Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had taken [into his household as his wife], he took a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1)
Miriam, the older sister of Aaron and Moses was one of the great heroines of the Torah. In fact, she is known as Miriam HaNeviah, Miriam the Prophetess. According to the Midrash, she convinced her parents to come back together, in spite of Pharaoh’s decree to kill the baby boys, leading to the birth of Moses. According to the Torah, she followed baby Moses down the river and convinced Pharaoh’s daughter to use his mother as a wet nurse. According to the Torah, she took the women with tambourines to sing the Song of the Sea, after the parting of the sea. According to the Midrash, she provided water to the people through a magical well during their years of wandering in the wilderness. How can one say something negative about this woman?
Nonetheless, she had a moment of weakness. At the end of this week’s portion, she makes comments to her b+rother Aaron about the black woman Moses had taken as a wife. For her words, she is punished for seven days. Her skin breaks out in the condition which was later called leprosy, and she was turned out of the camp for seven days. It is almost as if the Torah is saying, if you want to insult someone for being black, God will turn your skin totally white.
This is not the only time that racism raises its head in the Bible. In Song of Songs, the beautiful Shunamite woman in love with her shepherd boy speaks about her blackness. “Don’t stare at me because I am black, Because the sun has gazed upon me.” (Song of Songs 1:6). Racism seems to be built into human nature. To quote the song from the hit Broadway show Avenue Q, “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”
Historically people have used the Bible to justify racism. After the flood story in Genesis, Noah curses his youngest son Ham, saying he will be a servant to his brothers. Ham was the progenitor of Cush, Hebrew for Ethiopian, the father of people of color. Shakespeare famously said in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” Supporters of slavery used the curse of Ham to justify slavery. Even in our day, people use the story to justify the oppression of people of color.
Martin Luther King Jr. dreamt of a color-blind society, where people were judged “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” One would hope that over fifty years after King’s assassination, racism would disappear. But reading the headlines shows that it is in the news more than ever. Often this racism takes the form of identity politics, where we are asked to treat different racial groups differently in order to achieve some kind of equity. As a rabbi who has converted and married people of all races and ethnicities, as a college professor who has taught students of all races and ethnicities. I would love to see a color-blind society. But that seems far away.
Here is part of a sermon on racism I gave on Yom Kippur a few years ago. “Why are there so many races? I believe it is part of the miracle of God, growing out of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Human life began in Africa. Because of the strong sunlight and threat of ultraviolet radiation, the humans who flourished in Africa had more melanin in their skin. Melanin causes dark skin. Since humans began there, dark skin should be the default position. But humans migrated throughout the world. As they migrated north, particularly to places like Scandinavia in Northern Europe, dark skin was a disadvantage. People need Vitamin D to survive, which comes from sunlight. Those with less melanin and lighter skin produced more Vitamin D and had a better chance of survival. So lighter skin evolved. Race is part of the miracle of evolution. A multitude of races ought to be celebrated.”
In truth, I think we all have moments of weakness like Miriam, where we judge someone based on such superficial qualities as race. It is something we each need to fight within ourselves. The Torah foresees a color-blind society, where every human being is a child of the one God.


“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving, and then the Israelites wept and said, if only we had meat too eat.”  (Numbers 11:4)

When I teach my critical thinking college class, I like to share a classical story from the Buddhist tradition.  Two monks were arguing about a flag blowing in the wind.  One monk said, it is the flag that is waving.  The second monk said, no it is the wind that is waving.  Back and forth they went.  Finally, they went to ask the great Zen teacher Hui Neng.  He answered, my fellow monks, you are both wrong.  It is not the flag that moves and it is not the wind that moves.  It is your mind that moves.

I use the story to introduce the idea of cognitive biases.   As humans, we tend not to see the world objectively.  Our minds have a tendency to approach the world with pre-conceived ideas, what logicians call cognitive biases.  Our mind is not a blank slate as the philosopher John Locke famously taught.  Rather, it is filled with pre-conceived ideas and judgements that affect how we see the world.  And advertisers do everything in their power to add to these biases.

A good example is called anchoring, where our mind is anchored to seeing the world in a certain way.  Suppose we walk into a car dealership looking for a deal on a car.  The cars in the showroom are the most expensive, fancy models.  Our minds become anchored to the idea – car means expensive and fancy.  Then the dealer brings out a car that is simpler and cheaper than the one’s in the showroom.  It may be more than we can afford.  But because our mind is anchored to a certain idea, we believe we are getting a deal.  So we buy the car.

A second example – watch any commercial on tv for a cruise line.  Notice all the people in the commercial are young, attractive, and sexy.  Our mind becomes anchored to the idea – cruise equals young and sexy.  So you buy your cruise ticket, and discover that your fellow passengers look like you and me.  But advertisers know how to use cognitive biases.

What does this have to do with the weekly Torah portion?  This week and for the next several weeks the Israelites begin their journey through the wilderness.  Immediately they begin to complain.  The first complaints are about the food, this manna is awful.  The meat and fish they ate back in Egypt was much better.  (Never mind that they were slaves.)  They will complain about other matters – the water, the land, Moses’ leadership.  Logicians speak of a pessimism bias.  It is seeing the world as if the cup is half empty, not half full.  If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

When I see people with this pessimistic bias, I often think of Eeyore, the gray donkey in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books.  He went through life gloomy and depressed, seeing the world as an unhappy place.  Perhaps Winnie tried to raise his spirits, but Eeyore saw the glass as half empty by nature.  I have met people over the years who remind me of Eeyore.  They are not easy to be around.

Jewish tradition attempts to create the precise opposite in people, what the Rabbis call hekarat tov – “recognizing the good.”  One must attempt to develop an optimistic bias when seeing the world.  The Rabbis speak of a Talmud teacher named Nathan Gamzu.  The name Gamzu was considered short for the phrase gam zu l’tova – “this is for the good.”  He saw the good in everything.  One of Nathan Gamzu’s students was the great Rabbi Akiba.

Rabbi Akiba told a story of a valuable lesson he learned from his mentor.  He was once caught in the woods with only a flame on a torch, a rooster, and a donkey.  He tried to settle down for the night, but a wind blew out the flame.  A predator ate his rooster.  And his donkey ran away.  Akiba could only say, “this too is for the good.”  Rabbi Akiba then found out that a group of marauders had come through town.  If they say his flame or heard his animals, he would surely been captured.  Gam zu l’tova.

            We all see the world with cognitive biases.  We can see the world in a negative way, like the ancient Israelites.  Or we can see the world in a positive way, like Rabbi Akiba.  Perhaps it is worth the effort to develop an optimistic cognitive bias.


“Speak to Aaron and say to him, When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.”  (Numbers 8:2)

This portion begins with the law that the priests must maintain the lights in the ancient seven branch menorah.  The menorah, made of a solid piece of gold when the tabernacle was built, disappeared during the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.  There is a relief panel in the Roman Arch of Titus showing the menorah being carried off.  Today instead of a menorah, we use a ner tamid “eternal light” burning above the holy ark in every synagogue in the world.  A burning flame is the symbol of God’s eternal presence.

We can compare the Jewish view towards a burning flame with the ancient Greek view.  In Greek legend, Prometheus stole fire from the gods.  As a result, he was forced to endure an eternal punishment.  Fire belongs to the gods, not to humans.  In Judaism, humans are given the gift of fire to create light.  We light fires, at least for six days a week.  On the seventh day we are forbidden to light or extinguish a lamp, symbolic that on the Sabbath the world belongs to God.  However, shortly before the Sabbath, we light candles in our households to welcome the Sabbath day.  Traditionally the woman of the house lights the Sabbath lights, although if there is no woman a man should do it.

These laws of the Sabbath are part of the powerful symbolism of the use of light.  Friday night and on the eve of every festival, we light two (or more) candles with flames leading straight up to heaven.  That is where we want to direct our hearts on these holy days.  On Saturday night after dark, we light a different kind of candle for Havdalah.  It has multiple wicks going in multiple directions, showing how our lives are pulled in multiple directions as the weekday begins.  Fire and the light it produces are symbols of God’s holy presence in our light homes.

We also light lamps in memory of someone who died.  In a house of mourning, we light a special candle that burns for seven days.  Then on the anniversary of the death (yahrzeit) and on Yom Kippur we light candles that burn for 24 hours.  Some people light the 24-hour candle whenever yizkor (holiday memorial prayers) are said, although that is not my custom.  The reasoning behind this universal practice is the verse from the Bible, “The soul of man is the lamp of God” (Proverbs 20:27).

