Friday, June 29, 2018

Dvar Torah: Balak - What is a blessing?

Can I have your daughter for the rest of my life?
Say yes, say yes 'cause I need to know
You say I'll never get your blessing 'til the day I die
Tough luck, my friend, but the answer is no!
Why you gotta be so rude?
Don't you know I'm human too?
Why you gotta be so rude?


These are the words to a recent popular song by a band called "Magic!"  

In this song, the young man asks his girlfriend’s father for his blessing on their engagement and marriage.

He is asking, as we say, for her father’s blessing.

Our tradition loves giving blessings.  

The Rabbis teach we should strive to say 100 blessings day.  

On Shabbat we give blessings to our children, to each other, May God bless and keep you.

Throughout the week, outside of services, we make blessings on occasions when we see a rainbow, hear thunder, when we see beauty in the world.

When looking in our parsha this week at the blessings Balak recites to the people of Israel, we begin to think about the idea of blessing.

What exactly is a blessing?

Is it a compliment we give to someone else?  Is it a ‘good wish’?  Is a blessing always positive?  Or is something more going on when we pronounce words of blessing to another person, toward nature, toward God?

Though Balak’s words of blessing to the Israelites sound positive to our ears, as we will see, the Rabbis believe them to be curses.  

Rabbi Abba Bar Kahana teaches, All the blessings of Billam became curses when the Holy Temple (in Jerusalem) was destroyed – except for the blessing which praised the synagogues and the Houses of Study, for these we have to this very day.”

We know this particular blessing, ma tovu ohalecha Yakov mishkenotecha Yisrael.

It sounds as though words of blessing can only be true if they reflect something about our world even as they suggest a reality that we hope for, that we strive for, that we dream about.

And each blessing, whether to a person, to nature, to God, reflects a relationship – We cannot give a blessing in a vacuum, and we do not bless ourselves.  A blessing recognizes the inter-connectedness of each of us to each other, to the earth from which we were created, and to God, the Source of Life itself.

Each time we make a blessing, we reaffirm the relationship.

We notice that the first word of many blessings is Baruch – this word is in the passive voice, we say to God, You are blessed – We might have expected the blessing formula to begin with “We bless You, God”, but it starts by saying, in effect, God, You are blessed by us, through us!  

We are tied together each time we offer blessing, tied together to the recipient of the blessing – together, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner calls it, in invisible lines of connection.

But are the blessings of Bilaam really hidden curses?

There’s always an element of uncertainty in a blessing.  We hope and pray that our blessing will come to be, that the words and the actions that follow them will raise us up, open us to happiness, to experiences that will enrich us, but we do not know the future.

A blessing, then, is an intention, a hope, a dream – grounded in reality but also pointing toward the unknown, and so, Rabbi Abba bar Kahana’s teaching is striking, since with the destruction of the Temple the reality for the Jewish people changed, and our lens for seeing Bilam’s words as blessings changed as well.  

Blessings involve mystery but they are not magical.  When we bless someone for good health we know that the words and prayers themselves, for example, cannot heal disease, but by offering up a vision of healing, we create hope, we create community, we send out positive energy into the world that was not there before.

It’s for this reason that I find it puzzling and troubling that when Bilaam follows God’s instructions to follow Balak, King of Moav, that immediately afterwards God is angry at Bilaam for going along.  

Though Balak wants Bilaam to curse the Israelites, Bilaam only will follow God’s command, he says as much in the previous moment.

Why is God angry at Bilaam?

God is angry at the perception, that Bilaam rises early to follow Balak and so seems to be intent also on following Balak’s instructions to curse the Israelites.

Should the motives of one who blesses be at issue?  Do we question the motives of those who offer blessings, why they’re doing it, what is their goal?

The lesson of our parsha is that we offer blessings because that’s what we’re designed to do – we naturally reach out beyond ourselves, seeking relationship, seeking meaning, trying to create a world that reflects our values but often stymies us when we see it fall short.

