Only Prayers

There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion, Mattot. We are coming to the end of the book of Numbers in our weekly Torah reading cycle, and the Israelites are poised on the eastern side of the Jordan river ready to enter into the promised land. Their years of wandering are over, they have come almost to the end of their journey. (Deutoronomy is essentially one long speech of Moses, in the narrative the Israelites stay put.)

At the end of this week’s reading, the heads of the tribe of Gad and Reuben come to Moses and the other leaders of the community with a request. They are cattle ranchers, and they noticed that the land they have just come to settle in, on the eastern side of the Jordan, is perfect for cattle raising. Is it possible, they ask, to be assigned this portion of the land as their territory? In other words, could they stay on this side of the Jordan and not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites?

Moses considers this request and agrees on one condition: they first enter into the land with the rest of the Israelites, and once the land is settled they can return to the other side of the river and settle there.

On the one hand, an anthropological reading of the text can say that this story comes to fill in the back story as to how certain tribes wound up living where they did, especially that certain tribes are outside the land that was talked about in the text.

Reading this story now symbolically, two things come to mind: The Gadites and the Reubenites were part of the larger community of Israelites, and even though they wanted to live in a geographically distinct area away from the Israelites, they needed to still be mindful that they are part of a larger whole, and they needed to support the other tribes. Or, in other words, single communities separated by geography need to support one another. This motivation is what perhaps drives our connection to Israel-we are geographically distinct yet feel a bond through our membership in the Jewish people. And this is why the pain over what Israel experiences and what Israel does is that much more acute.

The evil dark side is that Jews everywhere are being held responsible by others for what is happening right now. John Lloyd, writing in Reuters, notes:

…There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London – and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.

People from Sri Lanka didn’t live in fear when their government was pounding the Tamil Tigers into submission, with thousands of deaths. Chinese visitors are undisturbed by reaction to their government’s suppression of dissent in Tibet and its jailing of dissidents. And quite right, too. Who knows what Russians, Sri Lankans or Chinese abroad think about their governments’ actions?

Jews, by contrast, are held responsible by large numbers of non-Jews in Western democratic countries for Israeli actions. That’s all Jews, whatever their views on the Israeli response to the rockets fired on Israel from Gaza. Sometimes, the reaction goes much further than disapproval.

Lloyd notes the increase in seemingly unchecked anti-Semitism, including riots and a fire-bombing of a synagogue in France. This has been just as horrifying to watch as what is happening in Israel and something we can not take lightly.

A second understanding of the Torah story this week  is that sometimes separation is what is necessary in order to move forward, and that an original vision sometimes needs to be amended. In the Torah the original vision of all the tribes living together in the land needed to be changed to allow for the fulfillment of the request of the Gadites and the Reubenites. But this was perhaps a necessary step for the Israelites to continue.

Etgar Karet, a noted Israeli author, wrote a powerful op-ed about “peace.” That word is probably doing more harm than good he writes, because it take the human actors out of the mix. Reflecting on both an interview he conducted with Prime Minister Netanyahu and on his son’s second grade class, he writes,

It turned out that Netanyahu, a courageous former officer in an elite combat unit who had faced impossible odds in battle, thinks like my son and his classmates do when it comes to peace. I don’t want to spoil the mood of my prime minister or a class of second-grade kids, but I have a strong gut feeling that God won’t be giving us peace any time soon; we’re going to have to make an effort to achieve it on our own. And if we succeed, neither we nor the Palestinians will receive it free of charge.

Peace, by definition, is compromise between sides, and in that kind of compromise, each side has to pay a genuine, heavy price, not just in territories or money but also in a true change of worldview.

That’s why the first step might be to stop using the debilitating word “peace,” which has long since taken on transcendental and messianic meanings in both the political left and right wings, and replace it immediately with the word “compromise.” It might be a less rousing word, but at least it reminds us that the solution we are so eager for can’t be found in our prayers to God but in our insistence on a grueling, not always perfect dialogue with the other side.

