Author Archives: Nina Wouk

About Nina Wouk

Nina Wouk is an accountant who spends most of her free time serving on three ritual committees.

Private Feelings, Public Consequences

Provided by, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

Parashat Ki Tavo ("When You Come In") is best known for its long and horrible list of curses, traditionally read in the synagogue quickly in an undertone. It contains a series of threatened punishments for disobedience to G-d: drought, starvation, defeat in war; exile, slavery, massive slaughter; helpless witness of the suffering of loved ones; constant terror and despair.

This long list often overshadows a shorter catalog of curses that occur earlier in the parasha. The more famous curses will be inflicted by G-d personally. The short list comprises curses that the people bring upon themselves if they commit certain acts.

Moses, instructing the people in the proper rituals for entering the Land after his death, tells them to divide the leaders of the tribes into two groups, to stand on two adjacent mountains. Those on the first mountain are to pronounce a list of twelve blessings; the other group pronounces an equal list of conditional curses. Cursed be the man who secretly makes an idol, they are to say, and the entire people are to answer "Amen."

Cursed Activities

In their entirely, the twelve cursed activities are these: secret idolatry; insulting one’s father or mother; moving the boundary marker between fields; misleading a blind person; subverting the rights of a stranger, widow or orphan; sex between a man and his father’s wife; sex between a man and an animal; sex between a man and his sister; sex between a man and his wife’s mother; a stealthy violent attack; accepting a bribe in the spilling of innocent blood; and failure to "uphold this teaching."

Why are these particular acts proclaimed, immediately upon entry to the promised land, as the ones to be avoided under penalty of being cursed? What do they all have in common?

Generations of commentators have noted that these are acts committed in secret, either alone or with complicit or powerless others, often by powerful people able to deflect the reach of the law. They constitute a sample list of crimes for which the only sure deterrent is inner. The ritual of publicly cursing certain acts was an attempt to implant into everyone who entered the land the seed of a conscience.

Any community, with even the best set of rules, can be subverted if the rules are obeyed in the letter only. The history of the American South shows how the courts and the jury system served for decades to criminalize any act by a black person and decriminalize any killing of a black person. Attempts to legally protect private adult sexual relationships; or to secure the family status of children of gay, bisexual or queer parents; or to prosecute killers of gay, bisexual or queer people show the same pattern. Laws create only the possibility of justice; justice can only be realized fully through the will of those who carry out the laws.

Since no community works without people whose hearts are in making it work, Moses tries to develop people who look into, care about, and develop their own hearts. As he says at the end of Parashat Ki Tavo, G-d didn’t give you eyes to see or hearts to understand until today. Even trying to do the right thing is treacherously difficult without a clear inward gaze. Thus the climax of his speech provides a ritual for developing that vital self-consciousness.

To be socially effective, self-consciousness must be combined with a clear idea of right action. Moses tries to accomplish this by listing the twelve exemplary acts of secret wrongdoing, as a reminder of many detailed categories of wrongdoing, secret and public. By making people consider themselves cursed for doing wrong even before no mortal witness, he hopes to assure that they will, under pressure, find the inner strength to do right.

When the Israelites were about the receive the Torah on Mount Sinai, they cried in unison Naaseh v’nishmah, "we will do and we will understand." This is often interpreted to mean that doing leads to understanding. But the Torah itself, through the cursing ritual of Parashat Ki Tavo, tells us differently: Understanding is its own kind of doing, and success in achieving a just society depends on our making the effort to understand both the laws and ourselves. 

Institutionalizing Freedom

The following article is reprinted with permission from

Several years ago, when the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Pride Day closely preceded US Independence Day the celebration of freedom was frequently in the news. News coverage of the celebrations, whether laudatory or condemnatory, generally lacked serious analysis of the very concept causing so much excitement.

This week’s Torah portion makes up the deficiency. The Korah story examines a set of political problems which plague the LGBT community, the United States, Israel and many other communities and societies: How can freedom be institutionalized? What resources are needed? How should they be used? Can a set of groups with conflicting goals create a community that safeguards the liberty of all? When conflict threatens stability, can freedom survive?

In Parshat Korah, stability turns out to be far more vital. Freedom for the Israelites means the escape from Egyptian slavery, now two years in the past. Like the United States hundreds of years after independence, or the LGBT community decades after the Stonewall Rebellion, the Israelites have moved into a new period, with new demands and priorities.

Institutionalized freedom means stable self-government, at which the Israelites are unpracticed. They, like many modern people who take formal democracy for granted but find it confusing and intractable in practice, find protesting easier than organizing, reacting easier than acting. Unused to compromise or cooperation, lacking agreed-on standards of behavior, they quarrel constantly.

