Chelm Torah Stories
Peretz Wolf-Prusan began storytelling at Camp Swig in 1971. He began with Chelm stories. Chelm is a fictional town in European Jewish folklore known as a community of fools. Because they are fools they believe themselves to be wise. Chelm is always nearby. When invited to contribute to the Torah Commentary column of the J. The Jewish News of Northern California in 2016, he went back to his home town of Chelm. The good editors of the J. added helpful reference links. These are the Chelmer Commentaries.
June 3, 2016
Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34
Jeremiah 16:19 - 17:4
Outside of the village of Chelm, Yankel sat in a small room at the back of the Bank of Your-Not-In-Chelm Anymore. Just Yankel and the notary, Ms. Bechukotai, named for this very Torah Portion. She placed the closing documents before Yankel. So many items to initial and sign!
Yankel spoke up, “You know you have same name as this week’s Torah Portion?”
“Amazing,” she said without looking up, “Never heard that before. Where are you from, Chelm?”
Yankel, “As a matter of fact, yes.”
This is going to be interesting. These Chelmites think that they are so wise, that just like the fools they are, they don’t read ahead. “Let’s do the good stuff first,” said Ms. Bechukotai. “Please read all your benefits, check the boxes, and sign at the bottom.”
Yankel read “The Land Lord promises to: ‘Give you rain in due season. The land will yield produce. The trees will yield their fruit.’”
Check, check, check. He likes fruit and rain.
“Your bread box will be full. You will live in safety. You will never be afraid. You will never see war nor see bad beasties.”
He hates beasties. Check.
“You will never see war and your enemies will run away from you.”
Checks those boxes with glee, thinking about middle school bullies. Run away… from me!
“You will be fruitful, and I will multiply you.”
Check. “This is great. All these benefits just for not making idols, keeping Shabbat, or not enslaving myself.” He signed.
“Which of these ‘statutes and commandments’ are optional,” Yankel inquired.
“None, it says, ‘All these statutes and commandments.’”
“Not the basic 10-pack?”
“I don’t have much time,” she said. “You agreed to the benefits, and except for the liability clause, we are done here.”
These: “But if you do not listen to Me and do not do these statutes and commandments I will appoint over you terror, consumption, and fever, that will consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart; and you will sow your seed in vain, for your enemies will eat it.”
“What? Eat my stuff?”
And these: “I will set my face against you, and you will be slain before your enemies; they who hate you will reign over you; and you will flee when none pursues you.”
“Your strength will be spent in vain; for your land will not yield her produce, nor will the trees of the land yield their fruits.”
Hold on here. “No fruit? Can we talk about this? And what about this? ‘I will also send wild beasts among you, which will rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number; and your highways will be desolate.’ Driving in the Chelm is hard enough without making the highways desolate.”
“Then you probably won’t like, ‘I will send the pestilence among you; and you will be delivered into the hand of the enemy.’ ”
“All of this for just not listening and skipping a few commandments?”
“I’ll go over the critical points while I stand with one foot in this room and the other on the pedal of my scooter.”
“Did you say, ‘On one foot?’ ”
“This is an old form,” she explained, putting on her safety helmet, “a template, if you will. You are not living in the land where a majority of these commandments apply. You’re not seeing a lot of Nazarites around here, not to mention sacrificial cults.”
“Oh, what a relief, it’s all a metaphor.”
“No, the Akiba clause is irreducible.”
“The rabbis of the Mishnah asked: What is the most important principle of the Torah? Rabbi Akiba said ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, Sifra, Kedoshim 4:12).
“And protect the poor, the widow and the orphan. The Land Lord is very focused on that.”
“And if I don’t?”
She hit the road and called over her shoulder, “Watch out for beasties.”
September 30, 2016
The rabbi of Chelm (well known in Jewish folklore as a city of fools) was preparing for the weekly Shabbat afternoon Torah study, and the week’s Torah portion was Nitzavim. The rabbi often worked while listening to the Chelm NPR station, KFUL, and the “Fool’s Forum” program. A caller said:
"What is happening today? Police shootings of black people, people shooting police officers, hate and fear mongering, mass migrations of refugees, homelessness growing, the price of housing skyrocketing, right-wing governments rising over Europe — and who knows what else. I don’t know what to do!"
Fortunately, the guest was Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He said:
“All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear.”
A second caller:
“Hello, Viktor E. Frankl here. Nachman is right; one cannot allow fear to immobilize oneself. Listen, everything can be taken from you but one thing — the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
That’s so true, the Chelm rabbi thought. Strange, my logo-therapist has said that many times.
The third caller:
“Longtime listener, first-time caller, love the show. This is the Rambam from Cairo, Illinois. I’d like to point out that in a book I am writing, “The Mishne Torah,” in a special section called “on repentance,” I have written: “Free will is granted to all people. If you desire to turn yourself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is yours. Should you desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is yours. This is a fundamental principle and the very foundation of Torah and mitzvot. As it’s written: ‘Behold I have placed before you this day life and goodness, death and wrongfulness’ (Deuteronomy 30:15) and, ‘Behold, I have presented to you this day a blessing and a curse’ (Deuteronomy 11:26).”
That’s amazing, thought the Rabbi of Chelm; Deuteronomy 30:15 is in this week’s Torah portion!
“Behold I have placed before you this day life and goodness, death and wrongfulness.” This is exactly what he has been thinking about. There are always challenges placed before us. It is our gift to choose how to respond.
Just then “Fool’s Forum” concluded and the next NPR program, “This Chelmite Life,” began:
“Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme. This week’s theme is about the choices we make facing a dilemma. Our first story is about the small and not very imposing Reb Zusia. He walked into a tavern to collect money for the poor. A tavern is generally a good place to find people with money, and being slightly more open-minded after a good number of drinks, generous.”
“Not this day. Suddenly a bully saw him and grabbed him by the lapels and lifted him up into the air and asked this question: ‘I have always wondered what you Jews believe about heaven and hell!’”
Zusia responded: “Sir, you are the ugliest person I have ever seen; your breath smells very bad.”
The bully raised his right hand in fury, his left holding Zusia off his feet, and prepared to pummel the poor man to his death. Zusia looked him in the eyes and said now: “This is hell.” The startled bully put Zusia down and dropped his arms to his side.
Zusia said: “This is heaven. The choice is in your hands.”
Back in Cairo, Illinois, the Rambam, listening to “This Chelmite Life,” writes:
“Without a doubt, one’s actions are in one’s own hands, and God neither impels nor decrees what an individual is to do or not do.”
Back in Chelm, the Rabbi writes:
“Deuteronomy 30:19, “Choose life, and live: Don’t be afraid, pull yourself together — and get going.”
Then the Rabbi of Chelm thought to himself:
I think my rebbe, Rabbi Alan Lew z”l, once said something just like that just before Rosh Hashanah.
March 30, 2017
The rabbi of New Chelm was sitting with a new bat mitzvah student. Looking at her Torah portion, Vayikra, the student peered closely at the Torah scroll, pointed at the very first word — and namesake of the portion and the book — and said, “What is that?”
