The Two-Way Street: Torah from J Street
Rabbi Beth Janus
Hungry, thirsty, dusty and hot, the Israelites are living in the desert, free from the bonds of slavery. After several years of wandering, they are frustrated. They crave stability and rootedness. Moses has been a decent leader but also loses his temper easily and often. Korach, one of Moses’ first cousins, calls for a rebellion against Moses. He enlists Dathan, Abiram and On in his mutiny. After a dramatic showdown, Korach, Dathan, Abiram, On and their followers die by an act of God, and the conflict is violently resolved.
While Korach is the most famous of these challengers to Moses’ leadership, Dathan and Abiram seem to have a unique role here. Some even believe that they led their own insurrection, separate from Korach. Looking at Dathan and Abiram can teach us about disagreement and healthy conflict.
Moses knows that Dathan and Abiram are displeased and chooses to approach them. He asks to speak to them. Their response is translated by JPS as, “We will not come!” However, several commentators correctly point out that the actual words in Hebrew are, “We will not go up.” Dathan and Abiram refuse to enter into a dialogue with Moses. They lead the people in an uprising but rebuff Moses’ attempt to come together and clarify their complaints to him. They are enthusiastic in rising against Moses, but reject rising up to see Moses. They want to keep their interactions confrontational.
This is further demonstrated by what they say next. Rather than describing their problems, they manipulate the narrative by calling Egypt (the land which enslaved them), the “land flowing with milk and honey.” This phrase comes originally from Exodus 3:7-8, where God tells Moses at the Burning Bush that God will take the Jewish people from the land of Egypt and into the Promised Land, the ‘“land flowing with milk and honey.” For Dathan and Abiram to use that exact wording to describe the land of their oppressors, Egypt, is a calculated lie. It is a debasement of their grievance -- meant to inflame the rebels rather than encourage peaceful resolution. And they underline that when they end their speech by repeating, “We will not go up.”
An important part of J Street’s vision involves bringing discussion and debate within the American Jewish community around policy issues related to Israel. As leaders and supporters of J Street, we should keep this story of Dathan and Abiram at the forefront of our minds when reflecting on this mission. In J Street’s past, we were sometimes excluded from communal discussions. We should be proud that we are included much more now than we were a decade ago. However, we need to consistently challenge ourselves to reach out to others who do not share our political views on Israel. And we need to analyze the ways in which we reach out. Do we attempt to elevate the conversation by seeing the merit and worth in at least some of what our compatriots say? Are we disciplined in researching facts and seeking truth as completely as we can, even when the facts may support another viewpoint? Or do we toss out phrases deliberately meant to agitate our audience?
When Moses hears of the rebels, his initial reaction is to “fall on his face.” The commentators take this as a sign of his humility. He then tells the rebels that God will decide who is right. He debates the issues they bring forward and asks to speak further with them.
Moses was bold in hearing from constituents who were deeply unhappy and approaching them with a presumably open mind and heart. We too should show humility; trust in the Divine; and listen, debate and engage with those with whom we disagree. When we remember not to emulate Dathan and Abiram in our quest for justice in Israel, then will we take our place alongside Moses, as people who argue “for the sake of heaven.”
Rabbi Beth Janus is the chair of the Philadelphia Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street.
Sunday, June 24, 2018
|Davar Torah by Betsy Teutsch|
June 23, 2017
My cousin Daniel shared a story with me on our trip to Petra this spring that has stuck with me.
His non-smoker mom, my aunt, died in her early 60s of lung cancer. Daniel and Barbara both lived in Minneapolis, so he was the anchor caregiver. His older sister, my cousin Laurie, had come in and stayed with their mom 24/7 towards the end, but after 5 days she needed to leave. He had not spent nights with his mom. Back at the hospice, he got up to leave at dinnertime, as was his pattern.
The hospice nurse blocked his path and asked him where was he going? Home, he explained. “No you’re not. Turn right around, go back in to your mom. She won’t be here in the morning.”
He did as bidded, spending his mother’s final night with her. Accompanying her through her death, he told me, was the most meaningful experience of his life.
And, he further shared, he recently heard a woman describe her work as a death doula. He immediately knew he wanted to train and volunteer in this role. Death doulas provide respite care for families of hospice patients, or play a more direct, intimate role for people without nearby family or friends.
Of course our community is blessed to have many professional chaplains and others devoted to the care of elders, and David has edited a book entitled “B’Horef Hayamim, In THe WInter Of Life” - but to my ears the death doula role sounded new and important.
Baby boomers have been characterized as the generation that changes societal norms at every stage of our development - courtship, cohabitation, marriage, childbirth, divorce, retirement.... It makes sense that demedicalizing the dying process will be another boomer focus, not unlike the return to natural childbirth.
When Robert asked me to give a davar, I picked Parshat Hukkat by the date. When I opened it, **there** was my opportunity to explore my conversation with Daniel in our community.
First, our parshah has a lengthy description of the ways in which those in contact with dead bodies become impure, and what is to be done about it. Then we have the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, two of our tradition’s greatest.
Becoming ritually impure, in Temple times, was not unclean, dirty, polluted, or bad. It is a state that contrasts to purity. From an anthropological standpoint, the impurity likely stems from the uncanny liminality of a body after the soul/breath has departed. Perhaps an intuitive germ theory is operating as well, a concern that there may be a contagion that killed the person, as well as a well-observed awareness that dead bodies quickly decompose. Also, sudden deaths destabilize families, bringing grief, danger and vulnerability--certainly an altered state of affairs.
However, our tradition must compromise. Dead bodies need to be attended to respectfully, with the rituals performed quickly by a hevrah kadishah, or Holiness Fellowship. Members of our community participate in Philadelphia’s progressive hevrah kadishah and find the work profound. Attending to the dead is a mitzvah of chesed shel emet, an act of pure kindness, since it cannot be repaid.
In traditional Jewish communities, post the Temple’s destruction, Cohanim are the only category of Jews who may not touch dead bodies, or even be in a graveyard.
But what does our parshah tell us about the process of dying? Genesis features Isaac’s deathbed scene, as well as Jacob’s, but by and large, our foundational text doesn’t tell us much about the dying process. We don’t hear that Miriam moved out of her independent living arrangement into a continuing care community, ultimately dying in its skilled nursing facility, nor do we hear that Aaron aged in place and spent his last days in hospice.
I want to explore this gap. We 21st Century folks are the beneficiaries of, on average, extra decades of life, pushing off death until ages that were formerly so rare as to be mythic. David and I have 2 aunts and an uncle who have lived beyond 100 years. Did you as children ever know anyone over 100?
In biblical times, life expectancy was in the 35 year range, kept low by high infant mortality. This average lifespan (remember for everyone who died at 0 there is also someone who lives to 70, when you are averaging.) didn’t go up until the 18th century--due to modern health discoveries and better diet, more children survived. By the late 19th century life expectancy was 45-50.
For every year of the 20th century, 3 months of life were added to the average life span, or 300 months, plus 5 years have already been added in the 21st century. That means that we have 30 more years than previous generations.
As we are reminded in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, many people die before their time from a wide variety of calamities. But most do not.
This has resulted in huge changes in how we manage old age and infirmity. Formerly people just didn’t live this long. Think about naming. Were you named for a grandparent? Did you name a child for your parents? It is no longer uncommon for babies born, even to parents in their 30s, to have four living grandparents and a few great-grandparents, too.
Families are much smaller than previous generations - a result of lowered infant mortality and family planning - and more geographically dispersed.
This means that many people will live to very old ages without any immediate family, either because they have outlived them all or live far away from them. Friends and community can fill some of that space, but resources are strained taking care of elders who live so so long, often with serious physical and cognitive infirmity.
This presents a major communal challenge that our tradition has little to say about, since our ancestors could not have imagined people living so long. Who could have foreseen segregated elder communities with their own staff, activities, celebrations, and culture?
The deaths in this week’s parshah, Miriam’s and Aaron’s, are simply announced. This was typical for most of human history. Death overtook people quickly before antibiotics and modern medicine.
Now, people live for decades with a variety of chronic conditions. I got close to my aunt when she was in her 80s. I made many trips to Sun City, Arizona, to visit her, each time thinking it was likely our final visit. We celebrated her 90th birthday. Her 95th. Her 99th birthday. Then we were back a year later for her 100th. Now going on 102, she recently shared her bad news. Despite being unable to walk or see much of anything, or hear well, her heart is still strong. She is ready to be done with it, but her body is not cooperating. Perhaps that is a subject of a different davar torah.
What is the role of the community in all of this? We are a multi-generational community. How will we relate to elders at the later stages of life? What are the roles of one’s community, one’s friends, and one’s family, if the dying person has a family?
A little background on the doula movement. It was pioneered at the Shira Ruskay Center of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services and NYU Medical Center, and began pairing five volunteers with patients. The program was ultimately named "Doula to Accompany and Comfort."
“The volunteers went through training on both clinical and spiritual aspects, including but not limited to the complexities of end of life health care, physical issues like incontinence and disorientation, and hope in the face of death.”
The movement has spread. People find the work highly gratifying. There is also a spreading “Death Cafe” initiative, including one hosted in Mt. AIry a few months ago, to bring this sugject out in the open.
- Have you had an experience accompanying a friend or family member through his or her death?
- If you have experience with being part of a Hevrah Kadishah, please share reflections.
- What is the role of our community as we age?
- How does the role of a Death Doula fit into Jewish practice and mitzvot?
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
|Seth, Nami, Zeke and Beth|
Shabbat Shalom. This week’s double Parsha is B’har B’hukotai. When the Israelites originally entered Israel after the Exodus, each family was assigned a plot of land. This Torah portion explains the many rules about the land. There would be six days of work, and then one day of rest. Similarly, there would be six years to work the land and one year to let it rest. In the rest year, the people could only eat what was already grown. After seven seven year cycles, there would be a year called the Yovel or Jubilee. In the Yovel year, the land would not be worked, Jewish slaves would be freed, and everyone would return to their holding. That means that every family would go back to the land that was designated for them many years before. If someone gained more property or wealth, they were obligated to give back to people who lost property and wealth.
The Yovel year, every fiftieth year, particularly stood out to me. Several things are left unclear. The plan is mentioned briefly, but the Torah doesn’t revisit the idea later on. Was the custom of everyone returning to their original property ever observed? We have no evidence either way. If this system was ever used, it would get rid of poverty every fifty years. So why does it say later, in Deuteronomy 15:11 “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.”?
If the Yovel was not observed, was it supposed to be? What can we do to reduce or abolish poverty? The underlying question is: what is the purpose of the Yovel year if not to eradicate poverty? Some commentators say that the Yovel year actually harmed the poorer people because they could not work the land.
What’s the point of the Yovel year and other forms of giving if we’re not going to solve all poverty problems? Why do something if we can’t do everything? We should do something because for those few people that we do help, we make a big difference. If we all help as much as we can, maybe there is a possibility that things can change. By giving to others, we set examples for our peers. Eventually, many people are doing the right thing because of one small action. So we should do what we can, even if it won’t make a broad difference itself, because it can inspire everyone around you to do the same.
Many famous rabbis and commentators have struggled to understand the purpose of the Yovel. Rashi says that these rest years are created for one main purpose, to let the land rest. He knew that crops grew better right after the rest years. I don’t like Rashi’s explanation because he doesn’t focus on the consequences for the people. Rambam gives two reasons for the rest years. One is the agricultural benefit and the other is that these years actually help needy people. He says that the acts of freeing slaves, canceling debts, and making sure needy people have food were created to teach sympathy towards others. If everyone saw how much needy people were being helped during these times, then maybe they would be encouraged to help in the future. I agree with Rambam because he acknowledges that the Yovel helps crops grow, but he also focuses on how it can make people better. Nehama Leibowitz says that the Yovel year was designed to keep an even distribution of wealth, thus helping the poor people. I like this opinion too because while we can always help people who don’t have enough, many people do not help them. However, I think that the benefits to the land are also key. These rules were logical as well as moral. The rest years helped crops grow by letting the nutrients replenish. The system was originally created to govern what happens to the land.
I believe that the Yovel year should be a reminder for us all. If every fifty years nobody is extremely poor, then maybe we would try to keep everything that way. However, God knows that not everyone will do the right thing and that is why the Yovel needs to be repeated every fifty years. I think that the vision of the Torah is to limit and keep poverty within boundaries. In the ideal world there would be no poverty and everyone would have everything necessary to survive. While it would be amazing to live in a world like that, people need to change a lot in order for it to be possible. The best we can get is a little sneak peek every fifty years. While we do not practice the laws of the Yovel, the government raises money to give food and shelter for poorer people. But it’s still not enough. Even though we will never live in a perfect world, we still learn about these practices so we can get the world to a place as close to there as we can.
Today, we can still try our best to improve the lives of others. For my Mitzvah project I went to Nicaragua and built a house for a poor family. Through an organization called La Esperanza Granada I funded and helped with the work for this family. I got to know a 12 year old girl and a 10 year old boy who live very different lives from my own. The family’s house was a corrugated iron lean to until my project. While their new house was nowhere near as nice as mine, my actions helped level the playing field. I took some time and money from my own life and gave it to the Nicaraguan family. The organization that helped us build the house also helped the kids go to school. My project was the Yovel on a much smaller scale. If everyone did small deeds like that, slowly the world would become better for everyone. We can all do our part by doing everything to help both poor and needy people. The most that each of us can do is help lots of people as often as possible and also inspire others around us to do the same. These actions are a form of Gemilut Hasadim because they are good deeds that individuals choose to do.
Individuals contributing is great, but it can never solve the problem. The government mandates forms of giving, such as taxes. This is similar to Tzedakah because in Jewish law everyone is forced to give money and time to help others. Gracious people help, but often the people that have the resources are not the people who want to give. Because of situations like this, more of a difference is made if people are forced to help. The biggest thing our government does for people in poverty is raise taxes. The government takes money from the people and uses some of it to help people who can’t afford food, education, and housing. Similarly to the Yovel, taxes take from people who have more than their allotment and give to people who have less. Like the Yovel, taxes seem like they would solve all poverty problems. However, people who have more money are more reluctant to help, even if they are required by law to do so. Other people believe that giving mandated contributions is enough and because they pay taxes they shouldn’t do anything else. Some leaders in our government want taxes to be lower even though they have the money. Our world will not become a better place until everyone helps as much as they can.
A lot of people were part of putting together this weekend. I want to thank Rebekah Robinson for teaching me the service and my Haftorah. Thank you to Camp Ramah and my teachers at Perelman and Barrack for teaching me about Judaism and how to be a good person. Thank you to Dorshei Derech for allowing me to leyn for money that went towards my Mitzvah project. Thank you to Rabbi Adam for helping with my Dvar and Rabbi Alanna for teaching BBMM. Thank you to Zekie for leading Ashrei and for being a fun brother when you’re not being annoying. Finally, I want to thank my parents, for figuring out the logistics for the whole weekend, for helping me learn my Torah, for helping with my Dvar, and for preparing me for this day. Shabbat Shalom.
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Friday, October 13, 2017
This program will be the 2nd of our Stefan Presser Social Justice Shabbatot.
Rabbi Michael Ramberg will be our darshan at approx 11:30.
Following a Lunchy Kiddush, he will speak about the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.
Stefan Presser Committee:
Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein - chair
Donald Joseph, chair emeritas
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
This kavanah was presented by Bob at Passover Yizkor 2017. It is up at his blog Light Amidst Doubt.
A few days after the news of the vandalism to Mount Carmel cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia, I was there as a rabbi aiding the multi-faith cleanup efforts. There were Jewish volunteers from many neighborhoods and congregations, Muslims, and Christians. Of course there had been vandalism. But part of the story was obscured by the focus on antisemitism. I worked with volunteers pulling inches of dirt and feet of weeds off of long-fallen and sometimes partially buried tombstones, some broken. These had not been damaged in the last week. One of the less-publicized aspects of the clean-up was that some of the volunteer teams had been assigned to try and catalogue the names and locations of every one of the graves. No registry could be found. Laws about cemeteries in Pennsylvania, which like this one can be privately owned, are notably lax. This was a neglected cemetery, with almost no care or records in recent years, from what I could observe. Yet each of these stones represented a story, a life, a fragment of a journey of our people.
A few weeks later I was in Barcelona. Some parts of the old Jewish quarter (Call) can still be seen in the old Gothic Quarter. My wife Ruth and I took a Jewish walking tour, and the guide pointed out the clearly visible pieces of Hebrew gravestones imbedded in various medieval walls. After the Jews had been expelled in 1492, their cemetery was destroyed and stones re-used for buildings. The renewed Jewish community and historians have located the medieval Jewish cemetery and have had it designated an historic site, with a monument. Again, the Jews scattered, but every stone was a story, each fragment a fragment of a life.
I was reminded of a scene in a recent documentary film about modern Poland. In one small town, a young Catholic man in his thirties was researching the history of the vanished Jewish community – which did not make him popular. He found many stones from the Jewish cemetery used as paving stones and in building foundations. He removed those stones and brought them back to the site of the cemetery. In the film, the young man made a trip to Israel, with photos and maps, to consult with an Orthodox rabbi – a setting he did not usually enter. The Orthodox rabbi probably did not often meet with young Catholics, either. The question the young man asked was having recovered these tombstones, would it be disrespectful to erect them upright in the cemetery, since no one knew exactly where they had stood in 1939. He wanted to do the right thing. The rabbi approved, and said this project would honor the dead. (The film was Shtetl  by Marian Marzynski, and the town was Bransk.)
This reminded me of the midrash about the fragments of the first tablets, broken and no longer legible, also being honored and carried by the Israelites. (BT Bava Batra 14b.)
Sometimes we have whole stories. Sometimes we have memories of our parents, children, siblings, grandparents. But there are also generations who came before them, people whose names we do not know, but whose lives and sacred journeys are part of our Jewish story. Sometimes we have only fragments. We also honor them along with the broken graves and stones.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of the RRA Connection newsletter, publication of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which I edit. Reprinted by permission.