A couple of days ago in synagogues, Jews studied the Torah portion on Korach’s rebellion (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32) about Korach who led 250 of the Israelites’ leaders against the authority of Moses and Aaron in the desert.
In this Torah portion, 250 influential leaders confront Moses and Aaron, regarding Moses’ leadership. Korach and his followers accuse Moses and Aaron of assuming power at the community’s expense. The commentaries point out that Korach’s challenge to Moses is rooted in personal ambition, rather than legitimate complaints. (Source: The Power Struggle Moses vs. Korach by Rabbi Rachel Cowan)
Torah Scholars worldwide have reflected on the parallels between Korach’s rebellion and the demonstrations and riots led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization happening worldwide.
Lord Rabbi Jonathon Sacks has spelled it out very clearly in his recent publication: How Not to Argue (Korach 5780). He refers to the lies that the BLM organization continues to propagate about Israel and how they continuously cancel any opinions that do not agree with theirs. Below are black scholars who have also spoken up to object to BLM claims and their methods. Candice Owens, Coleman Hughes, John Mcwhorter, and a video interview with Glenn Loury.
The death of George Floyd has flooded the airwaves – the internet, radio, and television. Racism, systemic racism, and police brutality are without doubt of great concern to all of us. However, after studying these issues over the last couple of days, I began to understand how the BLM’s argument against racism is more like the rebellion of Korach, a grab for fame and power – rather than an argument for truth and justice.
The antisemitic bias of BLM, which was exposed by the violent antisemitic riots in Los Angeles and elsewhere, is especially painful to me as a Jew. The Nazi ideology is the idea of the superiority of the Aryan (German) race as opposed to all other groups – Jews, blacks, LGBT, gypsies, Slavs, and it would have moved to Americans if it had been allowed to flourish. That was systemic racism – racism that was legitimized by governmental power and could only be opposed by the destruction of the leaders and their organized followers, the army, and administrations.
The United States, a democracy where free speech enshrined in the law, has made great strides in repudiating slavery and espousing freedom of opportunity for its citizens. Not to deny that prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious, does not exist.
And here is a Canadian Muslim woman expressing her views about systemic racism in Canada.
Yes, there are problems, but the way to address them is not through violence, but through listening to each other and looking clearly at what can be done by people of goodwill working together.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is customarily a 4-hour service in the synagogue, punctuated by the shofar’s blowing. Followed by a festive meal and evening services, and a repeat the following day. If you are not Jewish, it’s difficult to explain why this is a joyful experience.
The prayers have been prescribed and ritualized for three thousand years, and yet each year, they are fresh and beautiful because they address the human condition – birth, death, and our process in this world. It’s a time to reflect, individually and communally, and pray for a sweet year to come without denying any of the trials we all experience.
It is this holiday that Leonard Cohen memorialized in his “Who by fire” song.
We all know we will die, but none of us knows how or when. This is how we read it in the synagogue prayerbook every year.
On Rosh Hashanah, it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by lapidation, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted.
Even as a child, one confronts the abyss. And this prayer ends with:
“teshuva, tefillah and tzedaka maavirin et roah hagzera” – only teshuva – repentance or self-correction, tefillah -prayer, and tzedaka – deeds of justice and charity, have the potential to avert the severity of G-d’s decree.
Rabbi Lew, in his book One God Clapping (p110), explains it this way:
The essential act of the High Holidays is teshuva, a turning toward mindfulness, and the first step in this process is a kind of tuning in to examine our perceptive mechanisms. When the shofar blows, it reminds us to turn our gaze inward, to shift our focus from the outside world to the window through which we view this world. Teshuva, at this time of the year, is the opportunity to assess privately our own behaviour before G-d. The expression is that at this time, especially “G-d is in the field,” i.e. accessible to us human beings.
We are fortunate to be able to access communal services in person this year in Montreal, although with special reservations. Due to the pandemic, the service will be shortened to two hours instead of four. Masks are mandatory, along with proper distancing. It’s a particularly holy time, and I am grateful we will be able to participate in person even if it is truncated and in a tent. The tradition has been carried out this way from generation to generation, by example, custom, and joy.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted in his message regarding our current time.
The various questionnaires and research exercises that have been done recently on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people’s lives came up with an unusual finding. Yes, of course, people missed the company. They felt cut off. They felt isolated. They felt deprived sometimes of work and sometimes of travel. All of that made an impact. But the single most significant impact of the pandemic and its consequences has been insecurity.
