Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes—it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them—and some pomegranates and figs.” (Numbers 13:23)

When we reach this week’s portion, I often think about Langston Hughes’ powerful poem Harlem: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Lorraine Hansberry used the words of this poem as the title of one of the great plays in American theater history. It tells the story of a black family struggling in the southside of Chicago. One of the lines of the play still jumps out at me, as Mama says to her son who has disappointed her, “I ain’t never stop trusting you. Like I ain’t never stop loving you.” The poem and the play are not simply about black families struggling in America. They are about everyone who sees their dream for a better life deferred.
The main story of this portion is about a dream deferred. The Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” But then ten of the twelve spies bring an evil report about the land. “There are giants who live there.” As a result, the entire people Israel are punished. They will wander the wilderness for forty years, and only their children will be allowed to enter the land.
The entire history of the land of Israel seems to be the history of a dream deferred. The Israelites enter the land, but then are exiled by the Babylonians. They are allowed to enter the land again, but then they are exiled by the Romans. The dream is deferred almost two millennia. Only then, with the founding of the modern state of Israel are the Jews allowed to enter the land for a third time. People scoffed at Theodore Herzl’s prediction that he would establish a Jewish state. He famously replied, im tirzu ain zo aggada, “If you will it, it is no dream.” The dream was deferred but never died. It did not dry up like a raisin in the sun.
What is true of the dreams of an entire people is also true of our individual dreams. We need dreams for our lives, things we hope to accomplish during our limited time on this earth. A life with no dreams is a sad one. Sometimes we are so busy with life, earning a living, raising a family, enjoying some recreation, that the dream is deferred over and over. As another great poet John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans.” Yes, life is what happens. But we still need plans, and we still need dreams.
This hit home for me as I faced my retirement. (It is really a quasi-retirement. I am no longer working at the big busy synagogue, but I am working at another synagogue. I am also teaching college.) But I had plans and dreams, often deterred during my working days. One of those plans was to start writing books again. I now have one new book published and another in the hands of an editor. I refuse to let the dreams dry up in the sun. I tell other people who retire that they may be retiring from a job, but they are not retiring from life. They need dreams and plans, projects to fill their days. It is what gives life a purpose.
Sometimes people ask me what they should dream. What should they plan for their lives? I ask them, what if you had unlimited money and unlimited time? What would you want to accomplish? What small thing can you do to add to the beauty of the world. I truly believe that God sent us here for a purpose, and we are alive because our work is not yet finished,
I began thinking about Hughes’ powerful image of a raisin drying up in the sun. Then I thought about this week’s portion. The symbol of the land of Israel which the spies carried out with them was a large branch with a cluster of grapes. This image of the cluster of grapes became the tourism symbol for the modern state of Israel. Grapes left in the sun become raisins and dry out. But these grapes, symbolizing the land, were large and fresh. They are a powerful symbol of a dream that is undeterred, a dream that refuses to die. This week is the perfect time to think about our own dreams. What dreams do we have that we will not allow to die?


“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.”  (Numbers 13:27)

For my sixteenth birthday my uncle stopped by with a gift – a set of golf clubs.  I used them occasionally but never truly loved the sport.  (Even today when I occasionally play golf, I spend more time searching for lost balls than hitting them on the green.)  My uncle knew that I was not using them.  For my seventeenth birthday my uncle stopped by – and took back the golf clubs.  “If you are not going to use them, you do not deserve them.”

At the time I was angry.  But with hindsight, I realize that my uncle taught me an important lesson.  Gifts come with strings attached.  Gifts are never totally free will offerings.  There are expectations tied to gifts.  This fact was recognized by the Rabbis in the Talmud.  There is a principle called zachim l’adam sh’lo b’faniv, “one can act for someone’s benefit without their permission”.   Can someone accept a gift for someone without their permission?  The Rabbinic answer is no.  Gifts always carry obligations.  To use a cliché, there are always strings attached. And one cannot obligate someone else without permission.  Gifts are wonderful but they are never free.

That bring me to this week’s portion.  God had given a gift to the people Israel – the Promised land, the land of Canaan.  Now after centuries of slavery, acquiring the Torah at Mt. Sinai, building a portable tabernacle, and travelling through the wilderness, they could finally acquire that precious gift.  Whenever I think of God’s gift of the land, another memory from my childhood enters my head, the movie Exodus.  Ernest Gold’s great theme song echoes in my mind.  “This land is mine.  God gave this land to me.  This brave and ancient land to me.”  (For those unfamiliar with the song, listen to Andy William’s version on Youtube.)

God gave us a gift, but were we worthy?  The Israelites send twelve spies who spend forty days reconnoitering the land.  Ten of the twelve bring an evil report.  The land is a goodly place, flowing with milk and honey.  But there are giants in the land, and in their eyes we appear as grasshoppers.  Let us turn around and return to Egypt.  God decides the people are not yet worthy to receive this gift of the land.  They must first wander forty years in the wilderness, one year for every day the spies were in the land.  During that time an entire generation would die off.  Only then could God decide if a new generation was worthy.

This theme reverberates through Jewish history.  The gift of the land is conditional; we must prove ourselves worthy.  Our liturgy (musaf for festivals) teaches, “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.”  The land is ours on condition.  Like those golf clubs, it is a conditional gift given to the Jewish people.  We pray to return to the land, but also to be worthy of settling in the land once again.

That brings me to our own time and the modern Jewish state of Israel.  As a Jew who loves Israel, I see the miracle of this nation built on the land God promised us – the rebirth of the Hebrew language, the ingathering of exiles, the building of a flourishing city (Tel Aviv) on sand dunes, the survival after countless wars against her, and the thriving economy, often built on technology.  But as a Jew who loves Israel, I also see the painful problems she faces, the ongoing issue of Palestinian rights, the unending controversy over the role of religion in the state, and the inability to form a stable government.  (The government has fallen again this week.)  I love Israel and I worry about Israel.

Gifts are always conditional.  Even the gift of the Holy Land was conditional.  We must be worthy.  Israel must seek to be as moral a state as possible in the difficult neighborhood in which She lives.  The world already holds Israel to a higher standard than other nations.  Israel is rarely praised when She does something right – the first country to send a portable hospital to help victims of the earthquake in Haiti.  She is the first condemned when She does something wrong – the worldwide condemnation for the recent killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Perhaps the lesson of this week’s Torah portion is that Israel must hold Herself to a higher standard.  The story of the spies teaches us that to inherit the gift of the land, we must prove ourselves worthy.


“They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes—it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them—and some pomegranates and figs.”  (Numbers 13:23)

The Israelites send twelve spies to scout out the Holy Land.  Two of the spies bring a positive report.   The land is very, very good.  They even bring proof of the land/s fertility – a cluster of grapes with pomegranates and figs.  Two men carrying a cluster of grapes is the symbol of tourism for the modern state of Israel.  Ten of the spies bring a negative report.  There are giants in the land.  We appear like grasshoppers in their eyes, and so we appear in our own eyes.

Two of the spies say to go forward.  The land has been promised to us and we can conquer it.  Ten of the spies say to go backwards.   It is time to turn around and return to Egypt.  This is the same mindset that spoke of the fleshpots in Egypt in last week’s portion.  Should the Israelites go forward or backwards?   Will they have faith in God or doubt God’s providence? With much consternation, they listen to the ten negative rather than the two positive reports.  Their punishment will be forty years of wandering in the wilderness, until that entire generation dies off.

Should we move forwards or backwards?  Moving forwards is always scary.  We do not know if we will be successful or not.  Turning around and moving backwards is more reassuring.  But life is not lived in the past.  Life is lived in the future.  Way back in Genesis, Abraham is told to go forward to a land God will show him.  It was scary, but Abraham moves from his birthplace to a strange land.  In Exodus, Moses is told to leave the comfort of his family to confront Pharaoh.  It was scary, but Moses becomes the hero of a nation.

Do we look forward or backwards, to the past or to the future?  Certainly, we must learn from the past.  The philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” (There are multiple versions of this quote attributed to multiple authors.)   The past tells us where we came from.  But the future tells us where we are going.  Life is lived in the future.  And the future is scary.

It is scary to leave home and go off to college.  It is scary to get a first job, or to start any new job.  It is scary to move to a new city.  It is scary to begin a new relationship.  It is scary to marry someone and make that life-long commitment.  And it is extremely scary to have children and watch them grow up.

