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Some Rabbinic Thoughts About the Portion Shemini: Lessons for Yom HaShoah and Israel Independence Day
We can learn some important lessons from Parashat Shemini in Leviticus and its accompanying Haftarah for Shabbat (April 10). I believe that they can be applied to the coming important day commemorations that lay ahead of us after Passover, Yom HaShoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haaztmaut. We learn in the Torah that at the August occasion of the 8th day of consecration, when Aaron is inducted as the High Priest, Kohen Gadol that:
…Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.
The Baal Turim Commentary (15th Century CE) tells us that Aaron’s sons sinned in six things: 1)They brought a strange fire not instructed, 2) they thought themselves worthy of instructing Aaron and Moses, 3) they were drunk when they were ministering the incense, 4) they had no sons and they were unwilling to get married (TB Yevamot 64), 5) they were making the priesthood into a business venture, and 6) they didn't ask advice from their elders. Sages make great effort to understand how God could take them in their prime, even to the point of blaming them for a commandment not yet made in the Torah. The Nachalat Zvi, for instance, tells us that with regard to getting drunk prior to the ministry of incense, the Torah only informs us later–but that this is not a problem.
We learn an important thing from Dayyenu, he contends, which we just read at Pesach. It says there, "if God had brought us near to Mt. Sinai and hadn't given us the Torah, Dayyenu!" What? Hadn't given us the Torah? How would that have been enough? His answer: when all of us stood at Sinai, the “blemish on our souls from the time of Adam and Eve” left us, and we stood innocent before God with all of our body and soul as a people. Our sages say that the 613 mitzvoth correspond to our 248 bones and muscles (positive mitzvoth) and our 365 tendons and ligaments (restraining us…against the negative mitzvoth) and we knew instinctively therefore in body and soul all of the Tora,h even before it was given! Moses himself tells Aaron that Nadav and Avihu were "great scholars" even more so than they themselves were (in his attempt to comfort his brother Aaron), and therefore they should have known not to be drunk in their incense offering before God. It seems that the assumption of our sages is that a premature death must be the result of a sin or misjudgment by the victim.
The closed system for tragic death and sin and blaming the victim, however, begins to unravel somewhat in the Haftorah that is attached to the Portion Shemini. There, in the book of Sam2, we read how King David retrieves that Torah Ark and covenant which had been taken by the Philistines, and then stored with Avinadav’s family for twenty years. Bringing the ark back to David’s city of Jerusalem with great song and dance the following tragedy occurs:
וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ עַד־גֹּ֣רֶן נָכ֑וֹן וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח עֻזָּ֜א אֶל־אֲר֤וֹן הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ וַיֹּ֣אחֶז בּ֔וֹ כִּ֥י שָׁמְט֖וּ הַבָּקָֽר׃ But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. The LORD was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God. What was his indescretion?
Rabbi David Kimchi (late 12th Century commentator) picks up where they left off with Nadav and Avihu in Leviticus and tells us: He wasn't among the Levites whose job it was to carry the Aron on their shoulders but rather he and his brothers used a wagon. Or, perhaps he should have known that the Aron Kodesh could levitate itself as we learned when they crossed the Jordan, that the Ark was carried first by Levites into the water but when their feet couldn't touch the floor of the river, they returned, and Israel was on one bank and the Ark was on the other. Then “the ark crossed with the Levites”… meaning that the ark transported them through the water. If the ark could lift and transport the Levites, then surely it could steady itself!
But not every sage is content with letting Uzzah take the blame. Rabbi Yonathon in TB Sota 35a tells us the Bible reads, "Uzza died with the Aron Kodesh" This tells us that just as the Aron Kodesh with the tablets is eternal, so too is Uzzah eternal grasping it, in the 'world of truth' (the Olam Haba)
Rabbi Yohanon seems to be teaching us that Uzza may have not fully understood his actions. But certainly he did not sin. In fact, he bravely acted to stabilize the ark, so his intentions were pure. And he has earned an eternal existence in the afterlife for his righteousness.
In both cases of tragedy, the survivors are stunned and they react. In the case in Leviticus, Aaron is stunned and responds with depression and silence. Vayidom Aaron can mean he was silent (demama) but it can also mean deadened (yoshvei duma). Tragedy of this nature can depress and leave us speechless, much as did the tragedy in our time– the Shoa. And for many years it did. Survivors took years, even decades, to open up and tell of their experiences. They did so not wishing to dishonor those who died, and to make certain that their witness would be counted.
In the case of King David, he did two things. He first wouldn’t come near the ark and left it for some months, fearful of it being a vehicle of God’s wrath. But he also named the place Peratz Uzza which means ‘where Uzza was set upon.’ He memorialized the tragic fate of Uzza, rather than blaming him, and made it known. Similarly, the Jewish people have done as well by putting up museums, doing oral history projects, and designing school curricula to teach of the unique evil of the Holocaust, and to teach societies to beware of indifference to hatred.