Later, the codes of Jewish law would build on this idea.  They compared the soul of a dying person to a flickering candle.  Nothing must be done to cause the candle to go out prematurely.  The comparison of the soul to a light is ancient, not simply in Judaism but in many other faith traditions.   Christian churches are often filled with candles lit in memory of the deceased.

Perhaps it is worth exploring this idea a bit more deeply.  What exactly is light?   It is very difficult to pin down.  Sometimes light acts like a particle and sometimes it acts like a wave.  But if it is a wave, what exactly is waving.  We know what a wave of water is.  You can start a wave in a stadium packed with people, but you cannot start a wave in an empty stadium.  With a wave, something must be waving.  Scientists used to believe there was a stuff called the luminiferous aether that filled the universe, but in 1881 Michelson and Morley proved that it did not exist.  This was a great mystery until Albert Einstein entered the picture.

Einstein sat in his Bern patent office in 1905 and let his imagination roam.  He looked at the lights through the window and wondered, what would happen if he could catch up and move next to a ray of light.  Michelson Morley had proven that no matter how fast he goes, the light would move away at a constant speed.  Einstein realized that this could only happen is space and time contract the faster one moves.  If he could catch up to the light, space and time would disappear altogether.  Light is something outside space and time.

Multiple experiments over decades have proven Einstein was right.  But if light is outside space and time and the soul is like a light, then the soul must be outside space and time.  We humans have a part of us that exists on a spiritual plane, beyond this physical world.  That is what the candle symbolizes.


“The riffraff that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us meat to eat?”

In this week’s portion, the Israelites are finally ready to begin their walk through the wilderness.  Over a year has been spent in preparation, including the building of a portable tabernacle and the organization of the order of the marching through the desert.  A pillar of smoke would lead them by day and of fire would lead them by night.  The goal was to go straight from Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land.  But it was not to be.  As the march began, trouble broke out.

It was not all the Israelites who began the trouble, but a small group, in Hebrew asafsuf.  I deliberately used the translation “riffraff” which has the same kind of alliteration as asafsuf.  In another part of the Torah they are called eruv rav. usually translated “mixed multitude,” including non-Israelites who left Egypt with the Israelites.  I called them “rabble rousers” because according to tradition, they were looking to create trouble.  And they succeeded.

The complaint was about food, not having enough meat to eat.  Perhaps this is the beginning of the tradition of Jews complaining about food.  (I think of the woman at a hotel in the Catskills saying, “The food was awful, and the portions were too small!”)  What began as a complaint about food turned into a near revolt against Moses.   What started as an exciting moment of travel was the beginning of a series of rebellions that would destroy the generation of the desert.

Let me quote the great Biblical commentator Rashi at length: “But did they not have flesh? Has it not been already stated, (Exodus 12:38) ‘and a mixed multitude went up with them and flocks and herds, [even very much cattle]’?! If you say, ‘They had already eaten them’, then I reply, ‘But is it not stated at a later period, when they were about to enter the Land, (Numbers 32:1), ‘Now the children of Reuben had cattle in a very great multitude.’ But the truth is that they were only seeking a pretext (Sifrei Bimidbar 86).”  The mixed multitude was looking for a pretext to create trouble.

This image of rabble rousers hits home based on the news of the past weeks.  What began as peaceful protests against racism after the murder of George Floyd turned into opportunities for riots and looting.   Police were called in with riot gear and tear gas.  Communities all over the country established curfews.  (We were under a 9 pm curfew in my own community for several days.)  Perhaps most troubling, it was often black owned businesses that were attacked.  What began as a worthy protest for an important cause turned into an excuse for rebellion.  And I wonder if some people, often from out of town, were seeking a pretext, to use Rashi’s words.

Last week I attended a meeting of community leaders with the Broward County sheriff.  I was the only rabbi present and possibly the only Jew, although there were several other clergy.  Probably the majority were people of color, both police and leaders of various community organizations that provide social services to minority communities.  The goal was to help our sheriff and other local police forces avoid the tragic events that happened in Minneapolis and too many other cities.  What struck me is the number of people in the black community who spoke of their fear for themselves, and more so, for their sons.  They told stories of warning their sons how to behave if pulled over by the police. The racism in our nation is real and needs to be fought on an ongoing basis.

That is what so frustrated me about the riots and looting.  People are demonstrating for a worthy cause I support.  And then a group of rabble rousers use it as an excuse for violent destructive behavior.  And sometimes the police overreact, adding to the violence.  In the end, these events rather than ending racism, helped to exacerbate it.    I suppose the Torah is saying that there will always be the asafsuf, the mixed multitude, the riffraff, the rabble rousers.  We cannot allow them to have the final word.


“But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.
And the manna was as coriander seed, and its color as the color of bdellium.” (Numbers 11:6,7)
Finally, the Israelites are beginning their journey through the wilderness. As the travels begin, they react as Jews often react. Almost immediately they complain about the food. As the old Jewish joke goes, “The food was terrible, and the portions were too small.” We seem to love complaining about food; I hear it week in and week out about our kiddushes. The food was better back in Egypt. There was cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. And of course, there was meat and fish. Bring us back the fleshpots of Egypt.
What did the people eat as they wandered through the wilderness? God sent manna every morning, with a double portion for Shabbat. The Torah said it tasted like cake with honey. But Jewish tradition said that the manna tasted like anything a person wanted it to taste like. If they wanted it to taste lie cucumbers and melons, or like fish and meat, that is what it tasted like. In a sense it is like the tofu we eat today, which can be made to taste however we want it to taste. If the manna tasted like anything people liked, why did they complain about the food?
Perhaps there is something psychological about how we relate to the taste of food. I have a memory of my childhood, visiting my parents’ relatives in Detroit, Michigan. My parents did not believe in giving us butter, so I grew up on margarine. In Michigan, like Wisconsin, the dairy industry was very powerful. Stores could sell margarine but they could not color it yellow to look like butter. Margarine in Michigan was white. Somehow white margarine was not the same, even if it tasted the same. My parents gave in and bought us real butter, to the joy of the dairy industry.
Around the time I was growing up, Al Capp’s comic Li’l Abner was very popular. Capp invented a character for his comic known as a Shmoo. A Shmoo was a funny looking animal that was eager to be eaten, and could make itself taste like any food one desired. The Shmoo became the hit of Dogpatch, until an effort was made to eliminate them. I guess they competed with the food manufacturers.
There is a Jewish side to this idea of making food that tastes like something else. By Jewish law on cannot eat meat together with milk. If one is serving a kosher meat meal at a banquet, can one put out non-dairy creamer for the coffee. At first the rabbis ruled that it was forbidden. There was the idea of marit ayin “for the sake of appearances.” If one ate a hamburger and drank a cup of coffee with non-dairy creamer, it would appear as if they are breaking the law. Today non-dairy creamer is so prevalent that most rabbis have ruled it can be served.
However, this raises other issues. Can one who observes kosher eat artificial crab that tastes like real crab? (Crab is not kosher.) Artificial crab has become popular at kosher banquets. What about artificial meat? With the growth of vegetarians and vegans, more and more companies are making plant-based products that taste like meat. Our local newspaper, the Sun-Sentinel, recently ran an article by its food critic comparing different vegetarian burgers. Some of them were deemed excellent. None quite matched the taste of a burger made with real meat. But like the manna in the wilderness, we are getting closer and closer to making food that tastes like anything we wish. I do not know if I am ready to walk into Burger King and order an Impossible Burger, strictly vegetarian, but perhaps soon.
Recently scientists have moved beyond plant based vegan burgers. They have invented cultured meat. Stem cells are taken from an animal and grown in a laboratory into real meat cells. No animals are killed to make this meat, but it is the same as flesh. Would it be kosher to put a slice of cheese on this cultured meat and make a kosher cheeseburger? Rabbis are discussing it but the verdict is still out? If the rabbis say it is kosher, will I eat it? Maybe, but the whole endeavor reminds me of white margarine.