“That,” the rabbi of New Chelm said, “is the word ‘Va-yi-kra.’ It sounds like what it means: ‘And God Called,’ like a crow, ‘Kraw!’”
Why is the last letter of the first word of Leviticus written so small?
“Oh. No. I mean, what is that?” she asked, pointing at the last letter of the first word.
“Why is the letter aleph so much smaller?”
“Ah. The small aleph comes to teach us about hubris and arrogance. Hubris is the enemy of greatness.”
“Wasn’t Moshe great?”
“Yes, he did great things. Vayikra is the first book of the Torah following the Exodus, the arrival at Sinai, and the acceptance of the Torah. You would think that Moses would have quite the big head. But no, he was still humble, unsure, and had to be called out by God to take his next step of leadership. The Midrash says that the small aleph teaches:
“‘Lower yourself until you are requested to rise to your proper status, rather than rising before you are called, lest you be told to lower yourself. … We find that Moshe … at the Ohel Moed (the Tent of Meeting), stood at the side until God said to him, ‘Why do you continue to lower yourself? It is your turn to rise now! (Vayikra Rabbah 1:5)’”
“My parents say that girls should be seen and not heard. Is that humility?”
“No,” said the rabbi of New Chelm, “That is suppression and sexism. I did not become the first female rabbi of Chelm by being quiet. I earned it by learning, and teaching texts like this from the Tosafot (medieval commentaries on the Talmud):
“‘Why is the aleph of the word vayikra traditionally written smaller than the other letters of the Sefer Torah? In order to show that although God called to Moshe, and although God showed Moshe tremendous respect by constantly speaking to him, even so, Moshe constantly “lessened” himself before God and before the community of Israel.’”
“So the Midrash says that Moshe stood aside and waited to be called to enter the Tent of Meeting? Couldn’t he have taken the first place in line and used his privileges to be first?”
“Yes. According to this Midrash, the reason God had to call Moshe was that Moshe humbly waited to be called before entering the Ohel Moed. It is therefore appropriate for the Torah to hint at Moshe’s modesty through one of the letters of the word ‘Vayikra.’”
The bat mitzvah student looked up to her rabbi and asked, “Who was a great and modest person in your life?”
The rabbi smiled. “So many women, and a few good men. One man you may have learned about was Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, who was murdered in the name of arrogant self-righteousness. King Hussein of Jordan spoke at his funeral, saying:
“‘He was endowed with humility. He felt with those around him and in a position of responsibility, he placed himself, as I do and have done, often, in the place of the other partner to achieve a worthy goal. And we achieved peace, an honorable peace and a lasting peace.’”
“Wow. Rabin had the same modesty as Moshe Rabbeinu. What is the opposite of modesty?”
“Narcissism. A narcissist is the type of person who shows extreme selfishness, with a grand view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration. Do you know what the only good thing about a narcissist is?”
Now the bat mitzvah student smiled: “You always know what they are thinking about!”
“You are very wise, like all of us in Chelm.”
“Then why do people call us fools?”
“Envy. However, even a fool knows what a narcissist sounds like.”
May 25, 2017
Mom: We are so proud that you’re the first young adult from Chelm to become a trip leader for Camp Ganowata!
Dad: So happy you chose the “Get Out of the House” adventure program.
Mom: Did you bring your list all the items that you need for camping?
Trip leader: Yes.
Mom and Dad: Lightweight hat, waterproof jacket, wool socks, boots, sunglasses, sandals, and swimsuit?
Mom: Camping stove with fuel, cookware, utensils, reusable water bottle, towel and soap?
TL: Yes. All set.
Dad: The Rabbi of Chelm is here to see before your trip.
Rabbi: Hello, I heard that you’re going camping into the wilderness so I decided to bring you a special gift. It’s a book, a survival guide, well kind of a survival guide for camping in the wilderness, it is Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah.”
TL: You’re giving me a book from the Torah to go camping?
Rabbi: Yes, you are going into the wilderness and this book is called Bamidbar, Into the Wilderness. It has lots of advice. You’re going to be leading a group of campers hiking and making camp in the wilderness, and this book is all about counting the number of campers you have, leadership skills and preparing for when things go wrong.
TL: What will go wrong? I’ve prepared everything. I have maps, GPS, the right supplies.
Rabbi: Yes, but you are leading people. People pack things you can’t see. Maps and plans are fixed in place, but what happens is fluid. Sometimes leaders need to listen to their followers. Sometimes good people break rules. Some rules don’t work in the wilderness and need to be changed.
TL: That’s in Bamidbar?
Rabbi: Yes. About half of the Book of Numbers/Bamidbar is about rules and instructions. The other half is a record of what our ancestors experienced from the beginning of the second year of the Exodus until 40 years later, at the end of the journey.
When I was a young person like you I had a teacher in Jerusalem, well, not as young, anyway, his name is Arnie Eisen. Now he is the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He wrote this about Bamidbar:
“Their journey will not be without incident, of course. It will rarely be said again in the Book of Numbers, chapter 1, verse 54, ‘The Israelites did accordingly; just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so they did.’ But there will be progress. At the end of the book they will be well advanced toward the goal, ready to cross the narrow river and take hold of divine promise. Politics for us, as for them, is a matter of fits and starts, highs and lows, obedience and stubbornness.
“The Israelites portrayed in Numbers are not irredeemable, a fact that gives us hope, though they are — again like us — often frightened and perhaps even traumatized: they by slavery, we by Holocaust. Desire often gets the better of them as it does of us. Farce sometimes is succeeded by tragedy. And yet along the way there are occasions of true nobility, signs of genuine holiness, and at the end there are palpable signs of redemption. The children of the people Israel are getting somewhere. Israel will heed ‘the commandments and regulations that the Lord enjoined upon [them] through Moses’ (Numbers 36:13), at least some of the time. Normalcy and covenant will coexist and even strengthen one another, as the Torah had imagined.”
TL: What’s this little piece of paper?
Rabbi: A bookmark with a quote from John Muir:
“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world — the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”
Maybe that is why we and they go into the wilderness. Half of the book is about things on the schedule, fixed on the itinerary, like mitzvot. The other is the story of what happens. Leadership is how you negotiate both, looking ahead and looking around. The wounds that could not be healed are left behind. By the way, do you have assistant leaders?
TL: Yes, the Zlofchad sisters. They know how to stand up for themselves.
Rabbi: May I ask, how long is this journey that you’re taking?
TL: The trek is 30 days. Why?
Rabbi: Take extra, it may take longer than you think to get to where you want to be going. Might take 40.
July 28, 2017
From the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz (this year, July 11), a Jewish fast day commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem, all the Haftarah readings are related to the Hebrew calendar rather than the Torah portion.
There are three Haftarot of warning before Tisha B’Av (Monday evening, July 31) followed by seven Haftarot of consolation. This is how the Jewish people send text messages to each other. This week marks the third and last Haftarah of warning, Shabbat Chazon (the Shabbat of Vision), from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 1:1-27.
The student asked the rabbi, “I read the Haftarah. How can a city lose its way? I can understand a person or a family, but an entire city?”
The rabbi responded, “Let me tell you a Chelm story.”