In the song we started with, the young man asks for his father in law’s blessing – the other lesson of our parsha is that we can continue to become more generous blessing-givers – this week let’s give, in our own words, a blessing to someone, a friend, a co-worker – a blessing out to those in need of help and support in the larger community around us, and a blessing to God – and this particular blessing need not be rosy like Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? – when we bless God we can also challenge God saying that as partners with God in creation the world isn’t yet the way it should be, and it’s time for us to join hands, from us finite beings to the Infinite One, to join hands and shine the light of blessing out.



Friday, June 8, 2018

Dvar Torah: Shlach Lecha 2018/5778 - A special parsha & time...

27 years ago, I became a Bar Mitzvah on parshat Shelach.  11 years ago my oldest daughter was born on Saturday morning, June 9, parshat Shelach.  And now, in 2018, Shelach again falls on Shabbat, June 9th, and two days after my 40th birthday.

Shlach 2018/5778

When thinking of the story of our 40 years wandering the wilderness, we can’t help but ask the question of why it takes so long.  Clearly, even the slowest walker would not take 40 years!

From a bird’s eye view, it’s only about 300 miles from Cairo to Eilat.

But for us, 40 years.

The best story I can think of to illustrate the dynamics involved in the 40 year journey is the story of the origins of the Yeshiva University rowing team.  When it started, they had a terrible time in practice and dismal results in competition.  They decided to send one of their number to Princeton, to spy on the team from a longtime powerhouse in the sport with vast experience.  He went over to New Jersey, watched as they practiced, took notes, and returned to campus.  His teammates asked him, “So, what did you find out?”  He responded, “On their team, only one person shouts and everyone else rows.”

The 40 years of wandering from Goshen to the heights of Moab looking over to Canaan is, according to our parsha, the result of choices the Israelites make, just like the rowing team. When they hear the reports from the spies that the Land is inhabited by giants, that the cities are fortified – everyone becomes terrified and loses heart…

40 years though, why is the punishment 40 years?

Because God punishes the Israelites one year for each of the 40 days the spies explore the Land.

Midah k’neged midah, measure for measure.

But is it really measure for measure here?

Benjamin Franklin said, “At 20 years of age, the will reigns, at 30, the wit, at 40, the judgment.”

He suggests what we can see as a progression.  At 20, we are in early adulthood and independence.  The world is a big place.  We have energy, but also we’re relatively untested, and likely somewhat naïve.   At 30, the wit begins to grow, an ability to step back and analyze from experience, to notice and comment from a place of gained knowledge.  Then, 10 years later, Franklin argues we’re able to form more cogent and thoughtful judgments.

The Torah corroborates Franklin’s theory.  40 in the Torah is a number with symbolic meaning of preparation, maturing, a number that implies patience over a period of waiting and perseverance without knowing the outcome.  

We see 40 in the days and nights of rain during the Flood.  40 days of waiting until Moses comes down with the 10 Commandments.  And now 40 years.

Our tradition does critique the people for their lack of faith, but also recognizes that God’s response, though it sounds harsh, contains compassion within it.

After all, as Benjamin Franklin wisely said, 40 years can be helpful as a time for the nation to grow, to find ways to let go of the Egypt mentality, for a new generation of leaders to step in to blaze the trail.  

