Monthly archives "February 2018"

Ki Tissa: What Makes a Leader a Leader?

Ki Tissa: What Makes a Leader a Leader?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The Torah sequence we read last week concerned the artistry and exacting specificity involved in the building of the Tabernacle. Intended to be a microcosm of the cosmos, it also became a uniting community project. I find it hard to admit that I am getting a little older, but as I read various commentaries this week in preparation for my own take on this week’s parsha, Ki Tissa, which means “when you add up”) I fell in love with a midrash that gave me great comfort:

“During his forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, Moses learned much but kept forgetting what he learned. Said he in despair: ‘I know nothing!’ Therefore God gave him the Torah as a gift. Could Moses indeed have learned the whole Torah – of which it is said that it is ‘longer than the earth and broader than the sea’ (Job 11:9). No, therefore God taught him only the principles (and hence gave him the tablets” [1].

Yes, it’s a good thing to have ten commandments on two tablets that simplify principles teaching us how to come close to God by leading a moral life. However, as Richard Elliott Friedman points out, sometimes the overwhelming intimacy of that closeness to God causes people to pull away, to rebel. “It is when God is closest that humans commit the greatest sin,” Friedman claims [2].

It is also true that when that intimacy – in this case, divine intimacy — recedes, humans may become fearful, try to find a substitute to fill the vacuum. That is what happens in Ki Tissa when Moses leaves the ancient Hebrews in the desert at the foot of the mountain and spends 40 days at the top coming close to God, even dangerously close to God. When he finally descends with the two tablets of the commandments for the people, his face is radiant. He glows with the light of God.

Unfortunately, without their leader for so long, the Hebrew people had become fearful. They needed a protector. With the reluctant help of Aaron, Moses’ brother and second-in-command, they constructed a Golden Calf, made with the donated, melted-down, golden earrings of the people. “All the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears” (Exodus 32:3). This golden creature of their own manufacture simplified the idea of God for the people, kept the Divine close because they could see it. The artist Bezalel had so recently shown them how to construct a Tabernacle so that the Holy Spirit could dwell within. Now, through the agency of Aaron, a peaceful man who was afraid of confrontation, the people made a calf, an imitation of the cultic worship of the bull, symbolizing fertility and strength to the pagan Canaanites. For the Hebrews, in the absence of their leader, Moses, the Golden Calf would be a vessel holding the spirit of El, God. They could believe in its protection.

But when Moses descended from the mountain and saw the people dancing around this egel masehah, this Golden Calf, this idol, he was furious. In anger, he smashed the two tablets of the law. Then he demanded an explanation from Aaron. What had happened?

Aaron tried to make excuses for the deficiency in his leadership. “They gave me gold, and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf,” he said in self-defense (Exodus 32:22-24). It was the people’s fault. It happened by itself.

In his essay, “How Leadership Fails,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is clear on the attributes of leadership. Leadership can fail for both external and internal reasons, he writes. If there are external reasons, maybe the time is not right, the conditions are unfair, or there is no one to talk to on the other side. Sometimes even the best efforts may fail. However, internal reasons are a different story. “A leader can simply lack the courage to lead. Sometimes leaders have to oppose the crowd” [3].

Aaron lacked the courage to lead. As a leader, he was a follower. Yet, as a High Priest, Sacks adds, he needed to follow the rules. In this, he was very successful. Leaders, after all, need followers. Aaron and Moses made a good team!

[1] Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, General Editor. “Gleanings,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union for Reform Judaism,  2005) 602.

[2] Richard Elliott Friedman. Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text (USA: Harper Collins, 2001) 281.

[3] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “How Leadership Fails,”

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

A Cautionary Tale: “Washington Is Burning”

A Cautionary Tale: “Washington Is Burning”

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

My musician son-in-law, Ira Brown, a brain cancer survivor, has just released his digitally re-mastered, iconic statement-song, “Washington is Burning.” It is intended as a cautionary tale, originally written twenty years ago at the cusp of a new century. Hopefully our current, articulate, caring, post-millennial generation, at the threshold of their adult lives, will prevent a societal breakdown from happening in their own time.

When “Washington Is Burning” was first released in 1998, it was played repeatedly on many College Radio stations across the nation, charting in the top ten and rising to Number One on College Radio stations for many weeks.

What Happened in 1998?

For starters, an American President was impeached. Unsparing of the sordid details, radio and television stations and the print media (we did not yet have Facebook, launched in 2004, or the Social Media that accompanied its growth) relentlessly dissected President Bill Clinton’s affair with White House Intern Monica Lewinsky. Paula Jones accused him of sexual harassment. Finally, in December of that year, he was impeached. (The American public, however, still loved Bill because he loved them, and eventually he was forgiven.)

