Sunday, June 25, 2017

Korach and Keeping the Peace inside America's houses of Worship

The peace of the synagogue is one of the most fragile and important values in Judaism. I say fragile because there are so many stories about how we Jews have destroyed congregations over all kinds of issues such as Kosher dietary laws, finances, clergy, ethical infractions between professionals and volunteer leadership. Sometimes the issue is simply about who has the power over the leadership of the congregation, in other words, one group is in power and another is not. These are just a few of the typical examples of perennial issues that afflict congregations.

We call the value shalom bait or peace in the home. To disturb the peace in a synagogue only takes one issue or one person who is upset and wants to express their anger or seeks simply a fair solution to a problem in the congregation. How do we cope when person or a few take it upon themselves to stir the pot for whatever they believe or say is the egregious problem in an institution?

I discuss this topic because this Shabbat’s Torah portion  is Korach and it is the ultimate story in the Torah about a man named Korach who was one of the levites and who challenged Moses’ authority to lead the Jewish people. In the book of Numbers the narrative describes Korach organizing a group of 250 princes or levites in the aristocracy who accused Moses in unison. “It is too much for you.” “For the entire assembly-all of them-are holy and God is among them, so why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of God?”
Moses is stunned and bows before God seeking guidance. He turns to the people and the rebel Levite princes, declaring that on the  next day God will reveal who is authentically holy and who God will choose to lead the people and be God’s prophet.
He instructs them to take their ritual fire pans and place incense inside them. Then God will choose who is the authentic leader of the people. Moses gives it to Korach scolding him for not being appreciative that he is a Levite and what a privilege it is that he is allowed to lead worship in the Tabernacle.
The drama intensifies and Moses accuses all the disciples and allies of Korach as essentially traitors against Moses, Aaron and God. Things get even worse when one ally family in the Levites refuses to join Moses and help him out to stand up to them. His allies criticize him for taking them out of the land of Eygpt. They even imply that they want to go home, back to slavery.
To make a long story short: After Moses told the rest of the people to back away from these rebels knowing full well that there would soon be punishment exacted against these people.  At the end of the day an earthquake occurred and the allies of Korach fell into the crack on the ground and it swallowed up all the 250 co-conspirators of Korach. 
What is even worse was that afterwards the people rallied against Aaron and Moses blaming them for killing Korach and his followers. Consequently Moses performs the same task of bringing out the fire pans and telling the people to back away from these complainers. And once again by the end of it all 14,000 or more  Israelites died that day from a plague that God brought against these rebel rousers.

Moses drained the swamp, dispensed with his adversaries, and caused Korach to die in a blaze of fire and brought death and destruction to the people. And for what? Moses appointed someone else to be a chief elder in the community. And where do we go from here?

The lessons from the Korach story are many. One in particular is that power is toxic. The line of authority of who rules an organization let alone the core values is also critical. Lineage is crucial in terms of who is in the line of the leadership model as well.
One cannot help but wonder why Moses couldn’t have found a peaceful way to subdue Korach and his followers. More questions like; How could they have come to a compromise to solve their resentments? What happens when there is no room for compromise such as the idea of removing Moses from being God’s appointed prophet?
There are good lessons from this painful story  for all religious institutions including the Jewish congregations. Today synagogue leaders and professionals, clergy and others, probably would being doing a good thing to have developed mechanisms in place for mediating problems and addressing anger issues that could threaten the stability of a congregation.  In the past the Union of Reform Judaism used to have a  commission to deal with conflict issues with questionable effectiveness.
Our congregation is a strong one and yet even the best of our congregations is vulnerable to internal conflict and power struggles. Using brute power in the Torah’s case against Korach may have been the only solution to resolve this power struggle. Today, however, every congregation should have the means to resolve conflicts peacefully before any issue becomes like a virus and infects an entire community. All houses of worship should do whatever they can to institute methods of keeping shalom inside the congregation. When they do so, therefore,shalom bait will be preserved.

Shabbat Shalom,

Monday, June 19, 2017

Davar Torah: We need a little of Caleb in us! Parashat Shelach L'chah Book of Number

Tonight is the final rite of passage for the congregation’s leadership by passing the baton to the next line of Temple  board members. Each new board faces the responsibility of overseeing programs, fiscal budgetary constraints, personnel and communicating with the congregation. We wish b’hatzlachah- success to these new board members and with gratitude that we say Todah Rabbah thank you to the outgoing board as well. New opportunities and challenges always exist  in moving forward in the life of our Congregation’s journey.