“It came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered; and let them who hate you flee before you. And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered; and let them who hate you flee before you. And when it rested, he said, Return, O Lord, to the many thousands of Israel. (Numbers 10:35 – 36)

There is a very strange statement in the Talmud. In a section speaking about books to be rescued from a fire on the Sabbath, the Talmud speaks of the seven books of the Torah. (Shabbat 116a) We all know the Torah has five books, from where comes the seven? In the middle of this week’s portion are two strange marks that look like upside-down versions of the Hebrew letter nun. In the middle are the two verses quoted about, about when the ark moved forward and when the ark rested. The book of Numbers is really three books. The part of the book of Numbers before this passage is one book, this passage is one book, and the part of the book of Numbers after this passage is one book. With Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, there are seven books altogether, at least according to this strange opinion.
Not only is this passage set apart by strange marks in the Torah, but it also became part of our liturgy. When we open the ark to take out the Torah, we recite vihi binsoa haaron, “when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered.” Before we close the ark to put the Torah away, we say uv’nuchu yomar, “And when it rested, he said, Return, O Lord, to the many thousands of Israel.” These two verses surround the central event of synagogue ritual, the public reading of the Torah.
This does raise a question. Is it appropriate to introduce the reading of the Torah with a prayer that God scatter our enemies? Could we have found a passage that is a bit less belligerent, that speaks of peace rather than war. After all, we do say that all the ways of Torah are peace. The Reform Movement in its official prayerbooks has removed this passage from its liturgy. They skip to the words that usually follow, “From Zion shall the Torah come forth and the word of God from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2).
I prefer to use the Torah passage as it appears in the traditional liturgy. I am always reluctant to change the liturgy, particularly regarding a passage from the Torah. But how should I interpret this? How can I say, let you enemies be scattered, for the Torah shall come forth from Zion? Let me give a possible interpretation.
What is the central message of the Torah? I am aware that there are countless messages, seventy interpretations of every verse according to tradition. But what is the central message? Over and over the Torah teaches about human dignity. It says countless times to care about the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. It speaks of caring for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. It teaches that all human beings, not just Jews but everybody, were created in the image of God. This is the message that goes out every time we read from the Torah.
So who are the enemies we want scattered? The enemies are all those who would subtract from human dignity. The enemies are the anti-Semites, the racists, the bigots, the homophobes, the misogynists, the haters of the world. The enemy is anyone who fails to see the dignity of other human beings. It is those who would follow in the steps of the Nazis by seeing some people as less than human, as mere vermin. The enemy is those who think hate speech is all right, who believe racist jokes can be tolerated. If the Torah is about loving your neighbor, then the enemies are those who hate their neighbor.
So what is the message at the center of our Torah service? Let those who practiced hate be scattered and let love pour out. Let love overcome hate. As the Avot of Rabbi Nathan teaches, “Who is strong? Someone who turns an enemy into a friend.” The message when we take out the Torah is not to kill the enemy. Rather it is to transform the enemy. It is to take a message of hate and overpower it with a message of love.
We often sing our prayers without considering what we are singing. But as we sing about scattering our enemy, perhaps we need to remember to overpower hatred with love.

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to Aaron and say to him, when you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the menorah.” (Numbers 8:1 – 20
Every synagogue has an eternal light (ner tamid) in front of the ark. Now and again the bulb burns out. What do I do when that happens? In truth, I ask our synagogue maintenance supervisor, not Jewish, to climb up on a ladder and change the bulb. But in ancient times it was the priests who had responsibility to keep the lights burning. They carried the iconic seven branch menorah with its oil lamps, erected in the ancient sanctuary.
Many years ago, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame wrote a song that the trio made famous. The lyrics included the words, “Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years. Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our hope and our tears.” Of course, this was a Hanukkah song. On Hanukkah we not only light the lights, but we increase the amount of light each of the eight nights. We display the lights in our window to publicly proclaim the miracle. Hanukkah, which falls near the winter solstice at the darkest time of the year, is our festival of lights.
We Jews not only use lights at Hanukkah. We light candles on the eve of our Sabbath and each one of our festivals. We light memorial lights for loved ones who have died on the yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) and before Yom Kippur. We light a seven day candle in our home at the beginning of shiva, the seven day period of mourning. Light is symbol of God’s presence, and our tradition is filled with opportunities to light lights.
There are times when life seems filled with darkness. During such moments of darkness, we can quote a saying found on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany after the Holocaust. “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining, I believe in love even when I am alone, I believe in God even when He is hiding.” When darkness surrounds us, in our hearts we light a light. Central to Judaism is the command to make sure the lights do not go out.
According to the classical theistic tradition of Judaism (and Christianity and Islam), we light the lights because God created light. At the beginning of Genesis light is the first thing that God creates. God saw the light that it was good. But the mystical tradition in Judaism puts a very different spin on this idea. Jewish mysticism (kabbalah) teaches that God did not create the light, but rather that God is the light.
According to the great kabbalist Isaac Luria, God first shrank Himself to make room for a world (tzimtzum). God literally emanated God’s very self into the world. He did this by sending sparks of light (nitzitzot) everywhere. The sparks of light were held in vessels which then shattered (sheverat hakelim), spreading God’s holy sparks everywhere. Often these sparks are hidden, covered up by what mystics call kelipot. Our job is to uncover these holy sparks and return them to God. The mystics literally considered God broken, and the job of humanity is to put God together again. The word for uncovering these bits of light and returning them to God is called tikkun, repair.
These mystical ideas have brought us a long way from the simple tradition of lighting candles every Friday night. We now have become responsible for bringing light into the world through uncovering the holy sparks, through all of our actions. God needs us to do this work in the world. Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Who knew that the famous first lady was sharing an idea with roots in the Bible and developed by the great Jewish mystics.

“And the mixed multitude that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us meat to eat?” (Numbers 11:4)
The joke is very old and very Jewish. A couple goes away to a kosher resort in the Catskills. When they return friends ask them about the vacation. They reply, “Lousy. The food was no good, and the portions were so small.” In truth, food in Catskills resorts was very good and very plentiful. Unfortunately, most of these resorts have closed up.
There is something very Jewish about complaining about the food. In the synagogue I hear it all the time. “Rabbi, the soup is cold.” “Rabbi, the bagels are stale.” “Rabbi, why is there no half and half for the coffee.” I always answer that I am in charge of the spiritual side of the synagogue. The culinary side of synagogue life is in someone else’s hands. But the complaints continue.
When I perform a funeral, particularly for an elderly woman of a particular generation, I always ask the family about her cooking. Sometimes I hear praise. “Her chicken soup, her kugel, her chocolate chip cookies were to die for.” But equally often, when I ask the question the family makes a face and talks about brisket like shoe leather, overcooked potatoes, and the family’s preference to eat out. Even at the end of life we complain about the food.
Of course, food is very important to Jewish identity. There is a touch of truth in the classical description of Jewish festivals, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” Whether it is potato latkas at Hanukkah or matza ball soup at Passover, we Jews love our culinary traditions. I remember once going to a Christian wedding. There was an hour long cocktail hour, where all they served was – cocktails. Not an hors d’oeuvre in sight. That would never happen at a Jewish wedding. But there I go, maintaining the hoary tradition of complaining about the food.
This tradition of complaining about food has Biblical roots. In fact it is a central part of this week’s Torah reading. The Israelites finally leave Mount Sinai and begin their travels through the wilderness. Almost immediately they begin their rumbling and complaints. They do not like the manna which God is feeding them in the wilderness. They miss the meat and the vegetables of Egypt. They long to turn around and go back to enjoy the fleshpots of Egypt. God does punish them by bringing them quail to eat, so many quail that “it shall come out of your nostrils and become loathsome to you.” (Numbers 11:20) The complaining about food finally stops, but the people would find much else to complain about during forty years of wandering.
Is there any religious lesson in this tendency to complain about food? I think it teaches something profound about the Jewish way to view the world. Other faiths are focused on some future world, heaven or paradise. Christianity and Islam talk about going to heaven. Do not worry about this world for it is merely a temporary sojourn. These religions were heavily influenced by Plato’s idea that this world is filled with change and corruption, but there is an ideal World of the Forms. Buddhism sees this world as a place of suffering – dukkha – and prays for eventual release to nirvana. If life here is temporary and the ideal world is in some other spiritual plane, we do not need to worry about the food.
Judaism is also somewhat influenced by these ideas. The Rabbis speak about the righteous in heaven eating the Leviathan, a gigantic fish described in the book of Genesis. But the emphasis of Judaism is this world. How do we make this world into heaven? How do we perfect this world as a kingdom of God? And if we want to perfect this world, there is nothing more prevalent in our day-to-day life than what we eat. Complaining about the food is the first step in complaining about the world. And complaining about the world is the first step in trying to perfect this world. It seems part of our character to be dissatisfied, as we begin the process of making things better.
Jewish life is built around food. Even the intense fast day of Yom Kippur includes a family meal before the fast and a shared break fast when the observance is over. We like to eat. And we like our food to be good. It seems that until the perfect time in the future, it will be part of our character to complain about the food.