All this was happening against the chaotic, controversial background of the Iran disarmament crisis in the face of Iraq’s refusal to end its nuclear program. Nuclear tests took place in India and Pakistan. There were bombings at U.S. embassies abroad.

At home, nature was also taking its revenge through the devastating winter storms, destructive tornadoes, and floods caused by El Nino in a number of states. Gay rights issues came to the fore after a gay college student was tied to a fence, tortured by his classmates, and left to die. As if this were not enough, a number of killings, mass murders, and plots to kill took place in the U.S.:  an abortion clinic bombing in Alabama in which people died; two white Nevada separatists plotting bio-warfare on the N.Y. City subway system; military grade anthrax threats; teenagers opening fire on classmates in Jonesboro, Arkansas; sentencing for the Oklahoma bombing;  in Oregon a mentally-deranged boy with a semi-automatic rifle killed two and wounded 25, after killing his parents at home. In Los Angeles, there were the riots. And so on.

1998 was a year in which many good things happened too, but they were overshadowed in the public mind. Metaphorically, for most people, Washington, the embodiment of the American dream, was burning.

And now?

Now it is 2018. Sadly, “Washington is Burning” has become socially relevant again. Yes, it’s a cautionary tale, musically brought home. The post-millennials have been bombarded with images of horrible events on their computers and smart phones since they were born. In 2001, as babies, they experienced 9/11 and its aftermath. They began lock-down drills in nursery school. This is not the fearful atmosphere in which my grandchildren’s generation want to build their bright futures. It’s our job as a nation to give them the inspirational support to make a difference in our society.

Topical Artists, the record label launching “Washington is Burning,” was created by husband and wife team, Shelley Spiegel (my daughter!) and Ira Brown to support socially relevant music and art. In this new Alternative Rock version, Ira and his talented, teenage daughter, Rachel Genna, create a seamless vocal performance inspired by the call to action of millions of American voices in the midst of the turbulent political climate. Rachel is an anti-bullying activist in her own right.

Purchasers can opt to make a donation to Brain Cancer Research when they buy a copy of the song (


©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.





By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Like so many viewers across the country, I listened transfixed to deeply saddened but articulate young people tell personal stories about the traumatic school massacre at the Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that has impacted their lives. They spoke about their firm resolve to prevent such an event from occurring ever again in America. Their slogan “#Never Again” resonates, of course, with the remembered horror of WWII’s Holocaust. What occurred at the MSD High School in America was a Holocaust of a different kind in a different era in a different country, but it was similarly the outgrowth of a hatred, callousness, and cruelty that has been allowed to surface and grow in this country. A divided house cannot stand. Our country is crying out for a unified vision of putting love, not hate, into practice — a country where misguided people do not have the opportunity to bear arms against their fellow citizens. It’s time to stand up and speak out for the values we cherish in the interest of effecting legislative change. Perhaps my generation – the grandma and grandpa generation with adult grandkids – is getting too old, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it when he marched alongside Martin Luther King – to “pray with our feet,” but we can still function in a supportive role.

In the mid-1970s, with a professional background in Theatre Arts, I returned (some 20 years after my first degree) to McGill University to write my Master’s thesis about role-playing, sociodramatic simulations that were taking place in the Montreal area. At the time, a simulation game called “Guns or Butter” was often enacted (in person, not on video screens as they are today) in educational circles. During the play-out, participants had to make intelligent choices as to how their money would be used in a way that benefited society rather than their own personal greed. In another popular simulation game, “Starpower,” the economic elite would invariably develop a fortress mentality; the lower classes could only rise in society when an educated middle class gave them leadership. Later, together with my team, I created and directed my own large-scale, role-playing simulation “game,” “Future Directions,” supporting the unity of Canada at a time when talk of Quebec’s separation was rampant. Again people had to make choices that were larger than their own personal interest. Sociodramatic simulations have to be used with great caution, however, because they seem so “real” and evoke such deep emotions in the participants.

What is happening now in America is not a dramatic simulation. It is real. The emotions are real. The life-changing memories will remain. I am so proud of the teenagers of Parkland for the way in which they are conducting themselves in the face of real horror, real choices to make for the future. Our combined future.

I am also very proud of my own granddaughter, Samantha, just turned eighteen, and a senior in high school. She was attending a conference in Sacramento, California through the program called “Youth and Government” the same weekend the shooting at Parkland, Florida took place. Four thousand young people attended with the goal of learning how government works, how legislation works, how the courts work. She has been participating throughout the year in a local chapter of this group, which is sponsored by the YMCA. (Incidentally, she won the mock legal case she presented as a “lawyer” in front of a real judge.)

The day after my grand-daughter returned from Sacramento to L.A., her school went into lockdown because a credible threat had been received in the area. Like the students in Parkland, she texted her mother from her classroom in disbelief.

