Let us not allow “collective forgetting”

One of the most haunting and alarming verses in the Torah comes at the beginning of this week’s portion of Sh’mot: “A new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph”(Ex 1:8). The Torah imagines that despite Joseph’s insight and intelligence which saved Egypt from ruin, Egypt forgot that story so completely, that the new Pharaoh didn’t know, understand or value Joseph’s contribution to Egyptian prominence. Not only that, but his lack of knowledge led to the oppressive treatment and subsequent enslavement of the Jewish people

The verse is disturbing because it exemplifies how a nation’s selective memory can lead down a destructive path for citizens and strangers alike. As much as the Hebrew slaves were oppressed, the Egyptian people were also impacted adversely by their leader’s decisions and the ten plagues brought by God that afflicted every Egyptian.

The text explains that the Egyptians took their cue from Pharaoh. The Egyptians did not need much convincing to set up taskmasters and inflict hardship on the Hebrews. We know of course how the story ends, since we retell it every year at the Passover Seder – we were saved by the strong hand and the outstretched arm.

Reflecting on the past year 2017, I have been anticipating this text. I have thought about it when I read about the uptick in hate crimes; I have felt it in the double standards regarding politics towards Israel; and it has reverberated in my mind witnessing the rise of right wing and populist politicians all over the world. It’s been hard to think of little else.

It is no small comfort to me that in the subsequent verses we read in our Torah portion we meet Shifra and Puah, the midwives who defy Pharaoh’s edict to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys. Acting out of their faith in God and in their awareness of what is just, they strategically denied Pharaoh’s orders. The Talmud (Sotah 11b) points out that the Torah doesn’t just tell of their disobedience, but says, “they let them (the boys) live” (Exod. 1:17). The rabbis ask why the text needed to add that point, since presumably by their disobedience, the children were spared. They answer that the end of the verse teaches that not only did they not kill the boys, but they actively aided them to live, by giving them food and water (BT Sotah). The rabbis imagines that Shifra and Puah actually became God’s partners in creation, as they granted life to the Hebrew children (Shemot Rabba 1:19).

As enigmatic as these rewards may be, they make perfect symbolic sense. The seeds of Tikkun Olam were planted with the midwives’ strategic defiance against injustice, as their actions were about preserving life, and anticipating a future where all people would be free to dwell in safety.

As we anticipate the new Year, let the story of the midwives serve to remind each of us that we have the ability to speak and act against any and all injustice. Let us not allow “collective forgetting”. Each of us can be a midwife who helps to birth the future and bear the hardships on the road to justice and freedom, never giving up, always with the greater good in mind.

Wishing you a wonderful Shabbat  and a happy (secular) New Year

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source Rabbi Yael Ridberg)

Is Korach All Bad?

Only five Torah portions derive their titles from the names of individuals. These five portions are Koach, Yitro, Korach, Balak, and Pinchas. Three of them are in Numbers, a book that heightens the trials of the Israelites with micro-narratives in the midst of the great historical trek toward mature freedom and the continued attachment of moral demands to the Israelites‘ story. And each of these portions represents a figure whose role in the creation of the nation Israel is quite revolutionary. Each of these figures engage in behaviour that was groundbreaking, and (even in the case of Korach) essential for the development of the Jewish nation. Two of them are rebels whose plots were foiled (Korach and Balak), two of them make the world better for the Jewish people (Pinchas and Jethro), and one of them is designated to save the world. That role went to Noach, the righteous one of his generation.

Korach is clearly a bad guy, as he rebels against the one clear, pure leader of the Jewish people; there is no doubt about history’s judgment of Korach. But the story becomes more important than its simple moral message when we reflect on the leader whom Korach opposes. Moshe, called in innocence to lead the people and flawed by his own physical imperfections and temper, emerges within the larger biblical story as tragic, incomplete, and monumental to the human challenge of leadership. Sometimes those who oppose him or his values are judged, and at other times (as with Zelophehad’s daughters, who influenced change in inheritance law), the rebels guide him in new directions.

Other challenges to authority have better results for the challengers. For example, in I Samuel, the people complain to the prophet that they are tired of his leadership and want a king. In that instance, God urges Samuel’s compliance. Samuel, like Moses, becomes defensive, asking: Have I taken anything from the people? Have I benefited from this awful leadership task? Jethro challenges Moses‘ ability to judge all the people and warns him that eventually he will wear himself out. Moses heeds this challenge as well. A linguistic note is worth mentioning here: Korach accuses Moses and Aaron with the phrase rav lachem (you have gone too far [Numbers 16:3]), while Jethro warns his son-in-law with the phrase ki chaveid mimcha hadavar (for the task is too heavy for you [Exodus 18:18]). The differing approaches of Korach and Jethro demonstrate how we can respond with either jealousy or concern.

Parashat Korach provides us with a unique opportunity to examine the entire concept of challenging authority-a value that Reform Judaism prizes -and to do a little soul searching about how we react to strong leaders. We may not celebrate Korach’s arrogance, but we can certainly celebrate the acknowledgment of the dark side of leadership and follower-ship.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source William Cutter)

A healing prayer for when a loved one is suffering

In last week’s Torah portion Miriam and Aaron talk about the „Cushite woman“ whom Moses has married. In addition, they complain that God speaks not only through Moses but also through them. As a result, Miriam is struck with tzara’at, often translated as leprosy. In an interesting twist of the story, Moses shows a deep love for his sister and begs God to heal her. Tradition understands this short intervention as the foundation for  our healing prayers we say when someone we love is sick.  Below are two texts we often use in the service, but can be used by everyone, at anytime:

Mi Shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu, Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel v’Lei-ah, hu y’vareich et hacholim [names]. HaKadosh Baruch Hu yimalei
rachamim aleihem, l’hachalimam ul’rapotam ul’hachazikam, v’yishlach lahem m’heirah r’fuah, r’fuah shleimah min hashamayim, r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf, hashta baagala uviz’man kariv. V’nomar: Amen.

