Author Archives: Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman

Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman

About Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman

Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.

Affirming Responsibility

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There is a striking scene imagined in Parashat Ki Tavo (Deut. 27:11-26): Upon crossing the Jordan, the twelve tribes of Israel will divide into two groups. Six tribes will stand on a southern mountain facing the other six tribes on a northern mountain. The Levites will then scream a catalogue of twelve sins, each beginning with the phrase “Cursed be the one.” After each articulated sin, the other eleven tribes call out: “Amen!”

Solid Commitments

The tribes answer the curses in unison–what is the power of the word “Amen”?
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“Amen” comes from the root “firm.” To say amen is to make something more solid, literally, to “affirm” it. Saying amen creates a communal reality by strengthening shared commitments. Judaism normally has us say amen to blessings. We are used to calling out amen for things that we believe or wish to be true. We say amen happily, with great hope, at the blessings offered at weddings, baby namings, and holidays. In Jewish law, answering “amen” after a blessing is considered more praiseworthy than saying the blessing oneself (Shevuot 29b).

And what does it mean to say amen to a curse? By affirming each sin, the eleven answering tribes, individual by individual, voice a commitment to being a holy nation. They affirm their commitment to a shared standard of justice–each prohibited act represents a communal value.

More curses come later in Ki Tavo, and they are graphic: women eating their own children, Israelites returning to Egypt, epidemics, and exile. Perhaps the most severe comes close to the end: “v’lo ta’amin b’hayekha–and you will not believe in your own life (Deut. 28:66).” The parashah seems to say that to deny that our lives have meaning, to not believe in the power of our own lives, is the worst outcome of sin.

Blessing & Promise

If curses represent powerlessness and meaninglessness here, blessings do the opposite: they illuminate possibility and power. By offering a vision of promise, they inspire us to believe in our lives.

Lessons for Former Slaves

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“When your brother, Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free (Deut. 15:12).”

It disappoints me every year. Approaching the edge of the Promised Land in Parashat Reeh, Moses outlines the possibilities and responsibilities for impending self-rule and national freedom. Inside this list of laws come instructions for being a slaveholder. How can the Torah condone slavery? How can the people who have worked to regain their freedom come into Israel and enslave their brothers?

american jewish world serviceThere is a part of me that yearns to read a flat-out prohibition of slavery, a Thou-Shalt-Not. I’d like to see an unambiguous ban, such as the one found in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, passed in 1948: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Amen.

Of course, writing this doesn’t make it so. Despite the U.N. ban, slavery persists in our contemporary global society in several pernicious forms: chattel slavery, debt bondage, sex slavery, and forced labor. Twenty-seven million people remain enslaved today.

Limitations on Slavery

The Torah, though it doesn’t abolish it, limits slavery. Even if my absolutist sensibilities desire an outright ban, there is a pragmatic part of me that understands the value of regulating, rather than abolishing, the institution. Slavery was a fact of the biblical era and Israelite legislation made it a more humane condition. In fact, the Talmud describes the many restrictions governing slaveholders as so burdensome as to equal a form of slavery itself: “One who buys a slave is as if they bought themselves a master (Kiddushin 20a).”

Biblical laws regulating slavery, and the economic and social inequalities that lead to it, can be useful today. These laws create categories that help us use our own economic power in imperfect and vastly unjust conditions. Instead of utopian dreams, the Torah offers laws to temper existing inequality and injustice.

Hear & Act

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You who live secure

In your warm houses

Who return at evening to find

Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,

Who labors in the mud

Who knows no peace

Who fights for a crust of bread

Who dies at a yes or a no.

Consider whether this is a woman,

Without hair or name

With no more strength to remember

Eyes empty and womb cold

As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:

I commend these words to you.

Engrave them on your hearts

When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,

When you go to bed, when you rise.

Repeat them to your children.

Or may your house crumble,

Disease render you powerless,

Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Shema by Primo Levi

Why Shema?

Primo Levi wrote this poem in the shadow of the Holocaust, but his vision is especially relevant in the context of contemporary global inequity. It challenges all who live in comfort while others subsist in privation. Why does he use the frame of the Shema to do so?