People have felt that they don’t really know what is going to happen – to their health, to their work, to their business, to society, to everyone and everything around them. They don’t know how long a lockdown will last or when new quarantine restrictions will be put in place or when masks will be required and when not required, and what is going to happen with testing regimes. People can’t plan for the future. They can’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.
And that is undermining their sense of security.
And he goes on to explain:
So, the question I simply want to ask these Yamim Noraim, on these Days of Awe, is, “how do we deal with insecurity?”. And the answer is contained, or at least the Jewish answer is contained, in that one word “bitachon” – the word that means security on the one hand and faith on the other.
How do you cope with insecurity? By faith. That has been the Jewish experience for almost 4,000 years. Judaism is about insecurity in a way perhaps that no other religion is, and Jews have experienced insecurity in a way no other people have. The Jewish story begins with Abraham and Sarah just hearing a voice, calling them away from their family and their birthplace to a land that they did not know, el ha’aretz asher areka, God doesn’t even tell them where they are going to. They are travelling to an unknown destination; they are travelling blind.
As I’ve argued many times, in Judaism, faith is not certainty. Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty.
And that’s what the Days of Awe are all about.
Rabbi Sacks explains it all here:
I wish you a coming year as sweet as the honey on your table, a year of hope and good health and good tidings.
The play is a tour-de-force exposing Golda Meir’s character as a mother, a wife, and a passionate Zionist, who also happened to be the Prime Minister of Israel during the devastating Yom Kippur war (1973). The crux of the play is the Yom Kippur War and the choices that Golda herself, had to make.
The play exposes the travails of leadership and brings history to life. Will she or won’t she use the secret weapon? What goes through her mind as she faces these agonizing moments? In the interview, Tovah shares her personal history, research, and active participation in the creation of this work of art – the tweaking of the play and the development of the character. Tovah brings it off brilliantly.
This film deserves all of the many awards it has recently garnered. It shares history, not from a linear and intellectual standpoint but as if from the visceral connection of personal memory – the first person singular – memory itself.
Although the film referred to events up to Golda’ Meir’s death in 1973, it is sadly relevant today as it reveals both the birth of the state of Israel and the constant agonizing struggle for its survival, which continues to the present day.
Where was G-d?
How was this possible?
How did they survive?
My mother, who herself survived the war in Budapest, by working with fake papers in a small Hungarian beauty shop, used to say that every single person who survived was a total miracle.
In 2015, while I was screening my documentary film Yiddish: A Tale of Survival in Ottawa, I happened to meet Chazzan Moshe Kraus and his wife, Rivka.
In their home, I noticed a framed black and white photograph of a handsome man in a long black coat, black hat, and long side curls. And standing next to him was a little boy dressed in the same way. Tucked into the side of the frame was a small picture of the long-deceased miracle worker, Reb Shayele of Keresztur, Hungary.
Reb Shayele was part of my late mother’s memories of her home town of Tokay. Everyone in Hungary knew about Reb Shayele because he was such a legendary force for caring, feeding, sheltering, and advising anyone who came to his door – Jew or gentile.
When I asked why the picture was there, Moshe explained that the figures in the photograph were of himself and his father taken before the war and that Reb Shayele was his grandfather.
Reading Moshe’s memoir The Life of Moshele Der Zinger: How My Singing Saved My Life and other historical testimonies, I realized that Moshe’s life is indicative of a much larger story. The story of how ordinary people faced the storm. The story of the spiritual resilience of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. These are the stories I want to tell.
Cantor Moshe Kraus’ story can be told in several formats:
A documentary film with musical theatre that recounts specific episodes in Moshe’s life
A musical theatre production
A historical drama TV series focusing on his life (1922 – present)
Moshe’s life from birth to the present included singing at Hassidic courts all over Europe from the age of nine years, becoming chazzan first in Sziget and then in Budapest, surviving Hungarian slave labour, and Bergen Belson: Appointed to be the first chief Hazzan of the Israeli army (IDF 1948 – 52), performing in concerts, and speaking engagements all over the world and finally settling in Ottawa, where he lives to this day.
Here are notable episodes in Moshe’s life:
Moshe’s voice and musical abilities lifted the prisoners’ spirits in Bergen Belson concentration camp in the darkest times.
