Monthly archives "May 2018"

PARSHAT NASO (Numbers 4:21 -7:89)

PARSHAT NASO (Numbers 4:21 -7:89)

A D’var Torah for AJRCA Alumni Shabbaton, May 26, 2018

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Dear Colleagues,

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Naso, the longest of the parshiyot, covers a variety of obligations related to communal behavior and the service of God. First of all, a census is taken by collecting the names of those males between 30 to 50 years of both the Gershonite tribe, and the Merarite tribe, totaling 5, 560 men, in relation to the performance of specific tasks such as labor and porterage for the Tent of Meeting, encamped in the desert. Specific duties were assigned to each of these tribes. Similarly, all male Levites in the same age group were assigned particular duties for service and porterage.

There are further instructions: Unclean people, like lepers, are to be sent out of the camp. Sins, it is decreed, must be acknowledged and retribution made. The case of the Sotah, the trial by water of the unfortunate woman who does or does not commit adultery, and the ritual obligations of the ascetic Nazir, who temporarily elevates himself to a strict, priestly way of living, are discussed. But it is what follows next that is most meaningful to me – and perhaps, to this particular Shabbaton. What follows are instructions about bestowing a sacred blessing, the priestly blessing.

First of all, the priestly blessing that Aaron is commanded to give to the Israelite people is a very old prayer, perhaps our oldest physically surviving prayer, and it was originally connected to the dedication of the Tabernacle in Leviticus (9:22-23). An interpretive version was found in the sectarian literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “[This ancient Dead Sea Scroll version] expands the biblical text to more clearly define the particulars of God’s blessing,” claim Berlin and Brettler (p. 297, Jewish Study Bible). In addition, two silver amulets “attesting to the antiquity of the blessing “were discovered hidden beneath the floor of a burial cave [just outside the walls of Jerusalem] in 1979. The tiny amulets, each about an inch long,] are incised with slightly shorter versions” of the priestly benediction in Naso. So the amulet versions contract the biblical text.

“These amulets were so fragile,” explains my favorite Torah commentator, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “that it took three years to work out a way of unrolling them without causing them to disintegrate. When they were “scientifically dated to the sixth century BCE, the age of Jeremiah and the last days of the First Temple,” they were found to be four centuries older than the ancient biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Today the amulets can be seen in the Israel Museum, testimony to the ancient connection of Jews to the land and the continuity of the Jewish faith itself.” (Shabbat Announcements, Great Neck, N.Y., June 3, 2017).

So with this background in mind, as we return to the biblical days of our parsha, Naso, God tells Moses to have his priestly brother, Aaron, bless the people of Israel with this beautiful, simple prayer that has remained with us through the ages and is recited today at the conclusion of our synagogue services. The ancient blessing has also been preserved in Jewish liturgy, as part of the ‘Amidah.’

Actually, the Priestly blessing consist of three blessings, one sentence each:

HERE ARE THE THREE BLESSINGS:

May the Lord bless you and protect you.  “Ye’varechcha Adonai ve’yeeshmerecha” in Hebrew, 3 words).

May the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. “Yaer Adonai panaiv elecha vikhunecha,” 5 words).

May God turn his face toward you and establish peace for you. “Yisa Adonai panaiv elecha v’yasem l’cha shalom,”(7 words).

The first blessing – actually a double blessing — “bless and protect” is meant, as the medieval scholar, Ibn Ezra explains, to confer material blessings and extra life upon you. The accompanying word “protect” or “keep” you is meant to protect you against those who may conspire to rob you of those very material blessings that often lead to jealousy on the part of others. Or, as in the psalms, it’s meant to protect you from all evil. “Thus the first of the blessings, comments Michael Carasik (p.43, citing Bekhor Shor), is that Adonai will grant you everything good and protect you from everything evil.”

The second blessing, that God’s light, God’s spirit will shine upon you and favor you with grace, is a spiritual blessing. According to Gersonides, to give graciously means to give, not because one is obligated, but by grace, chen (43).