Found in the center of this week’s parashah, the Shema is a prayer declaring God’s singularity: “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord is one (Deut. 6:4).” The Shema is repeated twice daily: in the morning and at night. It is often the first prayer taught to a child, and, famously, the Shema has been recited as the last words of many Jewish martyrs.

Primo Levi, in titling his poem Shema, attempts to redefine this traditional prayer. His poem commands a single-minded focus not on the unity of God but on a sub-set of God’s creatures, people living in poverty and chaos. Levi insists that human suffering is what our people should be “listening” to: as per the Shema, these sounds and images should be engraved on our hearts and follow us through our day. Effectively, they should be the frames of our experience.

Practically Speaking

How are we to hear this suffering? In one sense, it has never been easier. With the click of a mouse, one can access detailed information about any number of tragedies in the developing world. On the AJWS website, one can receive updates on Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma, and too many other countries experiencing crises of violence, poverty, and disease.

Creating Sustainable Freedom

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Parashat Masei, the portion of journeys, begins with a recounting of the Israelites’ travels from slavery in Egypt to the borders of Israel. Yet within this re-telling of the Israelites’ trek comes a different journey: the path of a manslayer into exile.

Powerful Priest & Accidental Killer

An entire chapter of the parashah addresses the process by which an unintentional murderer is sent out of the community for his own protection. A person convicted of accidentally taking a life is sent to one of six cities of refuge. He lives there, guarded from his victim’s avenging relatives, until the natural death of the high priest (Numbers 35). If an exiled murderer wants to return home, his only recourse is to pray for the High Priest’s death.

Why the connection between a powerful priest and an accidental killer? Strikingly, the Mishnah tells us that the high priest’s mother is also connected to the exiled manslayers.

“Therefore, the mothers of the high priests supply (the unintentional murderers) with food and clothing, in order that they won’t pray that their sons die (Mishnah Makkot 2:6).”

The image of the High Priest’s mother distributing food and clothing to exiled murderers is unexpected–and incomplete. The text does not fully capture the enormity of her project. Think of the logistics: one woman providing basic necessities for exiled murderers in six different cities. Did she have helpers? It seems that the High Priest’s mother ran the equivalent of a relief organization.

Two Giving Women

The Mishnah presents the mother’s role in a self-serving manner: she cares for the exiles because she knows it is necessary for the safety of her son. Yet could the High Priest’s mother have another motivation for dedicating her life of social prestige and privilege to those forced to flee their homes?

This story is reminiscent of one we’ve heard before. When baby Moses was endangered by Pharaoh’s decree to kill all first-born Israelite boys, it was an Egyptian princess, the daughter of Pharaoh, who sheltered and nurtured him. Both the mother of the High Priest and the daughter of Pharaoh were women of status who protected the lives of the vulnerable.

Two Halves of a Whole

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This God did not lead us by the nearer way

when Pharaoh let the people go at last,

but round-about, by way of the wilderness-

pillars of fire and cloud marking night and day

to the edge of the flood-tide–uncrossable and vast.

If God had led us by the nearer way,

we cried, we would not die here; let Egypt oppress

us as it will; let us return to the past…

God did not lead us by the nearer way,

but into rising waters, which do not part unless

with an outstretched arm we step forward, and stand fast…

– Dan Bellm, “The Crossing: Geulah”

Conflicting Names

This week’s parashah, and the penultimate book of the Torah it begins, narrates the experience of the Israelites negotiating the round-about way of the wilderness. The two names given to the book, Numbers in English and B’midbar in Hebrew, tell different stories about the mission of the fugitive slaves as they move from Egypt to the promised land of Israel.

“Numbers” was chosen as the book’s English title because of the census-taking that occurs at its beginning. In the opening chapter, the people are counted in preparation for war. Counting the people is a move toward stability and order: each clan is named, given a place in the camp, and reckoned.

This counting exemplifies human action and organization. Its purpose is communal protection. Given the dangers of the wilderness, especially its other inhabitants, the traveling Israelite camp must be secured and armed to protect itself. Numbers tells the story of control and the need for security.

The Hebrew name for the book, “B’midbar,” means “in the wilderness.” Unlike Numbers, “B’midbar” connotes chaos and disorder. The very definition of a wilderness is that it is untamed. Yet, it also connotes an interim space, a knowing-where-you-want-to-go-and-not-yet-being-there period of transformation. It was into this kind of wilderness, generations earlier, that God sent Abraham on his revolutionary journey, away from the place he knew and toward one he would be shown, telling him that his descendants would be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3).