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Speak to Aaron and say to him, when you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” (Numbers 8:1-2)
The beginning of this portion is read twice a year, for this week and on the last day of Hanukkah. The haftarah is also done twice a year, this week and on the Shabbat of Hanukkah. Both speak of the lighting of a seven branched lampstand or menorah. (This is different from the lampstand we use on Hanukkah which has nine branches.) It was the responsibility of the priests to keep the lamps lit at all times.
Light is a powerful metaphor used not only in Judaism but in many other spiritual traditions. Plato in his famous allegory of the cave spoke about the light that shines creating the reflection on the wall, light as the ultimate reality. Even in our modern language when we speak of some kind of human understanding, we say that someone “saw the light.” Cartoonists use a light bulb going on to symbolize an idea. Light is a metaphor for God, spirit, the soul, or as I use it in my own writing, the mind or consciousness. The book of Proverbs teaches that “the soul of man is the light of God.” (Proverbs 20:27)
If light is such a powerful and often used metaphor, it is worthy to ask the question what exactly is light. On the most basic level, light is an electro-magnetic wave. Visible light is actually a tiny part of the electro-magnetic spectrum. There are waves with much lower energy and longer wave lengths such as radio waves and micro waves. There are waves with much higher energy and shorter wave lengths such as x-rays and gamma rays. Our eyes evolved to perceive a tiny part of this spectrum of waves which constantly surround us.
Calling light a wave already creates mysteries. First of all, light can also be a particle. Einstein discovered particles of light called photons. But can something be both a particle and a wave? The answer is less, but it depends on what we are looking for. The act of observation decides whether light will behave as a particle or a wave. This is one of the great mysteries of quantum mechanics. And this is one reason the famous physicist Richard Feynman said, “Those who are not shocked when they come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.” Light is a mystery, but the mysteries are only beginning.
If light is a wave, what is waving. In the ocean the waters are waving; with sound air molecules are waving. But light travels through a vacuum at a constant rate of speed. What is waving? Einstein sat in the patent office in Bern Switzerland thinking about light. What if he went faster and faster, trying to catch up and ride beside a ray of light. The speed of light has to remain constant. So Einstein theorized that time would slow down and space would become narrower. Space and time are not absolutes but vary with the speed of travel. Out of this Einstein came up with his theory of special relativity.
It would be impossible to actually catch up to the light. As he went faster his mass would increase and if he caught up to the light he would have infinite mass. But what if he could? Riding beside a wave of light, time and space would disappear altogether. Light is something that exists beyond time and space, in some spiritual dimension that we cannot even imagine. We may look at light in this world. But there is something other-worldly, non-spatial and non-temporal, almost spiritual about light. No wonder that light is probably the best metaphor for the spiritual dimension of life.
It is popular today to teach that we live in a physical world of matter in motion in time and in space. The universe is this and nothing more. Light seems to point to some other dimension of reality. Call it God or mind or consciousness or the soul. There is something beyond this world. It was the responsibility of the priests to keep the lights lit, to make sure that the world would never forget this spiritual dimension. These ideas are as important today as they were in the ancient Temple. As Peter, Paul, and Mary famously sang, “Don’t let the lights go out.”
“It came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered; and let them who hate you flee before you.” (Exodus 10:35)
I had a wonderful but short vacation in Los Angeles, and rushed back to spend Shavuot in my congregation. For the entire vacation the news was dominated by one issue – the release of five Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captured American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The talking heads on the radio were unduly harsh, accusing Bergdahl of being a deserter who did not deserve release. My question is – what if he was a true war hero? Would it have been different? I believe five years a prisoner is enough. But the entire issue raises the question – how do we look at our enemies?
Israel has faced the same issue. The night before I left for California, I went to hear a speech by the father of Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier held five years in Gaza by Hamas. Israel exchanged far more than five Palestinian prisoners to get Shalit’s release. Again how should we consider our enemies, particular those who committed murder? It is a difficult issue.
This week’s portion contains a passage about the movement of the Israelites, together with the Holy Ark, through the wilderness. When the ark moved forward, Moses and the people of Israel would say, “Rise up, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered; and let them who hate you flee before you.” The passage is surrounded by two copies of the letter nun, turned upset down. It certainly looks unusual to see upside down letters in the Torah. The passage also contains another line for when the ark rested, “Return, O Lord, to the many thousands of Israel.”
These verses have entered Jewish liturgy. When the ark is opened to take out the Torah, the verse about scattering our enemies is sung. When we return the Torah to the ark, the verse about return is sung. In our prayers we sing as we march around with the Torah, may our enemies be scattered before God. It makes many Jews uncomfortable. In the prayerbook used by the Reform Movement, the more liberal Jewish movement, the line has been removed. Reform Jews no longer sing about scattering our enemies.
The question whether to chant this line reminds me of the Passover seder, when we open the door for Elijah. In the traditional haggadah the words are chanted in Hebrew, “Pour out Your wrath on the people who know you not.” Again we verbally express the wishes that our enemies be overcome. Perhaps it important to express these words of anger about our enemies.
However, how should we behave towards our enemies? Certainly, if an enemy comes to attack, we have the right to defend ourselves. Even as we defend ourselves, it is important to realize that even our enemies are human beings, created in the image of God. The Tractate of ethical sayings known as Avot d’Rabbi Natan teaches, “Who is strong? Someone who turns an enemy into a friend.”
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Meir and his brilliant wife Beruriah. R. Meir had a terrible enemy who made his life miserable. He used to pray that his enemy would die. One day his wife overheard him and scolded him. “What you are doing is wrong. Do not pray that your enemy die. Rather pray that your enemy change his ways.” (Berachot 10a) Much later another Jewish woman, Golda Meir, expressed the same idea about our enemies. She spoke to Arab leaders, “We can forgive you for killing our sons, but not for turning our sons into killers.” All of these traditions drive home the point that even as we protect ourselves from our enemies, we must never forget that they are also human beings.
So how are we to look at the Taliban, Hamas, and Al-Qaeda? They have declared themselves our enemies, and we can do what is necessary to protect ourselves. We can call down God’s wrath on them, even as we take out the Torah. Nonetheless, sometimes political events make it necessary to release prisoners. As we do so, we must always remember that they are God’s children, and we can pray for the day when the hatred they express is driven from the earth. This is the ultimate vision expressed by our Holy Books.

“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving, and the Israelites wept and said, if only we had meat to eat. We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” (Numbers 11:4-5)
Today our local newspaper the Sun-Sentinel had an article about the ratings of local hospitals. One of the categories by which they rate hospitals is number of complaints by patients. I sit on the board of one local hospital (that did fairly well), and at each meeting we see the ratings – how did we compare to other hospitals in terms of complaints. We also compare ourselves to hospitals across the country. I once mentioned that there was something slightly unfair about such comparisons. If we compare a local hospital in South Florida with a local hospital in a medium-sized Midwestern city, we will probably have more complaints. It is the nature of our local clientele.
In areas of the country where the vast majority of people are straight-laced Protestants, there is a kind of stoicism about suffering in this world. After all, reward will come in the next world. But when you deal with a variety of ethnic groups, particularly my own, complaining comes with the territory. This point is clear from this week’s Torah portion. Finally the Israelites leave Mt. Sinai and begin their trek across the wilderness. And immediately they begin to complain, or to use a nice Yiddish word, to kvetch. They will complain about everything from the giants who live in the Promised Land to Moses’ leadership. But the first thing they complain about is the food. They hated the manna; why didn’t Moses provide better food?
This hits home with me. Here are some of the words I have heard this past year. “Rabbi, why can’t you serve tea with the coffee?” “Why is there no real cream, only milk?” “The chicken is too well done.” “The soup is cold.” “Why are there so many carbs in this meal?” It reminds of the old story of a woman who goes to a resort in the Catskills. When she returns, her neighbors ask her how it was. She replies, “The food was terrible, almost inedible. And the portions were so small!” (For the record, as a food lover, I believe both our synagogue caterers do a terrific job.)
It would be easy to write a spiritual message attacking the complainers. Why is there such a sense of entitlement, a lack of gratitude? But that is not my goal today. My tradition teaches that we should lelamed z’chut “look favorably” on everything we do. I believe there is a reason why we like to complain so much, and that deep down it represents something good.
As I hinted above, many faiths are focused on the world to come. They are not as concerned with the imperfections of this world, because they know that the true reward will come in heaven. (Judaism also teaches that the food will be wonderful in heaven; we will eat Leviathan.) One can be stoic about his world if one is focused on the next. Many Jews have begun to embrace Buddhism. There is much that is beautiful in the Buddhist faith. But at the heart of it is the notion of dukkha “suffering.” Suffering is caused by desire. The key to eliminating suffering is to eliminate desire in this world. The faith is built on the ideal of letting go of things of this world.
In comparison, Judaism is built on embracing things of this world. Our job is neither to let go of the world nor to worry about getting into heaven. Rather it is to create heaven in this world. It is to embrace this world and try to perfect it as a kingdom of God. If we are to perfect this world, we have to understand the imperfections and the suffering of this world. Only then can we practice tikkun, the art of perfecting the world.
Certainly complaining about food is a trivial example of dissatisfaction of this world. But it leads to expressing unhappiness with far more serious matters. For example, after the tragic tornado in Oklahoma this week, why can we not find a way to keep children safe in a school building during a massive storm? I do not know the answer. But if we complain about what is wrong, perhaps we will find a way to make it right.


