Rabbi Rafi Cohen ©
We live in a world that is often and easily reduced to numbers. I get it! I work in Rabbinical School admissions, a field that is numbers driven. Last month I took part in Walk MS: Westchester 2023, raising money toward a cure for Multiple Sclerosis. I surpassed my fundraising goal (albeit a very modest one) and immediately posted to social media (hello Instagram and FB!). I’ve also shared the results and personal statistics in my acknowledgement letters to donors because these numerical results convey impact. But do they tell the full story? Do numbers relate everything we need to know?
The participants in the walk express unified purpose, a commitment to finding a cure and caring for those with MS, but they also have individual, often deeply personal, reasons. My reasons for walking were to honor the memory of my late mother-in-law who had MS as well as other family members affected by Multiple Sclerosis. For ten years, my wife worked at a comprehensive Multiple Sclerosis center.
These narratives, and others like them, can be obscured by our focus on numbers. I don’t want in any way to diminish the strength of numbers; in Judaism we rely on numbers for a minyan and only with a minyan can we include devarim sh’bkedusha – holy matters – a halacha derived from Leviticus 23:32. “I [God] shall be sanctified amidst the Children of Israel.” Numbers are important and yet they can sometimes obfuscate other matters we need to take note of.
Parshat Bemidbar addresses a similar phenomenon with the instructions of the census recorded in the opening chapter. “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community.” (Number 1:1-1:2). The word “count” is not used, rather, the text is translated to “lift the head of the whole community of Israel.” From this we derive the instructions to “take a census.” The numbers that follow are consequential, however they do not tell us the whole story and there is what to learn from the idea that rather than simply count the people, the instruction is to “lift” or in a couple of verses later, “record”.
Commentators read into the text saying that the order and organization of the large encampment are important, and the strength of the People of Israel comes from the large assembly. We need to view “the whole [as] greater than the sum of its parts.” The numbers are a statement of impact, but they are not the whole story. The narrative is of a unified purpose and commitment. There’s a sense of caution around too much of a focus on numbers lest we weaken the importance of individuals in the community by reducing them to numbers and statistics.
As I alluded to earlier, my work is numbers driven and paying attention to the numbers is part of the story. Building a cohort that is strong and comprised of individuals who will contribute to a collective body and stand out on their own accomplishments is a goal. Different people show up with their respective stories; together we hope to look past the numbers and see their contributions great and small.
These are my remarks from this Shabbat Parashat Devarim - Shabbat Chazon - that I shared at the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale. A little longer than usual for my Friday Night Lights, but feeling like they belong here.
In my adult life, I have visited and worked at several of the Ramah camps including most recently Ramah Sports Academy. For the first of the summer’s two-week sessions I was a visiting educator. I was also there – though it was far from being my focus – as a parent. Tal was an overnight camper. He had a great time and in another couple of weeks will go to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires for the second session. I imagine that his excitement and nerves are matched only by his parents.
As I reflect on the past couple of weeks that I got to spend at RSA and the other camps I’ve been to, I remember one of the more challenging and possibly terrifying moments that I experienced at a Ramah when I visited Ramah Darom in Georgia with a number of families while serving as the rabbi of a congregation in Dallas. We took part in Family Camp with 3-4 other families from the synagogue. The retreat was a taste of Ramah so that we could have a Shabbat friendly encounter enjoying the amenities that camp offers while also – for some of us – going beyond our comfort zone.
There was one evening – while our children slept in the room and shmira (Night Watch – sorry Game of Thrones!) looked out for their wellbeing while we participated in the ropes course that at Ramah Darom is called “the Odyssey.” The Odyssey was lit up for our amusement and safety. Like most ropes’ courses, this challenge was set up for team building and individual development consisting of both high and low elements. Low elements take place on or a few feet above the ground, and the high elements are set on wooden beams, ropes and platforms often in between trees and utility poles. Each of us who participated wore a helmet, harness, and special climbing gear – essentially meaning that there was someone on the ground who had secondary control of our equipment to ensure our safety.