True, it’s more difficult to write songs about compromise, especially the kind my son and other kids can sing in their angelic voices. And it doesn’t have the same cool look on T-shirts. But in contrast to the lovely word that demands nothing of the person saying it, the word “compromise” insists on the same preconditions from all those who use it: They must first agree to concessions, maybe even more – they must be willing to accept the assumption that beyond the just and absolute truth they believe in, another truth may exist. And in the racist and violent part of the world I live in, that’s nothing to scoff at.

These words are very powerful. It strikes me that this conflict is one that is being waged by those on both sides who have a greater-almost messianic-vision of how things should be. These visions will only perpetuate conflict and not bring about a resolution. “Compromise” is a better word than peace since it is more realistic and descriptive of what needs to happen. What needs to happen is that people need to give up the visions of what they think things should be, and instead see where they can compromise and give up and separate from, in order to move forward.

How we get there, I don’t know. But here is one thing.

In Israel and all across the world this past Tuesday Jews and Muslims were getting together to break the Muslim fast of Ramadan and the Jewish fast of the 17th of Tammuz. The joint fasts were to be seen as “hunger strikes” against violence and as prayers for life and peace. The initial effort was organized by a colleague of mine from Rabbis Without Borders who lives in Israel.

We didn’t have a big event here in Olympia, but I did head over to the mosque at the end of the day to join in prayers and iftar, the breaking of the fast. It was a small scale opportunity to share an experience and join together in common cause and friendship.

I don’t normally fast on the 17th of Tammuz. It is a minor fast day, and there are even some authorities who say that in times of peace and security the fast will be optional. That is definitely not the case this year, and with the added kavannah (intention) mentioned above, I took on the fast this year.

It was truly a compelling experience. In another sphere of my rabbinic life and learning these days I have been reflecting on the nature of prayer. I will be sharing more on that later, but for now I can say that the fast itself-which unlike Yom Kippur we undertake while we go about our normal daily business-was a type of prayer. A continuous beseeching of God throughout the day.

What was my prayer?

Please, God, let us

End the violence

Be kept from hatred and scorn

Stop creating false divisions

Learn to know when we need to pull back and compromise

See the death of all children as a fundamental tragedy

Deeply hear and understand each other’s narrative.

There is more to pray for I know. But for now, I’ll just leave it at that.


Peace Fast

My heart has been heavy this past week reading the news coming out of the Middle East.

Beginning with the kidnapping and murder of three young Israeli yeshiva students, followed by the horrendous revenge killing of an even younger Palestinian boy, we are witnessing a deepening round of violence. As rockets land in Israel and airstrikes hit Gaza, a cease-fire is broken and we have spiraled into another round of violence. Extremism and violence has once again won the day.

While there are moments of hope and light-the families of the IsraeIi and Palestinian youths have reached out to eachother and both publically denounced the violence and hatred which led to the death of their children-that is overshadowed by the darkness. I grieve for the loss of life, the fear which grips all who live there and the zealotry that has led to this result.

I chose that last term purposefully because it brings to mind this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. We are reading this week in our Torah reading cycle in the book of Numbers. Our portion actually picks up in the middle of a story begun last week: The Israelites while wandering in the desert began to associate with (and have sexual relations with) the Moabites. This then led the Israelites adopting the Moabite gods. God becomes incensed at this sinful behavior, and orders Moses to carry out a punishment.

Just then an Israelite takes a Midianite woman and has sex with her in the Tent of Meeting, in the sacred central gathering space. Pinchas, a priest, takes a spear, goes in after them and kills them both by impaling them with the spear through both of their torsos. With that act a plague, which we can assume was a punishment for the previous idolatrous behavior, ends. And at that, last week’s portion Balak ends.

It is a bit of a cliffhanger. While we know the plague ends, what of Pinchas? Is there any more fallout from his act? This week’s portion opens with God offering Pinchas a blessing, recognizing that it was Pinchas’ action which ended the punishment. God offers Pinchas and his descendants a place in the priesthood and a brit shalom, a pact of peace. The Torah appears to condone his act.

The term zealot because that is the term usually invoked to describe Pinchas and his act. Pinchas was a zealot, who in his passion and zeal kills two people in the name of God. Is Pinchas rewarded for his act of zealotry? Is the Torah telling us that violence in the name of God is a good thing?

Its not quite clear. What is a brit shalom? What is a “pact” or “covenant” of shalom? One way of understanding this-an as some translations bear out-is God is making a special relationship with Pinchas, a “pact of friendship” in which, presumably, God has Pinchas’ back since Pinchas had God’s.

But why would God offer a pact of shalom? Maybe this is not so much a reward for Pinchas’ behavior as a check on it.

A colleague of mine from the CLAL Rabbis Without Borders program, Rav Hanan Schlesinger, writes,

Rabbi Naftalie Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known by the acronym Netziv, answers by way of a deep psychological insight. Violence, even when justified, leaves an ugly scar on the soul. The seeds of callous disregard for the preciousness of human life are implanted by every act of aggression, not matter what the context. A little bit of one’s humanity is lost.

God’s ‘covenant of peace’ is an antidote to the pernicious effects of Pinchas’s zealotry. It is a promise that he will be spared the almost inevitable lot of all perpetrators of violence. The Netziv reminds us that violence of all types eats away at us from within, and a counterweight must be quickly provided to prevent the damage from spreading. It is true for the individual and it is true for the collective.

Another way of looking at this is that blessing one who demonstrated anger and violence with “peace” can be understood as disapproval-Pinchas needs more shalom in his temperament for his natural inclination is to act violently. Pinchas in his extremism demonstrated the opposite of shalom, so God blesses him with it.

A hint at this meaning is found in the text itself. Based on an early medieval tradition, in the Torah scroll, the vav in the word shalom is written broken:

Here too is a criticism of Pinchas. As one Torah scribe put it, the authors of the scroll “must have been shocked by the violence of Pinchas’ action as they made his blessing only partial through the broken vav which explains that true peace cannot be brought about through violence and that the two concepts are incompatible.” (Thanks to Toby Shulruff for this cite.) Or maybe another way to put it is to say that Pinchas, through his act of violence, is broken or scarred.

Peace brought by violence is broken. Zealous behavior leaves physical and emotional scars. Revenge is not the way. Acts of zealotry is driving this conflict. Acts of compassion and control can hopefully end it.

This upcoming week, on Tuesday, is the 17th of Tammuz. In our tradition it is a fast day, a day of mourning, remembering the time the Babylonians breached the wall of Jerusalem during their conquest in the 6th century BCE. The day ushers in a period known as “The Three Weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av-the Ninth of Av-a day of mourning to commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temple.

The 17th of Tammuz is a minor fast day, both in the technical sense of being a sunrise to sundown fast (as opposed to a 24 hour fast like Yom Kippur), but also in the sense that it is not widely observed outside of traditional circles. Maybe this is the year to make an exception.

Noting that we are also in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a month marked by day-long fasting, Rabbi Schlesinger (an Orthodox rabbi) is part of an effort to make this Tuesday a joint day of fasting-for peace and non-violence. Rabbi Arthur Waskowalso notes such a project. By using the fast day to focus our spiritual energy in this way, then perhaps it can be the “brit shalom” that is so desperately needed right now.

This Tuesday we can fast for peace. So we can hopefully have peace fast.

A Post-”Hobby Lobby” Fourth

Tomorrow we celebrate the Fourth of July, the central observance of our civil religion as Americans.

I believe that as Jews, we need to pay particular attention to the observance of this day. As a minority in this country, we are indebted to the founding principles and values of America. It is the idea of America—with its emphasis on freedom, equality and rights—that has allowed the Jewish community to flourish in its diversity.

Even in the State of Israel there are limits when it comes to religious liberty among Jews (there is freedom of religion for other faiths). With elements of the establishment in the hands of the Orthodox, one expression of Judaism has official sanction leading to tensions with more liberal expressions of Judaism and clashes over access to sacred spaces.

America is not without its challenges as well. That same freedom that allows for the diversity of expression among Jews also raises new questions about Jewish continuity as we Jews—like other populations—find ourselves no longer confined to ethnic enclaves but in shared community with people of different backgrounds, faiths and cultures.

And more recently we are seeing an evaluation of how religious liberty is understood in our country.