Moses: Ambivalent Leader

Moses, the divinely inspired social architect, ends up forced into a judicial role. The Torah shows our ancestors bringing so many problems to him that he works from sunrise to sunset every day settling their disputes. At the same time, they don’t trust him–having never known any authority they could trust.

In Parshat Korah, the people have finally departed from Mount Sinai. After the giving of the Torah, after the panicky construction of the Golden Calf, after power struggle, bloodshed, and near annihilation by a disappointed God, they break camp during a brief interlude of relative calm, before the community fragments again.

Some of the fragments begin to coalesce around an alternate leader, Korah. Unlike Moses, Korah is a skilled politician, one who understands and can motivate people. The Torah depicts Moses as an unwilling, untalented political leader. His strength is prophecy: the ability to envision an ideal society. The gap between his dreamed of organization and real people’s fear-driven, self-perpetuating disorganization creates much of the painful drama of his life.

Korah: Building Coalitions–Towards What?

Korah is a member of Moses’ and Aaron‘s tribe, the Levi’im, the priests of an emerging theocracy. Originally, neither Moses nor anyone else imagined such an extensive priesthood. Ritual responsibilities had always belonged to all first-born sons. The Golden Calf debacle convinced Moses to reorganize the tribes, putting the most trustworthy closest to the center of power– the Mishkan, or tabernacle, which had yet to be built.

In this reorganization, Korah’s family ended up subordinate to Aaron’s. Thus, his revolt starts as a squabble among clans of the same tribe.

However, Korah is astute enough to understand exactly how unimportant the grievance of his clan will seem to most of the nation. Seeking a bigger constituency, he first forges an alliance with Datan and Aviram, whose tribe has been steadily losing power. To further expand his power base, he preaches radical equality, publicly opposing new status of the Levi’im, claiming that "all the congregation are holy."

Tradition has judged Korah harshly, as an opportunistic demagogue. Some modern Jews, on the other hand, identify with his stated program of democratizing religion. Whatever his motives, he was a superb coalition-builder, one who knew how to recognize and connect the agendas of various discontented groups among the mixed multitude who escaped Egyptian slavery, and who now sought to retain their new, ill-defined freedom.

Accepting the Torah’s account of miraculous intervention in which Korah was swallowed up by the earth as allegorical, we can ask why his revolt failed. One answer is that Korah’s coalition-building talents and (perhaps genuine, perhaps rhetorical) inspiring ideals couldn’t make up for his, or his followers’, lack of organization-building ability. Our ancestors’ survival depended on order, which they couldn’t create among themselves.

A Clash of Styles, and Missed Opportunities

Moses understood this. Korah didn’t. Korah could bring people together. Moses could give them direction. Perhaps Korah’s skills, united with Moses’ vision, might have served to create unity without imposing a theocracy. Instead, their talents, which might have reinforced each other, worked against each other.

In every generation, those struggling for meaningful social change need both Korah’s and Moses’ skills, the ability to bring disparate groups together and a vision of how they can function effectively together. Like the generation that came forth from Egypt, the generations that created the mid-20th century’s great wave of goal-oriented social action, whose hunger for justice and thirst for freedom exploded from Selma to Stonewall to the Soviet Jewry movement, are a mixed multitude. Different groups bring different, not always compatible, priorities. The bases for unity often remain elusive.

Moses strength was envisioning organization. His weakness was being too visionary to actually organize people. That vision alone is insufficient was one of the lessons of the civil rights movement. Shared ideals alone couldn’t sustain unity between cruelly oppressed African Americans and privileged, though passionate, white believers in equality.

Lack of shared vision is equally disabling. The LGBT community fragments yearly into an increasing number of specific identities based on different nonconformities: gay-white-male; lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer or questioning; transgendered or transsexual. These nonconformities can lead to political divides as deep as any in Israel or the Jewish community.

The Torah shows the generation of the desert as lacking practice in self-government, lacking mutual trust, and lacking any connection between Moses’ vision of the ideal society and Korah’s political ability. Our ancestors’ many fears and discontents continually led them to want to go back to Egypt, back to servitude. In a sense, their wish was granted, through the relative stability of the new theocracy.

Any nation or movement that hopes to institutionalize or maintain freedom must begin by creating coalitions based on people’s real, seldom identical, priorities, rather than around assumed bases of unity. But that isn’t enough–it must have a program, one that encompasses more than protest, for the purpose of reaching definable goals, based on shared values.