Intentional Intervention

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One afternoon during an Introduction to Jewish Philosophy class, my professor posed the following question: If you are walking by a swimming pool, and you see someone drowning, what is your obligation to intervene? Must you dive in? Call for help? Throw her a line?

According to American law, there is no legal obligation to rescue a person in danger. Jewish law, however, provides a different answer. The duty to positively act to save a life comes in this week’s Torah portion: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16).” Commenting on this verse, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) specifically addresses the question raised by my professor:

american jewish world service“Whence do we know that if a man sees his fellow drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, he is bound to save him? From the verse, ‘You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor!'”

All of the situations raised by the Talmud pose potential danger to the rescuer, yet we are still commanded to act. The Talmud goes on to discuss the extent of this obligation–explaining that this Biblical command requires Jews to expend up to all of their resources, financial and physical, to save human life.

Global Implications

Elie Wiesel, speaking at the Darfur Emergency Summit in July 2004, interpreted the ancient verse to highlight its contemporary global implications:

Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa is a Biblical commandment. Thou shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of thy fellow man. The word is not achi’cha, thy Jewish brother, but re’echa, thy fellow human being, be he or she Jewish or not. All are entitled to live with dignity and hope. All are entitled to live without fear and pain.”

Yet, in our contemporary context, the demand of this obligation is overwhelming–there is so much need that I am not even sure where to begin. I am convinced that I need to be involved, but how to do so seems unclear. Looking at this verse again, I see a subtle, yet crucial, message. 

From Guilt to Action

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When I wash myself with water I shudder, thinking:

“This is the sweat of millions of laborers.”  Street-walkers are my bastard sisters, and sinister criminals–souls perhaps transmigrated from me.  Concerning those murdered, I think that I encouraged the assassin.  Perhaps I insulted the disgraced people in my town.  Something in me confesses “I’m guilty a thousand times for your distress.”  I want to throw my head at your doorsteps– Prisons, hospitals–and beg forgiveness.  –Abraham Joshua Heschel 

Guilt is assumed to be part and parcel of the modern Jewish experience. We laugh about our tribe’s over-developed sense of shame: there are countless jokes about guilt-inducing Jewish mothers and Woody Allen films featuring neurotic Jewish sons.

In this poem, however, guilt is no laughing matter. In scene after scene of injustice, Abraham Joshua Heschel confronts excruciating examples of personal responsibility. He seeks to confess and beg forgiveness. But to whom? And how? His guilt produces an existential anxiety that tortures him, but provides little benefit to his perceived victims.

The Guilt Offering

In parashat Tzav, guilt feelings are transformed into actions bringing healing. The ritual of the guilt offering, asham, is straightforward. One who suspects or knows that he is guilty of wrongdoing, either by commission or omission, brings a ram without blemish to a priest at the altar. 

Sections of the animal are burned and turned into smoke while other sections are set aside to be cooked and eaten by the priests (Leviticus 7:2-10). Offering this sacrifice, a person’s guilt is made publicly manifest and is then absolved.

The ancient system of sacrifice offered a ritual of coming together for the community. Rather than worry in isolation about acts committed and omitted, the individual was able to articulate the wrong and bring a symbol of contrition. 

Responsible Clothing

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I’ve been wearing two green plastic bracelets for months. Modeled after Lance Armstrong’s yellow “Livestrong” bracelets, my wristbands are supposed to call attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur. But how well do they accomplish that goal? Bracelet enthusiasts argue that the bracelets raise awareness about the genocide. Cynics point to the superficial nature of the gesture: Can social activism take place at the Save Darfur Store? 

american jewish world serviceGiven the proliferation of colored issue bracelets, there is little knowledge of what cause each color represents. A Slate Magazine columnist complains, “Purple, for instance, now signifies support for Alzheimer patients, abused animals, battered women, epileptics, children in foster care, or people with irritable bowel syndrome, among other things…With so much to be aware of, awareness bracelets have reverted to signifying nothing more than color itself. Idealism has devolved into fashion.”

