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Yom Shlishi, 3 Tammuz 5777

As my favorite cartoonist, Bill Watterson, wrote in a Calvin and Hobbes strip, "a good compromise leaves everybody mad."

This week we will be reading from Parashat Korach. Korach represents the greatest challenge to Moses' authority. He is approached by Korach, a Levite, Dathan, Aviram and 250 others who proclaimed, "All the community are holy ... Why then do you raise yourselves above Eternal's congregation?"

This incident occurred shortly after the time when the Israelites were told that this particular generation would not be allowed to enter into the land of Canaan because they lost faith in God.

Moses, in response to Korach's challenge, fell on his face. He then challenged Korach to what in essence was a duel of sacrifices rather than pistols. Moses also condemned Korach's followers for following Korach and not accepting the myriad of blessings bestowed upon them. Yet Moses' pleas fell upon deaf ears. Ultimately Korach and his followers were either swallowed by the earth or consumed by fire.

The lingering question modern interpreters struggle with is: did Korach and his followers have to die? At no point was their complaint heard. The challenge was met with force rather than understanding.

The traditional commentary is that Korach was simply seeking to replace Moses and was seeking glory for himself. Therefore, there was not an option for redemption or reconciliation. This may very well be true. But we can still learn something from Moses' response.

First he fell on his face. To fall on one's face can be an act of submission. It can be an act of supplication. It can be an act of humility. It can also be a response to overwhelming emotions. Moses was not expecting this, and the anger displayed before him by Korach and his followers simply overwhelmed Moses. He needed time to collect his thoughts.

All too often we respond to anger with anger. This is especially easy to do in the world of email and social media. Yet, once we are angry, it makes us almost incapable of hearing what others have to say. Perhaps instead, we need to pause, like Moses, and when confronted by news or accusations we did not wish to hear, rather than formulate a response, instead listen to what is being said.

Moses heard Korach and realized there was no way to persuade him otherwise. However, this is not always the case. So even though we live in a time of heated rhetoric and argumentation, if we truly listen, we may find that there are pathways to conversation rather than accusation.

This means though we need to be able to acknowledge that we may not have all the answers and that the people we are engaging with feel they too are speaking from places of justice and righteousness even if we may not be able to see it.

Moses ultimately was not allowed to enter into the Holy Land because he lost his temper one too many times. May we, on this Shabbat, strive to see the best in each other, especially with those for whom we might disagree? Disagreement and argumentation may be a core part of the Jewish experience. But lest we forget, the most important commandment is Shema, listen O Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

This week we will be reading from parashat Shelach Lecha. It begins with the story of Moses sending in the 12 scouts to spy out the land of Canaan. It is a fascinating tale that we will be learning more about at tomorrow's Bar Mitzvah.

Shelach Lecha then includes any number of commandments with regards to the Israelites, including ones related to taking care of the hungry, making appropriate offerings, and what to do in the case of someone who works on Shabbat.

It concludes with the mitzvah of wearing the tzitzit, the fringes that make up the ends of the tallit. According to our portion, the reason for wearing the tzitzit is to remind us to recall and observe all the mitzvot that God has commanded us. It is a physical reminder that we are supposed to wear throughout the ages and pass the tradition on to our children.

For the longest time, many Reform congregations not only discouraged but essentially "outlawed" the wearing of tallitot and kippot. They were viewed as being part of the non-logical religious observances, and therefore were no longer necessary.

However, all of this began to change in the late 60s and early 70s as a new group of Reformers wished to recapture and re-conceptualize our religious observances. It was during this time that the concept of Mi Shebeirach was reintroduced. It was during this time that we began to transition from Confirmation to B'nai Mitzvah. And it was during this time people began to wear tallitot again.

Traditionally, a tallit is worn by the shaliach tzibur (the service leader) and by men during morning services alone; the only exception being Kol Nidre. However, because we are egalitarian, tallitot can be worn by both men and women in a Reform setting.

As Jews, we can, for the most part, blend quite easily into society. It often takes outward symbols for us to declare who we are. Thus the tallit and the kippot are demonstrative of one's Jewish identity. This is why at every b'nai mitzvah I state that the b'nai mitzvah is both literally and figuratively taking the commandments onto their shoulders as they put on the tallit. This does not mean that one has to wear a tallit in order to be Jewish. Instead it is one of a myriad of ways to proclaim to the world that one is Jewish.

So on this Shabbat, whether you wear a tallit or not, I encourage you to ask yourself, what do you do that demonstrates to yourself your Jewish identity? Whether it is a tallit, kippa, mezuzah, keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, keeping the festivals, eating a bagel with a shmeer of cream cheese, or catching the latest Woody Allen flick, there are many ways we can embrace our Jewish identity.

But if you haven't worn a tallit or at least tried one on, you may just find it might just be the right fit. And even if it isn't, there are a myriad of ways to embrace one's best Jewish self. Just keep exploring.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

One of the difficulties of engaging with our sacred text is that we tend to pick and choose the passages and stories that are a reflection of what we already believe. This problem has infiltrated our political discourse as well over the past few decades. The central issue is that when one stands on what they believe are the words of God, there is no reasoning or arguing with that position even if there might be contradictory interpretations of said passage.

However, this approach ignores not only the interpretive tradition, but it also overlooks the depth and breadth of our canonical literature. There is indeed more to be found in our Torah that is stranger and more curious than we may have learned in Religious School.

Parashat Naso is a classic example. We will often read and study about the Nazarites (those who were to refrain from drinking anything alcoholic or cutting their hair. Or we read the Priestly Benediction. But we often overlook the laws regarding the 'wife who has gone astray.'

