Winning Isn’t Everything

Los Angeles is in a winning frenzy and it isn’t even award season!  Los Angeles teams, the Kings, Ducks and the Clippers are battling in their respective sports ‘ playoffs.

Even if you are not a great basketball or hockey fan you can’t escape the determination and grit that these players show during each game.  Add to that both the Dodgers and Angels play almost daily along with Los Angeles soccer teams the Galaxy and Chivas USA.  Women’s Basketball season begins next week and we are home to the LA Sparks.  And I couldn’t mention pro sports without mentioning the LA Lakers who had perhaps their worst season ever. It’s a veritable rainbow of colors and mascots!

But even with all the competitive play and the enjoyment fans of all stripes get from cheering on their favorite players and teams it is clear that winning isn’t everything.

The Donald Sterling debacle of racist attitudes that were revealed publically proves that sports have something to say about many other issues.  Winning isn’t everything.  More than contracts and coaching changes, the state of sports and the owners and players and yes, the fans matter. Attitudes matter because they infect and affect the nature of the game.   When Sterling’s words and disregard of people of color were revealed by TMZ and the subsequent reaction teach us that the lessons of our Jewish tradition should be heeded.  We are taught that all people are created in the image of God-b’tzelem Elohim.  I guess Mr. Sterling missed that lesson in Religious School.

The deep wound of racism in our country continues to bleed.  No matter whether it comes in the form of a basketball team owner, a rancher in Nevada, or being picked up for driving while black, our country must confront the deadly divisions around race in our country.  Where can we have those conversations in safety? There are deep reservoirs of hurt, resentment and anger in our country around race and discrimination that still exists.  And we cannot sweep it under the rug.

Judaism is supposed to offer us guidance in learning to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Judaism teaches us that we cannot judge a person by the color of their skin from the story of Miriam, Moses’ sister who pointed out the dark skin color of his wife Tziporrah. Tzipporah was a very righteous woman who helped bring her sons into the covenant with Abraham even when Moses her husband neglected it.  It was Miriam who was punished for her racism. And in the Bible’s ironic voice, Miriam was turned snow white even as she pointed out Tziporra dark skin! The Torah story teaches us that a person must be judged by her deeds not by the color of her skin.  A winning attitude is about living a righteous and upright life and anyone can strive to achieve this.

So yes, as the playoffs continue, we cheer for our various teams and we hope they win. But winning isn’t everything.  Words and deeds matter and how we treat one another. We still have a long way to go before we will be truly color blind.  In the meantime, we have to engage in the conversation about race openly and honestly and our own roles in continuing to support institutional racism.  And most importantly, we ought to strive to live by our Jewish values and overcome the racism around us. Then the only colors we ought to see are our team colors!

Miriam and Leadership: May her memory live for a blessing

Parshat Chukat

Numbers 19:1-22

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we encounter the deaths of both Aaron and Miriam.  Moses and his siblings were the leaders of the people Israel on their journey to the Promised Land. Of course Aaron was named High Priest and Miriam was called the N’viah, the prophetess. Each had their important role and according to the Talmud each brought special gifts to the people Israel. Moses brought sustenance through the manna that God gave that fed the people Israel in the desert. Aaron invoked God’s holy name and the Cloud of Glory, the Divine Presence came and protected the people on their way from all enemies. And Miriam is noted for a sacred well that followed the Children of Israel throughout the Wilderness and quenched their thirst.
The Talmud in Taanit 9a teaches this story commenting on the verse in our Torah portion:

And Miriam died there… And there was no water for the congregation (20:1-2)

Three great providers arose for the people of Israel–Moses, Aaron and Miriam–through whom they received three great gifts: the well, the clouds [of glory], and the manna. The well was in the merit of Miriam, the clouds in the merit of Aaron, and the manna in the merit of Moses.

When Miriam died, the well was removed, as it says, “And Miriam died there…” and, immediately afterward, “And there was no water for the congregation.” The well then resumed in the merit of the other two.

When Aaron died, the clouds of glory were removed, as it says, “And the Canaanite, the King of Arad, heard …and waged war on Israel.” He heard that Aaron died, and thought that he now had license to attack Israel [because the clouds of glory which protected them were gone.  The well and the clouds] then resumed in the merit of Moses alone.

Because the well dried up, Moses struck the Rock in this week’s portion to bring out an abundant flow of water rather than speaking to it as God had told him.