The High Priest’s Garments

A garment mentioned in this week’s Torah portion offers a path to reclaim issue bracelets. In Parashat Tetzaveh, Aaron, the High Priest of the Israelites, is commanded to wear two jewel-encrusted bands on his shoulders, engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel.

Careful attention is paid to their purpose. They are to be worn “as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry…for remembrance before God (Exodus 28:12).”

Describing the aim of the High Priest’s bands, the word “remembrance” is emphasized through its repetition. But what is Aaron meant to remember? One commentator suggests Aaron wears the names to remember those for whom he is spiritually responsible.

The visible names heighten Aaron’s awareness of those he represents. This awareness may be visceral, evoking Eduardo Galeano’s definition of remembrance from his native Spanish: “Recordar: To remember; from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart.”

Pharaoh’s Courtiers

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At the Passover seder, we narrate the story of our slavery as a real-time autobiography, as if we are, at that moment, experiencing the Exodus from Egypt. Eating bitter herbs and crunching matzah, we identify with our Israelite ancestors, a nation of slaves on the other side of freedom. 

american jewish world serviceContemporary liberation movements also find inspiration in the story of the Israelite nation leaving Egypt. Liberation theology, a movement galvanizing social justice throughout Latin America and the Global South, claims the Exodus as a foundational narrative. Robert McAfee Brown, in his book, Liberation Theology, writes, “Oppressed people today identify easily with the oppressed peoples of yesterday, the Hebrew slaves in the story.” 

We Are Pharaoh’s Servants

From my seat in the Global North, I wonder what it might feel like to identify as an ancient Egyptian. To be afflicted with escalating plagues of environmental destruction and disease. To watch as one’s leader, hard-hearted Pharaoh, recklessly and relentlessly refuses to listen to others or change his disastrous course. To be allied with the oppressor instead of the underdog. 

Brown understands that he and his typical Global North reader have more in common with the ancient Egyptians than with the Hebrews: “I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that most of us who read (and write) books like this can be identified as servants in Pharaoh’s court; lower echelon folk who are nevertheless members of the establishment, with advancement possibilities if we play our cards right.”

But what role do the Egyptian courtiers play in the story? A look at the Exodus narrative shows that some servants in Pharaoh’s court actively try to do the right thing in a place where they have limited power. They attempt to stop Pharaoh, and when they fail in this, they aid the Israelites to escape Egypt. 

Hearing Moses warn Pharaoh about an imminent plague of locusts, the courtiers cry out (Exodus 10:7), “Let the men go to worship the Lord their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” Pharaoh is temporarily swayed by their collective voice of reason and grants the Israelites permission to leave. 

The Limitations of Self-Denial

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“In Egypt, before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him (Genesis 41:50).”

The Talmud reads these words from Parashat Miketz as a pointed reference to Joseph’s sons being conceived and born before the great famine begins. This close reading turns into law: during a famine, one should not have sexual relations (Ta’anit 11a).  

american jewish world serviceWhy refrain from sex during a famine? Common sense says it is ill-advised to create new mouths to feed in a time of food insecurity. Yet, the law here is not focused on the act’s result, but on the pleasure of its commission. Rashi explains that in times of disaster “a person needs to self-inflict suffering.”

According to this reading, Joseph abstains from sex during the famine as an act of solidarity with its victims. Self-denial in the face of tragedy reflects a profound desire to identify with another’s suffering.The Talmud even encourages those fortunate enough to have food during a famine to fast (Shulhan Arukh, Hilkhot Ta’anit 674:4).

Solidarity in Self-Denial

Still, I’m bothered by these laws. Why is the correct way to share in the distress of the community to manufacture additional and unnecessary pain? Who is served by this?

A Hassidic story describes a wealthy man who prides himself on his self-denial. He comes to his rabbi’s home and brags that he eats only bread with salt and drinks only water. The rabbi, horrified, orders the wealthy man to eat rich and nutritious meals and to drink wine. After the rich man leaves, the rabbi’s disciples are puzzled. The rabbi explains, “Not until he eats meat will he realize that the poor need bread. As long as he himself eats only bread, he will think the poor can live on stones.”

It can be tempting to deprive ourselves of pleasure rather than face the challenge of repair. Yet self-denial for the sake of solidarity is a waste of privilege. It is imperative to use our gifts of wealth, education, and influence to improve conditions for the poor and powerless.

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