Recent Sof Drashes

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

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