The Wise Men of Chelm met in the councils of San Francisco in 1990 and argued for seven days and seven nights about what to do about the homeless. A lone voice said, “House them,” and added, quoting Henry David Thoreau, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
But the Wise Men of Chelm announced “Matrix,” and began sweeping the homeless from one neighborhood of the city to another. That did not work.
A decade or so later, the Wise Men of Chelm met again for seven days and seven nights and announced quality-of-life citations. “Yes,” they said, “We will give the homeless tickets for infractions such as urinating in public, loitering or sleeping in the park!” But, said the lone voice, “If they can’t pay, they won’t be eligible for city services?” The courts agreed.
The Wise Men of Chelm met again and came up with “Sit/Lie.” Flop. Others responded with Project Homeless Connect (pretty good) and navigation centers (temporary shelter beds, not long-term homes).
The student asked, “Do you know any new Chelm stories?”
The rabbi replied, “Here is a science fiction Chelm story.”
The Wise Men of Chelm from Outer Space (you probably did not see that coming) hovered, again, over the Earth. It had been 1 million years since the last visit. Looking down, they asked, “What does this planet do now? Last time we were here it made lava and steam. Now there is growth and creatures! The apple trees ‘apple,’ the oceans ‘fish,’ but on the whole, this planet ‘peoples.’”
Looking closer at all the major cities in North America — and especially at San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose — they saw thousands and thousands of homeless people. They amended their notes: This planet produces people, but somehow, the culture of the people in some places produces homeless people.
The student looked at the rabbi and said, “This is not funny. Do you know any contemporary teaching?”
“Yes, this is a teaching from Rabbi Daniel Nevins of the Jewish Theological Seminary.”
“What is your vision of a righteous city? This is an important question, because this week is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, and the vision offered by our prophets is that of a city that has gone astray, abandoning the path of righteousness.
“In our Haftarah, the book of Isaiah opens with the chilling depiction of a ‘faithful city’ (kiryah ne’emanah) that has become distorted into harlotry. What sins does Isaiah associate with such faithlessness? It is not ritual error but ethical failure that he decries. If so, then what would a righteous city look like? Is such a vision within our grasp?”
The student spoke (woke) and said, “This is what Isaiah meant by, ‘Your silver has turned to dross. Your wine is cut with water. Your rulers are rogues and cronies of thieves, every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts; they do not judge the case of the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.’ Apple trees make apples, our city makes homelessness.”
The rabbi said, “Here is another Isaiah vision: ‘I will restore your judges as of old, and your leaders as of the past. After that you will be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City.’”
The student: “That’s what Thoreau means: ‘There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.’ We solve homelessness by providing homes. How?”
“Housing-first. Look to Bergen County, New Jersey; Arlington, Virginia; and Honolulu, Hawaii. They all use a housing-first method. A better vision.”
September 22, 2017
Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27
Shabbat Shuvah (Shabbat of Returning) falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, inspired by the first words of the haftarah (additional reading), Hosea 14:2-10: “Return.”
“Do I have a stiff neck! And this is not a question, it is a declaration of discomfort,” said the Rabbi of Chelm.
“What’s wrong?” said a student.
“It’s impossible! My neck is so stiff I can’t turn left, I can’t turn right, I can’t look up, I can’t look down, I can’t look behind me. The best I can do is just keep going straight ahead. It’s a misery, simply a misery.”
“So what’s so bad about looking just straight ahead?”
“There’s nothing worse than being a stiff-neck person during the month of Elul. And it will be too horrible and more terrible if I am stiff-necked all the way to Shabbat Shuvah. How can I do teshuvah?”
“Isn’t teshuvah repentance, just saying sorry?”
“No. ‘Teshuvah’ is often translated as ‘repentance,’ ‘penitence’ or ‘atonement.’ But these words often confuse the Jewish ear. In Hebrew, ‘teshuvah’ sounds like ‘shuv,’ return. Teshuvah means turning away from the path that takes you away from your best self. Think of atonement as ‘at-one-ment.’ Being at one with oneself is the result of teshuvah, but teshuvah takes effort. The great Rambam (Maimonides) laid out these four steps for teshuvah: Stop. Regret. Verbalize. Make a plan.”
“A stiff-necked person can stop in his or her tracks. But sincere regret requires looking back at where you have been, looking around to see what you have done and looking at the people you have wronged. Only then can you resolve not to commit the error again. Only by atoning for your errors can you restore balance to your relationship with God and your fellow human beings. The completion is called teshuvah gamurah, or a complete return.”
“Oh, wow, that’s why a stiff neck is a bummer. How can you fix it?”
“For my neck, a heating pad is nice; for my heart, during the month of Elul, I read this card every morning. Would you please read it aloud?”
“The most unnoticed of all miracles is the miracle of repentance. It is not the same as rebirth; it is transformation, creation. In the dimension of time there is no going back. But the power of repentance causes time to be created backward and allows re-creation of the past to take place. Through the forgiving hand of God, harm and blemish which we have committed against the world and against ourselves will be extinguished, transformed into salvation.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Meaning of Repentance,” Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, pp. 69-70)
“Now read the other side.”
“Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz noted that teshuvah for formal sins was not on the Shabbat Shuvah agenda, but the greatest teshuvah, return to awareness of ourselves and God, was the very theme of Shabbat Shuvah. Rav Steinsaltz quoted Rav Zuzya, who noted that all of his morning preparations for the day — finding his socks, shirt, shoes, etc. —missed the main point: to find himself!”
“But how can you lose yourself? Who have you offended?”
“So many. I am the Rabbi of Chelm, the city of foolish people, and the bigger you think you are, the more errors you make. In the Rambam’s own time he incurred the jealousy of many rabbis. One of them, a relative no less, Rabbeinu Yonah, was the author of many works on Mussar, such as the Sharei Teshuvah, Sefer Ha’Yirah and many others. He attacked the Rambam and belittled his writing and denigrated his teaching. Only after the Rambam’s death did he realize the terrible mistake he had made. He decided to go from city to city retracting all that he had previously said against the Rambam. He stopped, he had regret, he wrote, he made a plan. He did not just write about teshuvah, he lived it, and found himself.”
“Was there anyone so stiff-necked that they were unable to change their ways and unable to do teshuvah?”
“According to the Rambam, this is the reason the Egyptians suffered the plagues. The Pharaoh was unable to do teshuvah. However, according to Midrash Yalkut Shimoni Exodus, Pharaoh survived the Red Sea and made his way to Nineveh, Assyria, where he became king — the same king who, when hearing the Prophet Jonah’s message foretelling Nineveh’s destruction, encouraged all his subjects to repent in order to avert the divine decree.”
January 19, 2018
“I don’t get this at all,” said the student to the rabbi of Chelm (the legendary town of fools). “Does ‘And the Lord said to Moses, Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him,’ literally mean that God caused the plagues, just to prove a point? And that God made Pharaoh’s heart hard, just to punish him?”
The rabbi replied: “Do you remember my favorite teaching from the Baal Shem Tov? ‘Forgetfulness leads to exile; remembrance is the secret of redemption.’”
“Yes, it’s right there on your desk.”