We come to celebrate this July 4th not long after the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Hobby Lobby case, which essentially gave the right of closely-held corporations to exercise religious liberty by opting out of the provision of the Affordable Care Act to cover certain types of  women’s contraception.

There are many analyses of this decision to be shared by greater legal minds than mine (despite winning the Rockland County Mock Trial championship in 1990). This case includes elements of reproductive justice, women’s rights, corporate personhood, health care reform and religious liberty.

But it is the last part which captures my attention as a rabbi (well, the others do as well.) As a member of a minority faith I have felt that principles of religious liberty are in place to protect the minority from the majority. This decision however gives those in power (employers) the ability to impose their religious beliefs over those without power (employees). That is a dangerous precedent.

On the one hand, I am glad that the court affirmed the principle of religious liberty in the first place. The fact is Hobby Lobby holds the free exercise of religion to be a fundamental value. The question comes in its execution and how to balance differing expressions of religious faith. And this is an on-going question.

A story: when we moved into our new building a decade ago, we undertook as a congregation a re-evaluation of our food policy. Our TBH food policy is essentially our communal minhag (custom) when it comes to kashrut (dietary laws), and as we were moving into a new home with a new kitchen, the Ritual Committee decided it was a good opportunity to reexamine our practices.

As we began to settle on particulars—maintaining a dairy/vegetarian kitchen, allowing for food prepped at home, affirming our support of organics and food that reflected environmental and social justice principles—the question arose as to the scope of the policy. In other words, to whom would the policy apply?

While it was clear it would apply to Temple events, what about the private meals of our staff? We also had contractors working on our building who took a break for lunch. And when we hosted the homeless shelter, the guests brought their own food. We knew that not everyone of these people were Jewish.

It was determined that our food policy would not apply to those working for TBH, either permanently as staff or temporarily as a contractor. It would also not apply to the guests of the shelter. The only stipulation is that any food that is brought into the TBH building that does not meet the guidelines of the food policy not be brought into the kitchen. The sentiment, in short, was not to impose our practices on those who didn’t share our religious values, even though they were in our building or working for us. We did have that right, but didn’t exercise it.

I know this isn’t the best analogy, but it was an example in which I wrestled with when and how to apply religious preferences. And for me this was part of a larger process of engaging with issues of religious expression and issues of church/state.

Prior to entering the rabbinate, I was a strict separationalist when it came to church/state issues. Now I am not so sure. The separation of church and state comes with benefits to faith communities. Yet at the same time it comes with restrictions.

It was the separation of church and state which allowed local churches to host Camp Quixote, but it is also the separation of church and state which forbids faith communities from holding services in city parks. It is the separation of church and state which exempts TBH from property taxes, but it is the separation of church and state which excludes TBH staff from unemployment pay.

There are those who argue that the benefits are unfair, and those who argue that the restrictions are unfair. But the point is this: as we celebrate July 4th once again, we are ever mindful of the fact that our country is a continuous work in progress. We Jews accept the rights and freedoms that come to us. And we need to accept the responsibilities to help guarantee them for all.

Two Votes on Divestment

Recently we have seen two votes taken around divestment from Israel.

First, the student senate at the University of Washington overwhelming voted (59-8) to not support BDS and divest from companies doing business with Israel. This was an important victory because while the resolution was about economic divestment, because it was an academic institution, the specter of academic boycott–which I believe to be a particularly dangerous and misguided type of boycott–looms large.

Second, the Presbyterian Church USA unfortunately supported divestment by a close vote of 310-303.

The vote by the Presbyterians was interesting. On the one hand, the resolution was somewhat nuanced. They didn’t divest from Israeli companies, they divested from American companies doing business with Israel. (Let’s see how many churches swap out their HP printers). They also went out of their way to affirm the legitimacy of state of Israel, a two state solution as the resolution to the conflict and disavow any connection with the global BDS movement.

On the other hand, undercutting any nuance was a text calledZionism Unsettled, a terrible piece of propaganda that doesn’t separate legitimate criticism from demagoguery and draws erroneous conclusions about Judaism and Zionism. While the “official” leadership distanced itself from it, it still has a presence and impact and makes worse an already troubling decision. (For a great response to this text by a Presbyterian minister, see here.)