In my case, the low part of the course began with my feet on the ground before climbing a rope bridge to the top and embarking upon the main part of the course. As Michele reminded me the other day when we were talking about being at Darom, I thought it would be a good idea to be the first to start up the course. Boy was I wrong! Without giving too much thought to what I was doing and the type of physical (and moral) support that I might need, I plowed ahead and began ascending a large rope ladder braided like an enormous hallah. One at a time, everyone else followed until ultimately a couple of us were at the same stage of the course standing nearly side by side. Imagine American Ninja Warriors only we are neither ninjas nor warriors.
The Odyssey was a challenge to my fear of heights and, I suppose, to our individual desire to traverse all four stages of the course as quickly as possible. A zip-line awaited us near the very end to return us to the ground. The turning point in the course for me was when I stopped focusing on the space between one point and the next. My fear of heights subsided a little. At that moment I calmed my breathing and focused on how I would move forward with Michele panicking a few feet behind me, and others standing parallel to me.
Our success took vision – not only the superpower kind of seeing in the dark – the means to look anywhere else but the ground beneath our feet and pick up on the needs of others engaged in the same or different stages of the overall task. Completing the different stages was tense, at times difficult, and continually depended on our ability to work together. Balancing and moving together across the course may have been our objectives, collaboration and coordination were our goals. When one individual pulled a rope or stepped in a certain way, it affected someone somewhere else and you quickly had to recalibrate. Recognizing each individual step and pause helped us through the exercise. And we increasingly found ourselves talking to one another and truly listening to another say, “You can do it.”
This was egalitarian in the most profound sense because each of us was helped or constrained by our own individual abilities. We all made it to the end of the course, stepped one foot over a cable and pulled ourselves and each other onto various platforms where we ultimately experienced the fun of the zip-line to return us to the ground below. That moment when you lean forward and move toward the ground on the zip-line is as much a personal accomplishment as it is the culmination of great teamwork.
Every contribution is essential!
There’s a story about a new project manager who is hired to revive the stalled construction of a cathedral. The new manager asks each worker what their task is, and the manager receives a variety of replies: One says, “I lay bricks”; another responds, “I mix mortar” or “I paint balusters.” Within a week of the manager’s arrival, the construction project is alive again and soon thereafter a visitor asks the manager the secret of their success. The manager invites the visitor to ask any worker about their task. One at a time, each person answers the same, “I build cathedrals.”
Chazon Yishayahu, in the haftarah that is signature to this Shabbat, warns us of being too individually focused. Our actions and talents as unique as they may be, must be deliberate and cohesive; our steps calculated to achieve not just personal balance but also to bring stability and to those around us. In the language of mitzvah, we look for our actions to be seen by the other – God even – and be performed with kavanah. We mustn’t simply go through the motions as Israel is accused of doing in the haftarah reading.
We can see the various ropes’ courses, projects, and dreams that we wish to build, and recognize that how we complete them is as important as the finished product. And with each personal milestone and satisfaction that comes with it there is a higher and more meaningful goal of making sure that we don’t just go through the motions.
When the Israelites are stopped at Sinai, they are praised for their accomplishments in fulfillment of God’s commands. “רב לכם שבת בהר הזה.” (Deuteronomy 1:6) God spoke to the people at Sinai, saying, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” Rabbi Lewis Warshauer writes that word rav – meaning many or much – refers to the Israelites’ deeds rather than their length of time at Sinai. With all the things the Israelites did they were intentional and therefore seen by God. They took a giant collective step toward a partnership with God. As a result, God saw them and spoke to them.
This summer Ramah Sports Academy took up residence on the campus of Cheshire Academy in Cheshire, CT. Cheshire Academy is one of the oldest boarding schools in the country founded in 1794. While we at RSA were the primary residents on campus, some of the school faculty live there year-round and I got to know one of them whose apartment was next to the dorms that many of us lived in. Matt teaches high school English literature, and he asked me lots of interesting questions about Judaism, specifically prayer. From his apartment he could often see and hear our campers and staff davening together. We didn’t have to spend too much time to be noticed by Matt and others. In fact, it was the collective noise and spirit with which some of the groups davened that Matt noticed. In addition to being a teacher, Matt also went to Seminary, studying at the same seminary in Saint Louis that both his father and grandfather attended.