“Very observant. Observe this: The text we are learning together is indeed Bo, Exodus 10:1 to 13:16, but you must read what came before, in Exodus 9:22-35. Moses had stretched out his rod, and then hail struck the land of Egypt, and then Pharaoh said that he had erred and begged Moses to stop the hail. When Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunders had ceased, he hardened his own heart and again refused to let the enslaved people go.”
The student thought for a minute and said, “When my parents force me to apologize to my little bother, what I really feel is pity for him for being small and me for getting caught. Then I forget about it.”
“Like all those men who apologize after they get caught for harassing women.”
“So Pharaoh didn’t mean it?”
The Chelm Rabbi smiled. “No. This is the difference between empathy and sympathy. You and Pharaoh felt sympathy, for a moment, like the emoji sad face you texted me last week when you were running late. You pressed send and disconnected.”
“That’s OK. You are still a child, but Pharaoh was an adult without the capacity for empathy. For a moment he felt pity for himself and sympathy for the people of Egypt. However, he did not share a deep connection with Egypt or feet the pain of his enslaved people. He could not remember what it felt like to suffer and so he exiled himself; he forgot and hardened his own heart.”
“So, God didn’t do it?”
“The Rambam teaches that Pharaoh and his followers, of their own free will, oppressed the strangers who were in their midst and tyrannized over them with great injustice, by their own free will. The result was they lost the ability to empathize and repent.”
“How does anyone keep a feeling heart?
“We keep a compassionate heart through remembrance, and that is the secret of redemption, of making ourselves feel deeply. Even the United Nations will try again this January 27 on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.”
“Is this a new Jewish holyday?”
“No, a date for all humanity. Back in 2005 the UN approved a resolution introduced by Israel to remember the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp. The international community wanted to remember by ‘reaffirming that the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of one third of the Jewish people along with countless members of other minorities, will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice.’”
“Did all the countries of the world vote for the resolution?”
“No. The resolution also says it ‘rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an historical event, either in full or part,’ so those of hardened hearts did not vote for it.”
“Does Germany deny the Holocaust?”
“No country has exceeded Germany in acknowledging its role in the Holocaust, educating its citizens, and preserving sites.”
“In recent days, slipping closer to Austria.”
“Here, in the United States?”
“Here, in Chelm, in the United States, you need to carry the fight forward, to pursue justice, keep memory, and seek redemption. We have much to atone for: slavery, racism, sexism, and worse…”
“What can be worse?”
“The plague of Forgetfulness. Remember that. Pharaoh didn’t.”
March 9, 2018
Shabbat Parah — Numbers 19:1-22
We return, once again, to Chelm — the town of holy fools. One day, the new rabbi of Chelm was on the phone with the retired rabbi of Chelm….
Old: How was the last board meeting?
New: Terrible. We had a discussion of how best to serve the needy amongst us, and the board decided to alleviate suffering by declaring that “from now on every poor person will eat cream and every rich person will drink milk,” and their means of doing so is to rename “milk” as “cream” and “cream” to “milk.”
Old: That’s Chelm.
New: Worse. They want to protect children from gun violence by arming their teachers. Where am I?
New: That was not helpful.
Old: Look at this week’s Torah portion as compared to last week. In Exodus 32:1 we read, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they assembled around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.”
New: They forgot about the Exodus and Egypt.
Old: People often panic into foolishness. This week we read in Exodus 35:1, “Moses then convoked [vayachel] the whole community of Israel and said to them: ‘These are the words that Adonai has commanded you to do.’”
New: How does that help me before tonight’s board meeting?
Old: A real leader turns a mob into a community, not a community into a mob. Any fool can create discord, but the wise leader creates a kahal or Kehillah — a community. Moses leads them towards the sacred, to Shabbat and mitzvot, and away from foolishness, worshiping idols of their own creation. The people gathered around Aaron, a weak person who does whatever they want. Moses gathers the people around Torah, a common ambition, a higher calling.
New: How can I help these fools see themselves as leaders of the whole community?
Old: By using the calendar, we can ask four important questions about leadership.
Shabbat Shekalim was on Feb. 10, 2018; the Torah portion contains the account of the half-shekel offering which was brought by each citizen of Israel to maintain the Mishkan.
For Shekalim, we ask: Do we have the human resources to pursue our mission? Is everyone invested? Does everyone have equal access to full citizenship?
The Shabbat of Feb. 24 was Shabbat Zachor — the Sabbath of Remembrance. That’s the Shabbat before Purim, when we read “Remember what Amalek did to you.” Haman is an Amalek kind of person — he attacks from behind.
For Zachor, we ask: Do we remember our mission? Do we remember where we have been, and where we wish to be going? And what is it that we remember — myths or facts? Do we recall with nostalgia life as it never was, or do we recall with honesty and maturity our past as it truly happened?
This week is Shabbat Parah. This Shabbat we read the account of the red heifer. This is the Shabbat preceding Shabbat HaChodesh, in preparation for Passover.
For Parah, we ask: Are the material resources we have being well used to pursue our mission? Are we preserving our resources and managing our wealth, or are we squandering it all away?
Shabbat HaChodesh is March 17. We will read “This month (hachodesh) will be for you the beginning of the months, it will be for you the first of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2), and in the middle of this month is Passover.
And for HaChodesh, we ask: Where are we in time? Are we aware of our moment? Are we mindful of the world we are creating with our words? Are our lives well spent?
New: That is very wise advice.
Old: Even a fool can be wise once in a while.
May 3, 2018
The Rabbi of Chelm, city of holy fools, took a deep breath, meditated on his happy place and then smiled. He said, with an even voice, “No, Cinco de Mayo is a small holiday celebrated in Mexico. It is not a Chelm tradition, and it does not matter that it has become an American tradition.
“No,” he added, “It is not Mexican Independence Day. It commemorates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, in which the Mexican army defended itself against French invaders. The French were colonialists, and colonialism causes discord.
“What else causes discord? Disrespect between nations (colonialism), genders, races and people. This is the lesson from the season we are in right now. This Shabbat is the 35th day of the Omer, which we began counting after the first day of Passover. The Talmud relates that in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague raged between the students of Rabbi Akiva, all 24,000 of them, ‘Because they did not act respectfully toward each other’ (Yevamot 62b). In Chelm, and in many Jewish communities, these weeks are observed as a period of mourning.”
Now the Rabbi of Chelm really smiled. “Yes, you remembered that this past week we celebrated Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. We had a happy day because, according to our tradition, on Lag Ba’Omer the plague ceased. Thus Lag Ba’Omer also carries the theme of Ahavat Yisrael, the imperative to love and respect one’s fellow.
“A Hasidic teaching from the Sochatchover rebbe, Rav Shmuel Bornstein, understands that the students of Rabbi Akiva had become a unified, mindless, obedient block of the faithful, again, all 24,000 of them. They lost their ability to think as individuals. Since each was the same as the next, each one was a clone and became redundant. This is why they hated each other. The fighting went on until the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. Then the survivors reflected on their lives and each regained their individuality. And still, they found a way to respect each other’s individuality and yet remain a community.”