In our Torah portion we return to an ancient journey of our people who faced opportunities and challenges for the future generations of the Jewish people. In  the book of Numbers,Parashat  Shelah L’chah, Moses directs his leadership to  appoint ten representatives to scout out the Promised Land. The leadership team goes out on a reconnaissance mission and comes back with a divided report. Eight of the ten say that the indigenous population are too powerful for the Israelites. The Israelites call them giants and fear there will be a catastrophe if they try to invade. The minority report of two, submitted by Joshua and Caleb, take the opposite view urging the leadership to go for it. The end result was that the Israelite leadership followed the majority report and refused to move forward. 

God was furious and Moses devastated. God punished the entire generation of the people by saying that none of them except Joshua and Caleb would be allowed to enter the Promised Land. That faithless decision based upon the failure to act and the fear to move forward, resulted in forty years of wanderings without that generation seeing the fruit of their hopes fulfilled.

Some of the  Jewish mystics commented on this disappointment and said that the people who feared to take the risks were actually not ready spiritually to make this ascent to the Promised Land. In this parashah from the 13th chapter of Numbers it is written, They spoke to him,saying. “We came into the land where you sent us. It indeed flows with milk and honey and this is its fruit. But the people dwelling there is strong… But Caleb silenced the people for Moses, saying, “We will indeed go up and inherit  it for we are able.”

Caleb’s determination to prevail earned him that opportunity to enter the promised land years later.  God said that Caleb was special because “he had a different spirit within him.”  Faith and courage are critical elements in making important decisions then and today.

Do  the challenges we address today in our congregation regarding the issues mentioned above, especially the financial ones, represent the adversaries that appear to be too big for us to handle as well? Will we shy away or face head on the challenges that we as a congregation must deal with if we are to enter and preserve our place in that promised land?

We learn from the Torah portion that the generation of the Exodus did great things but they fell shy of  believing in themselves enough at a critical moment. At CBY our journey requires us to make hard decisions in the upcoming year and we are approaching a critical moment too. We too are making our best effort to create a funding mechanism that will enable us to keep the talented and valuable professional staff who are making such a positive contribution to our Jewish identity and our congregation’s well being. A special committee has been appointed by our President Pennie Meiselman  and chaired by Ted David to explore how we are going to meet these challenges as well. The leadership realizes that now is the time  to lead and to believe like Caleb that we can achieve our goals and overcome our legitimate fears for whether or not we can develop the funding to carry on with our mission.

I am thankful and appreciative of our leadership who in the spirit of Caleb said, “Let us go up” to the Promised Land  which will motivate us to do the same with our financial challenges. Our challenges are good ones because we have a steady and growing membership and a lot of enthusiasm at the same time that there are financial concerns about the future. Is there a can-do attitude and faith in our congregation’s willingness to fund the future? Will we move forward? Or will we stagnate? This is our future just like the Israelites. I believe we can do it for whatever CBY puts its heart and soul into it has in the past led to success. Our faith in ourselves is key.

When Moses told the reconnaissance team by saying, Get you up this way in the south and go up into the mountain”(13:17). Rabbi Akiva Eiger commented, “Moses told them to look at the land in terms of future generations and eternity, from the top of the mountain. Their mistake was they couldn’t see the panorama of  a future vision. We at CBY with a new board will carry on with previous board’s vision and move forward to the future and prove to us all the we can realize our vision for future generations at CBY.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The religious community is being heard on the Health Care Issue.

While the nation obsesses over the politics of FBI investigations, the Senate is quietly in secret crafting a bill on Health Care. The Religious Community along with all other sorts of communities in this country should contribute to the debate about the future of Health Care and Health Insurance in America. Have a good read and let me know what you think?
Rabbi Bloom

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Keep the Johnson Amendment in place and no to any new executive order to change it.

My most recent newspaper column addressed President Trump's recent executive order to loosen the enforcement on the time honored Johnson Amendment that preserved peace in the pews since 1954. Take a read and tell me what you think.
Rabbi Bloom

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A message of ecumenicism today from World War Two.

Three American Chaplains gave up their lives for their crew on a US Ship attacked by the Germans.
Their amazing and heroic story sets an example of ecumenicism at its highest level. I wrote this column last weekend in honor of the US Memorial Day. Have a good read and let me know your reactions.
All the best.

Rabbi Bloom

Friday, May 19, 2017

A Jewish Ethos for helping the poor: A hand out vs a helping hand?

I stood on the porch at a dedication ceremony of a brand new Habitat for Humanity House. The recipients were a mother and two daughters. She works full time at Publics on Hilton Head. People like myself offered prayers and gave brief remarks. One individual, a well known leader in the business community, spoke and remarked; ‘This kind of project is an example of a hand up rather than a hand out.’

Truthfully I cringed as I stood by respectfully.  Implicit biases about the poor underlie his comments. The idea that only a hand up is valid and that a hand out is wrong is a part of the American ethos. 
I subscribe to the principle that helping the poor is a hand up even though it may come as a grant. No doubt that poor people game the system just as rich people and institutions, for example, commit medicare fraud. Yet, Judaism tells us that helping the poor is a central ethic of our religious system.

