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Pinchas 5777 - 15 July 2017 - Equality vs Equity

posted Jul 14, 2017, 1:43 PM by Ohel Avraham   [ updated Jul 24, 2017, 6:52 PM ]

Parshat Pinchas, Numbers 25:10 - 30:1

This week we read Pinchas, a chapter which begins with God describing a brit shalom – a covenant of peace with Pinchas, son of Elezar and grandson of Aaron. This is one of the five covenants God makes in the Torah, the others being the Brit Keshet (covenant of the rainbow with all humanity - Noah), the Brit Milah (covenant of circumcision - Abraham), the Brit Sinai (covenant at Mt. Sinai with all Jews - Moses), and the Brit Kehuna (covenant of the priests with all the Kohanim). In this sense, a covenant is a sacred contract.

God then explains that an Israelite man – Zimri – was killed along with a Midianite woman. God commands the Moses to tzror et ha-midiyanim v’hi’kitem otam - Harass the Midianites, and smite them. There are two interesting verbs used here – tzror (root: tzadey-resh-resh) and hakah (root: nun-kaf-hey).

Hakah is a verb commonly used in the Torah to mean smite, hit, beat, or otherwise physically aggress toward. Tzror is also a common verb with many different meanings. In some forms, this word means to bind, tie up, or restrict. In other forms, the root can relate to a narrow place or time of distress. Mitzrayim (Egypt) is so named because it contains only a narrow strip, the Nile River, which is habitable, although many Jews have elaborated on the time of our slavery there as having been a time of confinement. In yet other usages, the word translates to showing hostility toward or vex. God goes on to explain to the Israelites that they are to tzror (harass) the Midianites ki tzoririm hem lachem – because they have harassed you! Seems to be a rather “tit for tat” situation between these rival groups.

Following this unusual commandment, God explains how inheritance (in Hebrew nachalah) is to be divided in amongst the tribes of Israel. Flying in the face of traditional feudal-type societies (where wealth is kept in the hands of the few and passed through an aristocratic class for generations), God states that, for the tribes of Israel, “land shall be divided for an inheritance according to the number of names. To the more thou shalt give the more inheritance, and to the fewer thou shalt give the less inheritance; to each one according to those that were numbered of it shall its inheritance be given.”

In Israelite society, land and wealth are, at least to some degree, apportioned based on need, rather than status. Certainly status was not absent from the ancient Israelite society, but it appears that the medieval, feudal attitudes that would consume Western Europe for centuries had not fully been adopted at this point in history.

It seems from the early passages of this week’s parsha that there is a sense of equity, with the “tit for tat” attitude toward the Midiantes and the divvying up of wealth based on population. Equity is an interesting concept that our society has struggled with for many years and, I believe, continues to struggle with today. Illustrated in a popular meme, equity is not equality. Equality means that everyone is given an equal share – for example, everyone pays a 10% tax on their income or everyone receives $500 per month in social security benefits.

Equity, on the other hand, means that everyone attains the same level, with the expectation that it will take unequal resources to get everyone there. Debates over universal health care and public education are fundamentally debates about equity. Does everyone have a right to obtain equally good health care? Equally good education? If we believe in equality only, then the option of health care should be present for everyone, and obtaining such care will depend on your means. That is to say, people are not barred from obtaining health care – health care companies can not, for example, discriminate against particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups. But the government is not responsible for ensuring attainment of health care – that is up to individuals.

Equity, on the other hand, disregards the “how,” focusing solely on the end goal. All individuals must have health care. Yes, some people may need the government to pay for it and others may be able to afford it privately, but the ultimate goal is that everyone have care. Equity requires that some members of society take on a larger share of the burden – whether that burden is financial or something else.

In general, we seem to favor equality over equity in our society. Capitalism naturally lends itself to a country that values equality – everyone has the same, theoretical, chance to succeed and the rest is up to you. In Israelite society, there is no such understanding. In part, I think, this is because Israelites had far less control over their reproduction, health, and general safety compared to our society today. Israelite society did not see it as a choice to have a large family or a small one – you had as many children as you had, and that was due primarily to factors outside your control (maternal death, early childhood illnesses, accidents, etc.). Thus, a model where everyone “got the same” does not make sense – it is not by choice that one family has 13 children to support and another only 5. Of course the family with 13 children should “get more” – they need it. Equity is logical here.

Perhaps it is true that, since we now have control over many factors in our lives thanks to science and technology, that equity no longer makes sense and everyone truly has the exact same shot at success. I wonder, though, if there may still be some factors far outside our control that impact how much each one of us “needs” and how much each of us is able to give. If so, then perhaps we can consider a move toward a more equitable society.

Dr. Yvonne Asher

Samuel Asher

Beha'alotekha 5777 - 10 June 2017 - Mind your 'Please and Thank You's

posted Jun 9, 2017, 7:57 AM by Ohel Avraham   [ updated Jun 9, 2017, 8:00 AM ]

This week, we read the passage Beha'alotekha (Numbers 8:1-12:16). See here for a previous synopsis and discussion.

The parsha continues on to explain an incident of tension between God and the Israelites. Chapter 11 of Numbers begins va’yi’hi ha’am ki’mit’on’nim – and the nation [of Israel] was like a [group of] murmurers/complainers. When God hears the complaining, God becomes angry and tochal (devours) the camp. Still, the people continue to whine and complain, saying that the manna God has given them is insufficient. They say that they wish there was meat to eat and that they “remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic, but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nothing except this manna to look to.