The bat mitzvah student thought about this and said, “Now I have a better appreciation of this week’s Torah portion, Emor. At first the text focuses on rules specifically for the Kohanim, not all the people. But later, after all the practices that seem to fall under the exclusive domain of the Kohanim, this happens in Leviticus 24:1-4:
‘God spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Israelite people to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. He shall set up the lamps on the pure lampstand before the Lord [to burn] regularly.’
“These verses stress the involvement of all of Israel. There are mitzvot unique to Kohanim and mitzvot unique to the people. Each must respect the other’s uniqueness. And then, with the lamps, there are mitzvot for everyone.”
“Yes, that is a good reading. You know, the Hasidim point out that the period of the Omer is during the Hebrew months of Nissan, Iyar and Sivan. The zodiac sign of Nissan is the lamb. Sheep bleat as one and stick together. That’s why they are called sheep: They act like sheep.
“Iyar has the sign of the bull, a solitary animal. A very unsociable creature exhibiting profound bull-headedness: Probably why they are called bulls.
“Sivan, however, is represented by the twins: This indicates the most ideal path: two individuals coexisting in community.”
“Yes,” said the bat mitzvah, “you got that one right. Our world is full of bulls and sheep. Thank you for teaching me with respect.”
“Thank you for respecting me,” said the Rabbi of Chelm.
June 28, 2018
Summertime in the village of Chelm, the legendary city of holy fools, is often sunny for three days followed by cool fog for an equal amount of time. The rabbi of Chelm would enjoy cool lemonade or warm tea, accordingly, a balanced ballet of beverages. Summertime b’nai mitzvah would run cool or hot, but in a random pattern for which there was little warning. This student, Ella, was a pistol.
Rabbi: Have you read Numbers 22:2 to 25:9? Did you see the hand of God …
Ella: I don’t like this Torah portion. My favorite characters, Aaron and Miriam, have died, the Israelites are struggling through Canaanites, Emorites and Amorites to get to the Land of Israel, and what’s worse, the whole episode takes place on a mountaintop between a crazy king, Balak, who runs on paranoia, and a guy whose only skill set is cursing people from afar, Balaam, and he never even meets Moses!
Rabbi: We see in the Midrash …
Ella: What’s worse, Balaam doesn’t even curse the Israelites. He blesses them! And where are the women? Without Miriam, it’s an all-guy show.
Rabbi: Not this again. Look …
Ella: I like that Balaam does not do what King Balak demands. He outwits Balaam, saying that the Israelites must be blessed because whoever curses them is cursed.
Rabbi: Yes, and in the Midrash …
Ella: I want to talk about Shifrah and Puah, who outwitted Pharaoh.
Rabbi: How do we get to Exodus 1:15-21?
Ella: Easy. That king Pharaoh demanded, “When you do the work of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them delivering, if it is a son, then kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she will live.” Like Balaam, Shifrah and Puah were in awe of God, not kings, and they let male children live. Like Balak, the king of Egypt accused the midwives, saying to them, “Why have you done this thing, and have saved the male children alive?” Shifrah and Puah said, “The Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and deliver before the midwives come to them.”
Rabbi: Here we see, “Then God tells Balaam to say to Balak, ‘God will not lie nor change the Almighty ruling.’ These people whom God brought out of the Land of Egypt must be blessed and not cursed.” The Midrash says …
Ella: And when Esther fools the king to trap Haman.
Rabbi: What? Esther 5:4?
Ella: Yeah. Haman has tricked the king, also a paranoid narcissist, to allow him to kill the Jews of Persia. Esther, a closeted Jewish woman, asks the king to a dinner party. Accompanied by Haman, the king attends Esther’s party and she reveal her true purpose: the unmasking of Haman and his plot. She reveals, for the first time, her identity as a Jew and accuses Haman of the plot to destroy her and her people. Haman goes down.
Rabbi: Here we read, “Then God tells Balaam to say to Balak, “God will not lie nor change the Almighty ruling. These people whom God brought out of the land of Egypt must be blessed and not cursed.” Balak repeats his demand. “If you will not curse them do not bless them.”
Ella: And Irena Sendler.
Ella: When Hitler and his Nazis built the Warsaw Ghetto and herded 500,000 Polish Jews behind its walls to await liquidation, many Polish gentiles turned their backs or applauded. Not Irena Sendler. She defied the Nazis. Like Shifrah, Puah and Esther, she persisted. She would not comply. She saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. As a health worker, she sneaked the children out between 1942 and 1943 to safe hiding places and found non-Jewish families to adopt them.
Rabbi: So you are saying that Shifrah, Puah, Esther and Irena Sendler are like Balaam in that …
Ella: No. I’m saying that Balaam is like Shifrah, Puah, Esther and Irena Sendler. You taught me that there is no time order in the Torah. I think Balaam looks at the Israelites, sees in them Shifrah, Puah, Esther and Irina, and is then inspired to say:
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob
Your dwelling places, O Israel.
Like brooks are they are turned,
Like gardens by the river,
Like cedars beside the waters,
The waters flow from God’s buckets.
When we outwit tyrants and the powerful, we are blessed
August 23, 2018
Student: Whatcha doing?
Rabbi: I just made a new quill from a goose feather and I am testing out my Hebrew lettering. (The rabbi writes out four
Hebrew letters: ayin, mem, lamed and koof.)
Student: Hey. Why did you just blot out the word that you just wrote in Hebrew letters? It looked nice.
Rabbi: When I want to test a quill, I write “Amalek” and then cross it out in order to fulfill the mitzvah of blotting out the memory of Amalek.
Student: You mean you remember to write “Amalek” so you can forget Amalek? That’s weird.
Rabbi: Welcome to Judaism. Followers of Torah do lots of strange things. For example, most people are afraid of strangers, but we are commanded to welcome and care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan.
Student: Who was Amalek anyway?
Rabbi: Seventy-four of the Torah’s 613 commandments (mitzvot) are in this week’s parashah, Ki Teitzei. They are all about how we treat each other. They are ethical behaviors that, when followed, create a moral environment, a just society. The sum of them all is the obligation to remember “what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt.”
Student: What did Amalek do that was so bad?
Rabbi: In Exodus 17:8 we read, “Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.” We were refugees from Egypt, passing through, and King Amalek attacked us. But not as a soldier, as a coward. He had his army assault our families, women and children, tired and thirsty, from behind, at the rear of our community.
Student: What kind of king attacks women and children?
Rabbi: A man without shame. I learned this from my teacher, professor Nechama Leibowitz. She pointed to this sentence (Deut. 25:18) in our Torah portion: “He had no awe of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.”
Nechama taught that this expression appears only four times in the Torah. In Genesis 20:11, Abraham explains to Abimelech why he lied about Sarah’s identity: “I thought: surely there is no awe of God in this place.” In Genesis 42:18, Joseph says to his brothers after accusing them of spying: “Do this and you shall live, for I am in awe of God.” In Exodus 1:17, as the midwives refuse to murder the male infants, “And the midwives were in awe of God and did not do as the king of Egypt told them.” The fourth time is in Ki Teitzei.