Without Korah’s skills, no such coalition can come into being. Without Moses’ vision, no coalition can survive and mature into a real community or society. When both combine, the opportunity exists for democracy and stability to triumph together.

How Do Activists Remain Active?

The following article is reprinted with permission from

"Failure is impossible," wrote Susan B. Anthony, certain that righteousness must eventually triumph. The road to that triumph, however, may be pitted with failures, the goal postponed longer than a lifetime. How, then, do activists stay active?

Parashat Shlah suggests an answer. The Israelites send spies over the border of the Promised Land; they return to give their wandering people an incoherent report of a good but deadly land full of giants. Only two spies maintain hope of crossing into the land and fighting to stay. The people, understandably confused and terrified, retreat from the challenge, and live out 38 hazardous years in the wilderness before trying again.

Moshe’s instructive response contains an antidote to such debilitating panic. The Israelites and their descendants are to wear fringes on the corners of their garments, where unhemmed cloth begins to unravel, as a reminder to stay on course and not "run after your own eyes and your own hearts."

Torah scholar Nitzhia Shaked explains the nature of these two distractions. "Our own eyes" refers to what we can learn by observation, often immensely demoralizing. "Our own hearts" refers to thought, and its supporting current of emotion. Thus in suspecting our hearts we are called on to examine how our fears and desires warp our perceptions.

Led only by our own eyes, we experience the limits of realistic hope for social change. History often provides evidence against our deepest wishes, with every instance of compassion balanced by an intolerable cruelty. Success becomes impossible when measured against a messianic ideal. Success is possible when measured more modestly, in lives saved, in suffering relieved, in justice established, instance by instance.

Led only by our own hearts, we get caught up in the heady ferment of partial success, and mistake the part for the whole, inviting painful disillusionment. The success of the civil rights movement was its failure, when millions of African-Americans discovered that legal equality ended neither racism nor poverty. The passage of laws protecting gay people can, as Urvashi Vaid points out, invite dangerous complacency among a still endangered minority. The signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a triumph for the disability rights movement, led to a decade of frustration as neither bureaucrats nor judges nor, most importantly, ordinary Americans, understood or enforced it as a civil rights law. 

For a disliked and discounted minority, crossing into the promised land means more than the difficult work of legislative change and convincing judges. It requires creating public support for the movement’s goals. It requires a massive effort at communication.

The disability rights movement remains encouragingly clear about this. Disability publications, such as Ragged Edge and Mouth, regularly publish articles on ways to communicate, along with analyses of failures and successes in communicating. This self-critical attitude, which makes it possible to define and refine realistic goals and programs, is exactly what the Torah requires.

How can activists remain active? The Torah doesn’t tell us to ignore the evidence of our eyes or the urges of our hearts, but to expect messy limits, to look towards the place where our hopes unravel, and to turn our eyes and hearts back towards the reminders of our goals and ideals.

As the act of donning and looking at the fringes is repeated daily, so must be the tasks of resistance. Ours is not to complete the work, as our sages assure us, only to stay the course.

Beyond Fear

The following article is reprinted with permission from

In an article entitled “Gemilut Hasadim [Doing Acts of Lovingkindness] is Not Social Action,” Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf claims that many synagogue social action committees concern themselves not with their stated purpose, but with tzedakah (charity) projects, such as tutoring and stocking food pantries.

While these are worthy activities, the Torah repeatedly shows that social action demands more: It means attempting “profoundly controversial, deeply political, even world-historical” changes, in both the Jewish community and the larger society, which would ideally make such palliatives unnecessary.

The impulse to social action is rooted in our most sacred obligations. But carrying out that impulse can be daunting. Rabbi Wolf suspects that fear of splitting congregations, and of losing donations, is behind the unwillingness to “take up arms against poverty and injustice.”

Social action does carry risks, as parashat B’ha’alotkha repeatedly points out. Yet it shows how a dedicated, mutually responsible group can come to grips with those risks by consciously confronting them.

protestersFacing a fear begins with naming it. Where we might be likely to hold a community discussion, our ancestors often used ritual to articulate both problems and solutions. In B’ha’alotkha, the adult men of the tribe of Levi are formally assigned the ritual functions which the people as a whole forfeited by worshipping the golden calf. Their initiation requires that they be treated like sacrificial animals: representatives of the tribes lay their hands on the heads of the Levi’im, thus symbolically transferring responsibility. Next, each Levi, in lieu of being offered on the altar, is lifted up in front of it.