During one of our conversations, he shared with me the idea that the early Church Fathers used the term perichoresis – meaning “the divine dance” – to describe “the unity of mutual blessing that exists when individuals are invited into communion.” Matt and I spoke about the notion of mitzvah and kavanah, how we enter a similar dance or unity with God when can perform mitzvot with the proper intention. And we invite others in when we include them in our acts of devotion and deeds of compassion.
The betterment of the community happens when as a unit we come together. The cathedral workers created something majestic when they realized they were all in it together. Like them and the Israelites long before them, our campers and staff at Ramah were encouraged to learn and hone their skills along with the value of teamwork. We spoke with campers about lifting others and how to strengthen a team. We talked last Shabbat at camp about the concept of lashon ha’ra – evil speech – and the damage that baseless hatred ultimately according to rabbinic tradition brought to the Jewish people with the demise of the Temple. Our speech and steps, sometimes divine in nature and in the clouds, and at other times grounded and supported and connected to others like knots of a rope course are what we need to pull together as a strong and cohesive community.
With My Feet Firmly Planted D'var Torah - Parashat Korach, Written for Schechter Westchester Ma Nishma e-newsletter
The Torah tells us very little about Korach beyond that 250 Israelites rose up against Moses and Aaron saying they (Moses and Aaron) had gone too far. Korach, the leader of this uprising, was a person with great potential for leadership. Among other things, he possessed a natural ability and charisma. How else do you explain the fact that he had “chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute” among his followers? (Numbers 16:2)
So what did Korach do wrong?
Delivered at the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale on July 23, 2016
What are you proud of? What is it that you have done – either recently or in the past that makes you proud? Think about one thing – whether it is an achievement at work or something in your personal life – that makes you proud. A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a rabbinic learning program at JTS, and we began a session with Professor Eliezer Diamond, a teacher of Talmud, like we began every session – by saying our names. When we had our go-around with Prof. Diamond, he asked us to include one thing that we are proud of in our lives. When it was his turn, he stated in a gentle and humble way that he was proud of his bio that a JTS staff member had finished reading as part of the session introduction. Contrast this to another session that we had prior, when the instructor in a playful manner did not let the staff member complete the introduction of the teacher nor get through the bio.
It can be difficult and uncomfortable to listen to our own accomplishments and be proud of them. If we asked this question more often, as Professor Diamond suggested, it would be easier to answer and really own our accomplishments. It can be powerful and transformational to be proud of what you have done. There is some tension in owning what we have done – that which we are proud of – and not allowing that to morph out of control.
Parashat Balak begins with an introduction that I find a little strange because it first gives us Balak’s name and lineage (“Balak is the son of Zippor”) in the opening verse and only mentions that he is the King of Moab a couple of verses later. It is like going around the room and saying our names but forgetting something that is pretty important only to try and squeeze it in later. What is it that leads to this purposeful but seeming redundancy in the narrative where Balak’s name is mentioned in the first verse and again in the fourth verse where we are also informed that Balak was king of Moab? The verse adds two words, בעת ההיא , on which many commentators, including Rashi, point out that Balak was at first a Midianite prince who was appointed to be an interim king after Sichon was defeated by the Israelites. According to another understanding, Balak was chosen because the Israelite nation camped so physically close to Moab that the Moabites felt they needed to appoint a leader with military prowess.
There is one more commentary that is for me deeply important because it examines what I see as some reluctance on Balak’s part to accept his role as King and to be proud of who he is. Rabbeinu Bachya sees this introduction of Balak and the words בעת ההיא as a reflection of Balak’s state of mind. Bachya suggests that Balak felt a little insecure given what happened to his predecessors. While we know that Balak was the king, Balak did not at first see himself as a king. Maybe he thought of himself as the presumptive nominee and did not realize the position he was in.
