah for a service ‘from the heart’ can mean to all of us.

And I get to talk about Korah. Even his name causes shuddering. Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath. Korah is not a name, it’s an anagram.

Yikes, this guy has what we Jews refer to as ‘Yikhes.’ He has pedigree — he is the great grandson of Levi, one of the original 12. As the wonderful line of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman reads — ‘Attention must be paid.’

One gets the impression that these latest rebellions against Moses and Aaron are not impromptu. This situation has been building up and the two tribes involved, the timing and coordination of their mutiny, the justifications at hand, and the strength of their support are formidable. This is the last Torah description of the many great rebellions of the people, and it is tripled down. Korah and his Levites, Dathan, Abiram, and the Reubenites, and the Israelites themselves.

The Rabbis suggest that Korah challenges Moses about why he makes so many demands of the people. The demands make being Jewish too hard. One story is that Korah asks Moses whether a room full of Torahs would still require a mezuzah on the gatepost. Moses says ‘yes.’ Korah mocks that answer by saying that it is silly to think that a roomful of Torahs would need a mezuzah on its gatepost.

I like to give my own names to the sedrahs. I call this one ‘It’s personal.’ Korah is angry that his Levite clan’s entry into the priesthood has been usurped. Dathan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben are angry that Moses has taken their primacy birthright and all the benefits that such entails from them. Many of the Israelites are angry at the treatment Korah received.

Moses and Aaron appeal to God. They have a fire pans show down. Korah calls on the whole community to support him. At this time, Moses dissuades them and most slip away. But those Reubenites who maintained the rebellion and Korah himself are “swallowed up into the earth.” Korah’s fire pan 250 are consumed by God’s fire itself. That’s called turning the tables or out of the fireing pan and into the fire! Then the people rebel in favor of Korah. In an ironic moment, Aaron has to save them.

The message is clear even if the story requires adaptation. The Jewish people will not be vanquished by others. Rather it is they themselves who will cause their own demise. Internal strife, insufficient learning, material obsession, private interest, and the failure to support Jewish ideas and institutions are the enemy. The failure to assume Jewish responsibility is the danger.

I hope that as I detailed a few points about this sedrah many of you were relating the information to what is happening in America and Israel today. Anti-Semitism is rising but that is not the major element of our Jewish future in America. Rather it is the Pew research report that our youth are not joining us in being Jewish. I cast no stones since my own failures in Jewish persuasion for my family seem to be coming too little and too late. And I watch the developments in Israel empty handed and empty headed. We can no longer merely challenge our internal rebellious people with a fire pan contest but somewhere some ideas, institutions, and programs must arise to call fellow Jews to arms about saving our heritage. What is it going to take and how are we going to do it?

On the positive side, I believe, is Sof Ma’arav. How fine it is that we preserved our marvelous traditions by adopting and adapting modern advances in communications, interaction, and cooperation. Much appreciation to the officers and the Board for their hard work and accomplishment. It’s personal.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha Hukkat

June 28, 2021

Drash by Sandra Z. Armstrong

Beach Header

The continuing theme for Hukkat is separation, re-integration, separation and lustration.

Today, we are surrounded by the cleansing, purifying waters of the Pacific, our waters of lustration.

Our thirst for life is always quenched by living on an island surrounded by luscious, sparkling blue/green water and by meeting weekly as a Jewish Community.

We are of a Jewish nation, and as our tradition teaches, separated from other nations, sanctified by God through commandments.

To be holy is to understand that as God separated heaven and earth during the days of creation – we too must continue this creative path of becoming a solid people by adhering to our daily routines of distinguishing between pure/ tahor (טָהוֹר) — clean, pure from impure/tamei (טָמֵא‎).

For purity belongs to Heaven and impure is to be dealt with on earth.

In Hukkat, the point of distraction, as well as distinction is made over and over again-our goal is to be as pure as possible.

Rightly so, Hukkat stands/starts with the impurity of a body at death.

How to address this state of being for those who are still alive? How to clearly separate the pureness of living and the impurity involving death.

During the parsha, the Israelites were separated from water, they suffered greatly from thirst. The need to drink is so great that Moshe humanly strikes the rock without giving credit to HaShem for producing the water. At that very moment, his leadership was changed. He becomes separated from the deliverance of the Israelites into the promised land.

In Hukkat, his sister Miriam dies. She is the one who could draw water from barren wells in the wilderness. She rescued Moshe and placed him in the water among the reeds to save him from destruction.

His brother, Aaron dies and Moshe feels the continual pain and separation of his family dying.

The battles go on-between Edom, the Canaanties in the Negev, the Ammonites led by Sihon their king, to the fires of Heshbon, and onto King Og of Bashan. Some nations will not let them pass through and others just plain attack them. Hukkat tells us that despite the constant warfare, the Israelites succeed.

Moshe, as their leader, has the ability to move forward despite great losses and sorrow. So do the Israelites use this same model to move forward while learning to become a people created in the image of God. Strong, powerful, mighty. They separate from those who couldn’t do it, couldn’t make it spiritually within their nation.

As free people, they gain the identity of a nation who withstands pain, suffering, separations and many disappointments.

But they do something quite miraculous in this parsha, they pull it together and move ahead as HaShem leads them through more dangers with foreign nations.

And where do they end up in Hukkat? They end up at the top of the mountain, closer to the clouds of God’s presence in their midst. They survive and live. They are our people, they are our heritage, they have the spirit to strive for a better world and a better “makon”, place.

Throughout all their future conquests some – “One”  ties their achievements all together.

Zechariah, 4:6 – Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, said the Lord of Hosts.

It is with My spirit that you will achieve the sanctity of peace, tranquility, blessings and hope into a heavenly future.

In God’s spirit may Congregation Sof Maʻarav continue to succeed, looking back to all our past achievements of the last 50 years, while looking forward at the same time, for they are equally important to all of us. 

As this congregation, in the last 16 months has received the help and guidance needed to succeed and did it well!

Shabbat Shalom

Sandra Z. Armstrong

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