As we approach the end of the book of Bamidbar ("In the Wilderness)/the book of Numbers, we witness the death of two iconic leaders: Moses' sister, Miriam and Moses' brother, Aaron. The accounts of the deaths of these siblings are stark and thought-provoking. Of Miriam we read: "The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there." (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:1)
Verse 2 takes us to a new subject: "The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron."
On the surface, it seems as though Miriam's death goes unmarked, she is buried and we move on to the crisis of water. The classic commentators on this passage were moved to associate these two passages and concluded that the people were without water as a result of Miriam's demise, that a well would magically appear wherever Miriam was situated, so that the people always had water as long as Miriam lived. Miriam's Well became a midrashic symbol enriching and entrenching the image of Miriam as the spiritual leader of the people who nourished their souls through her special gifts of song and of water.
Moses and Aaron are depicted as engaged in a defensive position coping with the anger and fear of their parched Israelite charges. The brothers consult with God at the Tent of Meeting and God instructs them:
8 "You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts."
9 Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. 10 Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" 11 And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.
Moses does indeed produce water from the rock, but instead of "ordering the rock" as God instructed, Moses "struck the rock twice with his rod." Moses seems to have lost his composure . . . and I think we are given a glimpse of the very human Moses in this moment.
Moses is usually very conscientious about following God's instruction to the letter: in Moses' approach to the Israelites, in his approaches to Pharoah, in the management of the plagues and in orchestrating the Israelite departure from Egypt, Moses did not put his "personal spin" on anything explicitly described by God.
But in this moment, Moses strikes, rather than instructs, the rock that will produce water.
I see Moses in mourning for his sister, Miriam, in this moment: in his grief and in the anger over his loss (an emotion many of us experience after the death of a loved one), in the intensity of having to lead while still mourning, Moses strikes out. The circumstances of this incident could only have deepened his grief: his sister, Miriam, who watched over him when he was consigned to water as an infant; his sister, Miriam, who provided water for the people in the wilderness . . . it is due to her death that he must now produce water himself: he strikes out in grief and anger instead of maintaining his facade of measured, precise leader and obedient servant of God.
Perhaps if Moses were permitted the seven days of shiva which wraps us in an embracing cocoon of family, friends and community when we mourn, he would have been spared his outburst of grief. The wisdom of our tradition, guiding us to put aside even the most pressing professional obligations, abdicating our control of logistics while family, friends and community cook and clean for us . . . all of this is the tangible expression of the insight afforded to us by this moment of Torah: we need time to mourn, to contemplate our loss before we return to the pressing world of work and responsibilty. Even as he mourns and suffers, Moses is our teacher.
This week's parashah/Torah portion contains the powerful story of the rebellion instigated by Korach. Korach challenged the relationship between God and Moses and presumed to decide for God who would control and interpret God's word to the people. For this hubris, Korach and his followers were swallowed up alive as the ground opened up beneath their feet.
This very week, as we approach the Shabbat during which we read of Korach, the man who presumes to know who should serve as God's representative in the world, the Masorti (Conservative) and Mitkademet (Reform) rabbis in Israel and, indeed, all over the Jewish world were attack by the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
I bring you the Jerusalem Post report on Rabbi Amar's remarks and some of the aftermath. I invite you to share your opinion of Rabbi Amar's remarks, and to share your opinion on the recent Supreme Court decision to recognize Masorti (Conservative) and Mitkademet (Reform) rabbis in Israel with Israel's Ambassador to the United States, the Honorable Michael Oren: Israel Embassy to the United States,
3514 International Drive Northwest, Washington, DC 20008, (202) 364-5500
Amar: Stop recognizing of non-Orthodox rabbis
By JEREMY SHARON
19/06/2012 / The Jerusalem Post
Sephardi Chief Rabbi plans to convene emergency meeting of Chief Rabbinate to combat state’s recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said Sunday night that he would be convening an emergency meeting of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate next week to discuss the state’s recent recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis and its decision to pay their wages.
“With God’s help, a great voice [of protest] will come out against this shameful phenomenon in which they [non-Orthodox rabbis] insist on describing themselves as rabbis at the same time as they uproot the foundations of Judaism,” Amar told haredi radio station Kol Berama.
“We have tried to explain the great damage they cause,” he continued. “There is a great danger here to the Jewish people. It is well known that the greatest danger in our times is assimilation and they recklessly enable this phenomenon.”
Last month, the Attorney-General’s Office announced that the state would recognize non-Orthodox rabbis working in regional council jurisdictions, kibbutzim and other small communities as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities,” and would fund their wages from state coffers.
This decision came in response to notice from the High Court of Justice that unless the state changed it’s position, it would issue a ruling in favor of the non- Orthodox Jewish groups who filed a petition with the court against the state on this matter back in 2005.