In all of these verses, the litmus test for “awe of God” is the attitude to the weak and the stranger. Amalek is the archetype of the Godless, who attack the weak because they are weak, who cut down the stragglers in every generation (“Studies in Devarim,” Hebrew edition, pages 234-235. Thanks to Rabbi David Golinkin).
Student: So we hate the Amalekites?
Rabbi: Oh no. Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a Hasidic master, points out that in the Hebrew text of the Torah, the instruction “to blot out the memory of Amalek” is written in the singular, not the plural. Not the Amalekites, Amalek, and not the man Amalek, but for each of us not to become an Amalek. Not to act like an Amalek, and certainly not to support an Amalek.
Student: So why again do you blot out the work “Amalek” after you have just written it?
Rabbi: So I remember to search out Amalek inclinations within myself and remember to work to blot them out of myself.
Student: So, if we are to be a just society, we must be more in awe of God than ourselves, and remember to treat the stranger and the refugee not like Amalek, but to be a people like the Torah wants us to become. Can I try a little blotting?
Rabbi: Here is my quill. Write the letters ayin, mem, lamed and koof. Then pause, and say almost to yourself, “Amalek.” Seek out your inner Amalek and blot away.
Student: That’s not so weird after all.
Rabbi: No, it’s Torah.
December 6, 2019
The Rabbi of Chelm was watching TV and social media news streams, moaning, sighing, and occasionally crying. You ask, “What’s troubling you?”
The Rabbi of Chelm tells you a story: There was a pair, Yochanan and Lakisha, who were very close. Yochanan discovered Lakisha when Lakisha was living on the edge: He wrestled animals and made his livelihood as a bandit. Yochanan helped him learn and they became partners in life (Lakisha married his sister) and in the yeshiva in Tiberias (250-290 CE). They knew everything about each other.
One day in the public Yeshivah, in the heat of a debate of the purity of metal objects (Bava Metzia 84a), such as swords, knives and spears, Yochanan countered Lakisha with these words: “A thief knows about [the tools of] thievery!”
Lakisha cried out, “How can you say that to me here?” Yochanan responds, “Because I made you who you are today.” In the aftermath, an unrepentant Yochanan became depressed, a humiliated Lakisha became ill and they both died. A woman lost her brother and her husband, and her children lost a father and an uncle. The community of Tiberias lost their greatest teachers. All because of a public shaming.
The Rabbi of Chelm tells you another story, drawn from this week’s Torah portion: You know that Jacob has come to his uncle Laban and encountered his two daughters. The name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Jacob fell hard for Rachel and declared to Laban, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
At the end of seven years Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled, that I may cohabit with her.”
Laban made a feast and when evening came, he took his daughter, Leah, and brought her to Jacob. When morning came, there was Leah!
Really? Jacob did not know? The people gathered, there was a feast, a woman was brought to a tent, and pow! Jacob should have tossed her out, declared a fraud and shamed Leah in front of her entire community! Who spared Leah the humiliation? Her sister, Rachel.
The Talmud (Megillah 13b) says that Rachel warned Jacob that her father Laban would try to deceive him with Leah. Jacob and Rachel made up secret signs, which she and Jacob would use to identify the veiled bride, making sure that Jacob would know that his bride was Rachel.
In the Talmud (Bava Batra 123a) describes how Rachel spared her sister the shame of being rejected by Jacob on their wedding night:
When Laban’s associates were bringing Leah up to the wedding canopy to marry Jacob, Rachel thought: Now my sister will be humiliated when Jacob discovers that she is the one marrying him. Therefore, Rachel gave the signs to Leah. And this is as it is written: “And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah.” This verse is difficult, as by inference, should one derive that until now she was not Leah? Rather, through the signs that Jacob gave to Rachel and that she gave to Leah, he did not know it was she until that moment.
There’s more! The midrash (Tanhuma, Vayetze 6) relates that before the wedding, Jacob sent Rachel many presents. Laban would take these gifts and give them to Leah, and Rachel remained silent.
The wackiest depiction of Rachel’s efforts to protect Leah from the shaming dumped on her by the men in her family is another midrash (Lamentations Rabbah). Here, Rachel enters under Jacob and Leah’s bed on their wedding night. When Jacob spoke with Leah, Rachel would answer him, so that he would not identify Leah’s voice.
The Rabbi of Chelm, versed in the world of foolishness, nevertheless is pained by men in power shaming those with less — all too often, women. And, on this Shabbat, he is inspired by the legendary power of Rachel to protect her sister Leah from shame. She keeps her sister, holds on to her husband, and becomes Rachel Imanu (our matriarch, Rachel).
January 31, 2020
The Rabbi of Chelm rubbed his eyes and tried to look away from the newsfeed. “This country has never been so divided!” the voice of the web said. Then these words from the great 1970s sage Stephen Stills came to mind:
Find the cost of freedom,
Buried in the ground.
Mother Earth will swallow you,
Lay your body down.
At Kent State University, May 4, 1970, four young people were shot dead by young people in the Ohio National Guard. It was necessary, some people said.
Then these words from the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Akiva came to mind:
Everything is foreseen, and freewill is given.
And with goodness the world is judged.
And all depends on which deeds are more numerous.
In this week’s Torah reading, we find entrapment and freedom, determinism and free will.
The Rabbi of Chelm remembers a bat mitzvah student who just hated this Torah portion: “How is it possible to blame Pharaoh for the sorrows of the Israelites in Egypt when we read: ‘Then the LORD said to Moses: Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the LORD’ (Exodus 10:1). Everyone tells me that now I must use my own mind and heart to make decisions. That’s so unfair! God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart 20 times!”
“Actually, it’s yin-yang: Pharaoh stiffens his own heart 10 times and God stiffens Pharaoh’s heart 10 times.”
The student looked puzzled. “Yin-yang doesn’t sound like Judaism.”
“Well, Judaism is from the Middle East, not the Middle West. Rabbi Akiva’s thinking here is close to Taoism. In the Rabbinic literature, seemingly contrary forces are often revealed to be interconnected. Here, look at this: ‘Resh Lakish teaches that when God warns someone once, twice, even a third time and that person does not repent, then and only then does God close the person’s heart against repentance. Moses warned Pharaoh five times, so the Almighty said: You have become stubborn and unyielding, therefore I am adding to your evil doing’ (Shemot Rabbah 13:1).
“And then there’s Rambam’s commentary on Rabbi Akiva: ‘Do not think that since God knows the actions that a person is coerced to perform a particular action. The matter is not so. Rather, each individually chooses what he will do. That is that which is stated: Free will is given.”
The student: “Pharaoh’s own arrogance closes the door on forgiveness? That’s what is foreseen? So where is Rabbi
Akiva’s free will in this portion?”
The Rabbi of Chelm: “Here — just after a final heart-stiffening, and before the 10th plague, we read in Exodus 12:2: ‘This month will be for you the first of months.’ The midrash says: ‘From this point on, the coming months will be your months, to do with them as you wish — according to your desires. In contrast, during the many days of your enslavement, your days were not your days. For those days were devoted to the work of others and according to their will. Therefore, this is the first of the months of the year for you. From this very point begins your new reality of free choice.’
“So, I have free will.”