In this ritual, if a husband suspects that his wife has been unfaithful (the sotah) or even if he simply succumbs to a fit of jealousy, he is to bring his wife to the priest.

The wife is to then bare her head and she is to drink from the 'water of bitterness.' After drinking from this water, if she was unfaithful, a spell would ensue. This spell would cause "her belly to distend and her thigh to sag." But if she was innocent, then she would be unharmed.

Upon initial reflection, this might remind us of the Salem Witch Trials. And to be sure there very well may be some parallels. Now one interpretation of this troubling passage is that a husband could not simply accuse his wife of infidelity and kill her. Reflecting upon the time with which this ritual was created, it was revolutionary in that a husband could not simply do with his wife as he wished. Another possibility is that the husband still had far too much power and authority over his wife. Two distinct and contradictory interpretations. Or, as one Torah commentary puts it, "consider the ritual to be unforgivably misogynistic, demonstrating vulnerability of women and the privileged position of men in Israelite society. (Or we can) believe this ritual works to protect accused women" (The Torah: A Women's Commentary pg. 821).

This is a long way of saying that there is a lot of ambiguity when it comes to many passages in the Torah. Upon initial reading, any passage might seem straightforward, but upon further reflection, we find nuances and complexities.

This is why it is so vitally important for us to study not just the well-known passages, but the messy ones as well. We need to stop giving ownership over our sacred texts to others because they believe in the literal reading of a statement. For as we have seen and as we know, that is only the beginning into a much deeper and wider understanding of what it means to be engaged with Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

In this week's Torah portion, Be'ha'a'lotecha, the Israelites cried out to Moses. In particular, a group described as the ah'saf'soof, or riffraff, complained that all they had to eat was manna, the Divinely provided food. Furthermore, they went on to complain stating, "if only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!" (Num. 11:4-6).

Following this complaint, the Torah goes on to explain that people would gather up the manna, mill it, and bake it into cakes. And not only that, it had the taste of reach cream.

The question is: what is going on here? Some of the commentators like Ibn Ezra and Rashi argue that the riffraff were not really Israelites, but outsiders who were raising the commotion. Nahmanides, however, takes a different approach. He argues that the riffraff "did not 'feel' a craving, but 'craved' one. They did not suffer from want in the wilderness, for they had as much manna as they wanted and could prepare it to yield many gourmet flavors, but they imagined themselves to have all kinds of gluttonous cravings."

What the Torah is wrestling with here is the classic part of the human condition of want versus need. It is difficult because we live in a society that strives to create 'want.' And as a parent, we are often bombarded with wants seemingly incessantly.

Where Judaism might differ from other religions is there is no real sense of asceticism. Only one group tried living this way, the Essenes during the 2nd Temple Period. These are the people whose written collections are now referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Instead,

Judaism always seeks balance - the balance between fulfilling one's desires while also appreciating what one has. As humans, it is part of our nature to always want more. Yet, as Jews, sometimes we have to say, "Dayeinu," it is enough.

We have permission to say, "Dayeinu" when it comes to things, but not when it comes to actions. When it comes to the pursuit of tzedek (justice) and shalom (peace), we are forbidden to ever say, "Dayeinu," even if we are living in a moment of tranquility. And it is through this we can also become more aware of how the pursuit of 'stuff' can often override the pursuits of tzedek and shalom.

May we find a greater sense of peace and tzedek on this Shabbat as we reflect on the blessings in our lives rather than focus on the desires in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

In this week's Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar, G-d commands a census of the Jewish people. A census seems like a most impersonal endeavor. As a person becomes a number, their unique characteristics disappear or become irrelevant. To the census, it doesn't matter if they are an artist, an architect, a doctor, a dreamer. They are now number five-thousand-fifty-three - no more or less unique than five-thousand-fifty-two or four. It is for this reason that censuses, or even just counting individual Jews, are actually not permitted according to Jewish law ("It is forbidden to count Israel even for [the purposes of fulfilling] a commandment." - Talmud Yoma 22b). As the prophet, Hosea says: "And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted." In fact, we're not even supposed to count people directly to see whether there is a minyan, but instead use a verse of text that contains ten words, assigning each person a word. At this moment, though, at the beginnings of our people and our nation, G-d does ask for a census.

In Numbers 1:2, G-d commands Moses to count the Jewish people while "lift[ing] up the[ir] heads." Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the reason for this is to give them the confidence that each one can contribute to society through their uniqueness, but also while contributing to others at the same time. Moses does not just count heads, he must see each uplifted face as he does so as to see each person's individuality.

The question of numbers is always a big one in conversations about synagogues - how many member families does the congregation have? The number does tell us a lot about who we are and what we can do, but not as much as you might think. A congregation with a thousand families, but only a small percentage of volunteers, feels impersonal, corporate, cold. A congregation with a few hundred families whose members take ownership of the synagogue feels warm, heimish, welcoming. And when people give of themselves, not just helping with random tasks but offering their talents and passions, that becomes even more apparent.

Last week, we celebrated Chai/Volunteer/Choir Shabbat. We recognized those who have been members of our legacy congregations for more than 18 years and those who give of their time to volunteer. When we called them to the bima, one would think it would have broken from the numbers who stood up to be counted among our dedicated members. There were many more who were not able to come who could have also stood among them.

In our synagogue, in our country, and in our world, we face the everyday choices about how we should be counted. In all cases, we benefit from the choice to be more than just a number. It is only by lifting up our heads that we can raise our voices and be heard. That is how we ensure that our synagogue, our country, and our world reflect the values that we hold most dear.

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor Sally Neff