Posts by Michael Birnholz:
Subtitle of Third Post
While thinking about my upcoming high school reunion (scheduled for Labor Day weekend), I am reminded of the blessings of a smaller, tight-knit community. One such blessing is the ability to get to know others in the community on a more profound level. My graduating high school class had only 39 people, so we knew each other well enough to give everyone a thoughtful, superlative award each year. I have lived up to my sophomore year superlative of “most likely to become a rabbi,” and I still hope to live up to my junior year superlative of “most likely to inspire a song in your heart.”Si
One of my all-time favorite biblical teachings is the Book of Psalm’s injunction to “sing a new song.” Based on the number of people who have been singing with me at Shabbat services, it seems that this message resonates with the larger Or Ami community. What is it about music that stirs our souls? That magical essence of a song is like a professional escape artist who can never truly be captured. Although some have tried to lock it behind the bars of a musical staff, it still slips from out of these confines, and the more we contemplate how, the more we are left standing with our mouths open in wonder.
A sacred, ineffable element comes to life when notes are played and when voices rise together in song. The transcendent nature of music provides one of the most direct and instantaneous ways to connect with God. Even unresponsive dementia patients have occasionally been galvanized back into life by familiar tunes from their childhood. There is something about music that connects to our core as human beings and nourishes our souls. That is something I would like to share with everyone who comes to Shabbat services and/or attends Religious School here at Or Ami.
One of my many goals as Rabbi and Director of Education is to bring more music to Or Ami with the help of Rachel and the many talented musicians in our community. My intention is to reinvigorate the community with the uplifting feeling of a new song. But in order to accomplish this goal, I need your voice to join in the song of Or Ami. I want to hear what your soul has been craving and what your mind hungers to learn. I want to know who you are, where you came from, and where you would like to go as an individual, a family, and a valued member of the Or Ami community. In other words, I would like to enjoy the blessing of Or Ami’s smaller, tight-knit community and get to know you on a profound level as we write Or Ami’s new song together. If you would like to set up a meeting to share your story or your ideas, please email me at email@example.com.
Earlier this week, I got a phone call from one of my college friends. We hadn’t spoken in a while, but we quickly fell into the exact sort of conversations we used to have over lunch, about psychology and society, and we ended up discussing the bystander effect. It’s so counterintuitive that the more people you have witnessing an emergency situation, the less likely anyone is to get involved. But that’s exactly what happens. We instinctively look to those around us for social cues, and often decide that it’s not necessary to get involved, because no one else is acting like it’s a problem.
In this week’s Torah portion, we hear about a man named Zelophechad (a lovely name really, number one in the baby naming books). He has 5 daughters and no sons. He dies inexplicably in the wilderness, and the question arises: who gets the tent? What about the ten goats and six camels? According to the Torah, there are 600,000 Israelite men, so when you add in the women and children, we’re talking about over a million people. Surely there must have been a family without sons before. Surely, this must have been a problem for other people, but it went unnoticed. This problem was systematically ignored.
We only hear about the inheritance issue in this Torah portion, because this was the first time someone actually did something about it. Rather than acting like passive bystanders, the five daughters of Zelophechad sprung to action and challenges the status quo. They organized a coherent argument, and brought their case before the most powerful people in Israelite society: Moses, the high priest, and the princes of Israel. After they presented their case, Moses spoke to God, who agreed to change divine law, so that Zelophechad’s daughters and any other women in this situation could inherit their father’s property. These five women stood up for justice and changed Israelite society forever. May we remember their story and follow their example, choosing to get involved and stand up for justice even if we have to be the first ones to do so.
When I was in college, I had the amazing opportunity to study Jewish life in Central Eastern Europe. I met with Jewish community leaders in Hungary, Poland, and Germany, but I was based in Prague, Czech Republic, where Franz Kafka was born. I don’t claim to understand much of Kafka’s work, but I am fascinated by many of his short stories. One of these stories is A Little Fable about a mouse, which is brief enough to read in full:
“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”
“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.
While not the most uplifting fable, this story nevertheless reveals an important and challenging aspect of life. It raises the question of free will. Many of us have felt like that mouse at some point, where the walls seemed to be narrowing in on us and then a cat smugly replies that we only need to change direction. Change direction?! Where could we possibly go between a rock and a hard place?
In this week’s Torah portion, a non-Jewish prophet named Bil’am, or Balaam, finds himself in a similar situation. On one side, he has the Moabite King named Balak pressuring him to curse the Israelites so that he can more easily defeat them in battle. On the other side, Bil’am has God who repeatedly sends messages that Bil’am should not curse the Israelites. King Balak is willing to pay a steep price for this curse, but God won’t have it. And poor Bil’am is caught in the middle.
Some might see this as a story about the tension between making a decent living and keeping one’s moral values. After all, the Torah is full of many reminders of the need for justice in business. Bil’am actually sets a good example for ethical business practices. He states multiple times that even if King Balak gave him his house full of silver and gold, he would not be willing to defy God’s instruction.
But this story could have another meaning, too. As Jews, we constantly remind ourselves of the Exodus from Egypt. It is THE central event of Jewish spiritual history. We had no freedom, no options in Egypt. That’s why Egypt was called Mitzrayim, meaning “a narrow place.” The walls were closing in on us in Egypt; and when we tried to escape, Pharaoh chased us to the edge of the sea, like the cat in Kafka’s story. But unlike the mouse in Kafka’s story, we did not get eaten. We miraculously survived, and we remember what it was like to have no options.
When we left that narrow place of Mitzrayim, it wasn’t just Jews who left. The Torah says that the Israelites left with a mixed multitude of people, which reminds us that we have an obligation today to help anyone, Jewish or not, out of a narrow place with no options. As Jews and as Americans, we have a sacred and civic obligation to work for a better society in which all people have more choices and can experience firsthand the great ideal of freedom.