The third blessing for peace, shalom, is a combination of the first two – since peace in Hebrew signifies completion, a reference to the completion of the world in Genesis. In this blessing, then, we have six words plus the Tetragrammaton, which makes seven. By the way, the priests did pronounce the Tetrgrammaton, but only in the Temple. According to Bachya, the 13th -14th century rabbi, the number seven here also refers to the mystic’s seven heavens. And according to the great Italian 19th -20th rabbi, Cassuto, the numbers 3, 5, 7 refer to an ascent (p. 943, Plaut). Still other rabbinic commentators say that 3 refers to the 3 prophets or the 3 ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; that 5 refers to the 5 books of the Torah; they agree that seven refers to Creation.

In other words, there is a very special rhythm, a sequential 3-5-7 literary structure, to this priestly prayer, world), each blessing with two words more than the previous blessing, an abundance more of blessing. This poetic cast is, of course, more apparent in the Hebrew than in the English. In fact, the Roman convert to Judaism, Onkelos, who lived in Tannaic times, did not want to translate this prayer from Hebrew into Aramaic, then the vernacular. And even though it is often translated in various creative ways in English today, in an unexplainable, deep-down way, this priestly blessing needs its original Hebrew formulation. Note that the Tetragrammaton is mentioned in each of the three blessings. It conveys a completeness that links together all the other components of this parasha.

And then, after the Three Blessings, as the Torah portrays, God says:

Thus they shall link My Name with (literally, “place My name upon”) the people of Israel: “and, as for Me, I shall bless them.” (The verse actually says “I will bless you,” avarachem,” perhaps meaning the people of Israel, or, as some rabbinic scholars think, it may refer to the priests. The priests bless Israel, and then God blesses the priests for blessing Israel.)

In fact, this Priestly Benediction is so meaningful a prayer, so moving, that it sent shivers down my spine when I was first mandated at my ordination – only three years ago — to transmit this blessing to others. Unbelievable. I could now form my hands in the shape of the shin, symbolically the shema, and pass this blessing on. I still remember how I felt, my knees quivering, as the officiating rabbi placed his hands gently at each side of my head and blessed me. And I remember my too-good-to-be-true-but-it-is” moment when my sponsoring rabbi, Rabbi Finley, called me “Rabbi” in a whisper as we descended the stairs from the bimah.

And after that, as brand new clergy, if a lot older than my classmates in terms of actual years, I could bless other people. First I had to master placing my somewhat arthritic fingers in the shape of a shema. Perhaps it’s not the outward form of the prayer that really matters today when there are so many variations, although in orthodox synagogues, cohanim the liturgy has empowered to recite this prayer during the repetition of the Amidah since ancient times still cover their heads and eyes completely with their prayer shawls for intense concentration while doing so.

However, as a trans-denominational rabbi – I prefer to call myself pluralistic — what matters to me personally is that the prayer should not simply be a “by rote” recitation clergy can say in their sleep, but rather a deeply felt blend of the material, spiritual, and peaceful for the recipient. The blessings hold a completeness that also links together the other components of Parasha Naso.

As a rabbi, over time I began to internalize this blessing sincerely, to reach ever deeper inside myself to lift up the chesed and rachamim within me, so that I could transmit this loving-kindness and compassion to others. I was discovering what it really meant, not just to be blessed, but to bless someone else with God’s protection and grace and peace. And then, as I realized how much my own words would mean to people when they confided not only their turmoil and troubles but also their hopes and dreams, that I needed more than myself to truly help them, to inspire them. And I learned – and keep on learning — to reach further than inward, to reach upward and outward as well to the forces for good in the universe, to concentrate on making myself a channel of those divine forces in transmitting blessings to others. And, to be aware, as our Haftarah from Judges concerning Samuel’s excesses makes clear, this feeling of divine connection must used with “self-limitation and restraint for the benefit of others,” as Michael Fishbane puts it, rather than to boost one’s own ego or status.

On Monday, as alumni, together we will bless a new cohort of clergy prior to their ordination or certification. From my own experience, it promises to be not only a beautiful moment for them, but also a beautiful moment for us, as alums. At this moment, we are empowered not only to give but to be a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Why has the Jewish Community put up barriers to conversion in the past?

What happens when we are welcoming?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Rabbi Copnick  is a Governor of the multi-denominational Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din (rabbinic court) in Los Angeles and serves as a Dayan (rabbinic judge)) for conversion.

Image credit: https://www.chabad.org/library

Once the growing number of those who express the desire to convert to Judaism have taken this life-changing step, they are no longer called converts. They are simply Jews, often referenced with the honorific “Jews-by-choice.” During the conversion process, they take Hebrew names, sometimes commemorating known Jewish ancestors in previous generations.  Since its inception in 2002, California’s Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din (a rabbinic court using the awe-inspiring facilities of American Jewish University’s mikveh  (ritual immersion) in Los Angeles), has celebrated 500 conversions.