But King David also did something else. He took ‘memorializing’ to the next level by creating a new reality. He brought the Ark to Jerusalem and made a place for it. He sang and danced until his wife, Michal, was embarrassed; he sacrificed offerings and gave people party gifts for having assembled and celebrated a new enshrinement of the Ark. He honored tragedy, by creating a different reality in response to tragedy. He did not get stuck with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He moved on and created a new resilient present, and therein laid the groundwork of a Holy Temple, which his son Solomon would bring to fruition.
We have passed the stage of numbness and silence on the Holocaust, and the Jewish community has been instrumental in fashioning a curriculum around it. We also continue to monitor outrageous claims such as those of PA President Abbas, who maintained that German Jews were responsible for the German anti-Semitism that arose. Additionally, Professor Ruth Wisse has written articulately on the dangers of leaving ‘Holocaust Education’ in well-meaning hands. We must beware of naïve and sometimes cynical uses of it, by those who, at the same time, have little nice to say about the State of Israel. Teaching the Holocaust without teaching about the plucky and resourceful Jewish nation state that was created parallel to it, and that denied Arab efforts to eliminate it several times, in its aftermath, imparts an image of Jews as powerless, victimized and passive, and at the whim of nations in which they dwell. Teaching the Holocaust and universalizing it to all intolerance can be an effective way to sharpen a student’s sense of social justice. However, it just as easily erodes concern for Jews in the modern era (in which anti-Semitism is still very much alive), and worse yet, can be manipulated by some to cast Israelis as the oppressors, colonizers and worse.
King David’s response reminds us that we are perilously far away from the old liberal position of the 1950 and 60’s in the aftermath of the Shoa, which condemned anti-Semitism, and also celebrated a Jewish State which took responsibility for the Jewish people’s collective security and destiny. Paul Newman’s Ari Ben Canaan in the “Exodus” is no longer a primary symbol of a revived Jewish State in the mind of America, but of we as a Jewish community of souls, who know the horrors of the Holocaust and the precariousness of Diaspora existence. We can ill afford to cede ground to those on the extreme left who mourn dead Jews, but then compare a vibrant Jewish nation to pre-World War Two Germany. We should not settle for the mealy-mouth condemnation of discrimination of ‘all minorities’ in response to bald-face anti-Semitism either. Neither should we take our eyes off the extreme right that seems to be gaining traction as the Shoa witnesses become fewer.
We have the communal responsibility to put our Nation-State self-determination as a primary lesson of the Holocaust, and for taking our people’s survival seriously. We have nothing to apologize for, and so many blessings to celebrate in our current time. We should be awe-struck by Israel’s economic, technologic and military independence. And we must guard it against those who refuse to grant Jews their sovereign rights to their historic Homeland, and who selectively and a-contextually use the Holocaust for their own ends. Read More
Last night I sat with my seven year old, consoling her and wiping away her tears. Not an uncommon sight for a child who has a lot of “feelings.” And believe me, 2020 has given us all plenty of opportunity for tears. Between a global pandemic and its related economic downturn, it’s been a tough year. With continued racial injustice exploding into our consciousness again and refusing to be dimmed into the background noise of the chaos of life, we must confront pain. And pain again, as our political system was rocked by an impeachment and a fractious election that still echoes in the minds of many who refuse to accept its results. We have become socially distanced to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but as our alternate realities and facts show, we have become separated from each other by much more than six feet… There were the inevitable celebrity deaths, as well as those closer to our community, whether by the pandemic, or some other cruel twist. There was isolation, depression, and for weeks our synagogue building was completely closed. Yes, 2020 was not the best year—and that’s not even counting the Murder Hornets.
And yet…that’s not why my child was crying. As I rubbed her back, she explained: “But I LOVED 2020!” I almost paused my soothing efforts, so gobsmacked was I. How in the world could one possibly love what was so obviously a dumpster-fire of a year!? Had I sheltered her too much from the reality of what was going on–the pain and sorrow? Was she simply incapable of recognizing the magnitude of suffering which was 2020? Well, sure. That’s partially true. But underneath it, was a great truth, and that is, even within the curses of 2020, even within the depths of darkness, there exists some light. Now this is, in no way an attempt to minimize the pain many of us experienced last year and continue to experience. There is no simple comfort to ameliorate all the hurt. But we do ourselves a disservice to ignore the good that came into our lives in 2020. Homeschooling an energetic first and second grader was by no means a simple task. Often it was (and still is) a very frustrating endeavor, as I try to understand why every generation of teaching philosophers seem to think it’s good idea to teach math differently again. And beyond the number-bonds and units and tens, the diminishment of contemporary social interactions has obviously taken its toll on my little girl. But, she bounces on through it. She has accepted this new reality, and she has thrived. I am blessed. We have daily FaceTime and Zoom interactions with our far-flung family, and one of the benefits of being home together is many more hugs. This pandemic has given me a chance to interact with our congregation differently, and though I’ve seen very few of you in person, I’ve still gotten to connect to many of you in small 3”-by-5” rectangles on my screens, and have remained in touch with many of our non-local congregants, who in a normal year, I might not see until they return from Florida, like so many migratory birds.