Reaching the end of his equanimity, Moses breaks down and has a kind of lover’s spat with God! He asks rhetorically, “Did I birth all these people so it’s my responsibility to suckle them?” He finally pleads, “If this is my lot, kill me [God], I pray you, right now, if I have found favor in your sight!” Instead of killing Moses, God sends a flock of quails to the Israelite camp, in order to fulfill their desire for meat (and food other than manna).

This passage, to me, epitomizes the popular phrase “first world problems” – the idea that when you have many basic needs fulfilled on a consistent, predictable basis, other (often, less necessary-for-survival) needs become significantly more relevant to your daily existence. I think about this during the frequent summer thunderstorms that have come to define my daily existence in the Deep South. Many times, these thunderstorms cause power outages, which can result in extended periods of time without Internet access (the electricity is usually restored quickly, but the Internet companies have more trouble keeping up). I find myself in utter disbelief that the cable company could leave me stranded, without access to the online world, for hours. I call and complain, drive to my office to check the connection there, and obsess over the horror of being without email and Facebook and the New York Times.

Then, I become horrified with myself – millions of people in the world are without food, clean water, shelter, and clothing and I have the audacity to complain about my lack of access to high-speed wireless Internet? Unfortunately, self-loathing does not help – it does not give basic necessities to those who need them, nor does it help me feel better about my situation. So, how do we handle “first world problems”? How should the Israelites have handled their “free nation problems”?


Perhaps we can practice more gratitude. Gratitude allows us to focus on what we have, on the wonderful things and people and situations in our lives. However, gratitude does not negate our needs. Being grateful for one’s good health does not negate our loneliness, just as being grateful for the incredible relationships we have in our lives does not negate our desire for good health. Gratitude is not self-loathing or deprivation or self-sacrifice – gratitude is a mindset. It is the ability to first consider what we have, instead of first thinking of what we want. Had the Israelites practiced gratitude, they may have been able to ask Moshe for more food options without incurring the wrath of God. I think we can all strive to practice gratitude more often – encouraging ourselves to recognize that which we are blessed to have in our lives before focusing on that which is lacking.


Our ancient rabbis decreed that even in the Olam Haba’a, in the messianic world to come, we will be obligated to continue the daily Thanksgiving Offering. Though there will be no sin for a Sin Offering, no mistakes for a Guilt Offering, no hungry for a Wave Offering, no war for a Peace Offering, if we lack gratitude, even the Messiah will go away!


The Roman politician and philosopher Cicero put it most succinctly. “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

Nasso 5777 - 3 June 2017 - NazaRites

posted Jun 1, 2017, 1:15 PM by Ohel Avraham

Parshat Nasso,  Numbers 4:21 - 7:89

This week, we read parshat Nasso, notably the longest parsha in the Torah. Along with explicating a number of laws and statutes, the parsha contains a detailed description of the Nazarite vow. The Nazarites were a self-selected group of Israelites who dedicated their lives to Temple service. Many faith traditions have such a group, like monks and nuns in Catholicism. Nazarites took a vow, which prohibited them from cutting or shaving their hair, coming into contact with a dead body, drinking any form of alcohol, and not consuming grapes in any form.

Several famous Nazarites have existed in Jewish history, including Samson. The root of Nazir is נזר (nun-zayon-resh). Sources indicate that it has the more general meaning of “to consecrate, separate or dedicate oneself.”  The same root is used in two different places – once in Bereshit (Genesis) and once in Devarim (Deuteronomy) – to describe Joseph. The phrase used is translated as “… on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of the prince among his brethren,” and it is the same phrase used in both Bereshit and Devarim. Joseph can be thought of as “separated” from his brethren, as he was the favorite son of Jacob.

What does it mean to be separated out, and to have a life dedicated to service? Nazarite vows seem highly restrictive. The Torah specifies that Nazarites were not permitted to mourn in the same way as other Israelites – they were not permitted to “become unclean” even upon the death of a close family member. In addition, both men and women are explicitly permitted in the Torah to take a Nazarite vow – an interesting case of equality in the treatment of men and women in ancient Israelite society.

So, it seems that a life of service is something that anyone (male or female) can take on, a life dedicated to abstention from indulgence, and a life of sacrificing one’s personal wants in order to serve God and the community. Why does one choose this life? What motivates some individuals to make a choice toward such restrictive way of living? In our society today, many people ask the same question of those who choose a life in a monastery or abbey.

I wonder if, in large part, the attraction to restriction is actually an attraction to structure. For many of us, externally imposed structure can have an organizing, calming, and focusing effect. Knowing what the rules are, what the schedule will be, and what expectations will be made of us can allow us to feel settled, safe, and in control. Perhaps it is this feeling of safety that motivated some Israelites to take on the Nazarite vow.

Today, we have no such equivalent of a Nazarite vow. As we have no Temple for individuals to serve in, there is no way to dedicate one’s life to service as the ancient Israelite Nazarites did. However, we can all find a similar set of organizing rules, clarity of expectations, predictability, and safety in rabbinic law. The Talmud provides exactly the kind of structure that allows many people to thrive – the where’s, what’s, when’s, who’s, and how’s of daily life are written out in excruciating detail. Similarly, the rhythm of daily prayer within the structure of the Jewish year provides a schedule and a known set of expectations.