“Yes,” the Rabbi of Chelm, said quietly. “‘Four dead in Ohio.’ Someone choose to kill those students. When Rabbi Heschel was asked about the assassination of his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he said, ‘God has shared life with man and He has given man freedom. A very questionable gift, and the most outstanding gift man has. Man can do anything. God does not interfere.’”
The Rabbi of Chelm, continued: “Do you know who story of the King of Nineveh? He was the king who, upon hearing the prophet Jonah calling for the people of Nineveh to repent, rent his garments and put on sackcloth and ashes, and he declared that all his people should fast with him for three days. He was, according to Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, none other than Pharaoh! After the Red Sea, he left Egypt, got a new job, and this time, did not harden his heart. We all have access to free will and repentance. Even Pharaoh.”
March 20, 2020
It was “Ask the Rabbi—Open Mic Shabbat” at Congregation B’nai Balagan in Chelm. This new program was the result of a board of directors’ vote following the expenditure of a lot of money to the Chelm Marketing Mavens.
The president stood before the congregation and explained that instead of the rabbi giving a sermon, the congregation is invited to come forward and ask the rabbi anything, almost anything, just nothing about local politics, climate change or Israel.
Mr. Shusterman: “Yes, I have a question.”
“Good, our first question.”
“Where’s the sermon?”
Another member: “I have a question.”
“Why is this Shabbat a double Torah portion, Vayakhel and Pekudei, when in 2016 my son only read Vayakhel for his bar mitzvah? A week later, some other kid read Pekudei.”
Oh no, thought the president.
I got this, thought the rabbi. “There are four pairs in a regular year: Vayakhel-Pekudei, Tazria-Metzora, Acharei-Kedoshim and Behar-Bechukotai. There are other pairs for other reasons, but let’s stay with these. In a Jewish leap year, we add an extra month, consisting of 30 days — four more Shabbats — and so these portions expand, giving us four more readings. The next will be the year 2022.”
“That’s the year of my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Who do I speak to about this? Should we pay half dues?”
Oy, thought the president. “Yes, young lady. Do you have a question?”
“Yes, it’s a historical question. I have heard that David Ben-Gurion thought that an Arab could be president of the future
Jewish state and that he also favored moving Arabs away from Jewish settlements. Which is true?”
President: “We said no Israel questions!”
“It was Palestine then. Not yet Israel.”
President: “We said no Israel questions. Who are you?”
“I’m in college now, but you presented me with Shabbat candles when I became a bat mitzvah seven years ago. I am a daughter of this congregation and a member of my Hillel and IfNotNow.”
I got this, thought the rabbi. “Did you know that Ben-Gurion tried to have ‘et’ officially banned from usage because it lengthens the sentence without adding meaning and it is an unnecessary cost to modern Hebrew printing.”
Congregation in unison: “What’s … an … et?”
“A two-letter word, spelled alef-tav. It’s a grammatical marker for a direct object, an extra Hebrew preposition. ‘Ha’ in Hebrew is ‘the.’ ‘Et-ha’ is Biblical Hebrew. We still translate ‘et-ha’ as ‘the.’ We say ‘The Tabernacle’ even though in Hebrew it is spelled ‘et-ha Mishkan.’
“That’s why Ben-Gurion tried to have ‘et’ officially banned from modern usage. However, there is more going on in Chapter 35 of this Torah portion. There is an ‘et’ parade beginning with verse 10, and then the ‘et’ is repeated 41 more times!
“’And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the LORD has commanded: (et) the Tabernacle, (et) its tent and (et) its covering, (et) its clasps and (et) its planks, (et) its bars, (et) its posts, and (et) its sockets; (et) the ark and its poles, (et) the cover and (et) the curtain for the screen; (et) the table, and (et) its poles and all (et) its utensils; and (et) the bread of display …’ (you get the idea)
“The Zohar regards each Hebrew word of the Torah as filled with meaning. Professor Daniel Matt teaches that the ‘et’ (that Ben-Gurion says is useless and has no actual meaning) is comprised of the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet (alef and tav), and it ‘means nothing but expresses everything.’ It came to represent all of the qualities of the Divine as embodied in the Shechinah, the felt presence of God.
“In this Torah portion, we build the ‘Et-Ha Mishkan,’ literally ‘dwelling-place,’ the place where God and Israel meet. It is here that God’s divine presence, the Shechinah (same root as Mishkan) resides where we gather.
“Each of the 42 alef-tavs represent the continued presence of the sacred as each small piece of the Mishkan is assembled. Every clasp, plank, bars, posts, socket and pole. Each and every member of the community brings the ‘et’ the alpha and omega, the beginning and end, the totality and the Divine Presence. No person or part is unimportant, each is bringing ‘et.’
Mr. Shusterman: “Good sermon.”
May 8, 2020
The Rabbi of Chelm, the legendary town of holy fools, was on the weekly Village of Chelm Zoom call. Generally speaking, Chelmites don’t mute themselves, they aim the camera at their foreheads, and they sip tea with lemon while starring at the screen. For the rabbi, it’s a difficult work environment.
The first question came from Yankel. Yankel’s last question was why do the wealthy get cream and all the rest only get milk? The Rabbi of Chelm decided that from that time forward cream will be called milk and milk will be called cream. Yankel was so pleased he bought a “Make Milk Cream Again” hat. Now he had a new question.
“Rabbi,” Yankel began, “I have been in my house for days and days and I don’t know what news to trust. Whom should I
“Aha!” exclaimed the Chelmer Rebbe. “Just look at the last verse of last week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, and the first verse of this week’s portion, Emor. The last verse of last week’s Torah portion was Leviticus 20:27: ‘A man or a woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones — their bloodguilt shall be upon them.’
“Ovadia Sforno, the 16th-century Italian rabbi and Biblical commentator explains that all the Torah mitzvot that had been given prior to this warning are pathways to sanctifying the Jewish people through their observance of these mitzvot, and therefore anyone deviating from these commandments, turning instead to these non-living oracles, is doing precisely the opposite of what the Torah wanted. No wonder the penalty is so harsh!
sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin.’”
Yankel unmuted himself, noisily sipped his tea, and asked, ”Why was this verse about Kohanim followed by the verse about ghosts and familiar spirits?”
The Rabbi of Chelm smiled, “Yankel, Bahya ben Asher, the 14th-century Spanish rabbi and Biblical commentator, asked the same question: ‘Why was this section about Kohanim attached to the verse about ghosts and familiar spirits?’”
“OK,” said Yankel. “What does he say?”
“He finds an answer in the Midrash Tanhuma: It is absurd to consult the dead as opposed to the living God, found in the minds of living people. Scripture says, ‘And if you should ask, from whom shall we inquire, ‘come to the Levitical Kohanim . . . and act in accordance with the Torah that they teach you’ (Deuteronomy 17:9-11).
“’A man or a woman who has a ghost’ against ‘Speak to the Kohanim.’ In other words, seek Torah — or facts — from someone who is alive, living in the real and now, and not of someone who is dead and is of the past, or living in an imaginary world. As for today, just because someone’s lips are moving and making sounds from their mouths doesn’t mean that they are alive in their head and heart.”
Yankel sighed, and replied, “Yeah, that feels right.”