By becoming sacrifices, the Levi’im graphically state their awareness that giving one’s life to a sacred cause is dangerous. This remains true today: human rights and refugee workers, investigators of corrupt governments, organizers of opposition political parties in many countries, and organizers for unpopular causes in the United States take ill-paying jobs, live in dangerous areas, risk prison, face and sometimes meet death.

However, the initiation of the Levi’im is more than a collection of individual sacrifices; it symbolizes the entire tribe’s commitment to a shared purpose. Further, this tribe has faced fear before, and demonstrated willingness to stand and fight together. Because they know they can count on each other, the people can count on them for effective, consistent action.

Parashat B’ha’alotkha also illustrates how dedication to social action can bring more intimate losses, such as separation from family and from many members of the society that stands to benefit. Putting oneself forward politically, whether as a professional or as a volunteer, also invites public scrutiny of one’s private life. This is an easy channel for the resentment of people who don’t relish the discomfort of change, even for the better, or who doubt the authority of those who undertake leadership.

Moses, the person most responsible for carrying out God’s plan to restructure society, is the Torah’s prime example of one who encounters these losses. He essentially gives up his personal life after encountering God at the Burning Bush, when he returns to Egypt. Throughout the rest of the Torah, he is never shown interacting with his wife or children, only with his brother, Aaron, his sister Miriam, and his father-in-law, Yitro.

Further, having become intimate with the Eternal, Moses find his frame of reference shifted to the seventh generation, far beyond that of the Israelites who feel keenly their lack of control over where their next meal is coming from. He prays for the multitude, but no longer shares or understands their fears and frustrations.

Finally, in Parashat B’ha’alotkha, he finds his most intimate relationships become public issues and he loses, albeit temporarily, the trust of both his siblings.

Yitro leaves for Midian after spending two years at the Israelite camp. According to a midrash, Moses is left both socially bereft and professionally unsupported. Yitro had been Moses’ interpreter, the experienced leader, who understood ordinary people when Moses no longer did.

To make Moses’ job possible again, God appoints, and inspires, 70 assistants, leaders of the people who can interpret and apply the laws Moses receives. According to another midrash, all of these leaders had been overseers in Egypt, where they willingly took blame, and beatings, for failure to meet quotas rather than make impossible demands of those under them. As in the case of the Levi’im, a reliable group makes it possible to realized shared social ideals.

However some personal pain is inevitable, and impossible to share. According to an illuminating rabbinic midrash, the wives of Moses’ 70 assistants dressed up to celebrate their husbands’ new honor, but Moses’ own wife Tzipporah remained plainly clothed. When Miriam asked her why, she replied that it wouldn’t make any difference how she dressed, because Moses hadn’t touched her in years.

Miriam tactfully called Aaron to a family conference just outside Moses’ tent, where Moses and no one else would overhear her saying that if the 70 assistants could remain sexually active, Moses had no excuse for neglecting Tzipporah.

Aaron agreed. Moses, overhearing, knew that he was not master of his own time; rather he had to remain on call day and night. But he held his tongue. The reason the Torah gives is his humility, which also serves to protect his privacy.

In this case, no ritual exists to name or resolve the problem. Thus God personally overreacts on Moses’ behalf, striking Miriam with tzara’at (leprosy), which forces her exile from the camp.

Perhaps this excessive intervention is deliberate, a desperate means to reunite the Israelites, even in opposition to God. If so, it works: Aaron, Moses and the people immediately join together, focusing their many separate fears on God’s anger at Miriam. Aaron appeals to Moses, Moses prays for Miriam, and the people refuse to move camp until she can rejoin them. This is the beginning of a renewed solidarity among the threatened family, and between the family and the people.

B’ha’alotkha makes no attempt to minimize fear and the inevitable risks of social action. Further, it reminds us that the Source of our obligations does not always act in ways that we find benign or even reasonable.

Yet it also depicts the continued triumph of mutual solidarity. When the group consciously and in unity names and confronts its fears, its members can carry out their responsibilities. In accordance with the Torah’s profound knowledge of human psychology, shared confrontation of fear works even when the threat is inaccurately identified.

Parashat B’ha’alotkha, with its emphasis on sacrifice, reminds us, when we form social action committees and organizations, how serious is the responsibility involved. It was left to later generations to articulate the proportionate greatness of the reward. Another evolving staple of Jewish belief is that our ancestors’ lives prefigure ours: if the untrained generation of the desert overcame the fears that might have deterred them, so can we.

Acknowledging these stories as our own, we can proceed with a clear understanding of both the risks we may face, and the means to move beyond fear in carrying out the sacred imperative of social justice.