May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless and heal those who are ill [names]. May the Blessed Holy One be filled with compassion for their health to be restored and their strength to be revived. May God swiftly send them a complete renewal of body and spirit, and let us say, Amen.

(A musical version can be found here: https://youtu.be/2og0YFpzdhA)

The following Mi Sheberach prayer and song was written by Debbie Friedman:

Mi shebeirach avoteinu
M’kor hab’racha l’imoteinu
May the source of strength,
Who blessed the ones before us,
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing,
and let us say, Amen.
Mi shebeirach imoteinu
M’kor habrachah l’avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leimah,
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit,
And let us say, Amen

(A musical version can be found here: https://youtu.be/uxAw8Z-3qOc)

Wishing you a blessed Shabbat and a good health.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source Mishkan Tefila Page 371)


Parashat B’midbar: We count!

Incredulous! That’s how I felt, after requesting and then learning my Uber passenger rating. You see, drivers get to rate and rank you too.

„4.8! That’s it?“ I thought. „I’ve never been impolite or unfriendly. I never cancel a request after submitting one. What reason could there be for denying me a full five stars?“

Once again, here was one small example of the many ways each of us is reduced to numbers as we go about our post-modern lives. The world knows us by our ID Numbers and PINs. Job performance and health are quantified and compared. We rank and rate universities, restaurants, wine, cars, and even dates.

It goes without saying that qualification makes large amounts of data easier to categorise and understand. But it also has the effect of obscuring beauty, individuality, and difference. We have only to think of the Nazis‘ practice of tattooing numbers on our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents and we shudder with horror.

Perhaps, the dehumanising quality of quantification is the reason Jews have generally frowned on counting people. I remember counting students for a minyan whispering, „Not one, not two . . . “ In fact, this concept goes back to the Babylonian Talmud where Rabbi Isaac taught, „It’s prohibited to count the Jewish people, even in order to do a mitzvah“ (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 22b).

Then again, in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat B’midbar, God instructs Moses to, „Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clan, by their ancestral houses, according to the number of names of every male, head by head“ (Numbers 1:2). The parashah goes on to count and compare the male populations of the various Israelite tribes.

In Rashi’s commentary on this parashah, Rashi turns the whole idea of taking a census on its head. For him, this isn’t an act of bureaucratic expediency. Rather, he writes, „Out of God’s love for them, he counted them often“ (see Rashi on Numbers 1:1). For Rashi, counting doesn’t dehumanise or obscure, it’s an expression of love and care — one manifestation of God’s protection and devotion to God’s precious treasures.

We don’t normally experience counting in this way. More often than not, to be counted is to feel more like digits and ratings — robbed of our identities. Yet, Rashi’s interpretation of our parashah, reminds us what we all know deep down: We are much more than the numbers assigned to us. We are much more than ones and zeroes and Uber rankings. We are all precious treasures, worthy of love and affection.  We count! 

Rabbi Adrian M Schell  (Source: Joseph A. Skloot)


Behar – Bechukotai: Walking upright and unafraid

In our parashah, God vows to enact a series of blessings and curses for the Israelites—blessings if they observe the commandments, and curses if they do not. In her interpretation, Rabbi Lisa Exler explains that the blessings are “curiously framed” by the image of walking.

Walking is, for many of us, our most basic vehicle for navigating the world. Yet we probably don’t put much thought into it. We’re more concerned with where we’re going than how we’re getting there; and unless we’re on a hike, we rarely think of walking as an end in itself, or count it among our blessings. Our biblical passage opens with God stating the condition for receiving these blessings:

Im bechukotai teileichu—If you walk in accordance with My laws and observe and do My commandments.” And the section concludes with God’s promise to walk, in return: “V’hithalachti b’tochechem—And I will walk in your midst, and I will be your God and you will be My people.”

The section of blessings could have ended there, with the final inspiring blessing being one of reciprocal relationship and intimacy between God and the Israelites. But it doesn’t. Instead, it ends with the following verse, a seemingly superfluous description of God’s role in the Exodus, which, significantly, also includes the image of walking:

I am Adonai your God who took you out from the land of Egypt, from being their slaves, and I broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright—va’olech etchem komemiyut.

A midrash explains that the word komemiyut, upright—which appears only this once in Torah, means “with a straight spine and unafraid of any creature.” In other words, God reminds the Israelites that they are no longer oppressed slaves living in fear; but rather, dignified people who can stand tall and walk proudly and are free to choose their own paths. The Israelites’ ability to walk upright, which they attained through their experience of the Exodus, was the necessary precondition for the other “walkings” described previously in the text—walking in accordance with God’s laws and God’s reciprocal walking among the people, bestowing upon them the blessings of rain, food, peace and fertility.

May we continue to be blessed to walk upright and to share our blessings with those in need. Wishing you a wonderful Shabbat and a meaningful week.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell