Thursday, June 26, 2008

Between the Living and the Dead:
A Qorahh ShulDrasha

(just imagine you're sitting in shul between Leining and Musaf)

Only a few minutes ago
we read one of the most dramatic verses in the תורה,
if not in all of our Scripture —
the point at which אהרן saves the day.

However, in order to speak about that point,
we have to start again at the beginning of the story.

We just read how קרח was משה and אהרן's cousin,
and he led a rebellion that challenged their authority,
couched in religious language.

קרח and 250 of his co-conspirators
claimed the right to make themselves כהנים
and to replace אהרן as the כהן גדול, the high priest appointed by God.

At the same time, דתן and אבירם,
two other influential men among בני־ישראל,
led a parallel rebellion —
couching their challenge in political terms instead,
and taking aim at משה as the leader of the Israelite Nation.
דתן and אבירם, and their people,
ended up swallowed by the Earth.

But קרח cloaked his rebellion in religious language.
“All members of the nation are holy!” he said,
כל העדה כולם קדושים
‘אהרן was not picked by God —
any of us could do what he does.’

And so משה responded with a challenge of his own.
‘Fine, קרח,’ he said,
‘You think you can do אהרן's job?
Why don't you try it.’
He arranged a showdown between אהרן and קרח,
and קרח's 250 fellow would-be priests —
they would each take a firepan,
and place coals in it,
and offer up קטורת, incense, to God.

And when the aromatic smoke of the incense
rose up to Heaven...
a fire came out from God
and consumed all of them
All that was left was אהרן, untouched,
and 250 used firepans lying among the ashes.

The next day —
the day after fire came from Heaven,
the day after the Earth opened up —
כל עדת בני־ישראל
the entire community of the Israelite Nation
ganged up against משה and אהרן.
“אתם המיתם את עם ה!” they accused them —
“You have killed God's people!”

And then God's anger began to work against them, too.
It spread like a plague through the encampment.
And משה told אהרן to once again pick up his firepan,
and take up some fire and some קטורת,
and offer it
to atone for the people
and their misdirected rage.

And so אהרן ran out into the midst of the people,
and offered the incense —
ויעמד בין המתים ובין החיים
וַתֵּעָצַר המגפה

He stood
between the dead and the living
and the plague

Now, my mind is saturated
with 21st-century ideas
of special effects.
And so I imagine this scene like it were a movie —
אהרן standing there, freeze-frame,
or maybe one of those ultra-slow-motion circling shots like in The Matrix,
and he's holding the firepan and the קטורת.
Before him are people in pain,
Anger of God flashing among them like lightning
or wafting among them like smoke;
while behind him are people in fear,
confused by death,
fresh out of slavery,
still unable to move from throwing tantrums
to taking responsibility.

And there stands אהרן,
the first High Priest of the Israelite Nation —
standing there between the living and the dead —
and the plague stops.

מדרש תנחומא
offers a number of attempts by חז"ל, by our Sages,
to describe this scene.

When אהרן runs out to stop the plague,
when he rushes out into the path of the wrath of God,
he confronts the Angel of Death, they say,
and he tells it,

רבי יצחק describes
how אהרן bear-hugged the Angel of Death
and wrestled it
to a standstill.

רבי יהודה בר סימון
gives not just images
but words
to this confrontation.
When אהרן stands in the way of the Angel of Death
and tells it ‘You cannot pass!’
the Angel responds very simply —
‘Yeah? I'm on a mission from God.”
And אהרן says,
I'm on a mission from משה...
and you know what?
God and משה are hanging out
back at their אהל מועד,
their Tent of Meeting right over there —
let's go ask them
which one of us wins this fight.”

And רבי אבהו
in the name of רבי שמעון בן לקיש
that when אהרן saw
that the Angel of Death refused to yield,
he raised his firepan of incense
like a shield in front of Death
or a mask before his face.

This very same pan of incense
that caused the death of קרח
and his 250 compatriots —
אהרן now used it to save the lives
of all of בני־ישראל.

A number of the medieval commentators —
רש"י, רשב"ם, חזקוני —
all point this out.

It was the very same קטורת.

And קטורת, they say,
is סם. A drug.
And like any drug —
any compound
in certain circumstances it's a סם חיים,
a medicine that preserves life;
and in other circumstances it can be a סם מוות,
a deadly poison.

But it's not just קטורת
that leads this double life;
everything that God gives us in this world
can be used for the purposes God intended —
preserving life,
teaching truth,
performing kindness,
exploring knowledge,
developing a relationship with God —

But everything that God gives us in this world
can also be mis-used
to hurt, to kill,
to spread hate,
to mutilate souls...

We have the medical technology
to literally edit the genetic makeup of bacteria
and rewrite cells to produce life-saving insulin;
on the other hand, we've also seen the artificial harnessing
of horrific diseases
for fighting human wars.

Even תורה can be mis-used against its own holy purpose,
as קרח couched his rebellion in religious language.

And all of us,
at one time or another
have used our power of speech
in ways that caused pain to others
whether intentionally
or by accident.

Each one of us
has their own powers, talents, and gifts
that were given to us by the Creator of Worlds.

So we're living in a state of Exile —
we don't have קטורת anymore,
or כהנים trained to use it.
We can't call upon God
and expect fire from Heaven
to incinerate God's enemies.

But we have strength and will,
we have knowledge and faith,
science and technology,
literature and art —
we have a world that's full
of Divine gifts
and full of creations
that we ourselves made
because we are created in the image of God.

And all of it can be turned into poison.

But that's not what it's here for.
'Cause that's not what we're here for.

Back in the very beginning of the תורה,
at the end of Creation,
God saw everything that God created
and it was all “very good”
but it's our responsibility
to take that potential
which exists within ourselves
and within everything else in the universe
and turn it into reality.

Everything we do
is incense.
Everything we do
is the aromatic smoke of קטורת.

And just like אהרן,
who took his stand
in the midst of the people
with a pan of smoking incense in his hand,
we too can stand
between the living and the dead
and raise the smell
of life and holiness
in the face of despair.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cracks in the Frank Fort

Something's eating away at the foundations of "Frankfurt on Hudson", K'hal Adath Jeshurun, a.k.a. the Breuer's community, in Washington Heights, Manhattan.

From the Jewish Press

Controversial Moments
At Rav S. R. Hirsch Memorial Celebration

Speaking at the 200th birthday celebration of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch this past Shabbos, Khal Adath Jeshurun’s Rav Yisroel Mantel declared that the philosophical credo of Rav Hirsch, Torah Im Derech Eretz, is not viable in the absence of its chief advocate.


Rav Mantel’s declaration, which angered many in the community, came at a sit-down kiddush at Dr. Raphael Moller Hall in Washington Heights after Shabbos morning services. He said that only Rav Hirsch, a great man who knew the fine boundaries between what is religiously permissible and what is prohibited, could make Torah Im Derech Eretz workable.

Our generation, he said, must follow today’s gedolei HaTorah (great Torah leaders).

After Shabbos, Dr. Eric Erlbach, KAJ president for over two decades, resigned.


Samson Bechhofer, a great-great-grandchild of Rav Hirsch, spoke first at the kiddush. The synagogue’s choir conductor and a lawyer by profession, Bechhofer lamented the educational policies of the community’s Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch school in recent years.

“If the goal of our kehilla and yeshiva is to have all of our sons and daughters end up in Lakewood – and I use Lakewood as a metaphor – then I submit that we are not being faithful to our founder’s philosophy or Weltanschauung, nor are we doing the future of our kehilla any great favors,” Bechhofer said.

Rav Mantel stood up and walked out of the hall at these words. He later returned and told the several hundred assembled that “grandchildren and lawyers” will not decide how to implement Torah Im Derech Eretz.


hhakhamim (and the rest of us too), hizaharu bedivreikhem!
also, you know what they say about what happens when you assume...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Declaration Drip Like Dew (Deut 32:2)

This past Friday Night, I experimented with a new meditative davening practice. Now, this isn't usually the kind of thing I'm into, but the week before, I tried out some meditation with some neighbors at shul and had a surprisingly good experience. So this all just sort of percolated in my head during Minhha and Ma‘ariv at the beginning of Shabbat.

From a friend of mine in high school, my rav, and a few other people, I picked up the habit of sometimes clasping my hands together while davening. So that's the first step: Clasp your hands together in front of your belly or chest, but leave space between the palms. What you're trying to do is create an empty space between your hands as they come together, so that you can fill the empty space with the prayer.

The next step is to imagine the words of the siddur as a physical presence leaving your mouth as you pronounce them. You can imagine them as words, as images, as smoke or vapor, or as a liquid flowing or dripping. It could be steam like on a winter day wafting out between your lips; it could be stones or building blocks tumbling out over your teeth; it could be rain dripping or a stream flowing out of your mouth. Each berakha or prayer can have its own unique color, texture, or object visualization, or the visualizations could shift organically from word to word or phrase to phrase. It may help if you're synesthetic, but you don't need to be (I'm not).

As each word, phrase, berakha or prayer flows, wafts, drips, or drops out of your mouth, visualize it entering into the space between your hands, swirling together cumulatively into a swirling ball of light. Each new color or texture adds another shade to the glowing 'prayer-ball' swirling around in the gap between your cupped hands. It can rotate smooth and shiny with calm serenity, or roil with boiling passion — whatever you're feeling as you pray.

At the end of the exercise, unclasp your hands and visualize releasing the glowing ball of prayer, so that it can float away to God. I've been doing this exercise for the ‘Amida, and releasing it at the words יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון לבי לפניך ה' צורי וגואלי — may the pronouncement of my mouth and the expression of my heart be accepted before you, God, my rock and redeemer, at the very end.

(isn't photoshop great?)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Crazy Jewish Linguist At Work

Bheaidhhí bímé siophót haissophtaom, bheaidhhí rá'ábh bá'áraeots; bheaidhdhéleiach ís mibBéith Leiachaem Dhiohúdhá lághúr biaSdhaéi Mó'ábh — hú bhio'istó uistaéo bhánáibh. Bhiséim há'ís Elímeileiach, bhiséim istó Ná'omaoí, bhiséim sionaéo bhánáibh Machlón bhioChuieldheón, eiphráthaom mibBéith Leiachaem Dhiohúdhá; bheaidhdheábhó'ú Sdhaéi Mó'ábh, bheaidhdhuiohdhiú seám. Bheaidhdheámoth Elímeileiach ís Ná'omaoí — bheattuiesseá'ér hí, uistaéo bhánaeiheá. Bheaidhdhuios'ú láhaeom náisím Mó'ábhaoidheóth — séim há'achath Orpá, bhiséim haisséníth Rúth; bheaidhdhéisbhú seám co'aeosaeir seánaom. Bheaidhdheámúthú ghám sionaéheim, Machlón bhioChuieldheón; bheattuiesseá'ér há'isseá missionaéo dhioládhaeohá, úmé'íseá. Bheattácom hí bhiochallóthaeohá, bheattáiseobh miaSdhaéi Mó'ábh; cao seám'á biaSdhaéi Mó'ábh cao phácádh Adhónáidh eiath ammó láthaéoth láhaeom láchaeom...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Like Na‘omi Returning From Mo’av

I walked over 300 blocks (=15 miles) this Shavu‘os, back and forth between different neighborhoods in Manhattan for purposes of Learning, Davening, Eating, Showering, Hanging Out, and Visiting. Not quite as far as Sinai, but close. And it was mad hot out, but not on those viaducts by the Hudson River at 6am. But I can't shake the feeling that maybe stepping into a pleasantly-airconditioned but frighteningly-upscale mall for a break might have an aura of mar’it ‘ayin about it. Also, did anyone else notice the sun being an incredibly deep dark orange color about half an hour before sunset, hanging over the Palisades set like a brooding emo kid in their chair?