End Run Around Congress

On July 13, the day before the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers was reached, the Obama administration began circulating a resolution at the U.N. Security Council calling for the chamber’s approval of the deal. That vote took place Monday, with the council backing the agreement on the heels of the European Union giving its assent and Germany moving to reopen trade with Iran.

But the vote at the United Nations is almost irrelevant to the outrage expressed by some members of Congress and the news media over the submission of the resolution itself. They rightly point out that the administration had already agreed that Congress would have 60 days to review the Iran agreement and give it an up or down vote. That would be how our country would decide whether to go forward with the deal. But by going to the United Nations first and offering a resolution that would bind the United States and other members, the White House effectively pre-empted Congress and rendered any decision legislators make on the issue moot.

Republicans and some Democrats in Congress asked President Barack Obama to delay the U.N. vote until Congress could weigh in. That request was consistent with the president’s own public defense of the Iran deal during a wide-reaching news conference shortly after its announcement, when Obama said he welcomed congressional review. Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), respectively the chairman and the ranking member of the influential Foreign Relations Committee, were therefore justified in objecting to the White House’s U.N. maneuver. Corker went so far as to call the U.N. move an “affront to the American people.”

But now the U.N. resolution is legally binding on member states. Congress, which has placed economic sanctions on Iran, could cause the United States to be in noncompliance if it votes to maintain those sanctions.

The administration has argued that the U.N. vote in no way affects the congressional review period or the right of Congress to express its views on the Iran deal. But that’s silly. The fact is that the administration was disingenuous or worse for agreeing to the review process only to undercut it by pushing a U.N. vote.

One of the most recurring concerns expressed regarding the Iran deal is that the Islamic Republic cannot be trusted to meet its commitments. Do we now have the same issue with the White House?

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have said repeatedly that one of the benefits of the Iran deal is the administration’s ability to use its newfound “relationship” with Iran to address issues relating to that country’s destabilizing support of the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and others. And the president has said he will not let up on Iran.

Can he be trusted to meet his commitments?

Are We There Yet? A Metaphor for Our Lives Parshat Matot-Masei

We now come to the end of the Book of Numbers. As this is a non-leap year, there are several portions throughout Torah that need to be paired. Such is the case with the last two parshiyot of Numbers — Matot and Masei.

Like an ancient TripTik, the portion begins with a list of each location the Israelites traversed from Egypt
to Israel: Rameses; Succoth; Etham; Pi-hahiroth; Marah; Elim; Red Sea; Wilderness of Sin; Dophkah; Alush; Rephidim; Wilderness of Sinai; Kibroth Hattaavah; Hazeroth; Rithmah; Rimmon-Perez; Libnah; Rissah; Kehelath; Mount Shepher; Haradah; Makheloth; Tahath; Terah; Mithkah; Hashmonah; Moseroth; Bene-Jaakan; Hor-Haggidgad; Jotbath; Abronah; Ezion-Geber; Kadesh; Mount Hor; Zalmonah; Punon; Oboth; Iye-Abarim (Iyim); Dibon-Gad; Almon-Diblathaim; the hills of Abarim before Nebo; and the plains of Moab by the Jordan near Jericho.

I have listed these locations intentionally. They might not make for the most engaging reading, but that doesn’t mean that they’re unimportant. Indeed, the Torah tells us that Moses made a point of recording each location where they camped. For the casual reader, they’re just place-names. Dots on an ancient map. The verses we usually skip along the way to the “good” stuff. And while most of these places carry no commentary of what might have happened there, Moses does take a moment in his travelogue to remind us that “Mount Hor” is where Aaron, his brother, died, and that “Elim” had “12 springs and 70 palm trees.” And the mentioning of the Red Sea certainly is a hint to a pretty significant event. But well we know, every one of those locations was a memory albeit now forgotten.

There are 42 places listed. In some of them they encamped but for a few days. In others they stayed for weeks, maybe even months. And in some they lived for a year. Or more. These 42 places cumulatively represent the totality of the 40 years, what has come to be identified as a biblical generation. And so it is not surprising that our commentators, especially those from the Chasidic tradition, have come to see these 42 encampments and their subsequent departures and journeys as being symbolic of the stages of our lives. From Egypt to the Promised Land, from our emergence from “constriction” to the land where milk and honey flow, the stops in-between are the days of our lives, the moments that give us rest or stir us to move ahead, to grow, to become, to get to where we’re going.