Rabbenu Bahya teaches us:
יוםלשנהיוםלשנה”a day for a year, a day for a year.” We would have expected the Torah to write the opposite, i.e. “a year for a day,” i.e. that the punishment for each day the spies had spent traveling the land and planning to slander it would be that the people would have to spend an additional year in the desert…If the Torah wrote the verse in the manner it did it was to teach us something about G’d’s mercy which is manifest even while He metes out punishment.
When the Torah chose the wording: “a day for a year,” we must consider the fact that seeing the land of Israel has been described as an area of 400 by 400 miles, approx, this is an area which the spies could not possibly have covered in the space of a mere forty days. However, seeing G’d had known in advance that He would have to decree the punishment mentioned, He telescoped the distance under their feet so that they could cover it in such a short period of time. This is why G’d said: “a day for every year,” i.e. just like a father who is forced to inflict a blow on his son. He does not inflict a cruel blow but is as considerate as possible. The meaning of the verse therefore is: “here I have reduced the extent of your punishment as much as is possible by shortening the time you (the spies) needed to traverse the land so that it took only forty days. “

In other words, Bahya argues we can read 40 years as a minimum penalty rather than a maximum.

But talk to a Washington Capitals fan, the Caps just won their first Stanley Cup trophy, who waited 44 years for this moment, and they will likely tell you that 40 years is an incredibly long time.

Talk to someone who just turned 40, I’m sure there’s someone like that around, who looks back at 1978 when Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shared the Nobel Peace Prize and wonders how Middle East has stalled for so long, or who wonders if kids today will know that Saturday Night Fever is not a medical condition but rather the 1978 album of the year – There is a structural fear our ancestors may feel, the fear of not knowing the future, not being able to see what the next generations will become.

And we also know tragically this week about how for Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and for too many others, no matter how much we grow and pursue our dreams the journey itself can be filled with pain, depression, and a sense of hopelessness from which it can be so difficult to raise ourselves.

Like the fictional Jewish rowing team, can we navigate our journey by listening louder than we speak? Can we see each other as resources for support and wisdom?  Can we have a dialogue while we row together, not a dialogue in which we all agree but in which we all participate?  Can we be sensitive to see the rower who is silent, who may look well enough on the outside, but who is hurting on the inside?

If we can strive to do these things, then 40 years will pass by like 40 minutes and those who will enter the land will carry the torch forward filled with a collective wisdom and strength greater than anything one person could achieve alone.

Shabbat Shalom.


Friday, May 11, 2018

Dvar Torah: Bechukotai, May, 12, 2018/5778 - Walking Upright



Israel is 70 years old, but Jewish settlement and connection to the Land go back much further.  

For us here in the Diaspora, we look to Israel through a variety of lenses – Israel is a center of Jewish spirituality and identity, a homeland, a refuge, a symbol of Jewish survival, place where Hebrew language was reborn, it’s the Startup Nation, leader in technology, the names are many and clearly there are those in the world who for decades have spoken negatively of Israel as the apartheid state, as an occupier, and the like.

With the disturbing rise in anti-Semitism, often married to anti-Israel activity, it’s as important as ever that there continues to be a Jewish State, a place where in the spirit of the prayer we recited just a short time ago, our people can go with heads held high.

We prayed, “May God bring us in peace from the four corners of the world, and brings us komemiyut, with heads held high, to our Land.”

The word komemiyutappears in our Torah reading today as God promises to break the bonds that hold us back and lead us forward komemiyut, standing up straight, as Rashi reads it, and as Rashbam explains, once the weight is removed, we naturally can stand up straighter.

I find myself focusing on this idea of us holding our heads high, in strength and with a confident presence as we hear reports of Israel taking initiative against Iranian aggression in Syria including sending a drone into Israel and positioning its troops and weaponry near Israel’s border.

Just as God reminds our ancestors how small a people we are, we remind ourselves of how small Israel is – how quickly jet planes can reach Israel’s borders from surrounding hostile nations, how small Israel is overall and how unstable the region has been for the last 100 years.

The Rebbe of Mezhibizh reminds us that although we stand tall and stand in strength against our enemies, the Rebbe teaches, that God, the One Who Looks into the Heart, knows that inside we must continue to be humble before God.

Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel, famous head of the Yeshiva of Slobodka in Belarus, emphasized that his students should walk upright, with heads looking straight ahead, and with a strong and confident stance.  Students of Torah can be both humble, compassionate, and also project confidence and strength at the same time.