Speaking personally, it was scary to move from Los Angeles to New York to Pittsburgh to Florida.  It was scary to pursue a graduate degree after not going to school for almost three decades.  It was scary to face my professors and defend my PhD dissertation.  And it is scary to contemplate my retirement after working full-time more than forty years.  But life is lived in the future, not in the past.

I have often pointed out the difference between the pagan view of reality and the Biblical view of reality.  The ancient pagans (and modern neo-pagans) see life as cyclical.  We must always return to the past.  That is why the scholar of religion Mircea Eliade wrote his well-known book The Myth of the Eternal Return.  The Biblical view on the other hand sees life as linear, constantly moving forward.  The emphasis is on the future, not the past.  That is the wisdom that led to belief in a future messianic age.  And that is the reason why each of us must approach the future with fortitude and faith.

The story of the twelve spies teaches us a valuable lesson about life.  Ten of the spies sought to return to the past.  Only two of the spies sought to move forward into the future.  Of course, it was scary.  Life is scary.  But our job is to move put aside our fears and to move forward, with faith that we are making the correct choice.


“Once. when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the Sabbath.”  (Numbers 15:32)

This summer, I am teaching my Introduction to Philosophy class at Miami Dade College on-line using Zoom.   As I was waiting for the class to start, one of my students who happens to be black, asked me, “Professor, since we have some time, what is your opinion of what is happening in the news?”  I first answered with something banal about racism being bad.  But then I thought about how to apply Georg Hegel, part of my lesson for that evening, to my student’s question.

Hegel was probably the most influential philosopher of the nineteenth century.  He taught about how ideas develop through a series of steps, which he called the dialectic.  Ideas develop and change through a three-step process.  There is the thesis – the current situation.  Then comes the antithesis – which challenges the current situation.  Finally, there is the synthesis – putting together the thesis and antithesis to create some new idea.  Often the new idea becomes a new thesis, challenged by a new antithesis, and solved by a new synthesis.  And so ideas move forward and develop.

Explaining Hegel’s dialectic to college students is not always easy.  I often start with a trivial example – romantic comedies.  Almost every rom com has the same structure.  Two beautiful people meet and fall in love (the thesis).  Some crisis hits, forcing them to break up (the antithesis).  But in the end, they come together once again, resolving the issue (the synthesis).  If you want an example of a movie with this structure, watch Crazy Rich Asians.  Or for those who like older movies, watch Pretty Woman.  Both movies have the same Hegelian structure.

Karl Marx applied Hegel’s ideas to the economy.  He literally said that he was turning Hegel on his head.  The bourgeoise who own the businesses exploit the proletariat who are the workers (the thesis).  The workers finally rebel against the exploitation (the antithesis).  There is a revolution with the workers taking over the means of production (the synthesis, which Marx called Communism.)

So how did I apply Hegel’s ideas to current events?  There are some racist police who often harass, and in the case of George Floyd, murder members of the black community (thesis).  The community rises up in anger with demonstrations demanding change in policing policies (antithesis).  Community leaders come up with new policies to transform the training and practices of the police (synthesis).  That is how change happens, and that is how our culture becomes more ethical.

Hegel’s dialectic in the development of ideas can also be applied to the development of Jewish law.  An example comes up near the end of this week’s portion.  A man is caught gathering wood on the Sabbath and is put to death for profaning the holy day.  Based on this, the Rabbis rule that it is forbidden to carry an object in a public place on the Sabbath Day (thesis).  Most Jews in Rabbinic times live in homes with a central courtyard.  But the laws against carrying forbade neighbors from carrying food to one another and sharing food.  The joy of Sabbath observance has been diminished (antithesis).  The Rabbis develop a legal fiction where people can surround the courtyard with a wire, mingle some food, and make the entire courtyard a private place. (synthesis).

The Hebrew word for mingling food is eruv, and the idea of creating an eruv around a shared courtyard became vital among Jews.   But it was not enough.  A new dialectic developed.  The Rabbis allowed carrying in a courtyard or enclosed area (the new thesis).  But Jews wanted more. With the beginning of feminism, mothers wanted to be able to push their babies to synagogue through a public area on the Sabbath (the new antithesis).  So Orthodox communities used wires to turn an entire community into a private area, like a giant courtyard, so people could carry on the Shabbath (the new synthesis).

Judaism is not static.  Human ethics are also not static.  Ideas and practices develop through history.  Hegel’s dialectic, the process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, is a wonderful framework to show how these ideas develop.


“The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me?” (Numbers 14:26,27)

Jewish law teaches that to recite some of our most important prayers, including reading from the Torah and reciting mourner’s kaddish, we require a minyan of ten Jews. Traditionally it was ten Jewish men over thirteen of equal obligation. The Conservative Movement will also count women towards the obligatory ten. The basis of this law comes from this week’s portion. God asks how long this “evil congregation” will murmur against Him. Those who murmured against Him were ten of the spies. Therefore, ten is a congregation. Our most important prayers can only be said in the presence of a congregation of ten.
A key word in this definition is “of equal obligation.” Jewish men over thirteen traditionally are obligated to participate in a minyan. Children and non-Jews are not obligated, so they can attend but are not counted. From an Orthodox perspective, women are also not obligated and therefore are not counted. They are not obligated because they have other family obligations. When the Conservative Movement ruled that a congregation can count women in the minyan, a ruling I agree with, they never dealt with the question of obligation. Are women obligated? In my mind, the question is still unanswered.
When the issue first came up among liberal Jews, it was phrased in terms of women’s rights. Women claimed that they had a right to be counted, just as men have a right. The Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, which I follow on questions of Jewish practice, switched from the language of obligation to the language of rights. Obligations versus rights is one of the most fascinating questions not just in Judaism, but in ethics in general.
Some philosophers use the language of obligations or duties. Immanuel Kant most famously said that we are born with certain duties, often called duty or deontological ethics. We must always act according to the duty that we want our actions to be a universal law (Kant’s categorical imperative.) It is an ethical system built around obligations. The key question one must ask according to this world view is, what are my obligations?
Some philosophers prefer the language of rights. John Locke said that we have “the right to life, liberty, and property.” Thomas Jefferson reworded it to “the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Since then, our idea rights have expanded. We speak of the rights of the disabled, the right to life, the right to choose, the gay and lesbian rights, and of course, women’s rights. Does a gay couple getting married have the right to order a wedding cake from a well-established bakery? Does a baker have the right to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple on religious grounds? This case went before the Supreme Court last year. (The baker won on narrow grounds.) The key question one must ask according to this world view is, what are my rights?
These ideas from the world of ethics can be applied to the Jewish world. Is a minyan ten people who have an obligation to be there? Or is a minyan ten people who have the right to be there? In the past Judaism spoke the language of obligations, not rights. Often I have gone to the ballgame and gone to buy a kosher hotdog between innings. I will find nine men waiting by the kosher food stand. “Come join us. We need one more for a minyan.” If I miss the next inning it does not matter, I feel an obligation to join them.
Nevertheless, perhaps in our modern world we ought to be speaking the language of rights. Whatever we decide, I am proud that we pull together a minyan of ten adult Jews every morning and every evening of the year. We do it because enough of our members have taken on the obligation to be there. And we do it because enough of our members feel the right to be there.