I have often felt that the underlying premise of Judaism is to bring about a union — or, to be exact, a reunion — with the Divine. Recall how the Torah begins. We dwell in Paradise. With God. But alas, we are driven out of Eden, and ever since our goal has been to return. To go home. It should come as no surprise then that for the rabbis of the Talmud, the name for heaven is Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden). A coming full circle, this path is implied — in microcosm — in the teaching of Moses Hayim of Sudlikov on this week’s parshah:

“I have heard — in the name of the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Chasidism] — the 42 journeys of the
Israelites are to be found in every person from the day of his birth until he returns to his world [at death]. … Each individual’s birth should be understood within the context of the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent stages of life are journeys that lead from place to place until one comes to the land of the ‘supernal world of life’ [that is, the Shekhinah, the in-dwelling presence of God].”

In other words, each stop along the way is an essential step towards reaching the goal. We might not realize it at the time. We might never realize it. Moses Hayim continues:

“A person thinks he goes to a particular place to attain something he desires, but in truth that person is led to that place by God so that he may raise the holy sparks that have fallen and are sunk within the depths of the shells.”

Thus, according to the Baal Shem Tov (as taught through Moses Hayim), some of those places may not seem like they are moving us forward, we might feel quite the opposite. But the spiritual process of “raising the sparks,” especially the sacred points that dwell in each of us, is not necessarily intuitive. It might appear to us that we are stuck, even going in reverse. So it must have felt for the generation of the wilderness, especially given the many times they gave voice to returning to Egypt. But these 42 stages are
necessary if we hope to get to the other side of the wilderness.

Anne Helen Peterson, in assessing the development of the characters of AMC’s award-winning television
series “Mad Men,” observes: “The beautiful and infuriating thing about ‘Mad Men’ … is its willingness to allow people to not change. Select few in real life have character epiphanies and three-act emotional growth that actually sticks. Most attempt change, fall back on old behaviors, frustrate themselves and others.”

But what the Baal Shem Tov is attempting to impress upon us is that things are not always as they appear. What might seem to one as lack of change is actually a profoundly more subtle stage of spiritual growth. The times in our lives that feel wrong might very well be precisely what God intends. The fundamental premise of all mysticism is that there is more to reality than meets the eye. For him, we are being led on a journey, whether we know it or not, and what feels painful might very well be just what we need if, that is, we hope to get to the other side of the wilderness.

Near the very end of the parshah, in noting the six cities of refuge — places set aside as sanctuary for man-slaughterers, as well as for the Levites — the Torah casually mentions that there should be an additional “42” cities designated for the Levites. I find it intriguing that the number of those additional cities should correspond precisely to the 42 encampments and journeys that Israel traversed from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Could the Torah be subtly suggesting to us that each stage of one’s journey out of Mitzrayim and into the wilderness has a parallel home in Paradise? Or could it simply be coincidence? Maybe the only way to know for sure is to consciously embrace one’s life as just such a journey?

The Power of Determination



Looking at the headlines the last few months, some of them here in the JT, it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of anger out there. And I’m not just talking about here in Baltimore, where rioters torched and looted hundreds of businesses this spring in reaction to the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

In the realm of politics, anger has become the stock and trade of what passes for reasoned discourse.

There was businessman/entertainer/ Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump who stoked the ire of the faithful in Las Vegas and Phoenix over the weekend when he doubled-down on inflammatory comments made last month about illegal immigrants. He told each crowd he’d fine Mexico tens of thousands of dollars for every immigrant crossing the southern border.

And let’s not forget Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist who is mounting a charge from former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s left for the Democratic nomination for president. He’s been decrying Wall Street as the source of all evil in his speeches which, though more substantive policy-wise than those of Trump, have equally been fanning the flames among a middle class feeling disenfranchised by economics as well as politics.

And although Trump and Sanders are the most likely candidates to resemble Howard Beale, the lead character from “Network” who invades a newscast to rant “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” not a single politician seeking the White House is without blame. But as we turn from what some are calling perhaps the biggest outrage to befall those hoping for peace in the Middle East — a looming nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran that appears to retreat from preventing the development of a weapon to merely forestalling the inevitable — to what exactly to do about it, now is a perfect time to look at whether anger, as opposed to action, is an effective tool to achieve our goals.

History is replete with examples of anger gleefully fueled by people who end up getting swept up in the destruction that follows, most notably the revolutionaries of late 18th-century France who found themselves the targets of the masses. And where countries and publics have successfully fought back challenges from without and within, it wasn’t anger that made success possible, but resoluteness.