But my blessings may not be your blessings, and your pain is definitely different than my pain. I can’t presume to tell you what will happen in 2021, but I can urge you to identify what WERE the blessings of 2020; and where can you find the blessings in 2021. I urge you to reach out to us here at East Northport Jewish Center. Outside of services, both live and virtual, or classes offered in both formats, we are here to help be the center of your Jewish community. Let us know what we can do to help you in these trying times. Find your Jewish family here, live or live-streamed. We are here for you, and may 2021 bring more blessing into your lives.
As we prepare to enter the Hanukkah season and reflect upon the miracle of the oil lamp that burned for eight days, I try to continuously focus on all of the positive things that have happened during this calendar year for our congregation.
First and foremost, I am thankful that since we re-opened our sanctuary for services in June, we have had a physical Minyan every Saturday except one! Nothing makes me happier than being able to have our congregants hear the laining of the Torah and Haftarah, in-person, and celebrate Shabbat together!
Also during this period, Rabbi Silverman and Hazzan Walvick have conducted five wonderful B’nai Mitzvah. The families and friends of each of these five wonderful boys, as well as the Board of Directors of the East Northport Jewish Center, could not have been more proud of each of them, on celebrating this most important simcha! They all worked so diligently in preparation by having Bar Mitzvah lessons with Hazzan and Bar Mitzvah project meeting’s with Rabbi over Zoom. When it came to their big days, each of them performed magnificently. Yasher Koach!
Although our communities’ participation during the High Holiday celebrations was extremely limited due to COVID-19, we were still able to offer seats to all of those congregants who wished to attend in-person. Rabbi and Hazzan successfully shortened the length of the services, while successfully maintaining the fervor and emotion which they represent. And for all of those congregants who weren’t comfortable attending in person, we were able to live-stream our services too, for all of those who wished to take part from their own homes. For the two weeks following Yom Kippur, I held my breath… but it turned out that all of our precautions and planning, as well as a bit of luck paid-off, because there were no reported cases of COVID-19 among any of the members of the congregation who attended…Baruch HaShem!
I am now looking forward to attending our annual Menorah lighting celebration on December 15th. This year, instead of being down at Northport Harbor, it will take place on the ENJC property using the large menorah that we set-up every year next to Elwood Road. I hope it is not too chilly that night, and I hope my wife Anna’s latkes are as delicious as always!
Finally, I am extremely optimistic because it seems the promise of a COVID-19 vaccine is finally becoming a reality in record time! The unexpectedly high percentage of effectiveness for multiple vaccines is a tribute to the worldwide scientific community. My fervent hope is that by May or June, the majority of American’s will have received their vaccines, and are protected. As we traditionally say during Pesach, ‘Next year in Jerusalem’, I say, ‘next year, High Holiday services, in-person, for the whole congregation, in our own sanctuary!’.
Being able to maintain our faith, to adapt and to remain positive in the face of tremendous challenges, has been the hallmark of the Jewish people for millennia. We must continue this tradition by remaining optimistic and seeing the positive things in our lives and our community, every single day. Read More
I may be hated for saying this. But I’d rather be hated for telling the truth than loved for tolerating a lie. And the truth is that it is our responsibility to eradicate the cancerous extremist behavior within our own communities. African-American leaders should be at the forefront of shutting down anti-Jewish attacks by black youth in Brooklyn. Muslims should be the loudest to condemn Islamic radicalized terrorism. And I, a rabbi, must condemn racism within the verbal, mental and cultural shtetls of my people.
Therefore, I want to publicly condemn the use of the derogatory Yiddish word “schvartze” (“black”), those who make Jews of Color feel alienated from our brethren, and any who tolerate, defend and promulgate the racist Hamitic Hypothesis. I want to remind members of my tribe that it is not petty tribalism which defines us, rather the teachings of Torah herself which unite us. And, in the Torah, the very first Rebbetzin was black (Ibn Ezra; Radak, Jeremiah 13:23, Mo’ed Katan 16b, Shaloh, Shavuot 242 and 247), the entire Jewish tribe of Dan is Ethiopian (Eldad ha-Dani, Radbaz, Horav Maran Horav Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate) and all of us are created in the “image of G-d” (Genesis 1:27).