“We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight.” (Numbers 13:33)
This week we come to the story of the spies, twelve spies that scouted the land of Canaan for the Israelites. Ten of them brought back an evil report about the land. The land is too difficult to conquer. There are giants in the land. Then comes one of the most important verses in this portion. The spies claim that they saw themselves as mere grasshoppers, nothings in the eyes of the people of the land. If they see themselves as mere grasshoppers, other people must see them that way also.
One of the most difficult issues I deal with, particularly among younger people, is low self-esteem. People often see themselves as nothings, unworthy. Sometimes they are victims of bullying or other forms of abuse. Often, they hear cruel comments. They live lives of pain and feelings of dejection. Too often they turn to alcohol or drugs to cure the pain. Drug overdoses are a growing cause of death among younger people. Some can no longer take life any longer and turn to suicide. If you see yourself as a grasshopper, soon you think that everyone else sees you the same way.
I have just begun watching the second season of the Netflix show Thirteen Reasons Why. I spoke about season one at my Yizkor sermon last Yom Kippur. It is the story of a young high school girl who commits suicide, leaving behind a series of audio tapes on how she was bullied, harassed, and eventually raped by her fellow students. Season one was painful to watch, and season two is starting out equally painful. Intense bullying, particularly of students willing to honestly report what happened to their friend, is a major theme. Let me share several paragraphs from the sermon I gave last fall.
There is a challenge to being a teen today. This was driven home to me by three examples of popular entertainment – a television series on Netflix, a young adult novel on which that television series was based, and a hit Broadway Show. The television series was Thirteen Reasons Why. It was extremely disturbing and extremely addicting; I could not stop watching it. When I finished, I read the 2007 novel by Jay Asher on which it is based. I recommend parents watch the tv show or read the novel with their teens. The story sadly tells the story of a high school student who commits suicide. She leaves behind a series of recordings to her classmates telling why. The novel and the television series show high school life at its worse – sexual harassment and bullying, drinking and drugs, public humiliation and finally a horrifying rape scene. When I commented on the show on Facebook, one of our younger members answered that it was an exaggeration. Television series always are, but it shows what can happen to teens with low self-esteem.
On a similar theme, while in New York I saw the hit Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen. The show won the Tony for Best Musical and its star Ben Platt won for best actor in a musical. Of course, I felt a bit of pride, Ben Platt began his acting career doing Hebrew musicals at Camp Ramah in California. The theme was similar to the television show Thirteen Reasons Why. A lonely young man commits suicide. The main character Evan Hansen, lonely in a social media world, longing for a girl who will not notice him, says the words repeated through the play, “If you are falling in a forest and there’s nobody around, do you ever really crash or even make a sound.” Evan is caught up in a lie about his friendship with the boy who died. The lie explodes out of control, he wins the girl, and the first act ends with the powerful anthem “you will be found.” But will the lie blow up in his face? I will not give away the ending; see the show. It had wonderful music but was also extremely disturbing. By the way, the show is coming to the Broward Center this fall.
There is a Hassidic teaching from Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pershyscha that every Jew should carry two slips of paper in her pocket at all times. If she is becoming too cocky and arrogant, she should pull up the paper that says, “I am just dust and ashes.” And if she becomes too lowly and depressed, she should pull out the paper that says, “the world was created for me.” We need to remind our young people that the world was created for them.

“How much longer shall that wicked community keep muttering against me.” (Numbers 14:27)
In this week’s portion, the Israelites are finally ready to enter the Holy Land. First Moses sends twelve spies to scout out the land. Two of the spies bring a positive report, but ten bring negative news. The ten spies report that there are giants in the land and we look like grasshoppers in their eyes. The people cry out, asking to return to Egypt. And God grows angry, saying how much longer shall that wicked community (eidah) keep muttering against me.
God calls the ten spies an eidah or a community. From this story we get the legal basis that in Judaism ten make up a minyan or community. Traditionally it was ten Jewish men over the age of thirteen; in our more egalitarian age we will count ten Jewish men and women. The story of Abraham arguing with God to save Sodom and Gemorrah, convincing God to save it if he could find ten righteous people, also proves that ten makes up a community. Less than ten is simply a group of individuals.
In Judaism, many of our most important prayers including the mourner’s kaddish and the reading of the Torah can only be said in a minyan or community of ten. That is the reason we strive so hard to provide a minyan in our synagogue every morning and every evening, each day of the year. To succeed we need volunteers to come to synagogue and become part of that necessary ten people. That is how we create a community.
People regularly say to me, “Rabbi, I am not religious, I am spiritual.” Spirituality is a wonderful value, seeing a dimension of reality beyond the material. I can have a wonderful spiritual experience at the beach or on a mountain top. But it would be me alone. Part of how religion differs from spirituality is that religion creates a community. One of the most physically beautiful places I ever visited was Alaska. It was filled with spiritual experiences. I loved the mountains and rivers, but I also loved reading Torah at an Orthodox minyan in Anchorage.
Let me share part of my Rosh Hashana sermon from two years ago. My brother-in-law has a favorite television show which I sometimes watch with him. It is called Alaskan Bush People. It is about Bill Brown, his wife Ami, and their seven children, who live in the backcountry of Alaska. They are self-sufficient, growing or hunting their own food and living far removed from any community. Of course, things get difficult when the Browns want to find wives for their adult sons. They actually turn to an old Jewish trick – a matchmaker. They did not succeed; no women wanted to move to the Alaskan bush country far from civilization.
The show is fascinating, but if I am going to watch a show about Alaska, I much prefer the old show from the early 90’s – Northern Exposure. Joel Fleischman is a New York doctor who in order to afford medical school, agrees to work in a quirky little Alaskan town. One of my favorite episodes involved the death of Joel’s uncle and Joel’s desire to say kaddish in his uncle’s memory. But first he must gather ten Jewish men in Cecily, AK. The town people desperately try to round up ten Jewish men. The episode ends in a way not quite in keeping with Jewish law but very moving. Joel says to the people of the town, to say kaddish requires a community. You are my community. So he gathers the town’s people together, not one of them Jewish, puts on his tallis, and begins to say a prayer for his uncle.
However non-halakhic the television show is, the message is clear. To be a Jew requires a community. We need other people, family and friends, fellow worshippers, to be who we are. We were discussing this issue recently and someone raised the question, if ten people are together in a chat room on line, would that be considered a minyan? Could we hold worship services and say kaddish with ten people in ten different places around the world, linked together over the internet? Is such internet worship the future of religion in general and Judaism in particular? Allow me to throw this question out for your consideration.

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to the children of Israel and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.” (Numbers 15:37-38)
Most of this portion deals with the story of the twelve spies sent into the Holy Land, the ten who brought back an evil report, and the punishment of forty years of wandering. However, at the very end of the portion the theme changes. Various laws are given, with the law of tzitzit (ritual fringes) at the very end. The paragraph about tzitzit became the third paragraph of the sh’ma, read by religious Jews every morning and every night.
The law says that Jews should put ritual fringes on the corners of a four sided garment. They should look at those fringes and remember all of God’s commandments. Orthodox Jewish men wear a ritual four cornered garment with these tzitzit under their shirt at all times. Jewish men, and frequently Jewish women, will put on a four cornered garment called a tallit (or tallis) each day to say the morning prayers. A key moment in a bar mitzvah ceremony, and often in a bat mitzvah ceremony, is the presentation by the parents of a new tallit to their youngster. Wearing a tallit at services means that a young person has come of age.
Nonetheless, there is one part of the law that is usually ignored today. The Torah says that the tzitzit must contain a thread of blue (tekhelet). Traditionally that thread of blue came from a sea creature known as a chelazon. When the identity of this creature was lost, Jews stopped putting on the blue thread. Today some groups have claimed to have rediscovered the identity of the chelazon, and have begun making blue die for a thread of the tzitzit. You can buy a tallit with a thread of blue on the tzitzit in Israel. As for me, I continue to wear a tallit with white only fringes.
The more interesting question is, why a thread of blue? The Torah does not say. But later Rabbinic law asks the question, when can we begin our morning prayers. Although various answers are given, the first teaching of the Mishnah is that we can begin “when one can distinguish between white and blue.” (Berachot 1:2) In other words, as dawn is approaching, when we can distinguish between the two color threads on our ritual fringes, it is time to begin the prayers. Morning is a time of learning to distinguish.
The morning prayers actually begin with words praising the rooster for its ability to distinguish between night and day. Before the alarm clock was invented, it was the rooster who woke people up for their prayers and to go to work. If the rooster, a mere animal can make distinctions, how much more so should we humans be able to make distinctions.
In fact, the Hebrew word for morning – boker, comes from a Hebrew root b k r meaning “to distinguish.” The Torah speaks of the ability to distinguish (yevaker) between good and bad. (see Leviticus 27:33) With the rising of the sun we are able to make distinctions. Compare this to the Hebrew word for evening – erev, which actually means confused or mixed up; at night no distinctions are possible. (In the creation story, when the Torah says v’hee erev v’hee boker “there was evening there was morning,” perhaps a better translation would be “there was confusion there was distinction.” The real creation story in Genesis is about going from chaos to order.)
To be a human being is to have the ability to make distinctions. We begin our prayers when we can distinguish a thread of blue from the other threads of white. Like the rooster, we can distinguish light from darkness, day from night. And to be a human is to rise above the rooster, rise above the animal within us. To be a human being is to have the ability to make distinctions between good and evil. Perhaps the tzitzit symbolize the fact that we humans are able to discern right from wrong, and to make the proper choices as we go through life.
There is a popular idea today that humans do not make choices. We are victims of our genes. We are victims of our heredity. Marx taught that we are victims of economic forces. Freud taught that we are victims of inner drives below the level of consciousness. Both came from Jewish families and both were atheists. Judaism answers back, we humans have the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and the ability to make choices. We should remember that whenever we look at our ritual fringes.