I think the beginning of the parasha is a liminal moment for Balak, who absorbed what happened to the kings before him so that he could step in and fill the role. There’s something that I think happens in those interim moments – the life space between verse two and verse four – that was consequential to Balak and is something we all deal with. One way I approach these two words and the overall beginning of the parasha is the way one might see a new job. Sometimes when you begin a new job there is a grace period during which time you may be permitted some leeway and empowered to make decisions that can lay the foundation for what you want to accomplish later. Some people refer to this as when you don’t know what you don’t know. I know I felt this way for a portion of this past year, my first year at Hillel at City College. The period of time when you are crossing a threshold can be fraught with decision after decision and concurrently filled with moments to absorb new information so that, in my case, I could be supportive to the student leaders.
Rabbi Sherre Hirsch – a teacher and counselor in California – writes in her new book Thresholds, “Not all decisions are equal. Liminal moments are different from the other decisions of our lives. We know that our lives are constantly in flux and we need to make a ton of decisions daily to survive. But not all decisions are equal.” Bachya’s interpretation portrays Balak in a “liminal moment” where he is upon the threshold of having been a Midianite prince to becoming Melech Moab. Many of us go from threshold to threshold looking for a way to balance life’s moving pieces. The way we choose to own our space, being proud of our accomplishments, and take the next step forward ripples what happens next and can have a positively affect the outcome.
I think this past week and the week ahead in presidential politics is filled with these moments. With one presidential nominee affirmed by his party and, it would seem the other party’s nominee to be confirmed during the coming week, two people will step through major thresholds, moving from being candidates vying for the nomination to being the party nominees. They will step into a space even larger than before and, I hope, find ways to cast blessings upon their parties, the people they lead, and quite possibly one another. Rabbi Hirsch writes about “thriving through life’s transitions [in order] to live fearlessly and regret-free.” This begins with knowing ourselves and being proud of who we are as well as seeing our leaders owning who they are and who they are not.
As for me, what am I proud of? I am proud of my work-life balance and trying to remain steady with all of the moving pieces. And, finishing this sermon!
 Spain, Mid 13th Century
As Jacob journeys toward home he learns that Esau is moving in his direction with 400 men. We are told that Jacob sends gifts, including fleets of animals, to his brother to assuage his anger. Unsure about what is about to happen, one might say that Jacob gets his affairs in order. He arranges his family, wives and children and finally presents himself to Esau, bowing to the ground seven times.
Esau’s response is a bit of a surprise. The Torah tells us, “Looking about, Esau saw the women and the children” and remarked, “Who are these with you?” (Genesis 33:5). Esau has become an uncle and brother-in-law many times over, and yet Jacob’s family and newfound wealth astonish him. “And what do you mean by all this company which I have met?” Esau asked Jacob. (Genesis 33:8)
They tried to prevail upon one another with gifts and company, and Jacob and Esau must instead acknowledge a new reality:
“Yesh li rav,” Esau says. “I have enough. Let what you have remain yours.”
“Yesh li kol,” Jacob says. “I have plenty. Please accept.”
There is something magical about this declaration, “Yesh li kol.” I have enough. Twenty years earlier, a perceived scarcity was the source of great fear and anger, dividing the family. Twenty years later, surrounded by family and livestock, both brothers proclaim, “I have what I need” and embrace. Whereas they once competed for parental love and attention and could not stand securely on their own merit, now they have possessions and cannot seem to give it away fast enough. Their words not only transform their dynamic, but they also teach a lesson about gratitude and self-respect.
The Sefat Emet (Poland, 19th Century) translated “kol” as ‘all’ and wrote, “But how can any person say ‘all’? Surely there were some things that he did not have! But for the one who is attached to the upper root, whatever he has is ‘all.’ ”
What he means, I think, is that it makes no difference whether we have more or less. Rather, we need to appreciate that which we have instead of seeing the appreciated value. It is about believing that the sum total of blessings in our life is “all” or “enough” instead of “part” or “almost.” And then, just like Esau and Jacob, it is about declaring it aloud and acknowledging a new reality.
In Judaism, each day begins at sundown of the previous day. Shabbat, being no different, begins Friday evening. I love those moments - as rushed as they may be or as serene as we strive to make them - that escort us into Shabbat. We begin Shabbat by lighting candles (2 in our home) and by doing so we add a measure of spirit that I believe comes from God and those around us. I hope these words help you as they have helped me.