Yes, there are lots of ways to murder people in all kinds of venues – knives, bombs, ramming cars into crowds, chemical attacks – and for all kinds of demented reasons. Somehow our society has lost its way. As a country that professes to revere God, even on our currency  – “in God we trust” — too many of us have forgotten to remember the biblical commandment, “You shall not murder (the Hebrew word is “murder,” not “kill”—so that, for example, you can “kill” someone in self-defense). It’s time to tie a string around the finger of our collective memory.

Not so incidentally, Jews are not supposed to hunt. In metaphorical recognition that human beings have been carnivores since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden and had to forage for a living, we can eat domestic animals. Even then, every single time that we do, we sanctify the animal first in order to remind ourselves that we are taking a life. But we do not eat animals that eat other animals, or those that are scavengers – or consume their blood. Those injunctions are intended in part to prevent us from cultivating our own blood lust. The kosher laws exist within a moral framework we do well to honor.

May God bless our nation and bring healing, togetherness, and the spirit of goodwill back to our society.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Parshat Tetzaveh: The Mystery of the Urim and Thummim (27:20 – 30:10)

Parshat Tetzaveh: The Mystery of the Urim and Thummim (27:20 – 30:10)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Last week’s portion discussed the physical construction of the Tabernacle (also called the Tent of Meeting). For more understanding of how the Tabernacle was built, I’d like to recommend Rabbi/Hazzan Eva Robbin’s brand new book, Spiritual Surgery [1] which approaches this intricate subject from both a mystical and artistic perspective. In Tetzaveh, this week’s parsha, the Torah describes in a very detailed way the sacral clothing that the priests must wear as officiants.

Since Jews are directed to be “a kingdom of priests” (Shemot 19:6), re-reading Tetzaveh  inspires respectful honor of that tradition. Although rabbis and congregants both tend to dress much more casually today, the ancient dress code, replete with adornment crafted from threads made from beaten gold and beautiful designs using blue, purple, and crimson-dyed yarns, was intended to convey elevation and holiness of purpose.

In her recent article, “Sartorial Splendor,” Rabbi Janet Madden takes a scholarly and symbolic approach in explaining the special garments the Israelite priesthood was directed to wear. The priests all wore garments woven from the fine linen (six threads to a strand!) derived from Egyptian culture (sheets made from fine Egyptian weave are still sought after today). Furthermore, the high priest (the Kohen Gadol), was instructed to wear four additional garments [the other priests wore four] to signify the status and literally weighty responsibility of his high office:

“the efod, an apron-like garment made of blue-purple and red-dyed wool, linen and gold thread – the colors of royalty; the chosen, a breastplate containing twelve precious stones inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel; the me’il, a cloak of blue wool, with gold bells and decorative pomegranates on its hem, and the tziz, a golden plate worn on the forehead, bearing the inscription ‘Holy to God’”[2].

He was also instructed to wear linen breeches! The medieval rabbis, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides, and Rashbam, along with many others through the years, all speculate further on the details of these intricate garments [3]. But two additional items have always especially intrigued me: first of all, the hem of the high priest’s garment was ringed with little golden bells – so that he would tinkle wherever he went.  The Kohen Gadol was not simply making music; there was a purpose to the bells. Only the High Priest was tasked with entering the Holy of Holies, where the Ark containing the tablets would be kept. The bells were intended to protect him from harm in so closely approaching the Divine word of God. During my rabbinic studies, I once read, but cannot remember the source, that on Yom Kippur, a slender, woven rope was attached to the High Priest’s ankle when he entered that dedicated space, so that he could be pulled out if his sensibilities succumbed to the sacredness of the occasion.

Secondly, under the jeweled breastplate, close to his heart, the High Priest wore the urim and thummim, which are clouded in mystery. In the thousands of years that have passed since ancient Israelite days, no one has ever been able to figure out exactly what they were. According to Rashi, like the various semi-precious jewels on the breastplate, each of which was inscribed with the name of a tribe, “the sons of Israel,” the urim and thummim were inscribed with the true name of God, “the Tetagrammaton. This would be put within the folds of the breastpiece. By means of it, the breastpiece would bring its words to light, ur, and fulfill them, thummim” [4]. For this reason, they were said to be used for discernment, judgment.

How this goal could be achieved is still unknown. Were they cast, like dice? Were they a kind of early, two-part computer working in concert? Were they connected to some mysterious power source – or to the Divine? Were they operated by thought control? When I let my imagination run wild, I imagine that they were a pair of inscribed crystals that echoed sounds, like the spiritual vortex between two crystal-laden mountains in Hawaii.