“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Speak to Aaron and say to him, when you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” (Numbers 8:1-2)
As I write these words, the festival of Shavuot starts in a few more hours. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah. Then this Shabbat we read the portion that speaks about light. Aaron and his sons had the responsibility of keeping the sacred lights lit at all times. This link between light and Torah has became a fundamental part of Jewish awareness, reflected in the architecture of the synagogue. Every synagogue keeps their Torahs in an ark, a special cabinet or closet at the front of the sanctuary. And every synagogue keeps an eternal light burning in front of that holy ark. But is there a deeper connection between light and Torah?
According to the Genesis creation story, light was the first thing God created. (Note – the creation story was never meant as a literal, scientific view of creation, but a spiritual and poetic image.) Light itself is a great mystery, as modern science has proven. Let us take a moment and look at light through the eyes of science. Or more accurately, let us look at electromagnetic radiation, from long low-energy radio waves to short high-energy gamma rays. Visible light is somewhere in the middle.
Einstein worked out his theory of relativity thinking about light. What would happen if he moved faster and faster and eventually caught up to a ray of light? Would the light appear to stop? Einstein figured out that no matter how fast he moved, the speed of the light would remain the same. This could only happen if time slowed down the faster he moved. According to the Theory of Relativity, if one could actually travel at the speed of light, time would stop altogether. It is a literal Fountain of Youth. Light never ages; it exists in a realm outside time. Scientists have proven this to be true. Light exists beyond time.
The founders of quantum mechanics experimented by shining light through two slits close together. The light formed an interference pattern. The light goes through both slits at the same time. Even if one particle of light (a photon) is sent through two slits, it will interfere with itself. It will go through both slits at once. It is as if the light is in two spaces at once. Light exists beyond space.
So the best scientists of our day have shown that light, on some fundamental level, exists beyond space and beyond time. The mystics call this supernal light. The light we see in this world is but a reflection of this supernal light, which exists in a reality beyond this world. This all makes sense according to the Midrash. God made the light on the first day, but the sun and stars on the fourth day. Where was this original light? The Midrash says, “The light which was created in the six days of Creation cannot illumine by day, because it would eclipse the light of the sun…Then where is it? It is stored up for the righteous in the Messianic future.” (Genesis Rabbah 3:6)
This mystical view of light can also be applied to the Torah. The Torah that we keep in the ark and read from each Shabbat, the Torah that we venerate, is but a reflection of a primordial Torah. The Midrash teaches that God actually had the Torah before God began to create the world. “When a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world.” (Genesis Rabbah 1:1) Just as light exists in a supernal realm, so the Torah exists in a supernal realms. The Zohar compares the Torah to a maiden hidden deep in a palace, who only occasionally reveals herself to her suitor.
There is something mystical about light and there is something mystical about the Torah. The light we see and the Torah we read are but reflections of a spiritual reality. For those who love kabbalah, the goal of Jewish mysticism is to connect with this higher spiritual reality.


“And Moses said to him, Are you jealous for my sake? Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29)
Greetings from New York City. I am here for the annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention. As usually happens at these conventions, much of the wisdom and insight comes not in large, plenary sessions but in small one-on-one encounters with rabbis from around the world. I am going to share one such insight. But let me begin with the portion of the week.
This week begins the travels of the Israelites through the wilderness. Tribe by tribe, the people begin crossing the desert. And immediately they begin to complain. They do not like the food. Moses cries out to God (as rabbis are wont to do sometimes), “I cannot handle these people.” So God tells Moses that God’s wisdom will descend on seventy elders. They will share the burden of caring for the people. (Rabbis often cannot do it alone.)
Sure enough, seventy elders begin to prophesize in the name of God. But two young men Eldad and Medad are also filled with the spirit of God, and begin to prophesize in God’s name. They are unauthorized prophets. When Joshua, Moses’ assistant wants to stop them, Moses answers with one of my favorite lines in the Torah. “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” Suddenly we see a Torah ideal; prophecy is not limited to the gifted few. Each of us has the potential to be a prophet.
It is an amazing insight from the Torah. Prophecy is not a gift given to a few blessed individuals. Rather it is an opportunity given to every human being. That calls for an explanation. What is prophecy? Many believe it is the ability to tell the future. But that is impossible; the future is wide open and not set in stone. According to process theologians, even God does not know the future. Rather, prophecy is the ability to speak in the name of God. It is that deep insight in each of our souls we sometimes have, the aha moment, when we realize – this is what God wants me to do.
That brings me back to the convention. I went to a session led by Rabbi Brad Artson, the head of the Ziegler Rabbinical School in Los Angeles and one of my favorite teachers. He is developing a contemporary theology that is very much in keeping with my own thinking. So I went to his session with high hopes, and was not disappointed. It was a session on process theology and the Sh’ma.
Artson taught that we have to stop thinking about God who sits outside space and time and knows everything, including our entire future. Such a God no longer works for contemporary American Jews. Rather, we should picture a God of persuasion, who gives us an image of what we ought to be doing but the freedom to make our own choices. Process theology speaks of a God who acts by persuasion rather than by compulsion. Artson used a strange term – the lure. God is a lure Who tries to lead us in the right direction. We can choose to follow that lure, or we can choose to do something else. We are free, and our choices become part of who we are. (I do not love the term “lure”, it reminds me of fishing. Artson admits he is looking for a nice Hebrew term which describes such a view of God.)
Now the insight – each of us knows in our hearts what God wants us to do. Each of us knows what is expected of us. We can use all kinds of denial and rationalization to do the wrong thing. But if we search deeply into our own souls, each of us knows the right thing. In other words, each of us has the ability to speak in the name of God. Or to explain it based on our portion, each of us has the ability to be a prophet.
I am leading my own session at the convention in a few more hours. I will be sharing some of the same insights I shared in my recent talk – Earthquakes, Einstein, and Evolution; So Where is God? I will build on some of the same ideas as Artson – not a God who sits outside space and time and manipulates the world. Rather I will envision a God of persuasion. With such a God, we can all be prophets.


“And the mixed multitude that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, who shall give us meat to eat? We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.” (Numbers 11:4-5)

Last Saturday evening I became upset, and then I was embarrassed that I became upset. I was upset because we always serve a light meal (shalashesheudas) at our late Saturday afternoon service. Usually it is challah and herring, cookies and soda, but last Saturday I was looking forward to a bigger spread including tuna and egg salad, as well as fancier pastries. We had a huge amount of leftover food from the Shabbat morning Kiddush. And the small group who gives up going out to eat Saturday night to help me run a service deserves a nice snack.
Last Saturday night by accident somebody had locked everything away. All we found was an old challah. So I became upset. And then I became mad at myself for becoming upset. I was just like the Israelites in the desert; the first thing they did as they began their trek was to complain about the food. Why could they not eat the delicious food of Egypt? God gave them mannah to eat in the wilderness, but soon they were complaining about the mannah.
There is something about Jews and food. We even like to joke about it. “Give them food and they will come.” “What is a Jewish holiday? They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” “The food at this resort is not only lousy, but the portions are small.” “If you really need a minyan, go to the local Chinese restaurant.” Food is a central part of our heritage and culture, as every Jewish comedian has noted.
We love to complain about food, and we love to relish our food. I remember going to a non-Jewish wedding and looking forward to the cocktail hour in order to eat something. (Although I am kosher, there had to be something vegetarian for me to eat.) At the cocktail hour, to my surprise, they served – cocktails. Not a morsel of food. You would never see that at a Jewish cocktail hour.
We joke about Jews and food, but in truth eating is an important part of Jewish identity. Perhaps it is worth exploring how Jewish tradition views food. To the animal world, food is nutrition. I watch my dog eat, see him lunge towards his bowl with one thought in mind – get as much food down as quickly as possible. Somebody might take it away. And my dog has an uncanny ability to sense whenever anybody takes anything in the kitchen – he shows up and starts begging for his share.
Judaism is about the quest for holiness, which means rising above the animal within us. To be holy is to avoid lunging into our food. First we need to ask the question, what is this food and where did it come from? Not all food is appropriate for Jews to eat. In particular, we are forbidden to eat animal products that were not properly killed. There is an attempt to build a deep appreciate for the source of our food.
Even if food is kosher, we stop for a moment and thank God for the gift of this meal. It is proper to say a blessing before eating. One of the customs I see that drives me crazy is at a bar/bat mitzvah or wedding reception. Grandpa is called up to make the motzi on the challah. He comes without a yarmulke, stumbles through the Hebrew blessing, and then walks away without eating a piece of bread. If somebody says a blessing, they ought to taste the food. But the motzi at these moments becomes a ritual like the candle lighting ceremony or the best man’s toast, devoid of any religious significance.
Traditionally, when a meal is finished, Jews say a grace after meals (birkat hamazon). The Torah teaches that we say this when we are full and satisfied. Thanking God when we are hungry is one thing, but thanking God when we are sated is the ideal. We teach our youngsters in the religious school to sing the grace after meals, with the hope that they will use this knowledge in the future.
Eating is certainly one of the highest human pleasures. I enjoy a well cooked meal as much as anybody. But it is more than a time to feed the body; eating ought to be a time to feed the soul. Last Saturday I was guilty of complaining about food. Hopefully this week, instead of complaining, I will remember to thank God for the gift of food. As the Bible teaches, “He opens His hand and feeds every living thing with favor.” (Psalms 145:16)