I had many thoughts following the PC(USA) vote, and some were articulated recently by Jane Eisner in a piece in theForward called Why Presbyterian Divestment Feels Like Anti-Semitism. In it she writes,

But divestment is not only about wielding punishment; it’s about shaping a moral conversation. Some of us feel as good about withholding our dollars as we do about spending them. The Presbyterians stressed that the vote was a statement about the occupation, not about Israel’s right to exist or, heaven forfend, their love of their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Ah, but it is. Because when they singled out only Israel’s actions, troubling though they may be, at a time when the region is aflame with tribal violence, they did hold one nation to a standard that others are not obliged or expected to meet. How is that not unfair and hypocritical? How does that not undermine Israel’s legitimacy?

I sometimes think the argument “What about China? What about Syria?”-i.e., raising other countries with bad human rights records who do not get targeted for divestment-is not the strongest one. But this situation to me feels different to me.

The BDSers I see most are those whose motivation I fail to grasp-who claim to fight for social justice yet only in certain instances, who speak out of both sides of their mouths when they speak of Israel’s legitimacy and harbor those who hold feelings of hatred toward Israel and Jews. And whose approach to Israel and history are much like the theology of religious fundamentalists-they hold the truth, there is only one right narrative, and they are unable to hear anything else.

But when a Christian denomination, ostensibly with discernment, passes a resolution about the only Jewish state, while other nations get a pass? I can only hope they had the perspective about what this might mean in our contemporary age, as well as fully grasping the history of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in this country and abroad, as well as the Jewish historical experience.

That’s why I found the Eisner piece was so interesting. Here is where I stand: I support Israel and I oppose the occupation. I support a two-state solution. And I oppose BDS because movements for justice should be affirming of all, rather than demonizing of some. I do hold Israel to a higher standard because I’m Jewish, a rabbi, and I want all members of the Jewish people to be upright when it comes to moral and ethical behavior. So I feel free to carefully and legitimately criticize when I feel I need to because I do it out of love and deep relationship. But when others do it?

[Transparency alert: I write these thoughts with trepidation because I am aware there is no other issue I have seen as a litmus test for Jewish belonging more than Israel. Israel touches at the core of one's Jewish identity, whether one religious or not. I respect and honor that, and share it myself. But it also seems that even if I utter a whiff of criticism my integrity to serve as a rabbi (a rabbi!) is questioned.]

I don’t know what is going to happen next. Locally, Israel rarely comes up with my Christian clergy colleagues, and I foresee working alongside the local Presbyterian churches on issues of common concern as we have up to this point.

And while I do not underestimate the threat BDS raises, ultimately it appears the minor victories of BDS (in addition to UW and the other many losses) have remained just that-minor. The Olympia Food Co-op boycott did not spark a run of other boycotts. The decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli scholarship brought a round of denouncement and no copycats. Time will tell whether other Christian denominations follow the Presbyterians.

Rather than these minor gestures, I would like to see bold gestures: Hamas renouncing violence and recognizing Israel, whoever kidnapped those three young yeshiva students returning them unhurt, Netanyahu halting all settlement construction.

That is what will bring peace to the Holy Land. And for that I pray.

Korach Gone But Still Here

This week in our Torah reading cycle we come to the story of Korach.

Korach was a member of the Levite tribe, the tribe in which was invested the mantle of leadership of the Israelite community. Moses was of the Levites, and so was Aaron, his brother, whose line became the priesthood. The other non-priest Levites were charged with other aspects of communal service, mostly around the organization and transportation of the Tabernacle.

The story of Korach is the story of rebellion, in which he leads a revolt against the leadership of Moses. Korach assembles 250 leaders and makes the charge against Moses: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”

This challenge sends shock waves through the community. Moses challenges their challenges saying, isn’t it enough that you have an important position as a Levite, do you want more? Moses goes on to claim that Korach’s rebeilion isn’t just against Moses, but against God, since it was God who set up the system the way it is. Korach does not stand down, and he and his followers are swallowed up by the earth.