Some of the commentators say that Moses was so distraught about his older sister’s death that in his grief and frustration he hit the Rock to quench the thirst of the People. After all, it was Miriam’s ability to think and plan ahead that baby Moses was saved and raised in the palace of the Pharaoh.  It was Miriam who organized the women in celebration and dancing in thanksgiving for the rescue at the Sea of Reeds.

Miriam is only mentioned six times by name in the Torah. But clearly played an important role in the life of the Israelites.  As we read of her this week, may we be inspired by her leadership, her ability to think strategically and plan ahead and her joyous nature that gave thanks to God.

In Praise of Brave Women

Parshat Shemot

Exodus 1:1-6:1

We begin an entirely new book of the Bible this week.  This is the story of the Jewish people’s enslavement in Egypt and their liberation. It is the beginnings of the nation of  the People of Israel.  We meet Moses who as an infant is adopted into Pharaoh’s home.  The Pharaoh, so different from the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time, has enslaved the Hebrews and seems fearful of the foreign nationals in his midst.
And yet the kindness and gentleness of his own daughter saves a Hebrew baby set adrift in the Nile to escape the menace of the murdering Egyptian soldiers who were acting under orders of Pharaoh to kill all male Hebrew babies.  The rabbis of the Midrash name Pharaoh’s daughter Batya – daughter of God.  Moses’ sister Miriam set in motion the rescue of this baby Moses.  She has a hand in helping Batya take in this child and even suggests his own birth mother, (her own mother) Yocheved as a wet nurse!  Thus the infant Moses was nourished not only by the courage of his sister Miriam but by the milk of kindness of Batya and the milk of his own mother.
Batya must have known and must have put two and two together.  She must have understood that this was a Hebrew baby.  She must have understood the implications of rescuing a child that her father had ordered dead.

 

But her chesed, her lovingkindness, extended toward this Hebrew family in saving their infant boy and eventually raising him in Pharaoh’s court beneath the very eyes of Pharaoh is but one of the everyday miracles associated with the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt.

 

Our Torah teaches us “Love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.  Batya intuitively understands this principle. Her act of defiance by raising a Hebrew slave boy as her own under the nose of Pharaoh himself creates a tikkun, a repair in the fabric of the universe.  Her kindness and courage runs counter to Pharaoh’s cruelty and fear of the “other”.

 

In saving just one life-that of the baby Moses, Batya literally saves a world! She saved the Israelites from certain destruction because Moses grows and is able to receive the call from God at the burning bush.  Did God direct the hand of Batya as well?

 

Moses would eventually be able to bridge worlds: the world of the Egyptian royal house and the world of the Hebrew slave and the world of the desert nomads when he married into the household of Jethro the Midian High Priest. This helped him lead the Israelites toward the Promised Land and become a nation.

 

But without the help of courageous women, his sister Miriam, his own mother Yocheved and his adopted Egyptian mother Batya, Moses would have not survived. Celebrate the love and strength of a woman in your life this week in honor of these three courageous women in Moses’ life.

 

Sing me a song

Music is a powerful force in my life. It has been the glue that has kept me together.  I sang as a child. I taught myself guitar. I played piano. I trained in opera.  I led singing in youth group and camp. I sang in choirs and competed in singing competitions. I was even a voice major when I started college. Music has carried my spirituality and I built my relationship with God on a foundation of harmonies and melodies that have expanded to the intellectual and mystical.

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song.  At the focal point is Moses’ triumphant poem, the Shirat Hayam-the Song of the Sea.  Found in Exodus 15 in Parshat Beshalach. Moses in verse recalls the parting of the Red Sea, the waves crashing around the Egyptians (Horse and rider God has thrown into the sea), and the power and glory of God (Who is like You among the gods that are worshipped?) 

The victory poem has its own unique melody and meter and layout in the Torah.  Graphically it looks like two walls of water and the crossing that takes place in the middle.  And at the end of the poem we learn that Miriam, Moses’ sister, led the women dancing and playing timbrels as they sang this song of celebration.

This Shabbat we are reminded of this power of music and the gifts of singing and dancing.  We are reminded that they are an integral part of Jewish spirituality and transformation. They certainly have been huge parts of my spirituality and my transformations. This Shabbat sing and dance and celebrate freely!!!!