“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to Aaron and say to him when you mount the lamps. Let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” (Numbers 8:1-2)

Whenever we come to the annual reading of this portion, I always think about light. The portion teaches the commandment that Aaron and his sons shall keep the seven lamped menorah lit at all times. From this we learn the tradition of having an eternal light always burning in our synagogues. The haftarah (the reading from the prophets), which is also read at Hanukkah, speaks of a vision of a golden candelabra which must be kept lit. It contains the wonderful words, “Not by might nor by power but by my spirit says the Lord.” (Zechariah 4:6) Light symbolizes the spirit of God.
Another verse from another haftarah struck me this week. It was the reading from the second day of Shavuot, Habakkuk’s vision of a great storm. The words describe God’s presence in the world. “It is a brilliant light, which gives off rays on every side – and therein His glory is enveloped.” (Habakkuk 3:4). Again God is compared to light. In a sense it reminds me of the mystical interpretation of God’s creation. “When the blessed Holy One wished to create the world, He enwrapped Himself and light and created the world as is said, `He wraps in light as in a garment.’ (Psalms 104:2). And afterwards, `He spreads out the heavens like a curtain.’” (Bereishit Rabbah 3:4) God is light and creation is the spreading out of light.
Why light? I found a wonderful quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner in an essay “Would an All-powerful God be Worthy of Worship?” (Jewish Theology and Process Thought) “That’s why so often in the Bible and afterwards, God is portrayed by fire – at the Burning Bush, in the Eternal Flame before the Ark, etc. Fire is not an object: fire is a process, the process by which the latent energy in a lump of coal or a log of wood is turned into actual energy. God is like fire, liberating the potential energy in each of us.”
God is fire, God is energy, God is light. These are all powerful themes in Jewish mystical literature. Last summer I studied physics at Florida Atlantic University. My goal was to understand, truly understand, Einstein’s theories of relativity. I partially succeeded. Relativity begins with the study of light. Einstein sat in the Berne patent office asking himself the question – what would happen if I could actually catch up to a moving ray of light? What if I sat on a light ray as it shone from the nearby streetlamp, or from the sun? Obviously this is impossible. The faster we go towards the speed of light, the greater our mass, and the more energy we would need. To catch up with light would take infinite energy. But suppose it could happen.
Einstein theorized that the closer we come to the speed of light, the more time would slow down. For light, time stops altogether. Photons of light never age. Light exists in a realm beyond time. The closer we come to the speed of light, the more we would contract. For light, space disappears altogether. Light dwells in a realm beyond space . In the same way God dwells in a realm beyond space and beyond time. (The same word in Hebrew olam means all of space and all of time. When we sing Adon Olam each Shabbat morning, we mean Lord beyond space and time. Could the Hebrew author of this prayer have foretold Einstein?)
According to Genesis, light is the first creation of God. But light is strange stuff indeed. Sometimes it acts like a wave. Sometimes it acts like a particle. How can something be both a wave and a particle? One can almost imagine that light exists in some other realm, some spiritual dimension, at what we see is merely light’s reflection in our world. In our world we cannot truly see what light is, only what light does.
For this reason, light symbolizes God. According to the Bible light also symbolizes the soul. “The soul of man is the light of God.” (Proverbs 20:27) Like light and like God, a part of each of us exists beyond space and time. We humans are far more than bodies; we each carry a bit of eternity within us. This is the message of the eternal light.



“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to Aaron and say to him, when you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.”
(Numbers 8:1-2)

In every synagogue in the world there is an eternal light before the ark where the Torahs are kept. The light is kept burning continuously. This hearkens back to the commandment in this week’s portion, given immediately before the Israelites began their journey through the wilderness. Aaron and the priests were to keep a light burning at all times.
Why light? Part of my research has been on the meaning of light. Currently I am studying Einstein’s theory of general relativity with a physics professor. Einstein’s revolutionary conception of the nature of reality is based on a rethinking of space, time, matter, and most important – light. Einstein began his brilliant work while still employed in a Swiss patent office, trying to imagine what would happen if a human being could catch up to a ray of light.
Usually if something travels at a constant speed, if we could travel fast enough we could catch it. Light is amazedly fast (about 186,000 miles a second). But perhaps with a big enough rocket we could catch up. (Of course Einstein did not know of rockets; he was doing a thought experiment.) Einstein’s brilliant insight is that no matter how fast we go, the speed of light stays constant. Time may slow down, space may stretch, spacetime may bend, matter and energy may transform themselves, but light is constant. People misunderstand relativity to mean that everything is relative. Not so; time and space are relative but light is absolute. If you could actually run besides a wave of light, time and space as we understand these terms would disappear altogether. Light in its reality exists beyond time and space. So we can ask, what is the philosophical meaning of light beyond space and time.
Thousands of years ago the great philosopher Plato said that the world we live in is really a reflection of a more perfect world. He compared it to shadows cast by a fire in a cave; if only we could step out of the cave we would see true reality. Later the great process philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead famously wrote that all Western philosophy is merely “a series of footnotes to Plato.” At the center of Western thinking is the image of a reality beyond the physical. And relativity seems to point to the idea that light, in some ultimate sense exists in that reality. What we see is a mere reflection of some greater reality.
We have looked at science and we have looked at philosophy. Now let us look at mysticism. According to the Jewish mystics, God initially was encompassed in a garment of light. Light is identified with God. It is something that exists beyond space and time. Putting forth light was God’s first step in the emanation of the universe. When we see light, we see a mere reflection of a greater reality which we cannot reach in this material world. Perhaps that explains why our human vision of light is so difficult to pin down. Sometimes light appears as a wave and sometimes light appears as a particle. How can it be both? Light exists in some other reality, a reality beyond space and time.
One last thought. The book of Proverbs teaches a beautiful saying which we have up on our memorial boards in our synagogue. “The soul of man is the light of God.” (Proverbs 20:27) Each human being carries within himself or herself a little bit of that divine light. We all have a part of ourselves which exists in a reality beyond the material, beyond space and time. Occasionally, in moments of mystical insight and in moments of intense relationship, we can connect to the part of us which exists beyond time.
Why must we burn an eternal light? Light is like God and light is like the soul. It reflects a reality beyond the material world.