The Rabbi muted everyone and said to all:
“There are six Shabbats between Passover and Shavuot, and there are six chapters in Pirkei Avot. It is our custom to study a chapter each Shabbat. This is the fourth Shabbat, and this teaching is from chapter four: ‘Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? Someone who learns from everyone, as it is said in Psalms: From all who taught me have I gained understanding.’”
Yankel’s daughter, wiser than her father, said,
June 26, 2020
We find the Rabbi of Chelm upside down. His feet are waving in the air and from the waist up (down?) as he is deep into a barrel of apples.
“What are you doing?” we asked.
He replied, muffled: “These apples have been in this barrel too long and I can smell rot. If I don’t remove the rotten apple, the rot will spread. It’s what Rabbi Huna (Sanhedrin 7a) taught: ‘Strife is like a crack in a water pipe that keeps getting wider.’ If you don’t fix it, it keeps getting worse. This barrel has been neglected and this is what happens. I need to fix it.”
“Can we talk about this week’s Torah portion while you are apple hunting? It’s our appointment.”
“Sure,” came the voice from the barrel,
“Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.
“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’ When Moses heard this, he fell on his face.”
“Rabbi, is this the notorious and infamous uprising against Moses?”
From deep in the barrel: “Yes. And speaking of fruit, do you all remember the teaching from Pirkei Avot and correct and incorrect argumentations?”
“Indeed, we do. It’s Avot 5:17:
‘Every controversy that is for the sake of heaven will bear fruit. Every controversy that is not for the sake of heaven will not bear fruit. What is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? That of Hillel and Shammai. One not for the sake of Heaven? That of Korach and his followers.’”
The Rabbi of Chelm emerges victorious from the barrel, holding several apples in different stages of decay.
“Right. But these days we need to continue reading on, to the next teaching, or rather, a continuation, Avot 5:18: ‘One who leads the people to virtue will never be the cause of wrongdoing. One who leads the people to wrongdoing will never be allowed forgiveness. Moses was himself virtuous and led the people to virtue, so the people’s virtue was credited to him, it is said (Deuteronomy 33:21): He carried out the justice of the Eternal, and his judgments are with Israel. Jeroboam went wrong and let the people astray, so the people’s wrongdoing was blamed on him, as it said (First Kings 15:30): For the wrongs that Jeroboam committed and that he caused Israel to commit.’”
“Who is Jeroboam? Isn’t that a big bottle of wine?”
“Yes, but that is not the point. This is: Jeroboam was the first king of the northern Kingdom of Israel, following a revolt of the 10 northern Israelite tribes ended Solomon’s legacy, pitching the north against the south and reintroducing idolatry. He led the people astray. The beginning of the end.”
“What does this have to do with Korach?”
Putting the rotten apples in the compost, the Rabbi of Chelm opened to Numbers 17:6:
“Next day the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, You two have brought death upon the Lord’s People!”
“Now the Israelites are rotting. Following the failure of leadership in last week’s portion (The 12 “Spies,” 13:1-15:41) and rise of and fall of Korach and his band of rebels, there is more resentment and malcontent. Even though these Israelites escaped from Egypt, saw the Red Sea, witnessed Sinai, following Korach, they will not enter The Land.
“You see, there are no ‘rotten apples,’ there are only bad barrels. The apples are like the Israelites. At first, some were bystanders, far from the rot, some were witnesses, closer but unaffected, some were collaborators, spreading the rot, and a few, at first, were perpetrators. Unchecked, the whole thing rots.”
“Wow. Then what happens?”
The Rabbi of Chelm smiled. “Here, we need a new barrel. There, in next week’s Torah portion, a new generation rises up.”
August 15, 2020
Torah: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 - 55:5
“Well, all you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.”
Morrie Ryskind, Our Man Godfrey
“God sent an angel to evenly distribute over the globe a sack full of wise people and sack full of fools. The bag of fools ripped open and they all fell in one place, the valley of Chelm. They took one look around, and then at each other, and declared that this was the place for the wisest of the wise, Chelm.”
Chronicles of Chelm
“Where is Chelm in America? Seek and you shall find.”
The Online Chelm School
Students: “He’s still muted. He can’t unmute himself. Someone please, send him a chat. He can’t find the chat box. Look. A cat! He is still reading chapter 12 of Deuteronomy to himself. Oh, he unmuted.”
Rabbi of Chelm: “… You shall not do thus for the Lord your God. But to the place that the Lord your God will choose of all your tribes to set His name there, to make it dwell, you shall seek it and come there. Deuteronomy 12:5”
First Student: “Not to do thus what?”
Rabbi: “Robert Alter says, ‘pagan concretizations of the deity.’ God cannot sit in a building. Only the name of God, and that is not God.”
A Student: “In Jerusalem?”
Rabbi: No, Jerusalem is never mentioned in the Torah. 21 times throughout the book of Deuteronomy, and 16 of those 21 right here in Re’eh, we hear “hamakom asher yivhar Hashem” / “to the place that the Lord your God will choose.”
Same Student: “And that’s Jerusalem.”
Rabbi: “No, we have allusions and hints to a specific place but not to a specific place.”
A Student: Then how do we find it?”
Rabbi: “There is a hint: ‘l'shichno ti'drshu, u'bata shama / you shall seek it and come there.’”
That Same Student: “To the Temple in Jerusalem?”
Rabbi: “No, no mention of a Temple. They are really good at carrying the Tent of Meeting that journeyed through the wilderness and will no doubt bring it with them into the land of Canaan. The Deuteronomist writes ‘mikol shivtekhem / of all your tribes’ and ‘beahad shevatekha / and in one of your tribal territories.’ Not in a place but in one of the tribes or communities.”
Another Student: “Is this the first time we are told to seek God anywhere?”
Rabbi: “Deuteronomy knows Exodus. Look at Parashat HaShavuah Yitro (Exodus 20:24) and we find, ‘Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; b’kol HaMakom / in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.’ Gather in a place and seek God in the right kind of company, and you will be blessed.
Student: “So, it is sacred intention more than sacred place?”
Student: “Is that why one of the names for God is HaMakom?”
Rabbi: “Rabbis began to use HaMakom as a placeholder for God. This is the move made in Pirqei de-Rabbi Eli’ezer (Italian, 9th century): “Why is HaShem called Makom / Place? Because wherever the upright people stand, HaShem is present with them.”
Our teacher Ismar Schorsch (Chancellor emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary) writes:
“Behind the plethora of divine names that came to mark Judaism, there resonates but one defiant conviction: ‘that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other (Deut. 4:39).’ All that exists flows from a single source, even if no one name comes close to illuminating it, though HaMaqom is a daring and lofty creation of the religious imagination.”
Student: “I miss camp. I miss all my friends at camp. It was like an angel emptied a bag full of wonderful people in one place. Now I know why I felt more spiritual there than anywhere else.”
Rabbi: “Yes. Perhaps, every once in a while, just for a moment, seeing each other on a screen, if our intentions are right and the spirit is willing, we have a Makom”
Student: “For someone who is foolish with his computer you get out a wise word. How did you figure out unmute?”
Rabbi: “My cat stepped on the keyboard.”