I know for myself when I am feeling lost or overwhelmed or disorganized, that one of the most grounding activities is to find a synagogue and attend minyan. The predictability and the familiarity help me to become organized, calm, and focused. I wonder if I would have made a good Nazarite – or, would I have rebelled against the restrictive and rigid lifestyle? Finding a balance between structure, organization, and predictability on the one hand, and freedom, creativity, and spontaneity on the other is certainly a challenge in our modern, American society. Perhaps in a time of instant communication and personalized delivery services for everything from toilet paper to produce, we can all strive for a bit more structure and a bit more of our lives dedicated to service.  


-Yvonne Asher, PhD.

Behar-Bechukotai 2017 - 5777 Betrayal and Forgiveness

posted May 18, 2017, 3:58 PM by Ohel Avraham   [ updated May 18, 2017, 11:21 PM ]

(Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34)

This week we read the last three chapters of Leviticus. Although the book's name and its opening verses suggest it primarily contains instructions for priests (our ancient spiritual leaders), it proves to be a guide for every person to act in a holy manner, to exercise a discipline of judgement and behavior, to emulate God, such that we become a mamlechet cohanim - a nation of priests (Ex. 19:6).

Chapter 25 begins with a description of shmitah and the Jubilee. Every seventh year, the Torah commands us to let our land lay fallow, neither sowing the field nor pruning the vineyard. This is shmitah – allowing the land to rest. Interestingly, agricultural scientists suggest that crop rotation – essentially allowing the land to rest from producing a specific crop – is important for the health of the land as well as for maximizing yield. Different crops take different nutrients from the soil. Regularly planting the same crops on the same piece of land drains the land of those nutrients. Giving the land a shabbat – a rest – every seven years similarly allows the nutrients in the land to be replenished.*

Additionally, every 50th year**, we are commanded to celebrate the jubilee. This is a time when, not only is the land allowed to rest, but Israelites are commanded to release all debts. All farmland that was relinquished to service a debt must be returned to its original owner. Similarly, those who sold themselves into servitude (slaves) and prisoners would be returned to their native families.

This was a radical concept in the ancient world. As we discussed last year, the Jubilee served as a giant societal reset button, aimed at preventing a permanent underclass in Jewish society. Even 3,000 years ago, our wise leaders recognized that, over time, people would stratify into haves and have-nots, a situation that would better be rectified through law than through revolution.

After discussing the jubilee, the next chapter goes into great detail describing all of the terrible fates that will befall the Israelites should they not heed God’s commandments. These passages specifically call out exploitation of the poor, the indebted, the servant class. God will not suffer those who exploit the weakest among us. God will destroy the high places, bring the land into desolation, bring down plagues, and smite the people. We are warned that “you will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall you eat.” In fact, today, there are active slave markets in Libya, and human suffering in Syria that is even more horrifying than this hideous prediction.

Right after that dire vision of the future, God says something surprising. After the people will have gone against God, “they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, in their treachery which they committed against Me, and also that they have walked contrary unto Me… then will I remember My covenant […] I will not reject them, [...] for I am the LORD their God.

This is almost completely counter to the message of the previous chapter – the prior 39 verses went to great lengths (and into great detail) describing the horrors that would befall the Israelites as soon as they strayed from God and God’s commandments. And now – what is this passage? It seems to be a softening – a gentle and kind ending to an otherwise gruesome threat.

These verses describe forgiveness as the ultimate response to the deepest of hurts. God sets the example of forgiveness.

It is not the kind of forgiveness that happens when someone is late for a meeting, forgets to pick up a loaf of bread at the store, or neglects to wash your favorite workout pants after wearing them to the gym. This is forgiving someone whom you love dearly for an act of utter betrayal.

The Torah specifically refers to the Israelites going against God’s word, but it is easy to see how this applies in our own lives.

How many of us have been betrayed? By a friend? A lover? A colleague? A family member? And how many of us have perpetrated such betrayals? John Gottman is a psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. He has devoted much of his research on the challenge of building trust after betrayal, as well as on methods to do just that. Betrayal is a wound that many take to the grave. But God forgives.

If we humans are created b’tzelem elohim – in the image of God – I like to think this is the kind of passage we must embody. To forgive someone for a betrayal, this deepest of hurts, takes much more than a heartfelt apology and an embrace. It takes work. Hard work supported by a deep, inner strength and the will to move forward. This may be the underlying message of the Jubilee. The Torah clearly dissuades us from living all our lives enslaved to our past.

Like some others, I often find myself stuck in a place of anger. I find it hard to forgive. True forgiveness is not to say the words and remain angry. True forgiveness is to let go of the anger and greet the person with a clean slate. This is challenging for me. I am not alone. A friend recently told me the adage that maintaining one's anger is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies. It’s important to remind ourselves of this often – remaining angry exacts a toll on us.

As difficult as it may be sometimes, being b’tzelem elohim – forgiving, letting go of even our most justified anger – permits us the freedom to choose a future, unencumbered by the debts of our past.

May we all have such strength.

-Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher

* The rules of shmita, of leaving farm fields fallow every 7th year, only apply to our ancestral homeland, and it is practiced to this day in Israel by many, if not most, religious farmers, although there are exceptions. The next shmita year will commence on Rosh Hashanah 5782 or September 7, 2021.

** As is the case with everything in Jewish law, there is some debate as to whether the Jubilee is the 49th year, or, what I believe is better supported by the text, the year immediately following 7 cycles of 7 years, the 50th year.
Curiously, the Roman Catholic Church observes a Jubilee every 50th year. The most recent Jubilee was 2000, and it was ushered in with a fantastic ritual at the Vatican on New Years Day.

Emor 2017 - 5777 Everything in Moderation. Even Moderation.

posted May 11, 2017, 2:44 PM by Ohel Avraham   [ updated May 11, 2017, 2:49 PM ]

Parshat Emor,  Leviticus 21:1 - 24:23

My grandfather, Nissim Asher, of blessed memory, used to exhort people to be reasonable. "Everything in moderation," he would say, then follow it tongue-in-cheek with, "Especially moderation in moderation." 

This week we read parshat Emor, and we near the end of the book of Vayikra. Much of the early part of the parsha focuses on the kohanim and how they must be separated from the rest of the community. Then, the Torah describes each of the haggim – the agriculturally based harvest holidays of Pesah, Sukkot, and Shavu’ot.
At the end of this week’s parsha, the Torah tells an interesting story.
“And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman and a man of Israel took a stand together in the camp. And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed; and they brought him unto Moses. And his mother's name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him to rest in a guarded place, that it might be declared unto them at the mouth of God. And God spoke unto Moses, saying, ‘Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him….’”
This is a curious story, placed in the midst of some of the many laws, statutes, punishments, and prohibitions that comprise the book of Vayikra. The end of the story is yet more prohibitions – primarily forbidding blasphemous statements, and reiterating the code of Hammurabi (which is also noted elsewhere in the Torah).
One particularly strange part of the story is the action of the son of the Israelite woman and “a man of Israel.” The Torah says that they va’yi’na’tzu. The root of this word is nun-tzadi-hey, which is translated variously as: to fly, to take one’s stand, to set up or erect, to be stationed, to keep watch, or to preside over. It is not clear from the story what the son of the Israelite woman and the Israelite man were taking a stand regarding – were they keeping watch over something? Were they proverbially “taking a stand,” and declaring their belief (perhaps, lack of belief)? The Torah leaves us at a loss, and we must only wonder.
Rashi translates this word as “quarreled,” and interprets this story to be related to an argument over lineage. He argues that the “son of an Israelite woman” tried to set up his tent in the encampment of the tribe of Dan. Because lineage is passed through the father, the man was taken to Moshe’s court and found guilty. After this, he cursed the name of God.
Certainly Rashi’s explanation helps to fill in some narrative gaps. However, I wonder what it could mean that the Torah simply says that this man “took a stand,” and then began cursing the name of God. I wonder if a man or woman could become so consumed with the things for which they stand that they may (intentionally or inadvertently) begin to curse God – one of the most harshly punished sins in the Torah.
I have seen people (and, at times, found myself) lately becoming this consumed with many political and social issues. For many people, it is difficult right now not to be so consumed with our beliefs that we could find ourselves blaspheming – perhaps cursing God or destroying relationships that we value. To take a stand is not necessarily a bad thing, I would argue. Having convictions that we believe strongly and are willing to fight for creates impassioned citizens who work to make our country stronger. The ways in which we go about strengthening our country seem to be what is causing the most tension.  
So what do we do? Do we abandon our beliefs and try to get along with everyone? Or do we stand by our convictions and alienate people who are part of our lives? The Torah certainly seems to argue against only standing by your convictions. I think it is incumbent on each of us to find a balance – a place we can stand where we feel both honest and true to our beliefs, but where we also are able to join together with people we love, though with whom we may disagree.

Yvonne Asher

Dedication of the Sulam Center at Nazareth College, 1 May 2017

posted May 1, 2017, 11:58 AM by Ohel Avraham

Welcome, Bruchim Haba’im, Ahlen w’sehlen. Esteemed members of the Nazareth Community, as well as our distinguished guests from the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faiths, and all of you present here today, welcome.

Before, anything else, it is important we thank the many people who worked and dedicated precious limited resources in order to create this space. President Braveman, Dr. Nowack, Jamie Fazio and the Center for Spirituality, Dr. Shafiq and the Hickey Center, Mohamad Ahamad who is leading our Muslim Student Association, and many others, including those involved with design, construction, and facilities. Thank you.

I am personally thankful to my Creator for bringing me to Nazareth College and letting me be a part of this place that nurtures both cooperation and critical thinking.

Our ancestors sacrificed animals in worship to God. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

Continuing with the idea of animal sacrifices, there is a belief of sorts in Judaism, about the Messianic times, the world to come. In this utopian future, none of the animal sacrifices will be required save one.

There are many types of offerings, for sure: the guilt offering, wave offering, sin offering, the peace offering - in the future, only one offering will continue to be required, and that is, the Thanksgiving offering, zevach todah.

It is a testament to how important gratitude was to our ancestors.

Gratitude is so important, they realized, that even after the world has achieved Nirvana, we risk ruining it if we don’t express gratitude for it daily. In fact, I would propose that universal gratitude for our place and time in creation, whatever it may be, good and not good, our appreciation for that is a prerequisite for achieving Messianic utopia.

