Summer in the City

The city can feel oppressive in the summer: Too much heat, too many tourists, too little green. But I love New York in summer, when the extra light takes the edge off the frenzy, when the quick pace of the crowds slows a beat, almost to an amble. In a city driven by a sense of purpose, it seems okay to relax, just a little.

Friday night services at The Village Temple have been a lovely way to celebrate the New York summer shift in mood. The pace slows, the edge dissipates.

Thanks to Anita Hollander and her roving band of excellent musicians for lifting our spirits, and to the knowledgeable congregants who have stepped in to lead services while Rabbi Koster is on break: Alizah Brozgold, Mickey Rindler, and Susan Rosenberg Jones.

For those of you who missed services, here are Alizah and Mickey’s talks:

From Alizah Brozgold’s d’var Torah on July 10, 2015: 

            This week’s Torah portion is from the 25th chapter of the Book of Numbers and is the same Torah portion I wrote a Dvar Torah on when I led services last July.  Like Rabbis all over the world, I was faced with the choice:  do I give the same sermon I gave last year (and see if anyone remembers) or delve again and come up with something new.  The beauty of our Torah is that there is always something both old and new under the sun.

            When reading the Book of Numbers, one is struck by the constant cataloguing and quantifying. In this chapter, for example, a census is taken of the Israelites and there’s a long list of sacrifices required at the Holy Temple for different occasions.  It led me to ask myself:  Does there come a time when we stop cataloguing and counting? I believe that there is a stopping point – that people need to stop counting and collecting grievances and instead focus on finding paths to forgiveness and healing.

            One might ask, “Why do we even need to remember something bad that happened to us, individually or collectively?”  At some level, it’s a matter of survival.  If we don’t remember, it may put us at risk again for more hurt and more trauma, like the proverbial child who learns never to touch a hot stove again once they’ve burnt their hand.  Yet, temperature varies along a continuum and not all stoves are so hot that they will always burn us.  We learn this through experience and taking risks.

            Similarly, in the interpersonal context, we find ourselves holding onto past experiences of hurt and as the famous psychoanalyst, Clara Thompson, said, “escaping from the freedom of the present”.  We escape from the freedom of the present whenwe collect grievances and get paralyzed by them, using them to avoid change.  Here are some familiar examples:

            Our partner wasn’t really listening when we told them about something we were upset about; our parent didn’t appreciate something we did for them; our child ignored our heartfelt advice.  These can all become scenarios that lock us in negative spirals of anger, blame, and retribution or lead us to, as one of my clients puts it, “Sing the oldies”.

            We free ourselves from paralyzing emotions when we develop more curiosity about our experience and try to understand it.  As John Welwood writes in his book, Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, by letting ourselves be fully open to our emotional experience, whether sad, fearful, or angry, we put ourselves in touch with our “capacity for strength, kindness, stability, and understanding” in the face of whatever we’re going through.  As a result, we draw forth our essential strength and can move toward healing ourselves and our relationships with others.

            The collecting of grievances affects us deeply at a societal level as well.  One need only think of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. If we’re constantly looking back on past traumas, we cannot effect change in the present for the future.  Looking again at this week’s parsha, we read how Joshua was selected to take over Moses’s leadership.  Moses asked God to appoint a leader who would “go out before the people and come in before them” (Numbers 27:17).  How do we understand this?

One Chassidic commentary explains that a true leader, by “going out before the people”, does not trail behind them by constantly looking backwards.  Similarly, we could add, the true leader steps out into the future before others, showing by example that we can and we must move ahead, holding both our fears and our hope in one collective heart.

This conflict about change is illustrated in the following light bulb jokes.

The first is:  How many Bratslaver Chassidim does it take to change a light bulb?

None. They will never find a bulb that burns as brightly as the old one.

And the second joke: “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?

Only one but it really has to want to change!”

Shabbat Shalom!

From Mickey Rindler’s d’var Torah on July 3, 2015: 

Torah portion Balak (July 10-11, 2015) from the book of Bamidbar (in the desert; aka, Numbers)

This week’s Torah portion is named after Balak, the king of Moab, a tribe on the eastern side of the Jordan River. At this point, the Israelites who had wandered in the desert since they left Egypt nearly 40 years before, have camped in Jordan and are preparing to conquer Canaan. They had already defeated several tribes in the area and Balak is concerned that they will now make war on the Moabites and their allied tribes. He summons Bilaam (translated Balaam), apparently the most prominent prophet and religious leader in the area.

Balaam was a Midianite who did not live in Moab but instead in what was probably the tribe of Ammon (after which Amman, Jordan is named). He was an immigrant made good and a very unusual man. Balaam was a follower of Baal Peor, the major diety of the tribes in that region. And yet G-d, the G-d of Israel, actually speaks to him as well. Now the Midianites lived in the desert regions in Arabia and the Sinai and were allies of Moab. But their priests are very unusual. Recall that Moses lived among the Midianites after he escaped from Egypt. He married Jethro’s daughter Ziporah. Jethro was a prophet and the religious leader of the Midianites. The Druze consider him the founder of their people and religion. Moses lived with his wife’s clan for decades before returning to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. According to the Torah, Midianites built altars in high places where they had burnt offerings and practiced animal sacrifice. I have wondered how much of our people’s religious laws and customs, brought to us through Moses, to the extent that we believe literally what the Torah tells us, were actually of Midianite origin.

Bilaam was asked by Balak to meet him and curse the Jewish people. You’ve probably heard the story of Balaam and his donkey. On the way to meet Balak the donkey stopped in the road and wouldn’t budge because an angel of G-d blocked his way. Balaam could not see the angel and beat the donkey severely, at which point the angel admonished Balaam for the beating and told him to only speak the word of God. Three times Balaam was asked by Balak to curse the Jewish people, but each time he blessed them instead. The last of these blessings has been incorporated into our liturgy: Ma tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisra’el (How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel). In fact the haftorah portion from the book of Micah, which makes reference to the story of Balaam, also contributed a line to our Torah service as well: Ki mitzion tetze Torah ud’var Adonai m’yerushalaim (For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem). Micah was a prophet who was a contemporary of Isaiah.

Balaam goes on to prophesize that great things were in store for the Jewish people. In the very next parsha, however, the Torah tells us that, despite having relayed the words of G-d, Balaam was killed when the Israelites did indeed fight a war against the Moabites and neighboring tribes. The text says that he was punished for advising Balak to send prostitutes and unclean food among the Israelites to entice them to worship Baal. Indeed, this did happen at the end of parshat Balak to the chagrin of Moses and the high priests. The sidrah ends with the priest Pinchas, a son of Aaron, executing an Israelite and his Midianite consort.