This is the lesson of our Torah reading this Shabbat, a reading that comes as we round out our reading of Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus and say chazak ve’nit’chazek, let us be strong and our strength renewed. 










Thursday, April 19, 2018

'What we do matters': Holocaust Remembrance Day in Cranford, NJ -- Spring 2018

Thank you Pastor Tom Rice for your thoughtful introduction.
Mayor Hannen, Superintendent Rubin, Chief Greco…

To all of you, the Cranford community, first a thank you, thank you for welcoming us to Cranford six months ago.

The community has reached out to us in friendship, with support, and caring from the beginning, and so it is clear that there is already in our town the knowledge that what you do matters.

What wedo matters.

But we cannot take it for granted that we will always feel motivated to act, to do what is right.

We cannot take it for granted that we will know what to do if and when we decide to act.

2,000 years ago, a Rabbi named Hillel shared a piece of wisdom in my tradition that continues to live and light a fire for us, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?

If not now, then when?  

There are many special days we observe throughout the year when we say, “If not now, when?”  On July 4thwe remember courageous deeds of our ancestors in determining the freedom and future of our country.  On Veterans Day and on Memorial day we honor the service and sacrifice of our soldiers.  On each of these days, we rededicate ourselves to meaningful action to carry forward our hard won freedoms, at the very least, not to take our freedom for granted.

We can legitimately choose at times to be harmlessinstead of being helpful.

But the lessons of Holocaust remembrance that we take from today, from survivors like Mollie Sperling, is that there are times when we must act decisively.  As we know, when dark forces spread, when the Nazi occupation in Europe spread over the continent, the people who tried to be harm-less were also burned by the fires of hate.

As an example of this, one day you may have occasion to visit Berlin, and you will see there in the center of a plaza, the Bebelplatz, the Empty Library Memorial, an underground memorial installation that is visible through a glass pane in the ground, it’s a room of empty bookshelves in remembrance of the Nazi burning of some 20,000 books written by Jews, Communists, and pacifists, on May 10, 1933 85 years ago.  
Inscribed there is a phrase written by Heinrich Heine, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”

Perhaps if some had doused the fire on the books, Heine’s prophecy would not have been so tragically fulfilled.

To spur us to action we need inspiration!

Who are our action heroes?
Who are our action role models?
The Avengers?  The Justice League? Our teachers in school?  Our clergy?  Town leadership?

One of my action heroes was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the many faith leaders who joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery on March 21, 1965.  In reflecting on that day he wrote, “For many of us the march…was about protest and prayer.  Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling.  And yet our legs uttered songs.  Even without words, our march was worship.  I felt my legs were praying.”

100 years before that, the great Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became one a leader of the abolitionist movement, made his escape from slavery at age 20 and he said, “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
Prayer is good and important.  Prayer brings insight and awareness.

And then we must act.

Because what we do matters.

But how do we act when the odds are against us, when there’s no partner with whom to have a dialogue, when enemies of humanity like the Nazis looked upon Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, political opponents, Polish Catholic priests, when they look upon us as something less than human?
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on the evening of April 3, 1968 in Memphis, he knew the civil rights movement was still confronting great odds, significant resistance – that night, the night before he was assassinated he said:
“And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”

Dr. King argued there was no other choice but to pursue justice because, as he also said, if any people are enslaved, then we all are.  Violence against one person, against one people, impacts everyone.

And the reverse is true as well – in my tradition we say one mitzvah leads to another, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, meaning one good deed to one person leads to so many more.

We know how Ray Allen[1]asks just this question.  In an interview, he was asked about whether he would take action to save others as many did during the Holocaust years, he says, “I would like to think that I was – that I would be that courageous….[and] that is I think the ultimate question that we live with every day…are we willing to fight for the next person when it doesn’t benefit us?”

