It is Upon Him – “I am God”

This past week I had the privilege of studying for a day and a half with my fellow Reform colleagues, rabbis, and cantors, at an annual gathering called Hava Tefillah, which loosely translated means “Let’s Pray”. Our discussion and sharing centered on the Shabbat morning celebration, and I am inspired and motivated to bring some of the suggestions and innovations from my colleagues to Beth Shir Shalom. Since it was a Shabbat morning experience, when we modeled that gathering, the reading of the Torah was included and, of course, we used this past week’s Torah portion, Emor. My colleague, Rabbi Robin Nafshi, who led one of the Torah reading simulations, pointed to something unusual in the portion which I will both try to explain to you and show you.

Leviticus 21-12


“He shall not go outside the sanctuary and profane the sanctuary of his God, for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his God, Mine the Lord’s.”

Those three highlighted spots are what are called trope marks. Some of us may be familiar with them as musical notes. However, they began as grammatical marks for phrasing. What Rabbi Nafshi pointed out is that the tropes indicate that the last three words of this verse form one phrase although that doesn’t make sense in the context of the entire verse. When we translate just those three words themselves as a phrase it comes out: “Upon him I am God”! How can we make sense of a phrase that says, “Upon him I am God”?!  It was surprising to me that when Rabbi Nafshi asked the question I immediately understood!  If everything is God and the text says, “Upon him I am God”, then the text says that the consciousness, the awareness, the perspective of “I am God” must be “upon” the priest.  In other words, the priest must be aware that he is not God, that he’s only part of God and a small part at that!  The complex and ornate ceremony that initially ordained him as a priest and now dictates his function in the community can easily make the priest feel elevated, God-like, set apart and above everyone else. The phrase, “Upon him I am God” is a polemic against narcissism, against a self-serving attitude, against self-preservation to the exclusion of all other concerns.

You can probably tell where I’m going with this line of thought and you’re right, but first, let me speak about something that I intended to speak about last Shabbat and then let me expand the notion to recent events in our nation’s capital. For those of us who live in Los Angeles, there is a charter Amendment on the ballot today call Charter Amendment C.  Those who support it feel that this amendment will be a huge step to ensure that there is civilian oversight over the police department. According to my friends at the ACLU and the Black Jewish Justice Alliance, this proposed amendment will actually do the opposite. Charter Amendment C modifies the process for disciplinary appeals at the Los Angeles Police Department.  Currently, the civilian Police Commission decides whether shootings and other serious uses of force are within policy or not, and the Chief of Police makes recommendations about serious discipline.  But if the Chief recommends that an officer be fired, that officer may appeal the decision to a Board of Rights — a panel made up of two command-level LAPD officers and one civilian drawn from a pool of approved panelists.  Charter Amendment C proposes that the officer may appeal to a panel that is made up of only civilians. That looks like civilian oversight but it’s not. This new panel would have very limited power period it can only reduce the disciplinary measures that have been proposed by the police chief – it cannot increase them. Even more troubling is the small pool from which these civilians on this panel may be chosen. According to the City’s current regulations, civilian panelists must have seven years of experience in either arbitration, mediation or administrative hearings. These are not civilians who are drawn from the community, especially the community that is most impacted by police misconduct.

How does this intersect with our Torah portion? If our ancient priests were admonished to keep in mind that within the grandness of everything that is God, they are just small functionaries and they shouldn’t let their elevated position in society “go to their heads”, how much the more so should those who comprise a small panel in the city of Los Angeles charged with the weighty task deciding whether police officers should be allowed to continue with his or her career be humbled by their assignment and recognize that they are not divine and therefore should do everything they can to adjudicate with compassion to both the alleged victims and the officer. Constituting this decision-making panel with officers and so-called civilians, the latter of whom are as much chained and prejudiced by their expertise as they are empowered by it, creates anything but a fair process.  Those who are placed into such positions of responsibility must remember that upon them should always be the awareness that “Ani Adonai – I am God” is greater than they are.  Charter Amendment C creates the opposite of that, a bubble, an encapsulated, narrow perspective that favors the officers. I urge a “no” vote on Charter Amendment C.

Last week, I naively thought that speaking about this amendment wouldn’t be eclipsed by any national or international concerns. I guess I was wrong!  What effected our president this past week and this week can also be understood as not understanding “Alav Ani Adonai”, he must have a full consciousness that it is “upon” him, that is it his constant and consistent responsibility to know that, he is a small part of God, ultimately equal to all the other parts, especially knowing that not one of us is above the law. He cannot use his position as President and his power to hire and fire as a sword of Damocles to suspend over others. More appropriately, when a leader truly understands Alav Ani Adonai, that he is within or even beneath God, then the Sword of Damocles hangs over him and he knows it because he hung it there to keep himself in check.

On Israel’s 70th Birthday – One Way Toward Peace

I began life as a non-Zionist because thaarrow on roadt was the essential stance of the Reform movement at the time. I do remember when, very indirectly, I realized that the Movement’s position had changed. I was in my first year or two of Hebrew school and we were informed that from this day forward, we would be pronouncing Hebrew “as they did in Israel”. As a result, we need to relearn the ways in which we were pronouncing certain letters and vowels because we had been taught a Yiddishized, Eastern European, Ashkenazi pronunciation. Now all the “aw’s” and many “o’s” were “ah’s” and most of the “s” sounds were now “t” sounds. Oy! It’s hard to be a Reform Jew!