In the second century, Rabbi Meir taught, “Look not at the vessel but at what it contains” (Pirkei Avot 4:20) and in 1983 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein [uncharacteristically] signed a public letter demanding the [Jewish] world aid black Jews from Ethiopia. He told his son-in-law he “suffered great anguish” hearing they were treated differently because “their skin is black.” (Igrot Moshe Vol. 9) The message I see weaved through the glorious canopy of Torah teachings is one salient truth: Our value is determined not by external labels but by our intrinsic individuality. In other words, our soul.
Perhaps we - as a human collective - still struggle to see beyond the color of superficial skin to the content of character because we - as a spiritual collective - still struggle to see beyond the skin of the world to the character of our Maker contained within. Perhaps truly seeing and celebrating our G-d given diversity helps us transform a Darwinian jungle, where only the fittest survive, into a Garden of Eden where everyone can harmoniously thrive. And perhaps the Creator made the world not in black and white but with a rainbow of colors to teach us that one becomes G-dly when the personal plight of the “Me” becomes the moral mandate of the “We.”
Therefore, I - labeled as an “Ultra-Orthodox Jew” - will be “Ultra-Orthodox” in my fight against racism. I will push for reparations for African Americans (Exodus 11:12, Deuteronomy 15:13, Talmud Bavli Gittin 55a, Sanhedrin 91a). I will expose the ugly face of discrimination which hides in plain sight under the guise of benevolent stereotyping (The Insidious Effects of Positive Stereotypes, scholar.harvard.edu, 2012). And I will stand against all bias which perpetuate the enslavement of individuality using the shackles of oversimplified expectations (Psychology Today, “Where Bias Begins, The Truth About Stereotypes, 2016). As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, famed political activist and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, once said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides.”
There are those who argue that coexistence is impossible. That the tough reality is that rampant economic rivalry, family breakdown, and centuries of prejudicial societal constructs divide us from one another. But no one ever said that unity is easy to achieve. As the champion of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
Almost six decades since he was murdered for speaking out, there are still political puppet masters planning for a race war. They’re not satisfied with slogans on T-shirts or messages on baseball caps. They want us to be at each other’s necks. But we mustn’t be afraid of their evil. For we only see evil in the world because the G-d within us knows that it is the force of good to stop it. As New York State Attorney General Letitia James said after an uptick in New York anti-Semitic attacks, ”We can’t shy away from obstacles and we can’t shy away from the facts. We have to face this challenge.” Or, as Akedah Fulcher- a black Jew from the Chassidic enclave of Crown Heights - taught me, “Silence is violence.”
There are those who try to silence me. “The arena of politics is unbefitting for a rabbi”, they say. “You’re a fool to believe in insidious racism,” they say. “You just don’t understand,” they say. Well, here’s what I say. I say that my religion makes it my responsibility to be the voice of the voiceless and the champion of the oppressed. I say that I'd rather be a fool fighting against injustice than an intellectual tolerating it. And I say that I may not understand a lot but I do understand that to stop “othering” the other, I must realize he’s my brother from another mother.
My father taught me that as long as ignorance, intolerance, and injustice exist, we can never rest lest we rest in peace. His ancestor died at the Battle of Gettysburg fighting for that truth, often not so self-evident, that all people are created equal. He used a sword and a bayonet. I pick up the proverbial pen to continue his legacy. For it is only through the heroes of our past
, upon whose mighty shoulders we now stand, that the evolution of democracy and liberty can continue to march forward. As Rabbi Tarfon taught in the Talmud, “It is not your obligation to finish the work nor are you free from engaging in it, etc” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).
In these recent years of proliferated polarization, the victims of bigotry have eclipsed our nation’s attention. And it is what we do next, what we tell our youth
in the coming days, what ideas we normalize in our homes that will determine the future of our United States.
I believe what Dr. King wrote in 1967 that “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” I believe what Elie Wiesel said in 1986, “Peace is our gift to each other.” And I believe what the Lubavitcher Rebbe told Mayor David Dinkins
after the 1991 riots, “We are not two sides; we are one side. We are one people living in one city under one administration and under one G-d.”
These leaders have all passed on but their light will never pass away. As the Talmud teaches, “When his children are alive, he is alive.” (Talmud, Taanit 5b). Dr. Bernice King, daughter of the late Martin Luther King Jr., quotes Isaiah 1:17, “Learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression.” Elisha Wiesel, son of the late Elie Wiesel, channels his father as he asks
"How can so many among us deny that white privilege is real when our African-American brothers and sisters still suffer from the effects of a century of Jim Crow laws and voter suppression?" And I follow in the footsteps of my Rebbe who taught me that we treat G-d as our Father in Heaven in order that we might treat one another as G-d’s children here on Earth.”
In this way, we walk the dream. (Micah 4:2)