Kramer, the commandant of Auschwitz and Bergen Belson, also enlisted Moshe to sing him German opera. After the war, when Kramer was sentenced to death by hanging, he asked for Moshe to be present.
While serving with the Rabbinic services in displaced person camps, Moshe found himself officiating at many marriages. He met the Klausenberger Rebbe, who insisted he lead the prayers. Moshe managed to reconnect with his Hassidic roots and to serve the Jewish people with his voice and character all over the world, from Johannesburg to Mexico City, ending up in Ottawa where he has been recognized by both Trudeaus for his compassion and wisdom.
If you have a story to share and wish to participate in this project, get in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In January 2012, I attended the naming ceremony of my niece, Shefa Rachel, at the Stanford Hillel House in Palo Alto, California. I noticed that Rabbi Lew was to give a talk during the coming week. I’m familiar with his books, which were profound meditations of Jewish practice from a Zen point of view.
I extended my stay to hear him speak and film his talk, a part of which appears below. He did not disappoint. His lecture was a comparison of Judaism and Zen Buddhism and how each tradition deals with suffering.
The Fourth Noble truths expound the Buddhist philosophy of existence and the attainment of nirvana, which overcomes everyday suffering. In the first two Noble Truths, the Buddha diagnoses the problem – universal suffering is the natural state of affairs – and he also identifies its cause – craving or wanting what you do not have. The other two Noble Truths are the prescriptions for the cure of suffering, mostly finding ways to let go of cravings.
Rabbi Lew mentions that when he shares the First Noble Truth – that everybody suffers – with Jewish audiences, he always hears a big sigh of relief “You mean it’s not just us!”
He then refers to the Jewish discussion about suffering, which occurs very early in the first Massechet of the Talmud Berachot 5B. As is typical of the Talmud, the subject is discussed extensively from many different angles. Is there value in suffering? Is it good to suffer? Is it better to suffer than not to suffer? Is there a reward in suffering? As is typical of Talmudic discourse, the Gemara continues to discuss the issue of suffering and affliction for pages without reaching any conclusion and then ends with the following story:
Rabbi Yoḥanan’s student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward, as one who welcomes this suffering with love is rewarded. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.
Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.
The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yoḥanan stand himself up.
The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.
After the class ended and we were sharing food and conversation, Rabbi Lew revealed that he had been a carefree and happy Zen Buddhist priest in San Francisco until he met his wife and fell in love. It was this experience that prompted him to move from becoming a carefree Buddhist to becoming a husband, father, and practicing Jew.
So what is the essential difference between Judaism and Buddhism? If you look at the third and fourth Noble Truths, you get to the 8-fold path to amend suffering which consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (meditative absorption or union). It seems to enlist the person on a moral path that will amend suffering: and this is the aim of Buddhism to amend suffering.
Rabbi Lew states in the above clip, “it is not the program of Judaism to amend suffering, Judaism is not indifferent to suffering”. He adds, “if I were to stand on one foot and say what the program of Judaism is, it is to realize the sacred in every moment.” And how do you realize the sacred in every moment? Judaism would answer by following the prescriptions regarding ‘How to live at every moment – how to eat how to relate to your wife and children, to your fellow man – this prescription is called the “halacha” – the way – the 613 mitzvot/directives for living the good life – deduced from the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – and enunciated in the oral Torah – the Mishna and Talmud.
So in the end, “right living” in Judaism is “bringing the holy to every moment” and it also happens to be the Jewish way to alleviating suffering.
So ultimately although the narrative is very different, the underlying them is the same – “right living” is the key to alleviating suffering in this world.
I was to meet Rabbi Lew one more time, at his home, before he passed away, rather suddenly, of a heart attack in 2009. zichrono l’ivracha – May his memory be a blessing.
I hope I have done justice to Rabbi Lew’s message.
Rabbi Lew’s books include:
One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi:
This Is Real, and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation
Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life
Addendum: Recently while going through my books I discovered and read Rabbi Lew’s book One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi. It is a wonderfully straightforward and honest biography of a man and his struggles with his family of origin, his wives and children, his navigation of the spiritual paths available to him in California of the sixties, and how he then found his way to Judaism and to becoming a hospice worker, and later an ordained rabbi with a growing congregation in San Francisco.