True gratitude is not just saying thank you for your gift, but using the gifts you have to their fullest.

In the book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses, saying,

וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם.

“Build for me a sanctuary, that my presence will be in their midst.”

The act of creating a space dedicated for worship is, in and of itself, an act that invites us to be holy. It asks of us to be a reflection of our highest aspirations.

Note that God does not say, build me a sanctuary and I will dwell in it. That would be silly. Remember Robin Williams as the genie explaining his fate in Aladin? “Infinite power. Itty bitty living space.”

No, instead God says, “When you make space for Me, I will be a part of your lives.”

What’s in a name?

The hopes and aspirations of a parent.

The Sulam Center is today’s name. Perhaps we will find another name tomorrow. But more important than the name are our hopes and aspirations.

In Hebrew, the word sulam is one of those odd words that appears only once in the entirety of the Jewish Bible, but is thought to derive from ancient Akkadian, the language spoken in one of the earliest empires, Akkad.

In Islam, the sulam was considered by some scholars to have helped the Prophet in his journey of the Mir’aj.

In modern Arabic, the cognate “silma” means stair or staircase, but is used colloquially to mean a gathering. (Chelibelek…)

In the Book of Genesis, it is the ladder in “Jacob’s Ladder”.

In all uses of the word, it is a connector. It enables people both to rise up and come down to earth, so to speak.

And this is where our hopes and aspirations lie.

I could cite statistics that show hate crime is up. If I wanted, I could repeat statistics that show anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim violence rising in America, especially on college campuses.

They don't impress me.

Let me explain. Of course I care for the victims of baseless hatred and violence. Of course I care that justice should be served. Of course, I want to make the world we bequeath to our progeny, more accepting and more peaceful than than the one we inherited.

What I don’t care about is listening to statistics that are meant to engender outrage without finding ways to challenge that outrage into good.

I have little patience for documenting our failures in coexistence, unless they lead to improved ways to coexist.

Of course there are failures. Endeavor has no meaning without its attendant failure.

But too much of our news these days, I find, contains mere statistics without an honest discussion of why.

It is only by hypothesizing and proving - or disproving - the “why” that we can learn and grow. This is going up the ladder.

The God I believe in gave us an imperfect world to live in, and the agency to improve it.

I believe we can and must strive to make new history. For what is God’s greatest gift to us, if not the ability to choose, the ability to try something not tried before, and critically, the freedom to make mistakes and the wisdom to fix those mistakes.

We live in a strange time. Our ability to communicate with most of the world is unparalleled, and yet, we are more silo’ed than ever, creating communities of like minded people and eschewing those whom we deem to have inferior ideas.

This is a problem. We are talking in echo chambers, hearing the ideas of a few leaders parroted repeatedly, with regular people often unable or unwilling to seriously entertain positions that contradict their views, resorting to name calling and the multi-billion dollar business of outrage media.

Now, more than ever, we need what this room represents - a place to expect the best of ourselves, and a place to recognize the best in others.

The Sulam goes in both directions. Only half the time are we going to heaven.

Going down is just important.

While we aspire to greatness, our reality is here on earth. Friends can disagree. Situations sometimes lead to conflict. Reality is messy business.

Just the fact that the Islamic calendar is strictly lunar, whereas the Jewish calendar is a hybrid of lunar and solar virtually ensures there will be conflicts.

I look forward to the times we find that a Friday evening service and “Gom’aa” conflict; or that Id il Adha overlaps with Yom Kippur. I look forward to learning differences between Hallal and Kashrut. These are the bases of discussions that forward each of us to better understandings of one another. In Hebrew, we have the phrase machloket b’shaym shamayim - arguments in the name of heaven.

Not just for discussion and debate, I also look forward to breaking the fast on an evening in Ramadan with our brothers and sisters.

I look forward to sharing the Passover Seder with my Muslim cousins.

Mostly, I look forward to the inquiry, discussion, and debate that will naturally emerge from fertile, thoughtful, and inquisitive minds. May they all be “Machloket B’Shaym Shamayim” - arguments made in the spirit of improving the world.

When we make space for our loftiest aspirations, they can take root and grow.

This Sulam Center represents the loftiest aspiration that we can pursue, to sanctify God’s name through acts that create and strengthen community.

I pray that this Sulam Center, this holy space, lives up to its name, for many years and many generations of Nazareth students, faculty, and staff to come.

Let us all say thank you by using this space to achieve the loftiest of aspirations, to make peace among ourselves, the children of God.

-Samuel Asher, 5 Iyyar 5777, 1 May 2017

Sh'mini 5777 - 2017 - To Separate is Human, To Forgive is Divine

posted Apr 20, 2017, 2:12 PM by Ohel Avraham   [ updated Apr 21, 2017, 9:45 AM ]

4/22, Parshat Shmini, Torah Portion: Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47

This week, as we enter the period of s’firat ha’omer (counting the Omer), the 7 weeks between the Feast of Freedom and the Feast of Responsibility, we read parshat Shmini. The passage begins with Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, who offer “strange fire” before God and are killed as punishment. At the end of this week’s parsha, the Torah lists many rules and regulations around the consumption of animals – which animals may be eaten, under what circumstances, and how animals may come to be unclean – the beginnings of our modern understanding of Kashrut.