Traditionally, the Jewish religion has not sought converts. In fact, through the ages, a prospective convert has usually been required to ask a rabbi three times before being admitted to the conversion process, and the course of study is long and difficult. What is so remarkable about the Sandra Caplan Bet Din is its welcoming attitude to would-be Jews. Why put obstacles in their way? Jews-by-choice strengthen our community.

Who are these Jews-by-choice?

If we take a look at only seven profiles of people who became Jews-by-choice between 2002 -2017, their occupations range from a communicator for tribal government to a television producer, a graduate student in clinical psychology, a health educator, a woman in the fashion industry, an advertising and marketing professional, and a stay-at-home mom of two young boys.  They come from different backgrounds and cover a range of ages, including infants. But they all have one thing in common: a strong desire to join the Jewish people, spiritually, religiously, and with their own communal efforts. They are willing to dedicate themselves to studying Jewish history, religion, tradition, festivals, customs and, finally, sponsored by a rabbi familiar with their personal journey, an interview by three designated Dayans (rabbinic judges). Once they show that they are determined to undertake Jewish life, and, to make a Jewish home for themselves, their children or for those in their care, they are invited to make a Statement of Commitment to Judaism, to immerse themselves in the sanctified waters of a mikveh, and then be welcomed as Jews. Today, these seven people, represented by initials here, whose families are not Jewish, are all Jews-by-choice.

Usually, their birth families are not Jewish. It’s a huge decision to convert, even if they are planning to marry a Jewish person. Why do they do it? Is it the need for connection, the pull of the community, the sense of belonging, the social action focus? Most don’t anticipate the mystical power of the mikveh experience. Sometimes there are unexpected happenings.

C.B. explains that she had always felt a strong connection to what she calls “my Jewish soul.” It had always been a part of me, she says. “When I converted, when I emerged from the mikveh, “I was no different from the way I had always been.” Still, the road to becoming a Jew took different forms – studying with a rabbi one-to-one, participating in small study groups with others who wanted to become Jews, just thinking it through. Even then, it took a couple of years before she felt “ready” to enter the mikveh with her young daughter. The experience was “as indescribably exciting as the day I gave birth to her,” she remembers.

For C.R., a political and non-profit consultant, who is married with two children, a son and daughter, it was also “a peak life moment” when she entered the mikveh with her twelve-year-old daughter who wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah, the ceremonial moment of accepting adult responsibility for following the tenets of Jewish life.  “She needed to be a Jew,” C.R., says simply. As for herself, she experienced “an immediate and powerful sense of belonging” when she converted to Judaism. She was already active at her Temple, serving on its Board.

The mikveh experience was also especially important to J.H., who runs a fashionable clothing boutique for women. She claims that, although she really didn’t know what to expect, it turned out to be “the most spiritual, uplifting moment of my life. Without a doubt, the high point of my conversion process was my experience of the mikveh. I came away feeling renewed and grounded. For the first time in a long while, I finally felt all the pieces of my life fit together perfectly.” She has taken the Hebrew name of her great-grandmother, who was Jewish. And, for J.H., the biggest surprise of all has been the “warm reception” she has been receiving from the Jewish community.

But, for P.D., a former teacher, there was no single moment that defined her conversion experience. Every single step along the way was important, she explains, helping her to reframe her past and contributing to the whole: from her initial decision to convert, to the classes she took with a rabbi, to the conversational encounter with three rabbis composing the “court” of the Bet Din. The rabbis asked why she wanted to convert and determined her motivation and educational and emotional readiness to take this big step. And afterwards? “It’s amazing,” she told us, “how attached I feel to Israel.” P.D. is already active in a number of Jewish organizations, among them AIPAC, JNF, and David Adom.

Among the Jews-by-choice – as among the Jewish people — are those of varied races, such as K.S., who is Japanese by birth but was adopted by a Jewish, Caucasian mother. K.S. particularly appreciates Judaism’s focus on education, history, and culture. The call to right action resonates deeply with him. He claims that, although his own self-introspection led to his eventual conversion, he loves “the focus on action” in Judaism, along with “the way of being.”