Despite the linguistic change, there wasn’t much else that was different. An official prayer for Israel would be long in coming and the Reform Movement was slow to adopt the placing of an Israeli flag on the bimah. I don’t recall celebrating Yom haAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, when I was growing up. All of that remained fairly constant until 1967. My family had joined the Conservative Movement four years earlier and Conservative Judaism was very much a Zionist Judaism. As many know and some of us remember, 1967 was the year that Israel was bracing for an attack on all of its fronts, Syria and Lebanon to the north, Jordan to the east and Egypt to the southwest. It was clear that all of those nations were massing troops on the border. Israel wasn’t going to wait around for the inevitable invasion. Israel struck preemptively and was victorious in what was dubbed the Six-Day War. When the war began, I recall that we all went to the synagogue. I was just sixteen. I don’t remember many of the details. I can imagine that there was fundraising going on and no doubt people were signing postcards to be delivered to Congress advocating for the government’s support of Israel to remain firm during Israel’s crisis. If that was the case, I didn’t notice. What struck me was a feeling, a sense, a rich swirl of emotion, a deep notion of Jewish communality. This, I now know in hindsight, is what the Talmud means when it says, “all Jews are responsible one for the other” (Shavuot 39a). I was struck by how intensely palpable was that interconnectedness, that tribalism, that sense of responsibility. It was thick and I was part of it. It was incredible to feel every set of Jewish eyes focused on Israel and every Jewish heart pounding in anxiety for Israel and praying for her safety.

And, then, nothing. At least not much until I went to rabbinical school the first year of which was in Jerusalem. I know part of the reason I became a Zionist that year was because it was the year of another war, the Yom Kippur War. I never felt invaded or threatened before. I did then. I told my rabbi that I hoped they would train me and give me an Uzi so that I could do my part to defend Israel (about whom I now felt extremely hawkish – contrasting with my peace and non-violence stance about the Vietnam War during my college years). After all, “All Jews are responsible one for the other.”

That belief was struck down or at least defused when I met an Arab gentleman who returned to work in the sugar and flour factory at which I was volunteering during the War. He was a good soul with many children for whom he provided. He told me, “This is not my war.” I had been so blinded by my new-found hawkishness that I believed the every Arab was at war with Israel…and me. Clearly, it was not so. I was still a Zionist but now a confused Zionist. I even wanted to stay in Israel when the year was over but if I did, I was told, there would be no rabbinical program (there is now!) and if I was to continue that journey of study, I’d have to return to America.

On my way home from Israel, I stopped in Copenhagen for a couple of days. The emotional contrast from being in Israel, a country, now my country in a way it had never been, a country that, I now understood, was under constant threat and whose day-to-day reality was both incredibly strong and overwhelmingly fragile, to then be in Denmark, a country that, comparatively, seemed not to have a care in the world – that contrast was immense. I began to gain some perspective.

It wasn’t long before I became part of the American support group for those working for peace and a two-state solution for Israel. Some of my heroes became the Israelis who were and are involved in the peace movement. I know how much they were swimming upstream – how much they are still swimming upstream! Because of those early experiences in Israel and my experiences since, I am more convinced than ever, as are hundreds of Israel’s former military officers, that the only hope for a future for Israel is a sovereign and complete Palestine. Of all the people in the world, we should know that. We waited for a return to our own sovereignty for two-thousand years, sometimes patiently, sometimes impatiently. We know that you can’t forcibly stuff that yearning back into its womb once it is born in a people’s consciousness. Will there be difficulties along the way? Of course!

Paraphrasing the words of Member of the Knesset, Eyal ben-Reuven, a retired major general, our obstacles are and will be the ease of the promulgation of fear, the megalomania and power-mongering of Benjamin Netanyahu, the need for a truly open democratic election (for a candidate rather than party), draconian legislation toward Arab Israelis, critics of Israeli policy and liberal Judaism, and bad actors within the Israeli Defense Forces who, whether it is out of frustration or because of the power of their uniforms, over-response to Palestinian provocation, creating provocations of their own. To that list, I would add rabid pro-Israelists in America who consider the two-state solution a weak choice for Israel and do everything they can to undermine it. And, of course, there is that small percentage of Palestinians who use violence to communicate their frustrations and anger, killing and maiming innocent Israeli citizens and Israel soldiers only because they wear the IDF uniform.

MK ben-Reuven said that Israel’s democracy is in trouble. Part of the reason for that is that Israel still hasn’t determined what it means to be both a Jewish state and a democracy. Ben-Reuven was clear that this was our responsibility to figure out, not the Palestinians. Just as it is their responsibility to determine what a sovereign Palestine at peace with and hopefully symbiotically involved Israel is going to look like. This is why Prime Minster Netanyahu’s insistence upon waiting for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is a complete red herring. Israel and Israelis don’t even know what means for Israel to be a Jewish state AND a democracy! Are the Palestinians supposed to determine that via their recognition of Israel as a Jewish state? Would we ever accept their definition of what it means for Israel to be Jewish?

Similarly, we (Israel and world Jewry) are not responsible for how the Palestinians will mold the personality of their sovereign state. The Palestinians are. On the other hand, we can do much to positively influence and encourage that process via good faith negotiations, infrastructure support, transparent diplomatic coordination and communication, economic investment, etc.

MK ben-Reuven said that he knows it will take international pressure to turn the Israeli government and society in that direction. He expects little or nothing from Abbas and Netanyahu, and that it will mean a sea-change in the attitudes of both the Israeli and Palestinian citizenry. Still, he and many others are there, on the ground, working for it every day. We cannot abandon them!

I love Israel too much and believe in our Jewish state so much that I can’t stand idle as she goes in the wrong direction. It will take a Samson-like strength to turn the Israel ship around. But, “all Jews are responsible one for the other”. When we finally act that way, it will happen.