Ray Allen asks an ultimate question about our theme today, what we do matters, and that question is whether we’re willing to act when we do not expect anything in return, or when the primary goal of what we’re doing may only benefit us indirectly.

Of course, if you remember from a few moments ago, the great Rabbi Hillel teach us, If I am not for myself who will be for me?  But …if I am only for myself, what am I?

We ask these questions looking back on the 20thcentury, when across the world there were some 27 genocides by the United Nations definition.  And now, into the 21st, at least 2 more tragically to add – South Sudan and the Rohingya in Myanmar.

In the face of such tragedy and loss, we might feel stuck, glued to our seats, wondering just what could each of us individually, or even us as a group, do in response to such hatred and pain?

I found inspiration for this dilemma in the immortal words of Anne Frank’s diary, Anne Frank, the young woman in Holland who wrote a diary during her time in hiding with her family in Amsterdam.

Anne Frank writes in 1944, dreaming about what she will do if she survives, “If God lets me live…I will make my voice heard.  I will work in the world for mankind.”

What can each of us do to make a difference for just one person, in our schools, in our community, in our world?

For now, in this moment, I’d like to ask everyone to say hello, exchange greetings with the people sitting on either side of us – if it’s family or best friends turn behind you or reach in front of you – one action we can take right now is to get to know each other, to bring ourselves closer as a community.  Take a moment, share greetings! – And we can do this at any time, when we’re walking in downtown Cranford, anytime.

And one more thing we can do -- on your way out this evening, please consider taking one of the yellow Holocaust memorial candles sponsored by the Temple Beth El Mekor Chayim Men’s club and Menorah Chapels at Millburn.  You can light this candle at home tonight in memory of the victims of the Holocaust and victims of other genocides throughout the 20thand 21stcenturies.

And let’s always remember, what we do, matters.


[1]Ray Allen was an NBA basketball player who continues to be an advocate for Holocaust education.  One of his articles appears here:  https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/ray-allen-why-i-went-to-auschwitz

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Passover 2018/5778

For some people, the country – wide open spaces, fewer people about, is their home and most familiar type of place to live, to work, to wander.

For others, the city is their familiar place.  The rhythm of traffic, apartments, and life going on 24 hours a day is their comfort zone. 

It’s the difference between ‘Thank God I’m a country boy’ and ‘A New York state of mind’.

The challenge is we may become so used to one way of living, we could not imagine another.  

The same is true for our ancestors in Egypt – for generations they live and work as slaves, surviving day to day, if they are able to survive at all.  And despite the tales of our Sages that praise our ancestors for their small rebellions against Pharaoh’s control, we can imagine they live in fear – that fear becomes their normal place, slavery their expected fate, and hope – a commodity they dare not contemplate.

And then, God ordains the first Passover, Pesach Mitzrayim – even before we leave Egypt, we observe what becomes the Seder we celebrated last night and again tonight.  In the moments prior to when our ancestors sit down to the meal, once they’ve spread the lamb’s blood on the door, God instructs them, “Do not leave your homes until the morning.”

God promises to protect our ancestors, but at the same time they must stay indoors – literally indoors, not even standing one toe’s length beyond the door frame.  

It appears we are protected but only under specific circumstances.  Like Cinderella, the power of protection has limits – She cannot stay out past midnight, the Israelites must stay inside.

Isaac Abravanel notices this situation – especially the fact that the Israelites are so filled with fear, that despite God’s promise to protect them, they are concerned about staying home.  Abravanel suggests they are worried lest the Egyptians, feeling sore and perhaps vengeful over the 10thplague, will break into their homes and kill them.

God tells them they are not safe in the street – as Rashi explains, the destruction out in Egypt cannot distinguish between those who are good and those who are evil.  And they feel they are potentially also unsafe in their own homes.

Abravanel explains God offers reassurance by saying the Maschit, the destroyer, will not enter their homes.

But the fear remains.

And this fear arises from their status in Egypt but also because their residences are unknown to them as safe places.  