Closer to home, the only accomplishment of the riots in Baltimore was the destruction of whole neighborhoods, the fracturing of a police force and the resultant rise in violent crime. Contrast that with the aftermath of the horrific shooting of black worshippers at a church in Charleston, S.C., by a suspected racist: The immediate response of the few survivors and the family and friends of those murdered was to pray. Within weeks, aided by a steady campaign of political pressure, the Confederate battle flag, rightly seen as an instigator of the kind of hate that made the massacre possible, finally came down from its last perch at a state capitol.

Outrage, righteous indignation, anger — these are not the emotions that get things done. Determination, on the other hand, is what moves mountains. As we all internalize the failures and accomplishments — it depends on who you ask — of the negotiations in Vienna, we must remember that pure, unbridled emotion will get us nowhere. Whatever we as a community want to accomplish, achieving it will come more from working together than from screaming at the top of our lungs.


Seeking Scapegoats, Not Solutions

When it comes to the fraught Israel-United States relationship, the Zionist Organization of America  (Marc Caroff’s Your Say letter, July 10), as has become its wont, prefers scapegoats to solutions, complete with rhetoric of fear and exclusion.

Not to mention the lies.

Two egregious cases in point: The comment that President Barack Obama’s “hostility and insensitivity to Israel’s concerns, and his disdain for its prime minister, is without precedent in the history of U.S.-Israel relations” is patently untrue. Just ask anyone knowledgeable about President George H.W. Bush’s scabrous relationship with Menachem Begin.

Further, Caroff echoes Oren’s castigation of the president for “forsaking the core principles of ‘no daylight’ and ‘no surprises’”

Wrong! With regard to “daylight,” as Philip Gordon has pointed out: “To take just a few examples, Dwight Eisenhower slammed Israel for the 1956 Suez operation and forced it into a humiliating retreat; Gerald Ford froze arms deliveries and announced a reassessment of the relationship as a way of pressing Israel to withdraw from the Sinai; Jimmy Carter clashed repeatedly with Prime Minister Begin before, during and after the 1978 Camp David summit. Ronald Reagan denounced Israel’s strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq and enraged Jerusalem byselling surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia; George H.W. Bush blocked loan guarantees to Israel over settlements; Bill Clinton clashed publicly with Israel over the size of proposed West Bank withdrawals; George W. Bush called for a settlement freeze in the 2002 road map for peace and afterward repeatedly criticized Israel for construction in the West Bank. In other words, Oren has a point — except in the case of virtually every Republican and Democratic U.S. administration since Israel’s founding.”

When hate wins, it doesn’t take prisoners.

Episcopalians Firmly Reject BDS movement

I was present when the House of Bishops took up the BDS resolution during the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in Salt Lake City the other week (“Jewish Groups Decry UCC BDS Resolution,” July 10).  My fellow JT readers will be glad to know that nearly all of those who spoke on the resolution were opposed to it and that it was defeated resoundingly in a voice vote. Thankfully, there are some mainline Protestant denominations that, like most evangelicals, firmly reject the anti-Semitic BDS movement.

‘Friends of Stevenson’ Shut Door on Russian Jews

Delegate Dana Stein and resident Ken Abel, claiming to be the “friends of Stevenson” and “protectors of the neighborhood,” do not want Chabad in Stevenson (“Hearing On Stevenson Chabad Begins,” July 3). This implies Chabad is an enemy of Stevenson. Would they have the chutzpah to make the same claim and oppose a church on the same site?

Contrast that with the reception of the organized Jewish community to the opening of a mosque in Dumbarton. These obstructionists can give all of the “good” reasons they want. Their real goal is to keep the Russian Jews where they belong — out of Stevenson.

Discovering Selflessness in a ‘Selfish Gap-Year’

I had looked forward to my year in seminary with great anticipation. Everyone I encountered informed me that my “gap year” would consist of one life-altering experience after another and that I had to make the most of every opportunity. But I was a little anxious about my ability to truly maximize the year.

After all, I had only a few short months to achieve so many important things. In addition to increasing my Torah knowledge and enhancing my spirituality, I wanted to volunteer, to give of myself and make an impact on others.  And even though an incredible opportunity to volunteer with special needs children fell into my lap, I wasn’t sure if I could juggle everything.

To my great surprise, however, the volunteering opportunity was actually the best thing that could have happened to my year. It opened my eyes to the depth and beauty of life.

So, what was this transformative volunteering program?

While serving as a counselor at Camp Migdal, a camp for children and teenagers with special needs, last summer, I was approached by the assistant director, Perri Binet, with a request. During her gap year many years earlier, Perri had started a unique volunteering initiative with ALEH, Israel’s largest network of facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, whereby seminary students would visit ALEH’s Jerusalem facility every night to say Shema with the kids and put them to bed (like all other Jewish children). Perri was hoping that I would take over the Sweet Dreams program for the year.