“When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say, Advance O Lord, May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You.” (Numbers 10:35)

Any Jew who attends synagogue even occasionally is familiar with the prayer. The ark is opened to take out the Torah and everybody sings vahi binsoa haaron … “When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say, Advance O Lord, May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You.” The verse from this week’s portion is considered so important that it is set off with marks from the rest of the text (for those who know Hebrew, two upside down letters nun.)
We sing the words without thinking about what they mean. Does God really have enemies? Does God take sides in our wars? Should soldiers who are God’s children pray for victory before going off to fight and kill the enemy, who are also God’s children? It reminds me of the old Bob Dylan song composed at the height of the Vietnam War, With God on our Side. The song pokes fun at those who would invoke God’s name as they go to war. Could it be that God looks at our petty wars like an impatient father watching his children fight, ready to say, “If you two don’t stop it I will punish both of you.”
Does God take sides in a war? The liberal in me is sorely tempted to say no. Invoking God’s name on one side of a war is like invoking God’s name in one side of the Miami – Dallas basketball playoffs. Does God choose one party over another? One of the insights of postmodern thinking is that there is no absolute perspective, no God’s eye point of view. We have our point of view, the Sunnis and the Shiites have their point of view, the Islamic Jihadists have their point of view, and who are we to judge one over the other. To this liberal, postmodern perspective, no party can claim to have God on their side. And yet, with careful thought, I have come to believe this liberal, postmodern approach is absolutely wrong.
Events broke in the news this week that helped me realize God does take sides. The United States bombed a safe house in Iraq and killed Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi was a terrorist of terrorists, responsible for bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings not just of Americans and British, but of Shiites and even fellow Sunnis who he felt had crossed him. In one violent moment Iraq became a safer place for both Iraqis and Americans. Does God take sides in the killing of Zarqawi?
A human being cannot know what is in the mind of God. But one of the fundamental teachings of every Biblical faith – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – is that God is the force of life in the universe. We see inert matter becoming proteins, becoming life, becoming plants and animals, and eventually developing into human beings. We see human beings as having a unique ontological status – they are created in the image of God. Our shared religious faiths teach the words, “Therefore choose life.” God is that force in the universe which creates life, particularly human life.
So which side does God take in our conflicts? God is on the side of those who enhance life, those who work for human survival and human dignity in this world. And God is opposed to those who wantonly destroy innocent life. I have no problem invoking the name of the God in the war against terror, the war against Hamas, al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, and the late Mr. Zarqawi.
We can argue about the wisdom of going to war in Iraq. We can even condemn some actions of some military personnel such as the recent events in Haditha, where US marines allegedly killed unarmed civilians. Those of us who love Israel can argue about the wisdom of some of Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians. But we cannot argue that we must fight those who would deliberately and wantonly destroy innocent human life, no matter how worthy the political cause. In my mind, there is no question which side God takes in the war against terror.



“But Moses said to him [Joshua], Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them.”
(Numbers 11:29)

The Jewish Post and Opinion reprinted an article this week that originally appeared in September 1961. A man stood outside Temple Emmanuel in New York City on Rosh Hashanah passing sheets of paper with a personal prophecy on them. Claiming to speak in the name of the Lord, he called for an end to hypocrisy by worshippers, a return to social justice, the observance of the Sabbath, stronger family life, and greater modesty by young people. When he was asked to stop, he refused, and eventually he was arrested and taken down to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.
The man was back on Yom Kippur passing out the papers in front of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. This time the rabbi, the great Mordecai Kaplan, actually invited him to read his treatise from the pulpit. The man refused, saying that God wanted him to simply pass out the leaflets. Later, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement in America, went to visit the man, and found him to be saintly, with a prophecy that rang true. Schachter-Shalomi wrote about the importance of the man’s message and asked the question, “are there modern day prophets?”
The article reminded me of a story in this week’s portion. Moses was overwhelmed trying to bear the entire burden of the people Israel on his own. God told Moses to gather seventy elders around him, and part of the spirit of prophecy would descend on them. They would share the burden with Moses. As this happened, two young men named Eldad and Medad were in the camp, and they also began to prophecy in the name of God.
Joshua, Moses’ second in command, offered to restrain the two young men. Moses answered that he should not be concerned. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them.” To Moses, the dream was for all of us to speak in the name of God.
What is prophecy? Some would say that prophecy entails the ability to tell the future. But that is more magic than true prophecy. Prophecy begins with a powerful idea – God the Creator is also God the Communicator. The One Who made us humans also communicates to us teachings on how we are to live. Many of us have moments of deep and profound insight, what I sometimes call “aha moments.” We suddenly understand who we are and what God expects of us. It is as if we have received a communication from our very Creator.
Certainly there is ambivalence about prophecy in Jewish tradition. The Talmud teaches, “Since the destruction of the Temple, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.” (Baba Batra 12b) On the other hand, our tradition teaches that if we are not prophets, at least we are the sons of prophets. (Jewish tradition tends to use the male language. Today we would say that we are the sons and daughters of prophets.) Our tradition recognizes that we humans have those aha moments, when we are flooded with insight into the will of our Creator.
How do we know if a prophecy is true? After all, who can forget the Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, whose false prophecy led to the deaths of hundreds in a mass suicide in Guyana. I suppose the only real answer is – does the prophecy ring true? Do we really believe that this is what God, the Creator of heaven and earth, wants us to do? Have we cleared our own ego out of the way in order to open our hearts to God? Our the words that fill our hearts about God’s needs or our own needs?
I do not recommend standing outside a synagogue passing out papers on the High Holidays. I do recommend opening ourselves up and asking the question, what does God want of me at this moment? Perhaps we will have moments of insights, and we will realize that prophecy is alive even in our own time.



ASpeak to Aaron and say to him, When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the menorah.@
(Numbers 8:2)

God commanded Aaron to light lamps. Light has always been the most powerful symbol of God=s presence. Light was the first thing God created. But there is nothing harder than pinning down light?
What is the light God created on the first day? He created electromagnetic waves moving through the universe at a constant speed. However, this opens the door to many profound problems. When we think about a wave, something must be waving. In the oceans, the water waves. When we hear sounds, the air is waving. (We cannot hear sounds in a vacuum). When we are at a football game and someone starts a wave, the fans are waving. You cannot start a wave in an empty stadium. What is waving when light passes by?
Scientists once believed that there was an invisible substance called ether that filled the universe. Light was simply a disturbance of the ether. Then Albert Michaelson and E.W. Morley designed an experiment to try to detect the ether. To their surprise, they discovered that the speed of light was constant, and they concluded that there is no such thing as ether. Electromagnetism seems to be a wave that travels through a vacuum at a constant speed. Thinking about this strange phenomenon led to Einstein’s brilliant insights into the very nature of the universe.
Einstein began with a thought experiment. What would happen if a human being sped up next to a wave of light. Would the light appear to slow down? After all, if our car speeds up next to a moving train, the train appears to slow down in relation to our car. If we are moving at the same speed as the train, it might appear that the train is standing still. Light ought to behave the same way. So too, Einstein wondered what would happen if he watched a distant clock tower well traveling away from the tower at the speed of light. New light from the clock would never reach him, and it would appear as if the clock stopped, and time stood still.
Einstein’s thought experiments led to a radical rethinking of the very nature of the universe. According to Einstein, the speed of light must remain constant no matter how fast we move. Space and time themselves must change, but the speed of light stays constant. As we move faster time slows down, space contracts, so that the speed of light is constant. No matter how fast we move, the light going past us will appear to go at c – 186,000 miles per second. Our diffi¬culties with light are just beginning.
Einstein called this the Special Theory of Relativity because it dealt with a special case – measuring light while traveling in uniform motion. Einstein next asked, what would happen to light if we are not traveling in uniform motion, if we are accelerating. For example, imagine we are in a box in a free fall towards the earth. Galileo had long ago proven that every object in the box, no matter its weight, would accelerate towards the earth at the same rate. What if someone shines a light in the box? Would the ray of light also fall to earth? Einstein theorized that gravity would effect light just as it effects matter. Gravity bends electromagnetic radiation. Out of this law grew the General Theory of Relativity.
How can light be affected by gravity? Gravity affects the mass of an object? Isn’t light pure energy? Einstein taught that energy and matter are not really different substances; they are two aspects of the same reality. According to Einstein’s famous formula E=mc2 all matter is really energy and all energy is really matter. Turning matter into energy is how the sun burns, and how we explode nuclear weapons.
Our exploration into the nature of electromagnetism will become even stranger. As we asked earlier, how can a wave travel through a vacuum? What is waving? In fact, sometimes light behaves strangely like particles of energy. It causes something called the quantum effect. Electrons absorb energy only in discreet amounts, and also give off energy in specific numbers. This is possible only if light is a particle of specific energy, known as a photon.
So what is light, a particle or a wave? The answer is both, and neither. It depends on how the experiment is done. In some experiments light behaves like a wave, in other experiments it behaves like a particle. Open two small openings in a wall and the light passing through forms interference patterns like a wave. Close one of the openings and measure the light with a Geiger counter like device and light comes in discreet, particular bundles of energy. What is light?
Maybe there is a solution. Perhaps we can invent a really sophisticated microscope to actually look at a photon of light. We would then know precisely what light is. As simple as this seems, according to quantum mechanics it is impossible. The very act of looking at a photon changes it. There are no objective observers. If we try to measure the location we find uncertainty in the momentum; if we try to measure the momentum we find uncertainty in the location. According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, we cannot pin light down. In fact, on the atomic level, we cannot pin anything down; the very act of measuring changes whatever we are trying to measure.
So what did God create on the first day. Perhaps He created the fundamental stuff of the universe. Sometimes it manifests itself as matter, sometimes as energy. Sometimes it appears as a wave, sometimes as a particle. It all depends on how it is measured.
What do we really know about light? Ultimately, we must resort to metaphors because the human mind is limited in its understanding. We cannot know light in its essence. Light is a mystery, like God is a mystery. Perhaps that is the reason that in our tradition, light has come to symbolize God.