This last detail has always struck me as particularly terrifying. Sure there have been punishments before, but here, where the Torah describes the earth opening up underneath people’s feet, them falling into the ground, and the earth closing up over them has a particular note of horror that fire and brimstone lacks. Maybe it is the finality of it-after a destruction like that of Sodom and Gemorrah in Genesis there are ashes and smoke. After Korach and his gang are swallowed up, it is as if nothing happened.

We can argue about the merits of Korach’s rebellion. He was not an unsympathetic figure. His claim that everyone was holy is a sentiment that we can all get behind. Moses’s questions his altruistic motives, however, claiming that Korach is just out for more power. Plus, Korach’s call to overturn the system of communal organization-while sometimes necessary “in the course of human events”-also holds within it the potential for chaos and anarchy.

But putting aside that argument for a moment, the Torah’s judgment about Korach (and later Talmudic tradition holds it up) is that his challenge is dangerous to the Israelite community and one that needs to be eradicated. Completely.

We see this today. That which challenges us as a society sometimes needs to be eradicated, so much so that it must be completely written out of the books. So much so that we come to a time in which we look back and wonder how it happened in the first place.

Today is Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. It has been expanded to celebrate the emancipation of African-Americans in general and the abolition of slavery in the United States. The history of slavery in this country is one that we wish to see swallowed in the earth, removed from our society with no vestige left behind.

And this month is Pride Month, when we celebrate the LGBT community. Inherent in that celebration is the recognition of the gains made in non-discrimination, marriage equality and full acceptance. The rate discrimination in marriage is falling in this country is astounding.

[Our local Olympia community will celebrate Pride this weekend, and Temple Beth Hatfiloh will be marching in the Pride Parade on Sunday. Join me at the Capitol building between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. for a noon start. Let’s have a good showing!]

Discrimination based on race or sexual orientation-indeed, discrimination in general-is something that challenges us as a society, and like Korach’s challenge, is something which must be completely eradicated. But we know, too, that simply eradicating formal systems of discrimination does not eradicate the more informal systems of discrimination. Eliminating slavery does not end racism, homophobia still exists as the march of marriage equality continues.

This too is hinted at in the story of Korach. For while the Torah speaks of him and his rebellion being completely wiped away, the story is retained in the text and we still tell it year after year. Vestiges of systems of oppression linger, even when those systems are abolished. The story of Korach and the fact of its telling reminds us of this. We have made gains, but we have more to do.

This Is The Place

We are back from our adventures, and we all made it!

It was a wonderful trip, full of many great new sites and experiences. We visited family and friends (including a surprise meet-up with my college roommate), explored sand dunes and canyons, discovered fossils, visited an observatory, went on walks and hikes, swam in Lake Powell and saw the Grand Canyon and the Las Vegas Strip. We had Shabbat dinner at our campsite and s’mores around the fire.

One of our visits was to Salt Lake City. We drove around the city, but our one stop was at a place called “This is the Place.” It was referred to us by cousins who stopped there on their own road trip. It is a historic recreation village of early Salt Lake during the time of the Mormon settlers, including authentic and recreated buildings and docents acting the parts of early villagers.

The name of the place refers to the words of Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon Church, who, upon seeing the Salt Lake valley declared this to be the place the pilgrims would make their settlement and build their church and city. Emulating the biblical Israelites, the Mormons were fleeing religious persecution and made their way west from Illinois based on a prophesy by Joseph Smith.

A large monument stands at the place, and it indeed is an impressive view. One could imagine after such a perilous journey seeing the valley and deciding one has arrived at the Promised Land.

this is the placeSeeing this vista and learning the story I thought of the events in this week’s Torah portion. This week we read Shelach Lecha, in the book of Numbers. While we may be familiar with the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, that wasn’t the original plan. Originally the Israelites were to take a short journey from Egypt to Sinai to Canaan; on a map it is not that far. After the events we read in the Torah this week, however, the Israelites are doomed to face another fate.

In this portion, the Israelites have indeed arrived near the border of the land. Moses sends out scouts-12 in all, one from each tribe-to assess the land. Ten come back with a report: the land is fertile and lush, yet the inhabitants will be too strong to overcome and the Israelites will be destroyed. Two-Joshua and Caleb-assure the people that they will be able to enter and settle the land.