Interpreting the text in his own way, Nachmanides suggests that they were “put” in the breastplate, but not made by artisans like the other objects.  Rather,

“they were a mystery transmitted to Moses directly from the Almighty, and he wrote them in holiness….They were Holy Names, by whose power the letters on the stones of the breastpiece could light up, for the priest who was inquiring of them to read….Now these letters [of the Urim] could have been arranged in any number of ways to spell words. But there were other Holy Names there, called Thummim, through whose power the mind of the priest was “perfected,” thummim, in the knowledge of how to interpret the letters” [5]. (Carasik, 249-250).   

But, despite all the great rabbinic minds, no one really knows. Today we simply appreciate the forever mystery.

[1] Spiritual Surgery is available on

[2] Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D., “Sartorial Splendor,”, 2018.

[3] See Michael Carasik, Ed. The Commentators’ Bible:Exodus,“Tetzaveh” (Philadelphia: JPS, 2005),242-254.

[4] Ibid., 249.

[5] Ibid., 249-250.   

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Terumah: The Tabernacle Within (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

Terumah: The Tabernacle Within (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

“Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Although the words “Ark” and “Tabernacle” are sometimes used interchangeably, the Tabernacle is actually what houses the Ark of the Covenant (which in turn houses the Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and which was portable through the desert). In Parshat Terumah, which takes place well after the Golden Calf episode has subsided, there is a divine awareness that the ancient Israelites needed to have a place to worship – a makom – in order to cement their identification as a people. So, guided by God’s very specific architectural instructions – and by the superbly talented artist that God has chosen, Bezalel – the people find and donate the materials to construct a beautiful setting where they can gather to worship and feel close to God. In later iterations when they actually enter the Promised Land, it will become a Temple.

Every time I read this parsha, I think of John Dryden’s poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which he equates universal truth with beauty and beauty with universal truth. “That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” Although Dryden didn’t study Kabbalah, beauty is high up on the Kabbalistic ladder of attributes.

And every time I study Terumah, I also think of the Toronto exhibition of recovered Yugoslavian Jewish art treasures, buried for 50 years to save them from the Nazis – the earth had been their protective tabernacle. Over a period of five years, I organized this exhibit (at the request of my good friend, the late Hon. Kalman Samuels, then Honorary Ambassador to Yugoslavia, now the former Yugoslavia). It took place in 1990, shown just before a horrific, new conflict broke out in that country. Smaller than the Czech collection, this display of precious Judaica was held at the beautiful, jewel-like, museum of the substantial Beth Tzedec synagogue. The famous Cecil Roth collection is permanently housed there. On this occasion, though, with the cooperation of the Museum of Zagreb (in Croatia) and the Jewish Museum of Belgrade (in Serbia), and lots of diplomatic help, the Yugoslavian Jewish art treasures, dating back centuries, were on view to the public for two months.

What especially took one’s breath away was the large collection of silk parochets – the embroidered or otherwise patterned curtains that had once shielded the Torah-containing Arks of so many synagogues throughout Yugoslavia – perfectly preserved and hanging in overwhelming splendor from the vaulted ceiling all along the grand stairway that led to the Beth Tzedec’s second floor. It was the inspiration of the museum’s curator, Judith Cardozo, to place them there.

Over the past years, I have traveled a good deal of the world as Guest Staff Rabbi for a prominent cruise line. Some of the places I have visited have been so marked by political strife, extreme poverty, and ugly graffiti, that I could not help thinking it was a good thing “the people” had their religion, their cathedrals and mosques, their beautiful places to which to retreat – and, in the case of Brazil, the frenetic music, dance and costumes of Carnival — in the midst of all this ugliness, or they would simply explode. Faith and beauty, if not truth, were their safeguards.

And, as portrayed by Terumah, in the desert where the ancient Israelites traveled on the way to the Promised Land, God realizes that it is time for the Jewish people to have a place of spiritual beauty – still a transportable one — where they can both worship and feel close to the Divine presence. “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” God instructs Moses.

For this undertaking, the people they will need to bring gifts of the the finest materials: gold, silver, copper; blue (obtained from specific snails), purple, and crimson yarns (probably wool because they held dye well), fine linen, and materials of the desert such as goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, dolphin skins. Fine acacia wood was needed. In addition, oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense were needed. And finally, gems like lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones for the ephods and breastpieces (of the priests’ garments) (Exodus 25: 3-8).

As we read these passages today, it’s amazing how detailed, how precise, God’s instructions are. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments in “Covenant and Conversation” (5777), the building of the tabernacle is, in effect, a symbolic micro-cosmos reflecting the exact precision of the universe. The instructions given to Noah to build an Ark to save a portion of the world and its creatures were similarly precise. Even the human body, the human genome, requires precision in the way the many details of the body’s composition work together.

Mystics have always understood that mathematics underlies the Torah – underlies the cosmos and every living thing, no matter how large or small. What is most important, in the end, is our interior tabernacle; that is the personal sanctuary we most need to furnish with the light of the menorah and keep it alive, even if we are in a far-away country, even if we don’t own a lampstand.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.