In between these two parts of the parsha, God speaks directly to Aaron. God says,

“Drink no wine or strong drink, you, or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, that you do not die; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. And that you may put difference between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; and that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which God has spoken to them by the hand of Moses.”

In Hebrew, the phrase “put difference between the holy and the common” is familiar – l’hav’dil bein ha’chodesh u’vein ha’chol. We recite an almost identical phrase each Saturday evening when we bid farewell to Shabbat at the Havdalah service. The root of the word havdalah is vet-dalet-lamed (בדל) – the same as the root of the word l’hav’dil. This root – and the words that are derived from it – relates to separation, to placing things into distinct groups or categories. These may be categories of holy and ordinary, clean and unclean, or kosher and non-kosher. Categories can relate to people, animals, time, space, or objects.

Recently, I listened to a podcast about this very same topic – how we categorize. The human brain is designed to place things into groups. Having people, animals, or objects in groups takes a great burden off of our brains. It allows us to “know” information about members of a certain group, relieving us of the need to investigate each group member to find out its individual characteristics.

In the best case scenarios, this motivates you to run screaming from the poisonous snake in the woods, as you have learned that members of the category “snake” are dangerous. In the worst case scenarios, it is stereotyping, preventing us from learning about those who differ from ourselves because we fear that they are bad or dangerous or scary.

Social psychologists have known for decades that the human brain loves to categorize – good and bad, safe and dangerous, approach and avoid. The Torah knows this, too. In many places, including this week’s parsha, the Torah goes to great lengths l’hav’dil – to separate things into their categories. We have l’hav’dil between kosher animals and non-kosher ones in this week’s parsha, l’hav’dil between Sabbath and the rest of the week, l’hav’dil between crops of different species, and so on.

The obvious concern is this: what about people or animals or times or things that do not fit into a category? What if they share core characteristics between categories? What if they (having volition and will) willingly choose a category other than the one they appear to fit into? What if they lack necessary characteristics of multiple categories? What do we do when something does not fit?

The Torah has little patience for this, regularly assuming that mixing of categories is a punishable offense (e.g., mixing of linen and wool). But we know that there are very few instances of unambiguously clear categories. In the messiness of life, black and white usually dissolve into a flood of shifting grays. So what do we do with the grey? For some, this is where rabbinic law takes over – giving over the complexities of real life to detailed Talmudic arguments over the most minute circumstances.

For others, this is where we place our own sensibilities, experiences, and values alongside the words of the Torah and begin to interpret. Using the Torah as our foundation, we can begin to understand for ourselves how these rules and statutes and laws can inform and enhance our daily experiences. One cannot always keep the strict distinction between Shabbat and the rest of the week. However, understanding that setting aside time on a predictable schedule – sacred time, undisturbed and uninterrupted – to be closer to God, to those we love, and to ourselves is vital to many people’s own sense of wellbeing.

Separating time is important – whether we can do that on Shabbat or not. Carving out sacred time – distinct and different from our daily routines – is the value from the Torah that we can enact in our daily lives. And the same is true for so many other categories – what we eat and do not eat, clothing that we wear and that which we choose not to wear, crops that can nourish one another and crops that can harm one another. The Torah offers a starting point – showing us that categories are relevant and important. However, it is incumbent upon us to interpret these categories to allow us to maximally benefit and minimally harm ourselves and those with whom we dwell.

-Yvonne Asher

Pesah Supplement 5777 - Social Inclusion and Exclusion

posted Apr 20, 2017, 2:05 PM by Ohel Avraham

Shabbat Ha’gadol – the great Shabbat – is the last Sabbath before chag pesach (Festival of Passover). Although pesach is a joyful holiday, filled with wine and song and feast, parshat Tzav (which is read on Shabbat HaGadol) is remarkably scary. It is filled with threats, terrible consequences, and dire warnings. Vayikra chapter 7 (verse 20) is a clear example – when talking about the different offerings (the guilt offering and the sin offering and the peace offering), the Torah reminds us: “But the soul that eats of the flesh of the sacrifice of peace-offerings, that pertain to God, having his uncleanness upon him, that soul will be cut off from his people.”

This consequence – having one’s soul cut off from his people – is the same one that is described for anyone who eats leavened bread during chag pesach: “Seven days will you eat unleavened bread. On the first day you will put away leaven out of your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.” The threat is similarly used to when commanding circumcision (Beresheet 17:14): “And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul will be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” The verb in all cases is chaf-resh-taf – karat – to cut off or cut down.

It is worth noting that in ancient times, most people lived in homogeneous societies. If you were a member of a community, you necessarily adopted the rules and conventions of that community. If you were cut off from that community, you had nowhere to go. In other words, to be "karat" - cut off - was the worst imaginable punishment outside of death itself.

Connecting the holiday of pesach with a brit (covenant) between God and the Jewish people is easy – our liturgy makes this connection repeatedly in our daily tefilah (prayer). “For I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” occurs in the Shema, which we recite twice per day, each day. We follow mitzvot because God promised us good things (like rain at the proper season and a good crop yield) if we do. We know God will keep future promises, because God brought us out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom. The brit with God is predicated on us remembering God bringing us out of Egypt, and our willingness to enter in to future covenants with this protective, caring God.