“And there we saw the Nefilim, the sons of Anak, who come from the Nefilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight.” (Numbers 13:33)
The journey has begun. Last week, after carefully receiving commands on how to march through the wilderness, the Israelites finally left Mt. Sinai. The plan was to travel immediately to the land of Canaan (Israel), move in and conquer it. It is a journey that would fail. The Israelites would end up marching through the desert for forty years. They would wait until an entire generation had died off. Only then would they be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
What went wrong? Why did the Israelites fail? The Israelites sent twelve spies to scout out the land, preparing them for their conquest. Two brought back positive reports about the land. But ten brought back negative reports. The land is a place that devours its inhabitants. It is a land filled with giants. The ten spies reported that they saw themselves as grasshoppers in their own eyes. And so the people of the land also saw them as grasshoppers. The land could not be conquered. It was time to turn around and return to Egypt.
And so the journey failed, even before it began. It failed because the people saw themselves as failures. When people believe that they are going to fail, the odds are that they will. God punished them, forcing them to wonder in the desert one year for every day the spies were in the land. Forty days of spying became forty years of wandering. After the punishment was announced, the Israelites finally gathered the courage to try to conquer the land. But they were turned back in battle. The journey was already a failure.
The Torah is not simply speaking of events that happened in the wilderness thousands of years ago. It is a story about today. Life is filled with journeys. Whether it is a journey towards a career, a journey towards a relationship, or a journey to write a book or create a piece of art, we all go through journeys in life. There is never a guarantee that we will succeed at our journey. But there is one sure sign that we will probably fail at that journey. We will fail if we see ourselves as failures. If we picture ourselves as mere grasshoppers in a land of giants, we soon conclude that everyone else sees us the same way. If we think that we are not worthy, we will swiftly prove that we are not worthy. On the other hand, if we begin a journey convinced in our hearts that we will succeed at that journey, the odds are we will succeed.
Sadly, I meet too many people who see themselves as failures before they even begin. I have heard the words too often. “I know I should go to college, but my parents told me that I am not smart enough for college.” “I have a terrific idea for a book, but it is almost impossible to get a book published today.” “I love the theater but so many actors are starving.” “I think I would make an excellent rabbi, but it is too hard for me to learn Hebrew.” “I want to get married, but so many marriages fail today.” These are journeys that have failed before they have even begun.
It is true that not every journey is successful. Some people drop out of colleges, some actors spend their lives as waiters, and too many marriages end in divorce. But for every failure there is someone else who succeeds. For every college dropout there is the person who finishes and moves on to graduate school. For every actor who never makes it, there is the one who gets bigger and bigger parts. And for every failed marriage, there is the marriage that lasts fifty or more years, blessed with children and grandchildren. What makes all these journeys successful? From the beginning people believe they will be successful. Even with setbacks they see themselves as someone who will make it.
There is the story of the young boy who throws a ball into the air saying, “I am the greatest batter.” He swings the bat and misses. Strike one! He throws the ball into the air a second time saying, “I am the greatest batter.” He swings the bat and misses. Strike two! He throws the ball into the air a third time saying, “I am the greatest batter.” He swings the bat and misses. Strike three! He holds his head up and says, “I am the greatest pitcher.” That is a boy who will not fail.



“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
(Numbers 13:33)

Last week I returned from Los Angeles from a family get together. I flew the red eye to be back for Shavuot; I was exhausted but it was worth it. My wife and I (unfortunately not our children) flew out there to be with my cousins, who were honored by their synagogue. My brother, sister-in-law, and nephew flew in from Boston. And a number of other cousins were there. We enjoyed the Saturday night affair, and then went to the cemetery Sunday for the unveiling of the stones for my aunt and uncle. We visited the resting places of a number of other family members, including my parents and brother. And so we had a long weekend dedicated to family.
The whole visit reminded me again of the centrality of family. Other traditions speak of the individual facing God; Jewish tradition speaks of the group facing God, the family, the community, and the whole people Israel. The whole book of Numbers centers on how we travelled through the wilderness family by family. Unfortunately, I see too many dysfunctional families, families torn apart by estrangement and abuse. I see brothers and sisters who do not speak, parents and children who do not see each other. Sometimes this estrangement is truly justified, but even in those cases I find it very sad.
Why is family so important? There is a hint in this week’s portion. The Israelites send scouts to travel into the Holy Land and prepare the people to conquer it. They see giants in the land, and see themselves as mere grasshoppers in comparison. They cry out, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” This is a deep psychological truth that applies today. The world is a scary place. Whether we are looking for a job, trying to meet someone to date, or just make friends, we often feel like grasshoppers, very small and unwanted. And if we see ourselves as nothing, we believe that everyone else sees us as nothing.
This is where family comes in. Each of us needs a place where we can go, where we feel wanted and accepted, like we are something special. Home and family should be that place. The poet Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” As I was preparing my thoughts for this week, the wonderful play Raisin in the Sun kept coming to mind. I saw it years ago, but it is being reenacted on Broadway, winning the Tony this week for best revival. The play shows a poverty stricken black family in Chicago, and is filled with family tension. But there is one moment when the mother says to her son, “I ain’t never stop trusting you. Like I ain’t never stop loving you.” When I first saw the play, that particular line stuck in my head. Family is a place where, with all the tension, they never stop loving you.
We live in a harsh world. People try to take advantage of us. People judge us, often on superficial matters. It is hard to gain acceptance. Too often we feel like grasshoppers when we set out into the world. We all need a place where we can go where we will find unconditional love and acceptance. Our tradition teaches that family takes care of family. In the Bible, when a man must sell himself into slavery because of debts, his brother has an obligation to redeem him. We are our brother’s keeper. We need to honor our parents and teach our children, even if we do not always feel love for them. And we need a place where they will always take us in.
This week my synagogue is honoring the Jewish Family Service. I served on the board of this important community agency for over ten years. I chose this particular board because deep in my heart, I believe in the centrality of family. We need institutions that strengthen families. May we all know the acceptance and the joy of being part of a loving family.


“Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were of those who spied the land, tore their clothes; and they spoke to all the company of the people of Israel, saying, the land, which we passed through to spy, is an exceedingly good land.” (Numbers 14:6-7)

Greetings from Los Angeles. I came out here for a family wedding. After two trips last winter for the funerals of my aunt and uncle, I feel a great joy to participate in the wedding of their grandson. Rabbi Barry Lutz of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge CA, the family rabbi of the groom, actually performed the ceremony. Jewish tradition teaches that one should always speak in the name of one’s teacher (b’shem omro). So allow me to share the insight that Rabbi Lutz shared with the bride and groom.
Rabbi Lutz spoke about this week’s Torah portion. Twelve spies travel through the Promised Land to prepare the way for the people of Israel to enter. Ten bring back evil reports. There are giants in the land; it is too dangerous to be conquered by the Israelites. The ten spies urged the people to turn back and return to Egypt. Only two of the twelve spies bring a positive report of the land, Joshua and Caleb. It is an exceedingly good land. It is time to go forward. Life is about going forward, not turning back.
Rabbi Lutz used this story to teach a wonderful lesson to the bride and groom. Life is about moving forward, not backwards. It is about facing the future together. Yes moving forward can be scary. But it is also how we become the kind of person we need to be. Life is in the future, not in the past. And this bride and groom are moving forward into a wonderful future together.
We all face moments in life where we must move into the future. It could be a marriage or a new relationship. It could be a new child. Perhaps there is a new job, moving to a new community, taking on a new project, or some other major change in one’s life. I have people in my synagogue who are picking up and moving to Israel to build a new life. Yes it is scary. But as we learn from the spies and the Promised Land, life is about moving forward into the future. This is one of the great insights of our tradition.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, in his book Yearnings, tells the story of a man he has known many years. The man is extremely unhappy in the corporate world where he works. He dreams of opening his own consulting practice. But the years are going by and there is no change. Rabbi Kula describes how he spent the evening with the man sharing a bottle of wine. Why was the man not moving forward with his dream? The man, after enough wine, finally admitted how frightened he was to move forward with the career change. What if he fails? What if the consulting business does not work out?
Rabbi Kula had a wonderful answer. He said that if God had been afraid of failure, he would not have created this world. According to the Midrash (Jewish Rabbinic legends), God created and destroyed many worlds before coming up with this one. In the end, God said, “Those don’t please me. This one pleases me.” (Genesis Rabbah 3:9) God moved forward, even if He got it wrong the first few times. Even God knew that life is lived in the future, not in the past.
Life is about moving forward. Whether it is a bride and groom stepping forward into married life, a corporate executive starting a consulting business, or a young couple relocating in Israel, each of us has to move forward. Ten of the spies wanted to move backwards, return to Egypt and a life of slavery. Two wanted to move forward into a new and beautiful land. Yes it was risky. Yes even God failed the first few times. But life is about the future. We each must find the courage and the conviction to step forward. That is what makes life worth living.