The country person likely would feel similarly anxious in the city, wondering at the hordes of people and whether it’s safe in an apartment surrounded on all sides by people they may not know unlike their familiar country town.

The city person likely would feel anxious in the wide open country, possibly with no neighbors anywhere close by, no 24/7 stores to retreat to when the night makes unfamiliar sounds.

We find a situation here that is uncomfortable for our ancestors – they are stuck, vulnerable, on edge, ready to leave Egypt but unable to leave yet.  

As reassuring as the Haggadah is – that liberation and redemption were real – our parshah this morning reminds us never to lose that discomfort, that sense of wondering what is next since we just do not know what’s about to happen.  

If we get too comfortable at home, we risk getting used to one way of living and not even wanting to go out.  The ability to stream entertainment and order everything to our homes is very real now for us.

If, on the other hand, we leave home behind, remain wanderers, boldly on our own, relying only on our own strength and own perspectives, then we risk never seeing the world through the eyes of others, gently over time.

Somewhere between the city and country, somewhere between the wilderness and the settled land of Israel is where we will become one people and God’s partner – somewhere in the vulnerable and exposed middle-space where nothing but the invisible God of the Universe speaks is where we discover that freedom and that identity whose name we inherited long before – Yisra’el – the ones who both listen to and challenge God to reveal more truth today than we knew yesterday.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Shabbat 3/17/18 - Three Celebrations in One Day



Today we celebrate three occasions in our Torah service.

We celebrate starting a new book of the Torah – Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus – the book that in traditional communities is the first book of Torah students study.

We celebrate the next of the 4 special Shabbatot before Passover, Shabbat Ha’Chodesh, Shabbat of the New Month – the moment we recognize the beginning of time for our ancestors as they prepare to go free.  The first month is this Month, the Month of Nisan.  When we go free from Egypt, we begin to live on our own calendar.

And today is also Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the first day of the month, the day that our ancestors assembled the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness.

And as we prepare for Passover, these three celebrations, these three themes, are the core of the Passover spirit.

Pesach was originally based upon a sacrifice, the sacrifice of a lamb to God to bless the season and the hopefully growing flocks.  Sacrifice and holiness are the centerpieces of Leviticus.

On Rosh Chodesh we recite Hallel as we do at the Seder – Passover is a day of singing out our gratitude to God.

And the calendar is a celebration of freedom – me’avdut l’cherut, we go from slavery to freedom, and we re-experience that journey each year.

It’s the third point that stands out for me today as I’m looking at the variety of Haggadahs available for Passover.

Which Haggadahs do you use?

There are over 1,000 editions of the Haggadah since the first edition of the Haggadah was printed in 1482.

The Escape Velocity Haggadah is one of the most surreal.  Stanley Aaron Lebovic’s artwork is reminiscent of Salvador Dali, and his commentary is a deep personal and mystical reflection.

The title of his Haggadah itself is a reflection on the journey to freedom.  In Lebovic’s words:  Escape Velocity is the speed an object must reach to escape the gravitational pull exerted upon it by another objects, thereby allowing it the possibility of an autonomous existence, unburdened by outside influences and free to soar untethered and unencumbered by the restrictive confines of a subservient orbit.

Lebovic is suggesting here that our people must achieve escape velocity to free ourselves from the confines of Egypt. 

We literally have to spring into action, and into the future.

But there are so many forces that push us in the opposite direction – as we know, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

For our ancestors, even freedom was not sufficient.  They want to see and interact directly with God, and that’s in party why they create the golden calf.

Now, in Leviticus, as we begin this new book God delivers a subtle and essential lesson.  The only tangibles in our relationship to God are the sacrifices, the korbanot, what we choose to give – ourselves, our energy, our time, our heart and the relationships we build with each other.  It’s ironic that this book that is so little about ancestor stories and families is the place where we find perhaps the most central teaching of the Torah when it comes to relationships ve’ahav’ta l’re’a’cha kamocha, love your fellow human being as yourself.