“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite (Ethiopian) woman he had married, he had married a Cushite.” (Numbers 12:1)

One evening last week I was walking my dog through our neighborhood when I saw something that initially struck me as strange. A man was doing mechanical work on his motorcycle, listening to very loud music. I expected the music to be heavy metal or rap, or perhaps country. To my surprise, the man was listening to opera. Something did not fit it my mind. People who work on motorcycles do not listen to opera. And people who listen to opera do not drive motorcycles.
How easy it is to stereotype people. We all have the bad habit of fitting people in categories based on their dress, their race, their gender, their ethnicity, their social-economic status, their profession. With stereotypes, we do not see people’s uniqueness.
People assume that rabbis, because they are rabbis, must all be more or less the same. I have always loved reading books on mountaineering, sharing the adventure vicariously. One day I heard that Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Mt. Everest, was speaking in my community. Of course I bought a ticket and went to hear him. One of my synagogue members was there, and her mouth dropped open when she saw me. “Why would a rabbi go to a lecture on mountain climbing?!” As if rabbis are only interested in God and religion.
My oldest friend in Israel had a similar experience. He was at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem for minor surgery, and his roommate was a Palestinian Arab. My friend wears a yarmulke on his head all the time. His roommate was reluctant to speak with him, but eventually the two began chatting. After awhile, the Arab told my friend, “I realize that I was wrong about you. I assumed, because of what you are wearing on your head, that you hate Arabs.” In truth, my friend has been extremely active in outreach to Palestinian Arabs. But the Arab saw only the yarmulke, not the man.
In this week’s portion, Miriam the older sister of Moses, complained about Moses wife Tziporrah. Twice in the verse the Torah mentions that Tziporrah was dark skinned, an Ethiopian, today the word Cushite is used to refer to a black person. (Some commentators, including Rashi, claim that Miriam was supporting Tziporrah and complaining about Moses’ sexual separation from his wife. However, if that is true, why the emphasis on her dark skin.)
Like Miriam, so many of us see a person with dark skin and immediately form certain stereotypic images. But then again, we humans often stereotype all kinds of people. How do we react when we see born again Christians? Orthodox Jews? Southerners? Palestinians? Individuals with many tattoos? College students with long hair? People of another race or ethnicity? Seniors who live in the condos? Urban young professionals? Rabbis, ministers, or priests? How easy is it to categorize them and place them in a box that fits our preconceived notions. How easy is it not to see them for the individuals they are.
The Talmud teaches that a human being makes many coins with the same stamp, and each is exactly the same. God makes human beings with the same stamp, and each is unique. Like snowflakes, no human being is like any other human being. We need to look beyond stereotypes and preconceived images to see the real person there. It may be a motorcycle rider who loves opera. Or a rabbi who loves mountaineering. Or an observant Jew who does outreach to Palestinians. Or a black woman who left her home to marry the leader of another people.
Miriam was punished for her harsh words about her brother’s wife. Perhaps her mistake was not seeing beyond the dark skin to the real human being who stood in front of her. Too many of us look only at the external, and never see the real person in front of us.



“Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, Carry them in your bosom as a nursing father carries an infant.” (Numbers 11:12)

This parsha includes the bizarre image of a father nursing a baby. The Israelites had finally begun their forty year journey through the wilderness. Almost immediately they started to complain about the food. Moses could not bear their complaints and cried out to God in frustration, “Did I conceive these people or give birth to them? Am I a father who nurses them?” One could infer that perhaps a mother who carries a child in her womb, gives birth, and then nurses an infant could tolerate this behavior. But could a father?
Last week I spoke of Erich Fromm’s description of motherly love and fatherly love. Motherly love is the unconditional love every human being needs to feel. To quote Fromm, to a mother “I am loved for what I am, or perhaps more accurately, I am loved because I am. (his italics) This experience of being loved by mother is a passive one. There is nothing I have to do in order to be loved – mother’s love is unconditional. All I have to do is to be (his italics) – to be her child. Mother’s love is bliss, is peace, it need not be acquired, it need not be deserved.” (The Art of Loving, p. 37) Perhaps Moses was saying that he was not prepared to love his people with this kind of love.
Moses’ love was closer to Fromm’s view of fatherly love. (As I mentioned last week, these are ideals or archtypes. Every real mother and every real father loves their children with both kinds of love.) Fatherly love is more demanding, more conditional, filled with expectations. Fatherly love teaches appropriate behavior and is prepared to punish inappropriate behavior. To quote Fromm once again, “Father is the once who teaches the child, who shows him the road into the world.” (The Art of Loving, p. 39)
It is the love that is concerned with success in the world. It is tied to the very ancient Jewish tradition that a father is obligated to teach his child Torah.
We humans need both kinds of love. We need two kinds of love from God, and we need two kinds of love from our parents, who are God’s representatives in this material world. We need a love that is unconditional, that shines its light on us whatever we do, whether we deserve it or not. And we need a love that is demanding, that lays expectations on us, and that is concerned with our success, our achievement, our behavior, and our character. This is one reason that the kabbalah saw two aspects of God, the male and the female. In this world part of our job is to balance within God the male and female.
Dennis Prager in one of his lectures on tape, recalls an incident at a local diner with a waitress. The waitress was unusually cheerful and upbeat, and Prager asked her why she was so happy. She answered with a song in her voice, Because I know that God loves me.” Prager pushed her further, “Tell me, does God love everybody?” The waitress answered, “Absolutely.” Wanting to be provocative as only Dennis Prager can, he then asked her, “Tell me, does God love Hitler?” I do not recall her answer, but I believe she said that she needed to serve another table.
Prager’s point in raising the story is that unconditional love is not enough. We need the kind of love that makes demands, that lays down expectations, that teaches us rules, and that punishes us when we fall short. This is the love Moses felt towards his people. He was deeply disappointed when they began their journey with complaints. He was not a nursing father, but rather was Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher. Moses’ love gave us the Torah, the teachings, that have allowed our people to survive thousands of years.



“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving, and the Israelites, moreover, wept and said, if only we had meat to eat.”
(Numbers 11:4)

For months the Israelites had been preparing for their journey through the wilderness. They were to march in an orderly fashion across the desert and into the promised land. Unfortunately, the best laid plans did not work out.
Immediately the people began complaining. The first complaints were not surprising – the Israelites did not like the food. In the desert they had to eat manna. Back in Egypt they had meat and vegetables – cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. As we read the Torah these coming weeks, complaints about food will escalate into complaints about everything. Only when that unhappy generation died off would the Israelites be allowed to enter the promised land.
We all know people who love to complain. In fact, some people seem to enjoy a certain pleasure in displaying their ongoing dissatisfaction with everything and everyone. Some people seem to relish being unhappy. To such people, the cup is always half empty, never half full. They will go to a wedding and never notice the radiance of the bride or the joy of the groom. Rather, they will comment on how the food was no good, the music was too loud, they were seated at the wrong table, the hostess ignored them, the rabbi spoke too long. There is a perverse joy in finding fault.
There is the story of a man who was always complaining to the rabbi about his life. He never had enough money, his marriage was unhappy, his kids were no good, his health was failing. Life was full of bitterness. He kept asking the rabbi, “Why am I suffering so?” Finally, the rabbi said, “I want you to visit Yakov; perhaps he can give you an answer.”
The man went to Yakov’s house, and found it to be a hovel. There was no heat, little food in the house, and the Yakov looked quite ill. In fact, the man as shocked at Yakov’s condition, and asked him, “how do you deal with suffering?” Yakov had a big smile on his face. “Why are you asking me? I have never suffered.”
Attitude is everything. We can look out at the world and complain about what we lack, or we can look out at the world with a sense of appreciation and gratitude. We can see life as a burden to be endured, or as a gift to be savored. We can remember the food we had in Egypt, or we can bless the food God is giving us in the wilderness. Or as Adlai Stevenson so aptly said regarding Eleanor Roosevelt, “She would rather light candles than curse the darkness.”
Perhaps the most difficult of the Ten Commandments to observe is the tenth, “Thou shall not covet.” All the other commandments deal with actions, this one deals with thoughts and attitudes. To want what we do not have creates a bitterness of the soul. How can we engender in people an appreciation for what they do have?
Ben Zoma once taught, “Who is rich? Whoever is happy with his or her portion.” If we see life as a gift to be savored, we will appreciate what we have and find satisfaction of the soul. If we see life as filled with shortfalls, we will be filled with bitterness. The mistake of the Israelites in the wilderness was their constant complaining. May we learn to be truly satisfied with our portion.