“The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into the land, a land that flows with milk and honey.” (Numbers 14:7-8)
Twelve spies enter the land of Canaan on behalf of the people Israel. For forty days they traverse the entire land, preparing a report on the inhabitants and the produce of the land. They all see the same thing. And yet their reports are totally different. Ten of the spies see the land as toxic, “a land that swallows its inhabitants.” It would be better to turn around and head back to Egypt. Only two of the spies see the land as “exceedingly good,” “a land flowing with milk and honey.”
How can twelve people look at the same events and see everything so differently? Our attitude effects how we behold the world. We all know people who tend to see the cup as half empty and other people who see it as half full. We all know people who dwell on the negative and others who dwell on the positive. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder. But so is evil and good, despair and hope, negative and positive. We can view events with a predisposition towards failure or an assumption of success.
In my position I meet many Holocaust survivors. They have been through the worst horrors human beings can afflict on other human beings. And their attitudes towards the world truly vary. Some survivors refuse to set foot in a synagogue, pray to God, or acknowledge any kind of spiritual reality. To these people the world is an ugly, hopeless place devoid of God. Other survivors have made deep commitments to religion, attend services regularly, and have a deep belief in God. Ask them why, they may quote the philosopher Emil Fackenheim, “Don’t give Hitler any posthumous victories.”
How can two people look at the same event and see it through such different eyes? Some materialists will speak about the God gene. There are individuals who genetically are pre-disposed to see the hand of God in events. They look at a crisis and see it as a test from God. They sense God’s presence in the most difficult moments. They are genetically programmed to have faith and optimism. Others lack the God gene. They see a material world that offers few signs of hope. They are pre-disposed towards Murphy’s famous law – if something can go wrong, it will. From this point of view, how we see this world is genetic. Or to paraphrase Shakespeare, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our genes.”
This point of view that despair and hope are in our genes is popular in our contemporary culture. But it is deeply troubling. It takes away our free will and our ability to choose. Our minds and hearts are free to react towards events and crises. Perhaps this idea was best put by another holocaust survivor, the psychotherapist Viktor Frankl. Frankl he survived Auschwitz, wrote a powerful book called Man’s Quest for Meaning. In the book he beautifully writes, “Everything can be taken from a man or woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” We often have no choice about what happens to us. But we can decide how we wish to react.
There are numerous stories in the Talmud and Rabbinic literature about the saying gam zu l’tova – “this is also for the good.” One such story involves Rabbi Akiba who was traveling with a donkey, a rooster, and a candle. He looked for lodging in the town, but was forced to sleep in the woods. But his attitude was, “this is also for the good.” Soon a wind blew out his candle. A cat ate his rooster and a lion ate his donkey. But he would not give up his optimism. The next day he heard that a regiment captured the entire town. Akiba realized that if he had slept in the town, if he had his candle, his rooster, or his donkey, he too would have been captured. He realized the good in tragic events. (Berachot 60b)
In our portion ten spies looked at the land and saw everything as hopeless. Two spies looked at the land and saw great hope. Our tradition teaches us to see the positive in everything, to embrace every challenge as an opportunity. Or as Frankl put it, we cannot always decide our fate, but we can decide our attitude.



“None of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn Me shall see it.” (Numbers 14:22 – 23)

It happens on a regular basis. Israel takes some action to defend its security. And the world rises up in protest against Israel. This week it was an attempt by a flotilla of boats to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza. Remember that Gaza is ruled by Hamas, an organization calling for the destruction of Israel. (Thousands of rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza until Israel went to war last year, and was roundly condemned.) The Israeli navy stopped the boats and boarded them, and then Israeli forces opened fire when attacked. Nine people were killed. And the worldwide protests and condemnations have begun.
What is clear in the language of many of the protestors is that they not simply attacking this particular military action. Rather they are attacking the very legitimacy of Israel. Other nations are condemned in the court of world opinion for particular actions. Only Israel is attacked for the very crime of existing. If Israel disappeared tomorrow, all the moral qualms would also disappear. When Jews were powerless for two thousand years, nobody questioned Jewish morality. When Jews became a sovereign nation in 1948, suddenly the world began to question the ethics of the Jewish state. Will Israel ever be good enough for the world?
This week’s portion deals with twelve spies sent into the land that would one day become Israel. Ten bring back an evil report about the land. God punishes the people by not allowing an entire generation to go into the land. For forty years the people must wander through the wilderness, until that entire generation dies off. Only when a new generation comes of age will God know whether they are worthy to enter the land.
The message of this portion is clear. In order to live in the land, the Jewish people must be worthy. They are held to a high ethical standard. Later the Jewish prayer book says in the festival Musaf service, “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” The right to the land is conditional. Israel must be worthy. But how do you prove worthy when Israel is surrounded by nations out to destroy her? How do you stay in power and stay ethical at the same time? It is a conundrum.
Perhaps the best answer I have ever heard to the question of power and ethics came from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. He is quoted as saying, if Israel is five percent more moral than the rest of the world, it could be a light unto the nations. If Israel is ten percent more moral than the rest of the world, it will be dead. Yes when you have power, you must be ethical. But you also must take action to protect yourself and the security of your nation. And that means occasionally acting harshly. Certainly the leaders of this humanitarian flotilla were looking to pick a fight with Israel. And they got what they were looking for.
What is true for Israel is true for each of us in our lives. Some of us are in positions of power. Being in power, we have the ability to hurt other people. But if we do not use that power others may walk over us. We must have the wisdom to use the power wisely, trying not to hurt others but doing what is necessary to protect ourselves. It is true for sovereign nations. It is true for supervisors and managers in businesses. It is true for heads of family. It is true for each of us. How to enjoy power and behave ethically is a difficult balancing act. Perhaps that is the message that this week’s portion is trying to tell us.


“Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off. It would be better for us to go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:3)

First, greetings from Washington D.C. I have been here for two days listening to reports from Jewish organizations in the Capitol, government representatives, and foreign dignitaries about all matter of public policy. My head is spinning. What is President Obama’s view towards Israel? How do we achieve health care reform, and is such reform Jewish? What should the government do about Iran? In ways I have more questions than answers.
Perhaps it is worthy that we read about one of the first Jewish public policy debates in this week’s portion. Spies were sent in to bring back a report about the Promised Land. Would the Israelites be able to conquer the land? Two of the spies said yes, ten said no. And a vicious debate ensued. God had promised them the land, but was God telling the truth. After all, the people saw fortressed cities and giants; they saw themselves as mere grasshoppers unable to conquer the land. The people were too frightened; they could not handle the truth about the land.
These events remind me of one of my favorite scenes from an American movie. In A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson plays Col. Nathan R. Jessup, a tough-as-nails marine officer. He is questioned by a lawyer played by Tom Cruise regarding the death of a young marine recruit. Cruise demands the truth, and Nicholson shouts back at him, ‘You can’t handle the truth.” The line always reverberated with me. As a rabbi, I often see people who cannot handle the truth. It is not just the ancient Israelites unable to cope with the truth about the land. All of us face realities in our lives where we cannot handle the truth.
I see it in hospital rooms. Mom is dying, but the children do not want to hear it. They cannot handle the sad truth that none of us live forever. I tell a family that they ought to consider some final arrangements for when the time comes, and they tell me, “I don’t want to think about it.” Then when the inevitable happens and mom dies, they fall apart.
Sometimes the inability to handle the truth at the end of life is even worse. Children ask me to visit their father in the hospital, but swear me to secrecy. “Don’t tell dad he is dying. It will upset him too much.” I get to the hospital and dad says, “I am dying, but don’t tell my children. It will upset them too much.” So everyone is keeping a secret from everyone else, and the most important issue between families is not discussed.
The inability to handle the truth often comes out when I speak to parents about their children. Parents do not want to hear that a child has a learning problem; the difficulties in school are the teacher’s fault. Parents do not want to hear that their children are troubled in some way. They cannot imagine that a child may be autistic, or perhaps suffering from some kind of mental illness. And parents have huge difficulty accepting the reality that their child is suffering from some kind of addiction. Denial is a prevalent human emotion. That is why Elizabeth Kubler-Ross made it the first emotion people feel when they learn they are dying. Sadly many people never get past denial.
The book of Psalms says, “They have eyes but cannot see.” (Psalms 115:5) The verse is speaking of idols, but it could as easily be speaking about human beings. We have eyes but cannot see. Or rather, we see what we want to see. We fail to see the truth because often we cannot handle the truth. We do not want to know, so we go into denial.
The truth is always difficult and sometimes extremely painful. And yet, only by acknowledging the truth can we begin to seek help. Whether it is international politics or the difficulties of family life, we must learn how to embrace the truth. May the God Who opens the eyes of the blind open our eyes to the truth around us.



“The Lord said to Moses as follows, speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.” (Numbers 15:37-38)

This week’s portion ends with the commandment of tzitzit, the tied strings which Jews wear on the corners of their garments. Jewish men and some Jewish women wear a four cornered garment (a tallit) during morning prayers. Orthodox Jewish men will wear such a four cornered garment under their shirt at all times; some wear it with the fringes out so they can look at them any time during the day. Most people no longer wear a fringe of blue since the exact process for making the dye has been lost, but some claim they have rediscovered it and do wear a fringe of blue. The purpose of this very ancient law is to look at the four tied strings as a reminder of God’s commandments.
What interests me is a custom followed in most synagogues including our own. When we reach the words in the liturgy “gather us from the four corners of the earth”, we gather together the four tzitzit from the four corners of the garment. Then whenever the word tzitzit is recited, we kiss the four fringes. There is a powerful symbolism to that moment – a coming together from the four corners of the world and touching. The theme is that items which are separated in space can and do come together and touch one another.
This idea was developed by the masters of kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. Things may appear separated to our limited sight. But underneath there is a hidden unity. Everything in the universe touches everything else in the universe. What we do here effects what happens there. Things touch each other in mysterious ways and all things are inner related.
I was speaking about this idea recently and a member of the synagogue pointed out that this is certainly true in the world of economics. Everything touches everything else. OPEC raises the cost of a barrel of oil and gas prices go up. People drive less. They stay home rather than taking a driving vacation. Hotels on the road have less business, and must lay off employees. Those employees have less money to spend and so local retail businesses are hurt. Everything cascades. In many ways it is like the butterfly effect in chaos theory – a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent creates a hurricane on another continent. A small change in the price of oil causes a retail outlet across the world to go out of business.
I believe the idea that everything touches everything else is true not only in the economic sphere but in the spiritual sphere. At the end of last week’s portion Miriam is stricken with leprosy; she must dwell outside the encampment until she is cured. Moses responds with the beautiful words “Oh God, please heal her.” And she is healed. How can Hebrew words spoken at one place effect a physical cure someplace else? Every Saturday morning I say a prayer for the sick and read a long list of people’s names. Many of those people for whom I am praying live far away, sometimes on another continent. Our tradition teaches that my words here have spiritual ramifications that can affect people over there.
Kabbalah (and most other mystical traditions) teaches that everything touches everything else. There is, what physicist David Bohm called an implicit order to the universe. He used physics to show that everything is interconnected. Tongue-in-cheek, I called this message about tzitzit “Jewish string theory. Please indulge me one more time if I speak of the realm of modern physics. There is a paradox in quantum theory called EPR (Einstein Podolsky Rosen) which says that a particle on one side of the universe can instantaneously affect a particle on the opposite side of the universe. It is strange and yet it has been proven in laboratories.
Perhaps the symbolism of gathering the tzitzit, the lessons of kabbalah, and the meaning of modern physics all teach the same profound truth. We live in a universe where everything touches everything else.



“They spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying the country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.”
(Numbers 13:32)

Twelve spies were sent to explore the land of Canaan and bring back a report to the Israelites. They traveled together and each saw the same sights. Ten spies brought back an evil report; Canaan is a land that devours its settlers. Two brought back a wonderful report; Canaan is a goodly land and the Israelites can conquer it.
How can people see the same thing and bring back absolutely opposite reports? How can one person look at the land and see giants and other mortal dangers, and another person look at the exact same land and see a place flowing with milk and honey? How can one person see the glass as half empty and another as half full? Some of us look at the world and only see the negative? And some of us look at the world and manage to see the positive? The spies who brought the negative report and the mass of Israelites who believed them were punished, forbidden from entering the land. The spies who brought the positive report were rewarded; they were the only two permitted to enter the land.
For many individuals, it is in their nature to approach the world looking at the negative. Dennis Prager, the conservative radio commentator and Jewish lecturer, speaks of a person lying in bed looking at ceiling tiles. Suppose there are 100 tiles, 99 properly aligned in place but one that is broken. Invariably the person fixes his or her eyes on the broken tile. It is so natural to be bothered by the one that does not work, not the other 99 that do. I have this same weakness. I give a number of lectures each year. Sometimes 99 people will applaud my lecture with enthusiasm, but one person will walk out in the middle. I will become obsessed with the one who walked out; why didn’t they like me? It is the most natural thing in the world to focus on the broken, what does not work, and fail to see what is good.
This is most prevalent in the great human adventure we call love. When we look at our loved one, what do we see? Do we see their failings and foibles, the negative points? (We all have negatives.) Or can we focus on the good, the positive points, the person’s values and accomplishments. As a parent, I find it too easy to focus on where my kids go wrong. Now and again I must step back and ask myself, what are they doing right? And if I look at it objectively, there is far more that is right than wrong in my children.
There is a Jewish value called hakarat tov. It literally means “recognizing the good.” It means looking out at the world and seeing what is good and positive. It means training ourselves to ignore the negatives, or even better, seeing the positive growth opportunities in the negatives. I remember from my Hebrew school days many decades ago the story of Rabbi Akiba, who was camping outside a town with a donkey, some chickens, and a lamp for light. In the middle of the night his donkey and the chickens ran away, and a large wind blew out his lamp which he was unable to relight. All he could say is that this too is for the good. The next morning he learned that a group of marauders had passed through his neighborhood. Had the animals been present to make noise or the lamp been burning, his life would have been in danger.
In my counseling as a rabbi, I meet two kinds of people. Some people are always negative, they tend to find fault with everything and everybody. Life is an unhappy experience to be endured. And other people are always positive, they somehow see the good even in difficult situations. They look at the world and see the positive. There are times when I am amazed to find holocaust survivors, who lost everyone and everything, who still manage to go through life with a positive attitude.
Jewish tradition teaches that when we recognize good things, we bless God with the words, “Praised are You Lord our God King of the Universe, Who is good and causes good (hatov vehameteiv)” It is a blessing we ought to train ourselves to say everyday.