So, why the connection to eating the flesh of the peace-offering? Actually, looking more closely at the text, the Torah is commanding us to eat the flesh of the peace-offering, just not to eat it at a certain time: “And the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace-offerings for thanksgiving must be eaten on the day of its offering; he shall not leave any of it until the morning.” This passuk is clearly related to pesach – during the exodus from Egypt, the lamb, which was sacrificed and whose blood was put on the doorposts of the Israelite houses, was required to be eaten all in one night.

Why, then, is it this threat specifically – to have one’s soul cut off from his people? The Torah does not hesitate threaten death in many other cases – smiting, stoning, and more. Here, though, the threat is different. In fact, this is a solely spiritual threat – it is not that you, as a living person, will be cut off from your community – banished or shunned or run out of town. Rather, this is the intangible, metaphysical existence of a person being abandoned by a community.

How and why might this happen?

In my job, I have been asked this year to work with a family’s three oldest children. These children all struggle with any number of emotional, behavioral, and psychological challenges brought on by a perfect storm of innate, neurological vulnerabilities and environmental stressors. One by one, I have watched the school that these children attend blame them, punish them, and label them. As one child is “handled,” another becomes the problem du jour. Fault always lies with the child, the oldest of whom is nowhere near “double digits” in age.

Because all three of these children are racial minorities, I have begun to research the treatment of children of color in public school settings. The literature paints an abominable picture. African-American students are suspended at twice the rate of Caucasian students. Black boys are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than their White peers. Black girls make up 16% of the school body but more than one-third of school-based arrests.

Reading this week’s parsha, I cannot help but think that we – by this, I mean the public school system as a whole and not necessarily any specific individuals within it – are enacting God’s punishment right now. We are cutting off these children’s souls from their community. A child’s school is their work – their daily life. By blaming and punishing and labeling, we have taught these young people that they are bad, not wanted, and not worthy of our attention. We have taken their souls and pushed them so far away from our love and forgiveness that these children will soon give up trying to get back. A punishment meant to be reserved for actions that break a brit with God is being used on children nearly a decade away from puberty.

As we approach pesach, we come upon a time of inclusion and exclusion. We, the Israelites, are ready to leave you – the Egyptians. We draw clear lines in the sand, and determine who is in and who is out. Rarely, though, do situations have clear answers. Even on pesach, freedom for our community meant terrible losses for another. Everything has a cost, whether that cost is some hitting and kicking in a Kindergarten classroom or the loss of life for the Egyptian people. While we evaluate the costs, we must consider both the punishments with which we are comfortable, and the crimes for which those punishments are meted out. At what point is it acceptable to cut off an individual from their community?

-Yvonne Asher

Vayak'hel - Pekudei 5777 - 2017 The Beauty of the Mitzvah is in Desiring to Perform it

posted Mar 23, 2017, 7:33 PM by Ohel Avraham

Parashat Vayak’hel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1-40:38

“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting." - Mr. Spock, from the Star Trek episode Amok Time

This week we read the two passages, Vayak’hel and Pekuday, which close the Book of Exodus. These parshiot are filled with the construction and decoration of the mishkan, laid out in exquisite detail. Chapter 37 names Betzalel and Oholiav as the designers and builders of the intricate designs and lavish tapestries. From this parsha, we see the source text for the Jewish tradition of hiddur mitzvah – beautifying the commandment.
As observant Jews, it is not simply that we perform mitzvot (commandments). Rather, we create beauty around these mitzvot – we light Shabbat candles, but how much more meaningful this is when the candlesticks are crafted from a beautiful wood or made by someone precious in our lives. When our Channukiot are artfully designed, how much more do we look forward to kindling these lights? When we have a new Torah, it is a deep honor to participate in creating a cover for this sacred scroll.
Why does this matter? Why is it a mitzvah to make other mitzvot more beautiful? Certainly in part, it is that we have natural attraction to beautiful objects, and it would be fitting that observance of mitzvot allowed us to incorporate that to which we are naturally drawn – gold and silver, deep rich colors, intricate patterns and detailed images.
Perhaps, though, there is a different reason. Shemot chapter 35 (the beginning of this week’s parshiot) notes, “And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and brought God’s offering, for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all the service thereof, and for the holy garments … The children of Israel brought a freewill-offering unto God; every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which God had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made.”
The emphasis here is on will – on desire – to help the community and participate in the creation of the mishkan. The Torah states four separate times in just two p’sukim that the mishkan was created willingly by the Israelites – that the offerings of goods to construct this tabernacle were choices consciously made by the people, not mandates by God or community leaders.
I believe it is this willingness to participate in the creation of the mishkan that is the true hiddur mitzvah. The physical beauty that we create around mitzvot is a manifestation of our willingness to perform the mitzvot. We make beautiful sacred objects to show publicly that we are proud to do the mitzvot for which this object was designed – we are willing and proud to light candles, read from the Torah, make Kiddush, and celebrate a Pesach seder. By creating physical beauty, we remind ourselves and show to others that it is not a chore or rote behavior to engage in a mitzvah. Rather, it is an occasion of joy and, as such, we take the time, effort, and care to make the mitzvah as beautiful as we are able. 