I address this subject tonight as a prelude to tomorrow morning’s hot topics discussion entitled: “A Hand Up Rather than a Handout: What should be a Jewish ethos for helping the poor.” This Shabbat we have two Torah portions Behar-Behukotai which take us to the end of our reading from the book of Leviticus. Is there one idea about helping the poor or are there differing opinions concerning the extent of our obligation to help the poor?

 At least in theory the Torah tells us to help “your brother who is poor.” In Leviticus it is referring to Jews who cannot support themselves and who will become indentured to other Israelites. The  texts say, “strengthen him (the poor).”
Our beloved commentator Rashi clarifies by saying, “Don’t let him fall and become impoverished so that it will be hard for him to recover, but, to strengthen him the moment his “hand faileth.” Rashi compares this moral principle to a parable of a burden on an ass’s back.  While it is still on the ass, one man can get a hold of it and right it.  But once it has fallen to the ground, five men cannot lift it up.” The upshot is help him out now while we can do something about or let him starve and the burden on us or society is that much harder to lift him up.

On the other hand in the prophets, the Haphtarah for this week, which comes from Jeremiah, saying, “Cursed is the person who trusts in human beings
who makes flesh his arm,
and whose heart departs from the Eternal One,
and whose trust the Eternal One is.” (17:5-7) 
Commentating on the passage by Jeremiah, the great Moses Maimonides says, “A person should make himself suffer rather than making himself a charge on the public charity.” “The greatest sages in the world were hewers of wood, porters, drawers of water for gardens, smiths, and charcoal burners and never begged for charity nor accepted it when offered.” In other words they trusted in themselves for sustenance and God for faith.
 Maimonides is talking several  kinds of persons who take advantage of their being poor, even one who refuses help even though he is poor especially one who trusts in God only and not in man.

Maimonides wants to find a balance between self help and trust in God, between human industry and the belief that everything belongs to God. Maimonides is saying that we cannot loose the idea that all resources belong to God and we cannot forget that human self reliance is important. So if one is poor then ideally we have a duty to help them, yet, each of us has a duty ourselves to not depend to heavily on human beings or God as the source of taking care of our physical needs.
This is a relevant message particularly in Israel today related to that society’s problem in which Israelis want the ultra Orthodox hasidic Jews to resolve. Many in Israel resent that ultra black hat Hasidic Jews feel that their duty and job is to study Torah and that God will provide.That means the state will provide welfare so that they do not have to work. Needless to say this problem has vexed many Israelis who pay notoriously high taxes so that Hasidic Jews can study Torah while the rest of the people fight and defend the nation.
This issue also speaks to us in America and our obligation as a society to support the poor when it comes to AFDC, the Affordable Health Care Act  and Medicaid and tax reform as examples of society’s support of the poor. Many Americans resent helping the poor believing that they too should help themselves first before ever thinking about asking for help. They believe that the poor take advantage of our tax dollars rather than going out to find a job.
Judaism has tried to say that being poor is no honor but it is also not a sin. It is how we live with what we have that counts. It is the measure of a society’s commitment to its fellow citizens who are legitimately poor that springs out of the prophets and the Torah itself that matters most.

After Hurricane Mathew, we gave money to people who we thought needed the money and that would not have been able to survive without it. My view is that it is a privilege to help those in need. Shall we make such people whether in our own community or in the community at large feel inadequate just because they can’t afford the basics in life? Project Safe, for example, in Hilton Head is trying to raise money to supply sewer line hookups for the poor. They cost $6000 a person to make the connection.  Back pack buddies does this for kids who need food over the weekend after school. We are all about helping financially those who truly need our support. Yet must we frame such help as a handout when the truth is that a hand up and a hand out often perform the same mitzvah for the poor?
Baba Batra 11a (Talmud)
A story is told of Binyamin HaTzaddik, who was the supervisor of the community's tzedakah funds. Once, when food was scarce, a woman came to him and said, "Rabbi, feed me!" He replied, "I swear there is nothing in the tzedakah fund."  She said, "If you do not feed me, a woman and her seven children will die."  So he fed her from his own money.
 The ethos of providing financial contributions to the poor may be clear. Yet, that does not mean it is easy to fulfill. Is it not our duty to do so even if a hand up feels like a hand out? It is still our mitzvah.
shabbat shalom

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Does a college or advanced to degree diminish religious faith?

I wrote this column after the survey from the Pew Center came out with the results claiming that college and advanced degrees might very well contribute to less religious commitment in American society. Is this so? I hope you read this piece from my newspaper column and let me know your reaction to the subject.
Thanks and best to you.
Rabbi Brad Bloom