“And while the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man who gathered sticks upon the Sabbath day.” (Numbers 15:32)

When my oldest son was a little boy, I was walking home with him from synagogue on Saturday afternoon. We saw a lovely flower growing in the ground and he wanted to pick it and give to his mom. The thought was lovely, but I still stopped him. “On the Sabbath we leave God’s earth alone. We do not even pick flowers.”
That is a lesson we learn from a rather strange incident at the end of this portion. A man is captured gathering wood on the Sabbath day. The Israelites put him in custody until they can decide on an appropriate punishment. In the end the Israelites stone him to death for his flagrant violation of the Sabbath laws.
What can we learn from this bizarre incident which could possibly be relevant to us today? Nobody advocates the death penalty for Sabbath violations. But certainly this story reflects the seriousness with which the Torah takes the protection of the Sabbath. The theme of rest on the Sabbath day and of avoiding all work comes up over and over throughout the Torah. But what is wrong with gathering wood on the Sabbath day?
The Torah never defines precisely what is permitted and what is forbidden on the Sabbath. The Oral law lists thirty-nine categories of activities which are forbidden. All of these activities have one thing in common – they transform the world. They show human mastery over nature. What is forbidden is anything that changes nature, whether growing crops, creating a fire, sewing clothes, erecting a building, or even gathering sticks. On the Sabbath we leave the world alone.
Perhaps the reasoning is that the world does not belong to us. In common law there is a principle called adverse possession. As a non-lawyer, I have tried to understand this principle. If I make use of someone else’s property for a certain period of time and they take no action to prevent me from using it, eventually I can claim legal possession of that property. For example, if I build my driveway on my neighbor’s land and drive my car across it for a period of time and my neighbor does not protest, after a certain period I have taken adverse possession. I have gained the right to use my neighbor’s land.
The Sabbath laws were given to us to prevent a kind of adverse possession. The Psalmist taught, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalms 24:1) We humans cannot claim ownership of God’s earth. God gave us permission to work God’s holy earth. We can grow our crops, build our buildings, make our clothing, or light our fires. The Biblical view is not the Greek view; we are not like Prometheus who had to steal fire from the gods. God gave us permission to use fire – for six days a week. But one day a week we must stop and leave God’s earth alone. Even sticks lying on the ground must be left alone. We are proclaiming to the world that it does not belong to us.
Today many scientists believe we humans have taken adverse possession of the earth. We see it as an unlimited pool of natural resources set aside for our consumption. And so we argue about global warming, the ozone layer, the shrinking rainforest, the fear that we will run out of fuel, and all the other global disasters which concern so many in the scientific community. There is a belief that the earth is ours to exploit at will. The beautiful idea of leaving the earth alone has been forgotten in our fast paced, 24/7 world. Perhaps we humans need to learn to stop.
The lesson of the wood gatherer is also reflected in a beautiful Midrash (Rabbinic teaching): “When the Holy One created the first man, He took him and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, Behold My works, how beautiful they are, how splendid they are. All that I have created, I created for your sake. Take care that you do not become corrupt and thus destroy My world. For once you destroy it, there is no one to repair it.” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:13)



“So Moses, at the Lord’s command, sent them (the twelve spies) out from the wilderness of Paran, all the men being leaders of the Israelites.” (Numbers 13:3)

This week marks the passing of Ronald Wilson Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States. Whether one agrees with his particular policies or not, there is no question that Reagan was an inspirational leader during a difficult time in our nation’s history. I am convinced that his leadership was a major factor in the downfall of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Remembering Reagan gives me an opportunity to reflect on leadership, both good leadership and bad leadership. In this week’s portion we see leaders who failed. Twelve leaders from the twelve tribes were sent into the land as spies, in order to prepare the Israelites to conquer the land. Ten came back with an evil report – there are giants in the land, we are mere grasshoppers, and we can never conquer the land. As a result of their negativity, the Israelites were forced to wander forty years through the desert, until a new generation could take over.
The spies were failures as leaders because they lacked courage. They could see only failure. There was no vision, no feeling that there mission would be a success. They were the wrong men at the wrong time, and their failure as leaders led to tragedy for the Israelites whom they were appointed to lead.
On the other hand, throughout history there have been some great leaders who were ready and willing. History has changed because a Lincoln, an FDR, a Churchill, a David Ben-Gurion, and a Reagan were there at the right time. What qualities did each of these leaders have that the Biblical spies lacked?
I believe there are three qualities which define a true leader. First, a leader must have a vision of where he or she is going, and must hold unwaveringly unto that vision. Second, a leader must have courage, looking forward and not backwards even when the going becomes difficult. Finally, a leader must have charisma to inspire others to follow.
The first quality is vision. Where does the leader want to go and how does he or she plan to get there. “Where there is no vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) Reagan’s vision was that America was a land of freedom, and freedom can triumph over the tyranny of what Reagan called “the evil empire.” His love of America exuded optimism in a nation wounded by the Iran hostage crisis and economic woes. Certainly Reagan was willing to make political compromises when necessary, but his vision of America has never wavered.
The spies on the other hand lacked vision. They saw themselves as weak, unable to flourish in a land of giants. It is small wander that they faltered.
Courage is the ability to continue on a path even when one is under attack, not only by an adversary but by one’s own followers. The modern state of Israel has a tradition of officers being willing to say, “After me.” There is a Jewish parable that a leader cannot be like a dog on a leash. The dog walks ahead thinking he is leading, but continually turns around to see which way its master is going. So, some who wish to lead are always looking at the followers to see which way they are going. If you only lead after reading the polls, you are not really leading.
This point was made by Joshua ben Levi in a classical Midrash. The tail of a serpent said to the head, why do you always get to walk first? Let me lead. The head said okay. The tail then dragged the head through water, through a fire, through the thorns. So it is when the leader allows the rank and file to set the way. (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:10)
Finally, a leader with a vision and with courage cannot truly lead without charisma. Even Reagan’s political enemies admitted that his strength was his likeability. People follow people they like, people who they feel care about them, people who they can identify with. To be a leader is to love those you choose to lead. The leader who is contemptuous of his or her followers, who is arrogant, who believes his or her leadership is a prerogative of birth or money, will eventually have no followers.
Many of us are in positions of leadership today. We may not lead a nation, but we lead organizations, businesses, our families, or our children. Perhaps it is time to remember these lessons of leadership. Without a vision, the leader will lead to nowhere. Without courage, the leader will flee at the first sign of adversity. And without charisma, the leader will have no followers. Ronald Reagan embodied these qualities. He will be sorely missed.



“Let them attach a cord with a thread of blue at each corner.”
(Numbers 15:38)

Last week we looked at light from a scientific point of view. This week I want to look at light from a more mystical point of view.
When we see light, it usually appears as white. Of course, white is a mix of all the possible colors of light. Spin a wheel with a variety of colors and it will appear white. Hold the light to a prism and it separates into the variety of colors. Or let the light reflect through water vapor in the air and a rainbow appears. The rainbow recalls the Noah story and God’s covenant with humanity.
In this portion we are commanded to place fringes on the corners of our clothing. The fringes are white, reflecting all the colors of the rainbow. However, one fringe is techelet, a purplish blue. (Today Jews keep this commandment by wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, while at prayer. Very pious Jews wear an undershirt with four fringes all day long. Today most Jews no longer wear the thread of blue, since the precise procedure for making the dye has been lost. Some Jews have begun to wear a thread of blue once again.)
Why this purplish blue? Why pick one color, when white contains all the colors. According to Jewish tradition, techelet is the color at the far end of the rainbow, the highest energy color we can see, the edge before radiation becomes ultraviolet rays and invisible to the eye. It is the color that stands for God=s presence in the universe.
According to the Talmud (Menachot 43b), “Rabbi Meir said, Why is techelet different from all other colors? Because it is like the color of the sea, and the sea is like the color of the sky, and the sky is like the color of the divine throne.” According to one understanding of this, when an astronaut travels into space, techelet is the last color she sees before the blackness of space. We have a thread of blue because it represents God’s color, God’s presence. In a very mysterious passage, the Bible speaks about how seventy elders beheld God’s throne, and “under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.” (Exodus 24:10) What color is sapphire? A dark, purplish blue.
We look at the fringes and see white (all the colors) and see the one thread of blue. The thread of blue symbolizes God’s presence. Some have said that the word techelet comes from the Hebrew word tachlitwhich means purpose. We see the thread of blue and recall God’s purpose in creating the universe. We are reminded of our role in fulfilling God’s purpose and completing creation.
Several years ago I received a mystical insight from a rabbi out in California. (Forgive me, but I do not recall the rabbi’s name.) He mentioned that if purplish blue is at one end of the rainbow, what is at the other end? What is the most low energy color? The answer is red. The red of the rainbow is next to the infrared spectrum, more low energy radiation that cannot be seen. The Hebrew for red is adom. And the Hebrew word for mankind is adam. If God is at one end of the rainbow, humanity is at the other end. Our job is to cross the rainbow, start with humanity and reach out to God.
Now suddenly, the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” makes mystical sense. My only question – did the Wizard of Oz wear a tallit?