Yvonne Asher

Terumah 5777 - 2017 - What would you compromise for the power to speak as One Nation?

posted Mar 3, 2017, 2:04 PM by Ohel Avraham   [ updated Mar 3, 2017, 2:15 PM ]

Parshat Terumah - What would you compromise for the power to speak as One Nation?

Exodus 25:1 - 27:19

We start this week's d’rasha with a question. If you feel there is some value in identifying yourself (in part) as one member of this group called “Jews”, … or atheists or Masons, or whatever, what beliefs or imperatives bind you together? Conversely, what would you sacrifice, what sacred cow would you slay, in order to have the power to speak as one?

This week, our parshat ha’shavu’ah comes at a tense and challenging time for many of us. It is a time of increasing violence against Jewish communities in this country – synagogues, cemeteries, schools, and community centers. If there is any one thing we should be able to agree on, as Jews, a good contender for that must be our common repugnance to violence against innocent people.

This endeavor, finding common cause as a people is at the heart of this week's parasha, Terumah, the free will offering toward constructing our ancestors’ tabernacle in the desert.

If the Torah is meant as our guidepost, our foundational text, it seems as though we should take this opportunity – this Shabbat – to bring ourselves closer to and deeper inside its words.

Parshat Terumah (Ex. 25:1-27:9) – describes the construction of the mishkan, or, tabernacle, in great detail. From the dyes used to color the fabrics, the gold inlays and overlays, the cherubs on the outside, and the ceremonial objects within. The exquisite detail with which the mishkan should be built stands in stark contrast to the sparse information given in many of the narrative portions of the Torah, such as akedat yitzchak (the binding of Isaac).

Interestingly, the innermost chamber of the mishkan, inside the Holy of Holies, in which the tablets of the Decalogue (10 commandments) were kept, was overlaid with pure gold. This chamber was not only covered on the outside, but even on the inside, which few would ever see. Sages have commented that this may be a metaphor for our deepest, innermost selves – even when others cannot see, do we put forward our best effort? Do we treat others with kindness and patience, even when there is no advantage - no repercussion to our own future?

There are many ways, in Judaism, that we remind ourselves of our most dearly held values, even when they are not being observed or directly acted upon. One of these is the menorah – the 7 branched candelabra which has been a symbol of Israel since our most ancient times.

This lamp was to be lit every day in perpetuity. It was (and, in modern times, continues to be) a metaphor for our eternal obligation to be “a light unto the nations,” whether that be in intellectual pursuits, human interaction, artistic expression, or speaking truth to power. It is this last meaning that our sages found to be central to the message of Hanukkah, and why, although the basic story of Hanukkah is a military victory that beat the odds, our rabbinical practice of Hanukkah is all about the menorah.

Alternatively, the perpetually lit menorah represents the light or goodness that can be found at almost any time, in almost any situation. The light stands to remind us of other things that are good, or things that bring light to our lives, even in our darkest hour.

In another sense, though, the light is itself the thing to which we should attend. The light has remained present and steady throughout the ages. The light, then can be an ed, a witness. In fact, the holy of holies (where the tablets of the 10 commandments were kept) inside the mishkan is referred to as the ohel ha'edut – the tent of the pact. However, edut has a related meaning of witness. The light, then, is witness to our history. The light has watched and taken in all that has happened, and serves to remind us, even in the darkest of times, from where we have come and to where we are going.

To bear witness is both an honor and a burden. This, said Eli Wiesel, was what finally motivated him to speak out about the Holocaust after a decade of remaining silent. He felt it was his duty to bear witness – he was given the gift of life, the power of his writing, and the burden of surviving alone. So he must bear witness.

The menorah reminds us that we must bear witness, as well – it is a gift to remember the beautiful times in our past and the legacies which give us pride. It is also a burden – to remember the sadness, loss, and fear of the past, and to recall the pain that our community has faced before. And perhaps sadder still, than when we have been victims of external forces, are the times we did not live up to our own potential as a people, as Am Yisrael.

I believe that acknowledging how our own actions, good and bad, have created the events we see around us, both good and bad, is a necessary step in order to change our behaviors to achieve different outcomes.

Perhaps this is why the parsha this week begins with the phrase v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham – and they shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. To me, this is one of the wisest sentences in Torah.

God does not dwell on high, far away or through intermediaries. God dwells among us, but only when we create space for the Divine. It is our job, here on earth, to create a community, a society, a country, and a world, worthy of God.

What can help us to face pain and address the hatred and divisions we are witnessing to an alarming level in our country? The menorah reminds us, but is only an object. When we remember, and allow God to dwell in our midst, we are able to face our history and create our future.

On this Shabbat, as we face rising hatred in our nation, it is not merely the words of Torah to which we must cleave, but to one another. The freed slaves in the desert found a common cause, a desire to build a community worthy of Shechina, God’s presence. We now, must find a way to rebuild our fractured community, whether that is based on Shechina, justice, compassion, or something else.

Coming closer to the Torah requires thought, insight, and reason. Moving toward one another, however, requires trust, patience, forgiveness, and love. It is not always easy to love one another – our community can be fragmented by politics, halacha, and old grudges. Coming together as one requires us to set aside these disagreements, and to seek connection. It requires us to be more loving than we are angry, more kind than we are spiteful, and more forgiving than we are judgmental.

I hope and pray we shed enough things that divide us, in order to build a community worthy of God to dwell in our midst.

Samuel Asher
Yvonne Asher

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