At first, I didn’t know what to say.  I was concerned about how I could possibly fit this into my already packed schedule, and the added responsibility made me anxious.  But the program touched my heart, and I happily agreed.

Thanks to my friends in different schools around Jerusalem it didn’t take too long to complete the weekly roster.  Every night, the designated group of girls would spend 45 minutes going from room to room singing Shema and other lullabies and dispensing countless hugs and kisses.

Though our weekly visits were short, my interactions with the ALEH kids and staff impacted me tremendously.  It was amazing to be surrounded by such warmth, to realize that every person who entered ALEH Jerusalem would be praised and appreciated both as individuals and for the great value that they added to the group, even if that value added was seemingly unconventional.  Additionally, it was inspiring to see that every accomplishment, no matter how small, would be celebrated as a major milestone.

All too often, it is the fear of failure that prevents us from accomplishing our goals.

In my case, a step toward the unknown allowed me to impact the lives of so many beautiful Jewish children and, in turn, provided me with the tools to not only maximize my year but elevate my outlook on life. A cause for celebration, indeed.

Powerful Lessons Well Learned

Debra S. Weinberg

Debra S. Weinberg

Benjamin Franklin famously stated, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I will learn.” Franklin’s wise observation certainly supports the truism that experience is the best teacher.

Rolling up your sleeves and immersing yourself with all senses engaged can have a much more profound impact than merely hearing or reading about an experience. Learning by doing is the best way to retain acquired knowledge.

There is much evidence to support the power of hands-on Jewish learning and its far-reaching impact. Because of this, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore invests in programs that bring Judaism alive. Whether by creating innovative programs or supporting cutting-edge initiatives at its local agencies, The Associated is committed to enriching Jewish life for our community.

The summer offers the perfect opportunity for experiential learning in the informal setting of camp. There are thousands of children from our community embracing a meaningful Shabbat experience and connecting to Jewish values and traditions in the dining halls of overnight Jewish camps this summer.

The Associated’s Center for Jewish Camping helps families select the right camp for their children, ensuring a lifetime of lasting memories. Research shows that attending Jewish camp influences campers’ connections to community and observance of Jewish traditions well into adulthood.

While camp may be the first place that a child encounters Israeli culture, even that cannot compete with the thrill of visiting the Jewish homeland. The sights, sounds and smells of Israel have the power to seep into your soul and leave a deep and lasting imprint.

The Associated is committed to connecting Jews from our community to Israel in meaningful ways. The programs, many of which are geared to teens and young adults, such as Birthright Israel, Onward Israel and Masa, offer opportunities of various lengths and themes. The Associated’s Israel Engagement Center helps participants find the right setting in which to explore Israel.

Closer to home, families are connecting to each other and to the beauty of Judaism through the Macks Center for Jewish Education and its team of Community Connectors. The volunteer connectors serve as ambassadors to introduce young families to the myriad Jewish activities available to them in our community.

Likewise,  individuals interested in exploring the burgeoning Jewish outdoor food and environmental education (JOFEE) movement are immersing themselves in meaningful experiences at the Pearlstone Center, one of a handful of organizations nationally that are part of the JOFEE movement.

Meaningful Jewish experiences unfold daily throughout The Associated system from the fields at Pearlstone to the three Jewish Community Center locations to the engaging exhibits at the Jewish Museum of Maryland and everywhere in between.

This area of focus reflects The Associated’s understanding that our diverse community relates to Judaism and each other from a variety of vantage points. By embracing these unique experiences that provide meaningful connections to our community and to Jewish life, The Associated ensures that our community will be strong and vital for future generations too.

I Act, Therefore I Am Parshat Pinchas

Are you feeling depressed? Then dance! Feeling lazy? Work! Angry? Smile! Hostile? Act friendly!

These are not merely glib bits of advice when there is nothing better to say. Rather, they reflect a deep common wisdom that teaches us that our behavior influences our emotions. When we feel down in the dumps, the best thing we can do is to pretend, however artificially, that we are happy. To smile, to dress well, to be active and enthusiastic. Acting happy is one of the best antidotes for depression.

This insight into the mysterious workings of the human psyche turns out to be more than just common-folk wisdom. In medieval rabbinic literature, it is the unknown author of the Sefer HaChinuch who consistently uses the maxim, “After one’s actions, one’s feelings follow.” For him, this psychological fact is the reason for many of the rituals of Judaism. They are designed to provide us with a pattern of activity that will implant in us a desired set of inner attitudes and feelings.

Thus, for example, all of the many and detailed rituals that comprise the Passover service serve the purpose of stimulating inner attitudes of freedom and gratitude.