For B.D., the busy television producer, the restfulness of Shabbat was the determining factor in his decision to convert. Just to leave the work week behind and transition into Shabbat was bliss for him. Although his spiritual path has been very personal, he claims, he also loves the community aspect of Judaism. With his outgoing personality, he thoroughly enjoys hosting Passover Seders, for example, and, with his regular attendance at Shabbat services, he looks forward to greeting familiar faces.

The communal aspect of Jewish life is a big thing for many Jews-by-choice. J.S. calls it “experiencing the unspoken community,” something he had been looking forward to for a long time because he knew he had Jewish ancestors. It felt like he had finally come to his “true community.” He also values receiving his Certificate of conversion because “it was the culmination of all my striving.”

There were also some unexpected surprises for some of the Jews-by-Choice. J.L., who is a health educator, did not expect her birth family to be so accepting of her choice. “They were so happy and excited about my connection to God and spirituality. It rekindled their own connection to a spiritual path.” It was so wonderful to have her family with her all the way. J.L. loved sharing with them the studies of history and literature that preceded her conversion. In particular, she appreciated the emphasis on Social Justice. She has become an active member of her congregation.

As Shavuot approaches this weekend, when Jews everywhere stand symbolically on Mount Sinai together, as if receiving the Ten Commandmens in the present tense, we are also connecting to the preceding generations, And as Jews-by—chioice stand with us, they strengthen our community. Welcome!

 ©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

BE-MIDBAR, 2018 (Numbers 1:1- 4: 20)

BE-MIDBAR, 2018

(Numbers 1:1- 4: 20)

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

There has been much public discussion, unfortunately acrimonious in the last few years, about the value of every human life.  Yet the assertion that every single life matters, every single life counts — whether white, black, brown, yellow, or red, or shades in between — has been an essential Jewish value for thousands of years. Every life has been created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It is one of the lessons of Be-midbar, from which our Torah portion for this week is taken.

Image credit: http://discoversinai.net/english/places-of-interest/egypt-sinai-desert

The Torah portion takes place in the desert, in the wilderness of Sinai, after the Exodus has already taken place. At God’s instruction, Moses is preparing for the future by taking a census of all young men over twenty able to bear arms. The immediate purpose is to determine the strength of the Israeli community – as well as potential tax revenues, since the Jewish people are always practical – so that they will be able to defend themselves against any foes.  And in doing so, every life counts. Every life has value.

But taking a census in biblical times was not so easy because of a general, deep-seated ambivalence toward counting. The plague had decimated so many people that the Jews superstitiously avoided being counted so that the plague wouldn’t find them.  They also believed that knowing the numbers set limits on growth and blessing, and that it was better not to know. Only God knows whose days are numbered. Therefore, a census had to have divine sanction, as it does in this passage, or there would be dire consequences.

According to medieval commentators Sforno and Abarbanel, since men of that biblical generation were usually identified by a name that expressed their personal character, God told Moses to count the names rather than the men so that he need not fear incurring a plague or other consequences in retribution. In that way, every life was counted.

* * * *

Here is a story I like to tell: I learned that every life counts long before I read this Torah portion. I learned this value when I was eleven years old from an animal, from my pet cat, Buttons. She was a beautiful Persian cat with piercing green eyes and fur so glossy and black it seemed to have purple highlights. Naturally she attracted the attention of some of the neighborhood Toms, and soon we noticed that Buttons seemed heavier around her middle.

Then one evening as I was taking a bath, I heard sounds behind the tile bathroom walls, faint sounds, mice? No, they seemed to be mewing sounds…behind the wall. Wrapping my towel around me, I rushed to the cupboard just outside our bathroom. Sure enough, the cover to the opening of the wide pipe that ran behind the bathroom wall had been chewed off. I put my ear to the pipe and listened. Yes, those sounds were alive, and, oh, the heated air was warm in there. With eleven-year-old valor, I reached my hand in as far as I could and touched…wet fur.  That is how I lifted out, first one, then two little kittens. But I could still hear a faint mewing. Stretching my arm to the limit, I reached in once more and lifted out a third kitten. Jubilant, I carried them all downstairs to our warm kitchen and settled them comfortably in a basket lined with soft towels. My little sister instantly named them Spic, Span, and Rainbow. Spic was white, Span was black, and Rainbow was multi-colored.