Rashi explains the book of Leviticus opens with one of the essentials of the Torah, God instructing us to be holy, and then later on love your neighbor – love God, bring holiness into the world, and love one another. 

Our people have to reach escape velocity first though, otherwise they will never be able to go free in order to pursue these goals.

We, on the other hand, can start with them – we seek to love God despite a world around us that is too often violent and chaotic – we mourn with the families of the victims of school violence, of the bridge collapse in Florida.  We seek to bring holiness into the world because we know deep in our hearts that as rough as the world around us may be there are sparks of light within it, that redemption is possible.  And we seek to love one another – at the Seder this year, try and picture that the people sitting next to us are not just family, friends, our guests, but that they are the people walking out of Egypt next to us, and that we are encouraging each other to reach escape velocity – to go free, reach for the stars, and to only remember Egypt as a launching place – when we decided to pursue the dream that were not dependent on any one piece of land on earth.





Monday, March 12, 2018

Shabbat Parah 2018/5778: Reflecting on AIPAC Policy Conference

It was wonderful to join together with fellow TBEMC members at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washinton this past weekend.

I find the most inspiring stories about Israel that emerge at the conference are the ones that do not make major news headlines.

One story, amongst many, that stand out has a meaningful connection to the special Maftir reading for today, Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat when we remember the ritual of the red cow – sacrificed to create a mixture that had the ability to turn someone ritually pure from their impurity.

Sivan Borowich-Ya’ari is the founder and director of Innovation:  Africa, a not for profit organization that sets up solar water pumping stations in remote African villages, now working in 8 African countries – their work has impacted the lives of 1 million Africans.

They work together with Africans, creating an energy leadership committee within each village where they work – The engineers work together with the villagers so that they can take ownership of the project.  Israeli solar technology enables villages to enjoy fresh water pumped from the ground – They also provide light and refrigeration to schools and medical clinics enabling students to learn and medical personnel to safely store and provide medications.

The fresh spring water pumped into each village gives the village life, strength, and hope.  They can use the water for irrigating crops and so better feed the people.

Our ancestors used the ashes of the red cow, parah adumah, and mixed them with spring water – mayim hayim, spring water. 

For our ancestors, then, spring water enabled the mixture that could give people renewed purity and re-integration with the community after their period of staying apart.

For Africans who’ve benefited from installation of water pumps, they have a new life, and a new and productive relationship to their land.

It is heartening, and inspiring to hear of the many ways that Israeli innovation and commitment to gemilut hasadim have impacted the lives of so many.  We pray that those who aim their hatred toward Israel will soon see how such a small country reaches far beyond its own borders to help earthquake victims in Nepal and Mexico city, victims of natural diasters in Haiti and the Philippines and more. 

Other Israeli innovations that we witnessed at this year’s conference enable better coordination of first responders to emergency situations, protection of aid workers working in zones where there have been nuclear accidents, monitoring of crops and agricultural water usage remotely from devices installed in the soil, methods to maximize and maintain olive and olive oil production in groves shared by Israelis and Palestinians.

The wise King Solomon could not make sense of the ritual of the red heifer that somehow can purify the impure while at the same time making impure the pure. 

The nations of the world looked on this ritual and derided us about it, challenging our faith in this ritual and in our whole system of beliefs.

We know all too well the ways the nations of the world single out Israel for condemnation when many of these nations oppress their own people within their borders, when many of these nations, including the bulk of those who surround Israel, are dictatorships while Israel is a democracy.

It is time for us to know and tell the stories of how Israel is serving as an or la’goyim, a light unto the nations of the world, and to share how the people in Africa, amongst so many other places in the world that have benfited from Israel’s gemilut hasadim and tech innovations, how they so appreciate the caring and support even if they might still be a bit puzzled by our ritual of the red heifer.