“The Lord spoke further to Moses and Aaron, How much longer shall this wicked community keep muttering against me?”
(Numbers 14:26-27)

Anybody involved in Jewish life has experienced waiting in synagogue or in a house of mourning, hoping the tenth Jew would show up to make a minyan. Anyone involved in Jewish life has also experienced the phone call, “Drop everything, don’t worry what you are wearing, hurry down, we need you for the tenth.”
I have a vivid memory of serving as student rabbi over the festival of Shavuot at the garment synagogue in Manhattan. It was time to begin the afternoon service to end the festival, and only eight men were present. The neighborhood was not the nicest at that time of day. The ladies of the night were out soliciting their customers. And up the street, I was out soliciting for two more Jewish men to make up a minyan. (Eventually I pulled in two unsuspecting souls.)
One of my favorite television shows used to be Northern Exposure, about a Jewish doctor in a small quirky Alaskan town. One episode stands out vividly in my mind. Dr. Fleishman has to say kaddish for his uncle, and his friends try to round up nine other Jewish men in Alaska. They find some of the most eccentric Jews ever found on tv. In the end, his friends in the community decide that they would become the minyan, allowing him to say kaddish. His minyan of gentile friends from the Alaskan village was not exactly kosher by Jewish standards. But it makes the key point; the minyan represents the community. (Incidently, in real life the Jews of Alaska are far more normal. I once helped make a minyan in Anchorage.)
In this week’s portion we are introduced to the notion of a minyan. Twelve men were sent to spy out the land. Two had praise for it, and ten spoke evil about the land and the Israelite’s chances of ever conquering it. God said, “How much longer shall this wicked community keep muttering against me?” From this we learn that a community is made up of ten. Traditionally, a minyan was ten Jewish men over the age of thirteen. Most non-Orthodox synagogues will also count women toward the requisite ten. However one counts them, a minyan represents the community.
A minyan is needed to read the Torah and recite some of our most important prayers, including the mourner=s kaddish. Observant Jews during the eleven months they say kaddish for a parent, do whatever is necessary to make sure there is a minyan available. And there is nothing more frustrating than arriving in synagogue to say kaddish and find only eight or nine people. That is why it is such an important mitzvah to drop everything and help make a minyan.
The number ten representing community comes up frequently in the Torah. Ten spies spoke evil about the land. Ten brothers threw Joseph into a pit and sold him into slavery. God promised to save Sodom and Gemorrah is ten righteous people could be saved. In the end, God could not even find a community of righteous people.
It is noteworthy that when the Torah speaks of community, it often refers to a community of evildoers. Sometimes it is too easy to become swept up in the community of people doing the wrong thing. In the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King acquittal, a group of men attacked and maimed truck driver Reginald Denny. They successfully argued in court that they were caught up in passions of the community, and were therefore not guilty.
The Torah teaches that we should not follow the community to do evil. Community is vital from the Torah point of view. The great sage Hillel taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” (Avot 2:5) When a community is doing good, we need to join in. But when a community is doing evil, we need to stand apart.



“Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.”
(Numbers 13:2)

Moses sent twelve spies to scout out the land of Canaan. They traveled together and saw the same territory, yet ten spies brought an evil report about the land. Only two spoke of the goodness and the Israelites=ability to conquer the land.
How common for different people to see the same events and walk away with totally different perceptions. On a regular basis I will meet with one partner in a troubled marriage and hear a story of pain and difficulty, usually with the other partner at fault. Then I will meet with the spouse, hear the same events, but the viewpoint is precisely the opposite. I hear it when family members are estranged, two siblings or a parent and child are not speaking to one another. Each will describe the same events with totally opposite interpretations.
We often hear the words that for every disagreement there are three sides, one party=s interpretation, the other party=s interpretation, and the truth. I find with most disagreements, the truth is often somewhere in the middle.
However, with the help of modern science, perhaps we ought to rethink this entire view. We always assume that beyond our limited interpretation there is an objective reality out there. If only we could see more clearly, be more objective, find the truth, we can pin down that reality.
According to quantum mechanics, there is no objective reality. Physicists have shown that everything in the universe is simply a probability wave, interpreted through a mathematical formula known as Schrodinger’s equation. Only when we actually measure the event does the wave collapse and reality is decided. This strange law creates such paradoxes as Schrodinger’s cat, who is alive and dead at the same time. (I won=t even try to explain this one.)
Modern physics have shown that in a rigorous, scientific way, there is no objective reality. Or to put it another way, perception creates reality. How we see the world effects how the world really is.
If spies view the land as a vicious place, filled with walled cities, giants, a land that swallows its inhabitants, then that becomes reality. If other spies view the land as a very, very good place, flowing with milk and honey, ready to be conquered, then that becomes reality.
If one partner in a marriage sees the others as selfish and manipulative, that becomes reality. If that same partner sees the goodness and kindness in the other, the willingness to sacrifice and give for the welfare of the family, then that becomes reality.
Perhaps the lesson is that we humans can change reality. All we have to do is change our perception. We can look at the same events and see the negative, the ugly, the unhappy, or we can see the positive, the goodness, the value. When we change perception, we change reality.
There is a tradition in Judaism of hakarat hatov, recognizing the good in everything. The mistake of the ten spies is they did not see the goodness of the land. Too many of us fail to recognize the goodness that is all around us.



“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33)

Whitney Houston sings the beautiful song “The Greatest Love of All.” “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.” It is a song about teaching our children dignity and self esteem.
Why is loving ourselves the greatest love of all? Is it not more important to love our spouse, love our children, love our neighbor. The wisdom of this popular tune is that if we do not first love ourselves, all of these other loves do not work.
The same insight grows out of our tradition. The Torah teaches “love your neighbor as yourself.” If you do not love yourself, how will you possibly love your neighbor?
In this week’s Torah reading, twelve spies searched out the holy land and brought back a report. Two of the spies gave a positive account of the land. Ten brought back a negative account. They told the people that it is a beautiful land, but we are too weak to be able to conquer it. The ten spies end with the words, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
If we see ourselves as grasshoppers, soon other people will see us as grasshoppers. If we put ourselves down, how can we expect anyone else to respect us? If we have no dignity, how can we see the dignity in others? If we fail to love ourselves, how can we ever learn to love anyone else? That is why learning to love ourselves is “the greatest love of all.”
How do we learn to love ourselves? It begins with the teaching that each of us was created in the image of God. Each of us has a unique purpose and a unique destiny on this earth. The rabbis taught that a human can stamp out many coins with a single die, but each one is exactly like every other one. God, on the other hand, stamps out every human from the same original stamp (Adam and Eve), and yet each and every one of us is unique. Even identical twins, who share a genetic code, are different and have their unique backgrounds and destiny. We are each individually stamped with the stamp of God.
I once saw a little boy with a tee shirt, “God made me, and God don’t make no junk.” Sometimes we can learn theology from tee shirts. Self love begins with the belief that God formed us to do our particular mission on this earth. God loves us, and we ought to learn to love ourselves.
Does self esteem require haughtiness and conceit? The answer is no. Moses, the ultimate teacher, was considered the most humble of men. Just as it is possible not to love oneself, so it is possible to over love oneself. We often speak of narcissism, based on the Greek legend of a youth who fell in love with his own image reflected in a pond. There is a point where self love becomes boasting about oneself and putting down others.
The real purpose of self love is to reach beyond ourselves, to use our love of self to then love our family, our neighbor, our community, the stranger, all of humanity. If we do not love ourselves, we will never love anyone else. If we over love ourselves, we become self-centered and never reach out to others.
There is an ancient Jewish teaching that every human being ought to carry two pieces of paper in his or her pocket. When they are feeling haughty and conceited, they pull out the paper that says, “I am but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27) When they are feeling low and lack self esteem, they pull out the paper that says, “Thou has made him but little lower than the angels, and have crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psalms 8:6) We humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation and worthy of honor and esteem. May we learn to love ourselves, so we can learn to love others.