The people, however, follow the report of the ten and fall into a panic. It is after this reaction-traditionally understood to be a demonstration of a lack of faith in God and God’s plan-that the Israelites are condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years. The length of time represents a generation, for the punishment is that the Israelites who left Egypt will not be the ones to enter into the land, but rather their descendants will.

At our congregation’s annual meeting this past week, I reflected on this story. Perhaps the sin of the Israelites, what prevented them from moving forward as a community, was not disobedience or lack of belief, but rather the fact that they did not listen to each and every opinion. They only heard the views of the ten, and neglected the views of the two. Rather than make an informed decision based on all of the available evidence and opinion, they chose to hear and act on only one side. As it was for the Israelites it is important for us: in our communities we need to be able to listen to all the voices and make informed decisions based on them.

For the actions of the Israelites in the story prevented the people from moving forward as a community. Moving to the Promised Land was the next chapter in the saga of the Israelite people. By not making a thoughtful well evaluated decision, and acting only on instinct or half-truths, the people were not able to grow and build. They were not able to have the clarity of Brigham Young and say, this is the place.

And in both cases, “place” is not about the physical location. While the Israelites were headed toward a Promised Land, what they were ultimately headed for was the fulfillment of the communal goals and the redemption of a once-enslaved people. While the Mormons found a valley in which to settle, the location was only the vehicle to fulfill and live out their spiritual ideals.

We are all heading toward a place, but that place may not be found on a map. The place we are heading is one of fulfillment, redemption, growth and community. We just need to point the way, and have trust in the journey.


This year I spent a very non-traditional Shavuot on the road, driving north on U.S. Highway 93 from Las Vegas to Wells, Nevada, a drive of almost 400 miles.

When we planned this trip, we knew it would take us over the holiday. We were in Vegas at the time visiting family, and although we thought about trying to find a tikkun (study session) at night or a service in the morning, we ended up just resting and taking it easy.

And so while I didn’t observe a traditional Shavuot this year, I have spent some time reflecting back on how this whole two week adventure was a revelation in and of itself. It was a trip of new experiences: our first family camping trip, the first time I went camping where I was the responsible one, first time to many parts of this amazing country. I have overturned old assumptions I held and discovered new skills I didn’t know I had, It was a trip of reconnecting with family and friends.

[On that last point, it was also a trip of surprises. An unplanned detour took us to wonderful Flagstaff, Arizona--my college roommate whom I haven't seen in over a decade and currently lives in Tuscon saw on Facebook that I was headed toward the Grand Canyon. It turned out that he and his family were going there as well, although we would miss each other at the Canyon by a day. We ended up altering our plans to meet up with him in Flagstaff for a morning.]

And my Torah through this trip of revelation? The road atlas I purchased before we left. In this age of GPS even on your smartphone, an atlas seems like a relic, a novelty. I don’t even know if my kids have seen a road map before. But on a trip like this, a road atlas is a necessity, and not just because we drove through places without cell service.

GPS is best when you know exactly where you are going, and only need the narrow view. A map allows you to wander, consider alternatives and see the big picture. A map you can actually read, spend time with, contemplate. A map allows you to see the interconnectedness of locations over vast spans of distance.

On Shavuot we celebrate Torah and revelation, and how they are meant to orient our lives. The Torah is a life map, meant to be read, contemplated, acted upon. But the Torah is just that, a guide–it requires our agency and our ability to be open to discovery. We look at the big picture, but we also make choices. We make decisions, but must be open to the unexpected. Life is not just Torah. Life is Torah plus experience.

On this non-traditional Shavuot spent on a road trip, I understand how a road map can tell you somethings and not others. Lines and symbols don’t tell you about the beautiful mountains and valleys we drove through. The map didn’t include the tiny non-denominational chapel on the side of the road in Arizona. The cow lumbering down the highway in southern Utah was definitely off the charts.


The Book of Nevada

Without the atlas, we would be completely lost. But without looking past the atlas, we wouldn’t fully see what it is possible to discover. Revelation requires both.