I thought Buttons would be so pleased to see her kittens safe and sound in the basket. But she was not pleased. She was frantic as she touched each of them on the nose and paused. And then again, she counted noses. Then she rushed up the stairs to the bathroom closet and squeezed into the pipe. She soon emerged with one kitten, and then with another. She carried them down one by one to the basket, and when all five of them were settled, she counted their noses with her own nose. ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR-FIVE.  And then again to make sure. That’s how she took her own census. I didn’t know that cats could count. Finally, she settled contentedly into the basket with her kittens.

* * * *

That is how I learned from one of God’s small creatures that every life counts. The medieval commentator, Rashi, a wealthy wine merchant in France, who had more accurate biblical texts than most of his contemporaries, certainly thinks so. Why do we need a census, Rashi asks? And then he answers his own question (or the question may have been posed by one of his students).

Because God loves each of his children, he suggests. That’s why God wants us to count. “He is continually counting them,” Rashi adds. “He counted them at the time of the Exodus; again after so many died at the time of the Golden Calf incident, He counted them to find out how many were left; and now when He was going to rest His Shekhinah upon them, He counted them again” on the first of the Hebrew month Iyar.

Some say God counts us every hour. Remember that God promised Abraham, several times, that he would make his seed as numberless as the sand and the stars – “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17).

Perhaps, as Nachmanides suggests – and Nechama Liebowitz reminds us — the census is taken – apart from the military purpose – to remind us of just that miracle. The Jews went down to Egypt with only 70 people, and despite their vicissitudes, they grew to be a large number. The Bible says that some 600,000 people left Egypt in the Exodus.  Six hundred thousand grains of sand.

As the mystical poet, William Blake (1757-1857), a non-Jew writing from mid- eighteenth to mid- nineteenth century, reminds us so eloquently, we can see the whole world in a single grain of sand. “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.” Perhaps we can see the whole world in a single name.

So, as Moses sets up a military camp in the desert, it is important to remember that the life of each man, each grain of sand in which we can symbolically see the whole world, matters. His possible death or injury matters. And that the purpose behind military preparedness has to be worth the strategic military formation that Moses initiates.

What does he do? First he appoints tribal chieftains from the descendants of Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, from the descendants of the sons of Joseph, and the rest of the 12 tribes. And then he sets up a strategic, square military camp, divided along ancestral lines and intended to be a mobile force. In the middle of this square, protected on all sides, is the Tent of Meeting, guarded by the Levites, who will not be obliged to fight, and thus are not numbered. Their special job is to protect the sacred objects in the Tabernacle.

I have read this Torah portion in Be-midbar many times over the years. I have given Divrei Torah on various aspects. Every time you read a Torah portion, you find something new. This time, I realized, in a flash of insight, that the most essential purpose of the military formation as the Israelites prepared for their march into the land of Canaan, was to protect what is sacred.  To protect the Tabernacle and the Holy of Holies inside. Especially since they were moving to what has proved to be a very dangerous neighborhood.

And so, according to God’s explicit instructions, the sacred ritual objects are ceremoniously gathered and meticulously placed on an altar of gold and covered with a blue cloth. Since the Israelites will be travelling to an unknown destination, they are carefully covered with dolphin skins to protect them. This inner core will be guarded by the Levites and then by the external force of the carefully positioned tribes. Protected by necessity in all directions.

Interestingly, the Haftarah that accompanies this Torah portion, Hosea 2: 1-22, opens with a prophecy of national renewal as God leads the people – ammi, My people — into the desert and then back to the land. As noted modern commentator Michael Fishbane says, “Beloved of God, the nation will respond positively.” Hosea, he claims, is the first prophet to portray the covenant between God and Israel as a marriage, an idea that attained permanent spiritual status in Judaism, culminating in the beautiful, allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs as an Israel yearning for God. An Israel yearning for what is sacred.

Maybe it is only a religious myth that God counts us every hour. Maybe it’s true. But it is very comforting nonetheless to imagine a God that also cares for us, that yearns for us. And for the precious gift of our lives, we owe it to God and to ourselves to make every hour count. To use it well for ourselves in the time that we have – something we especially appreciate as we grow older — and to use it well for the rest of the lives that have been created, for humanity and for all of God’s creatures. And that is why every life counts – whether white, black, or multicolored.  Just like Spic, Span, and Rainbow.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.