Orthodox rabbis serve in state-funded positions such as rabbis of cities, towns and neighborhoods. Non-Orthodox rabbis have been excluded from such positions, and the attorney-general’s decision covers only positions in small municipal jurisdictions.
Several non-Orthodox movements have already petitioned the High Court to allow non-Orthodox rabbis to be selected for positions in larger jurisdictions as well.
In addition to convening the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, Amar will also be inviting rabbis from across the country to participate in the meeting in order to form a broad coalition against state recognition of non- Orthodox rabbis.
Reaction to Amar’s comments was strong, with non- Orthodox groups condemning him as unrepresentative of Israeli society and the broader Jewish community.
Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, called for Amar to resign, and until then to internalize the principles of democracy.
“Amar’s intentions to work against the decision of the state, supported by the High Court of Justice, proves how much the Chief Rabbinate has lost its state function and how much it is disconnected from the heart of broader Israeli society, which is fed up with the Orthodox monopoly.”
Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Hiddush religious- freedom lobbying group, added to this theme saying that Amar’s proposal was “proof of how disconnected the rabbinate is from the values of democracy, the rule of law and equality.”
Regev accused Amar of seeking to recruit rabbis in a struggle against “the majority of the Jewish people, which is non-Orthodox” and putting Israel on a “collision course with the Jewish people.”
Yizhar Hass, head of the Masorti Movement – the branch of Conservative Judaism in Israel – said in response that Amar was abusing his position as a state official to promote hatred instead of respect, and was responsible for the declining perception of the rabbinate.
Planning for Adina's bat mitzvah Shabbat was a challenge for us: We were active members of Kehillat Ramot Zion, the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) congregation on French Hill in Jerusalem. Many of our best friends were living on the "Hill" walking distance to us and to the congregation, we enjoyed this tight-knit community of knowledgeable and committed observant Conservative Jews, largely immigrants from the US like us.
But Ramot Zion's leadership would not allow anyone of the female persuation to read from the Torah. And for her bat mitzvah, Adina wanted to "leyn", to chant the parashah. Not just an aliyah or two, but the whole Torah portion. Not the "shlish", not the third of the triennial cycle, but the whole thing. And lead the service. And chant the Haftarah. And the congregation she grew up in said "no."
But our friends Roz and Ray understood that community is not just what happens within the official four walls of a synagogue building. So they offered their home as the venue for the Shabbat of Shlakh L'cha 5752 (1992) and we set to creating a home-made bat mitzvah. I baked a lot . . . a lot . . . of muffins. My husband shlepped a lot . . . a lot . . . of chairs. We packed the room and Adina did everything she had set her mind (and I hope her heart) to do. It was a magnificent, intimate, triumphant simkha. A real source of joy.
Adina's parasha, Shlakh L'cha, contains the famous story of Moses sending spies into the land promise to the Israelites by God . . . most of the spies come back with intimidating stories of giants and military might. But two men, Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Yefunneh, spoke of faith. They praised the land as "flowing with milk and honey" and that, as God had promised the land to them, God would support their efforts as they came to settle the land.
This was a stirring story for my 12 year old daughter to read, standing in friends' living room, chanting what others told her she should not do. Crossing a border she felt so compelled to cross, despite the objections of others.
Twenty years later, Kehillat Ramot Zion is led by their spiritual leader, Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker . . . a female rabbi! I would like to think that all those members of Ramot Zion who spent that Shabbat with us down the street instead of in the Ramot Zion building appreciated the potential of women organically engaged in our tradition and perhaps had Adina's image in mind when, so many years later, they voted to engage a woman as their rabbi.
It is the organizing principle of Judaism that the roots of all that we believe, all that we understand about how the world works, all that we observe are to be found in the Torah. It is, therefore, a bit baffling, that one of the central enterprises of Jewish communal and individual practice sees so little expression in the Torah. This enterprise is, of course, prayer.
Most of the communication we do witness in the Torah is very personal . . . God in relevatory conversation with Abraham or Rebekah or Moses delivers a message and the human involved responds as he or she will, in a personal, not formulaic, manner.
When we humans pray, our prayers, whether personal or communal, express our thanks to God, our appreciation of God's unique role in our lives, or requests for divine help and support. Over the centuries, our communal Jewish prayer has become bound by both halachic (Jewish legal) and traditional (minhag/custom) criteria. When we pray as individuals, of course, we either turn to the inspiring words of the siddur/prayer book or we pray spontaneously from our own hearts and minds.
Moses' relationship with God, even among all the others to whom God expressed individual revelations, is unique. God and Moshe are intimates. They huddle in the Tent of Meeting with no one else around and confer about the people they are leading together through the wilderness. But in public, Moses conveys God's wishes, expectations, teachings to the people.