Not only were medieval rabbis aware of this profound psychological truth, but the much later thinkers also prescribe action and activity as a way of influencing one’s inner emotional life. William James, more than 100 years ago, noted in his “Principles of Psychology” that outer behavior has a powerful effect upon internal emotions. In the psychological jargon of the late 19th century, this was known as the James/Lange theory.

We all have witnessed this phenomenon in our everyday lives. We know kindergarten teachers whose baby-talk and immature classroom conversational styles have influenced their out-of-school personalities, so that even in adult conversation they demonstrate a peculiar childishness. And I know personally of several shochtim, ritual slaughterers, who have consciously fought the tendency toward cruelty to animals, which their profession has instilled in them. The fact that some of the wisest women I know are kindergarten teachers, and some of the gentlest fellows around are shochtim, is simply testimony to the efforts they have invested to undoing the powerful impact of the behaviors that they perform every day.

What about the soldier, the person whose task involves violence and the harming of other people? Does his behavior, however necessary to defend his life and the lives of his dear ones, change him into a violent and cruel human being? I think that the answer is yes, and I have spoken to many soldiers who have corroborated this and report feeling hardened and callous after their battlefield experiences.

It is no wonder then that Pinchas, the hero of this week’s Torah portion, after he thrusts a spear through the viscera of a Jewish prince and a Midianite princess, is granted the “covenant of peace.” He committed a bloody act of violence, warranted only in rare and extreme situations, and that single act posed the danger of his deep internal transformation from a priest of peace to a violent murderer. The Almighty found it necessary to bless him with a special gift, His own Divine brit shalom.

It was none other than Golda Meir, whose womanly wisdom found expression in the remark, “We can perhaps someday forgive you for killing our children, but we cannot forgive you for making us kill your children.”

In the context of recent battles in which the Israeli army was engaged, we must recognize that today’s
soldiers, to whom I have spoken, resent being forced to kill and are fully aware that violent behavior
produces an inner streak of violence that must be expunged. I take this opportunity to stress what we all should know and tell the world, that the Israeli army is uniquely careful to avoid unnecessary acts of violence, and debriefs its soldiers after they emerge from the tests of battle in a manner designed to avoid the incubation of cruel psychological tendencies, and to restore sensitivity toward the lives of others.

There are times when each of us must act sternly, in a tough and harsh manner. Sometimes we must discipline others and be quite strict with them. At those times, we must vigilantly avoid permitting those justified behaviors to affect who we are and how we really feel. We must struggle to retain our humanity, gentleness, and compassion, even when our outer behavior necessitates firmness and even severity.

It is also very helpful to remember: That a tool is available to reverse feelings of violence that threaten
to emerge in us, by acting kindly and compassionately; that we can reverse tendencies towards sloth by energetic productive activity; and that when we are depressed and emotionally down, the best available prescription is to exuberantly sing and joyously dance.

Oren’s Words Are a Wake-Up Call

In a June 26 editorial (“Oren’s Un-Diplomacy”), the JT emphasizes the controversy brewing over former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s recent revelations about President Barack Obama’s shabby treatment of Israel. The controversy itself is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot.

A focus on Oren’s substantive remarks would have better served the Jewish community. Oren had intimate discussions with Obama administration officials about all aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship during his tenure as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. It should be abundantly clear by now that Obama’s hostility and insensitivity to Israel’s concerns, and his disdain for its prime minister, are without precedent in the history of U.S-Israel relations. Oren’s disclosures in major news outlets, and in his new book, highlight the scope and intensity of that hostility and instances of Obama’s deliberate attempts to weaken the historically strong U.S.-Israel alliance by forsaking the core principles of “no daylight” and “no surprises.”

Oren’s book cites specific examples of Obama’s shabby treatment of Israel: snubbing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; pressuring Israel to make unwarranted concessions to advance the peace process while making no substantive demands of the Palestinians; ignoring the intransigence of the Palestinian Authority and its promotion of hatred and terrorism; unilaterally discarding U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and its guarantee of defensible borders for Israel by insisting on the 1949 armistice lines (with land swaps) as a baseline for Palestinian statehood; and, last but not least, pursuing a flimsy agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran that apparently leaves it with the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

The words of truth-tellers such as Ambassador Oren need to be heard and heeded by the pro-Israel Jewish community so as not to be misled by the siren song of the Israel-bashing Obama administration. Oren’s revelations are a wake-up call for those who care to listen to the inside story of how Obama, from the very beginning of his presidency, has worked to undermine the longstanding friendship between the United States and Israel.