Keeping out the Riff Raff
D'var Torah by Rabbi Aaron Weininger
on June 2, 2018
I’d bet most people here know how to complete this sentence, so please fill in the blank with me. The cold weather in Minnesota keeps out the ______. We know the cold weather keeps out the riffraff.
If you’re not from Minnesota, welcome.
Our Torah reading Behaalotekha introduces us to the Hebrew word for riffraff in chapter 11. First we read about the bitter complaining of the people before God and the fire that God sends, incensed at them, “ravaging the outskirts of the camp.”
Then we read that word we know well here, in verse four, “Ha-saf-soof”—“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!’”
The rabbis understood riffraff as non-Israelite Egyptians (and others), who managed to join the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. The beauty and playfulness of the Hebrew language allows us to hear the word “Suf” like Yam Suf- or the Sea of Reeds—in the word—“ha-saf-soof.” These were the people who came along for the ride to redemption and instigated the Israelites to complain about their condition, to yearn for a glamorous life back in Egypt that never existed.
It’s fascinating what the rabbis do to make sense of the complaining! What’s the source of it? they ask. Surely it could be the riffraff—those Egyptians who were egging on the Israelites to yearn for the good old life that never existed. But not all the rabbis are convinced.
Sifrei, a fourth century commentary, does a word play that links the site of God’s angry fire on the outskirts (in Hebrew, katzeh) to the word for leader (in Hebrew, katzin). They note—and it’s reflected in our Etz Hayim Commentary—that it is actually the leaders’ negative attitude that caused the people to be so bitter. It was their attitude that led them to complain.
Perhaps the Torah is coming to teach us a lesson about the power of leadership, a lesson I’m reminded of at this season. How the attitude of leadership has the power to shape the attitude of those around them for better—and for worse.
I want to start with our teen leaders and how they shape attitudes. Just two weeks ago on Shavuot, Adath celebrated the Confirmation of 22 young adults in our community, a remarkable group of tenth graders who studied with me weekly and concluded by speaking from this bimah about the complexities of the issues we explored. Those who gathered that evening might agree their presentations set a tone of hope while not ignoring the challenges that threaten society, and frankly, their own lives. They know it’s not all rosy. My colleagues and I did our best to present the real challenges and not drift into the make believe world of Egypt as the riffraff tried to do. So that despite pressures of conformity and cynicism, our teens are better prepared to encounter the world with an independent mind tethered to a community that expects something of them, beyond their immediate needs. A balance, rarely maintained, that swings to narcissistic self-indulgence or blind acceptance without question.
I think about our Gan staff, leaders in yet another way, and how they shape the attitudes of our youngest learners. Yesterday we celebrated our transitional toddler graduation. Just hours before we brought in Shabbat, we filled the library with sweet song and watched our preschoolers take their next steps in Jewish life. Our youngest cannot do it alone. Nor can it be done for them. So we need good teachers—and we are blessed with a marvelous staff at Gan Shelanu. Teachers can’t live Judaism for our kids or do Judaism for our kids. But they can set a tone that gives our kids the curiosity to take hold of our tradition in relationship—and transmit it to others in a cycle of lifelong learning.
And last I want to reflect on the lay leadership of this congregation. How they shape attitudes as we prepare to celebrate the service of our synagogue’s officers and trustees, staff and volunteers, at our annual meeting tomorrow morning. As synagogues across the country experience turmoil, our leadership demonstrates courage without sacrificing kindness, and practices equanimity without shuttering creativity. We have our challenges. But as I return to Adath from any gathering of rabbinic colleagues, I am reminded how lucky we are to have the challenges we do. A hopeful tone in Adath’s leadership reflects a healthy relationship between lay leaders and staff who are willing to try new ideas without blowing up the place. A collaborative attitude spills into everything we do and affects everybody we serve, and contributes to a vision of Jewish life worth getting excited about.
When the Israelites complain, the sages are coming to tell us, their complaints are not disconnected from the tone of their leadership. When the leader (in Hebrew, katzin) sets a tone of intention, hopefulness, and thoughtfulness—it is less likely that fires will erupt on the outskirts (in Hebrew, katzeh). By linking these two words katzeh, our Torah is suggesting that leaders—from Israelites in the wilderness to synagogue leaders young and old to heads of state across the globe—must recognize how they lead shapes the terrain upon which they lead. Surely leaders can patch together a success here and there without setting a positive tone. But that means they are often putting out fires of their own making and not amplifying a reliable light, like the eternal Ner Tamid. Such leadership makes room for the riffraff to sow doubt, to make our people believe a false narrative of Egypt, where seeds of hope were never even planted.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her memoir of faith, Leaving Church, reflects on her path leaving the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. She writes about the power she left behind as a leader, “I understand what an act of courage it can be to trust other human beings to give voice to one’s prayers.” (p. 163)
In other words, how do leaders recognize their power to shape worlds, to destroy worlds, and to live with joy and pain, day to day, with each person.
We like to talk about keeping out the riffraff in Minnesota. Between the fourth coldest April and the second hottest May this year, we see no shortage of extremes. From our youngest Gan kids to our oldest volunteers, I pray we continue to recognize how the katzin, the leader, affects what happens at the katzeh, the outskirts—and how we illumine the way for all to live in the light of Torah.
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