And then, in a unique moment, in this week's parashah, Moshe is moved to prayer. His sister, Miriam, (and his brother Aaron, as well) has defied Moses' own stature in the community and Moses' choice of a wife as well, and God has stricken Miriam with leprosy as a punishment for her public defiance. (For rather technical reasons relating to his role as High Priest, Aaron is spared)
Perhaps disturbed by the inequity of the punishment meted out to his sister, perhaps understanding the source of his siblings' frustrations, perhaps secure in his role and relationship with God, we sense no defensiveness in Moses. His sole response is the Torah's first prayer for healing:
אל נא רפא נא לה Eil na, r'fa na lah: Please God, Please heal her.
With these five words, Moses has introduced a whole new aspect of God's intervention in human affairs: God heals. These five words have inspired and supported . . . and, yes, disappointed, our people for millenia. We rejoice when our prayers for healing are "heard." When the ill recover. We are confused, bereft, angry when our ill do not recover . . . why was our prayer not "heard?!"
We may, along with the rabbinic sages of our preceding generations, contend that with the demise of the age of prophecy the dynamic of communication between humans and God changed forever. We are a generation that is not privileged to attain the intimacy with God that informed Moses' life. Therefore, we should not expect our prayers to be answered the same way his was.
But then, as we move forward in the Torah, we will see that one of Moses' most passionate pleas to God will not be "heard." Moses will not be allowed into the Land after all, but is expected to resign himself to dying in the wilderness.
Even Moses' prayers are not always "heard."
There is comfort and hope in Moses' prayer to God: אל נא רפא נא לה, Please God, Please heal her. When matters of life and death are out of our hands, we have no place to turn but to God, the Source of Life. When Moses stood and uttered his prayer on behalf of his rebellious sister, he could not know, could not assume, what God's response would be. When we utter our words of prayer for healing, we stand, as did Moses, not knowing whether our loved one will be healed or will be taken from us. But Moses, in his short prayer, has shown us how to hope, has provided us with one more action we can take on behalf of those we love.
And then, we, like Moses, are left with the knowledge that we are but human . . .
Those who follow the Jewish press, may be aware already that the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards met this week. As is the case at each meeting, the members of the CJLS (including me) reviewed and critiqued a number of draft teshuvot (papers establishing approaches to outstanding questions of halachah/Jewish law) for the first or second time, and held formal votes on papers reviewed at prior meetings. Sometimes, a passed teshuvah relates to a topic of such general interest that its passage will be reported in the press, as was the case with the document accepted by the CJLS providing models for ceremonies binding same sex couples and ceremonies dissolving those unions as well.
Another paper, easily of equal significance in terms of demonstrating the credibility of halachah as a guide to life in the modern world, is the work of Rabbi Daniel Nevins who has succeeded in bringing order and reason to the issue of the use of electricity on Shabbat. Rabbi Nevins' teshuvah approaches the length and depth of a monograph more than a concise teshuvah and therefore I cannot possibly summarize it in this short blog. But I am eager to publicly convey my thanks to a hard-working, intelligent and passionate colleague for rendering comprehensible a complicated topic that has confounded me, and many others, for a long time.
Going far beyond a declaration to reasoned proof, Rabbi Nevins establishes that electricity is by no means the fire whose transmission is prohibited on Shabbat, that opening an electric circuit is not "boneh", is not building an entity that did not previously exist on Shabbat, that running electricity through an appliance does not transform the appliance itself rendering a prohibited change.
In such a topic, details and technical parameters are of utmost importance. Rabbi Nevins reviews and categorizes a number of electric appliances and categorizes them in terms of prohibition or permission according to a number of criteria. His work provides the basis for analysis of electric appliances in terms of Shabbat usage, but does not provide blanket permission to the Shabbat observer to use any electric appliance on Shabbat.
We who voted in favor of this teshuvah (and I am proud to have cast my vote in favor) hope that those who seek to observe Shabbat on the basis of tradition and science and spiritual fulfillment will be informed by this work. We hope that colleagues will find very useful material for teaching and for their own reviews of electricity use on Shabbat for their communities.
For all that, Rabbi Nevins' work, passed by a large majority but not unanimously, does not constitute blanket permission to use electricity in every way in every conceivable electric appliance on Shabbat. Far from it. A central principle to this teshuvah is that an action (like cooking) which is absolutely prohibited on Shabbat does not become permitted simply because the cooking implement is heated by electricity rather than flame. That which is prohibited on Shabbat remains prohibited on Shabbat.
Yes, there will be conversations about, and probably adjustments made, to our policies here at Torat Yisrael regarding some uses of electricity based on Rabbi Nevins' work. Once again, the Conservative Movement demonstrates that it is more than possible to live a life committed to Jewish tradition and Jewish law in the modern world.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.