David Lerner

Dialogue over Demonstrations: Clouds of Nuance in Aharei Mot 5784

I have many great memories of attending Columbia in the ’80s and 90’s. I grew up a proud Columbian with my dad a 1960 graduate who served as editorials editor of the student newspaper: the Columbia Daily Spectator.

Photo Credit: Columbia University*3qIWoFnZgVUtsXB-.png

When I attended, I helped found a Jewish fraternity and was president of the Hillel. I loved it.

I restarted a kosher deli and would work the mad crush of the lunch shift and then heat two bagel dogs for my lunch.

Now, who knows what a bagel dog is?

Right, it’s a hot dog wrapped in bagel dough. 

Now that I think about it, it was probably not the healthiest choice for my everyday lunch.

And it was probably not very good for my stomach, and… I actually don’t recommend that you eat them. 

Photo credit: Columbia University (

But they were convenient, and I could easily grab them from my deli and pop over 50 feet to Hamilton Hall next door eating surreptitiously in the back, hoping the delicious smell of Gulden’s mustard would not overwhelm the class discussion on Aristotle.

My memories of Hamilton Hall were all good – meeting the dean of the College, Jack Greenberg, the renowned Civil Rights lawyer, taking wonderful courses in history and philosophy in its hallowed halls, and overlooking the lawns where I would play frisbee and hang out.

Jack Greenberg (right); Photo credit:

* * *

Those memories have been overshadowed in the last couple of months and weeks. 

First, the anti-Israeli protests, the chants supporting Gazans which sometimes drifted into supporting the Hamas murderers, and then their slide into antisemitic hate speech and intimidation.

Then the Gaza tent encampments. 

And finally, the assault this week on Hamilton Hall where windows were smashed, offices ransacked, and a facilities worker was “detained” for hours by the violent protesters.

* * *

Now, I am a pretty big supporter of rallies, protests, vigils and have been at or organized dozens of them – for Soviet Jews, for Israel, against the horrors in Darfur, against gun violence, against anti-Semitism, homophobia, and Islamophobia, racism and police brutality.

Before October 7th last year, I had been to several rallies and protests against the Israeli government and its proposals to change Israel’s Supreme Court. I even spoke at one of them.

Photo credit: Rabbi David Lerner

In fact, my Rosh Hashanah sermon was about the need for Israel to remain a Jewish AND democratic state and how Israel’s extremist, racist, and intolerant government was heading in the wrong direction.

Since October 7th, we have held vigils for its victims, rallies for Israel, for the hostages here at Temple Emunah, as well as others in our area, in Boston, and in Washington DC. 

Photo Credit: Temple Emunah, Lexington, MA

And since October 7th, we have seen many pro-Palestinian rallies. If these are peaceful gatherings that call for aid for Gazan civilians, I might be able to support them.

But there is a big difference between rallies, vigils, and demonstrations whose rhetoric turns to hate. When it moves from being anti-Israel to being pro-terrorist. When it moves from anti-Zionist to calling for the deaths of Zionists. When it moves from concern for Gazans to the demonization of Jews.

And sadly, we have witnessed that progression.

Free speech on campuses should not include encouraging violence.

* * *

Let us turn to the Torah for some insights.

As Brooke introduced it so thoughtfully, Parashat Aharei Mot contains several themes and rules that help us live lives of holiness.

The reading opens by remembering the tragedy of the death of two of Aaron’s sons.

God then speaks to Moses aharei mot – after the deaths of his brother, Aaron’s sons, telling Moses to speak to his brother not to enter a certain sacred space because God says “I appear in the cloud over the cover – b’anan eh’ra’eh al-hakaporet.” (Lev 16:2)

This always struck me as a hard image to wrap my head around. 

Why is God in a cloud? 

In the mist?

I used to find it easier to understand other views of God – God as a pillar of fire guiding and guarding the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness.

Real clouds do provide a lot, especially shade and rain.

But clouds mean something else as well.

Clouds represent the bridge between the visible from the invisible.

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They are nuanced, complicated and they are certainly not clear.

Our rabbis picked up on this. The Jerusalem Talmud, edited 1500 years ago in the Land of Israel teaches that clouds – in Hebrew – ananim make people anavim – humble, humble in their relationships and in their conversations.

Clouds represent rain and abundance and when people see clouds it can help them feel that sense of abundance which, in turn, can remind them that every person contains wisdom and goodness, that they have a lot to offer. The clouds help us approach others with a spirit of generosity, treating each other with more kindness. 

In this understanding, they can remind us to listen more to each other.

We could certainly use more listening.

There is another teaching about clouds that I love. The Torah states that during their 40 years of wandering from Egypt to the Land of Israel, the Israelites lived in Sukkot – huts. Rabbi Akiva understands these to be clouds of glory, meaning that the Israelites lived in a Divinely protected or guided space.

But like a Sukkah, clouds do not provide total protection – they are ephemeral, they reveal the nuances of existence.

* * *

I see the time we are living in as similar to the parashah. Like the deaths of Aaron’s sons, the Jewish people suffered an unfathomable tragedy and trauma on October 7th, and its aftermath has brought continued suffering to Israelis and to Gazans.

But the image of the cloud and its message of nuance and complexity, of discussion over demonstrations, is what we and the world need right now.

On the first day of Pesah, we were treated to an amazing talk by Melanie Lidman, an AP journalist in Israel who grew up here at Emunah and also happens to be the daughter of Marcy and Ed Lidman.

Photo credit: Melanie Lidman (used with permission)

She encouraged us to listen to other voices. She encouraged us to check other news outlets – beyond the ones we normally rely upon.

Heeding Melanie’s advice, I challenged myself to step outside my “echo chamber.”

I listened to more Palestinian perspectives, which were hard to take in.

And I had a long conversation with Israelis who are on the right wing of the political spectrum. I heard their pain and loss and had a better understanding of their perspective, even if I disagreed with it. 

While they had given up on any possibility of peace, I am not willing to.

My son Ari attended a dialogue between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students at Wash U and was surprised to learn that the pro-Palestinian students knew almost no history of the conflict. They did not know even the basics like the Oslo Accords peace process. 

There have been many demonstrations and slogans, but little listening and little learning.

Imagine how different the last seven months would have been if a group of Palestinians came to the Jewish students on October 7th to demonstrate their sympathy, and then the Jewish students reciprocated in the days and weeks that followed. 

Imagine if they had entered a dialogue over the horrors that both sides were experiencing during this time.

* * *

If there is one teaching that is central to Judaism is that we do not have to remain in a tragedy. Yes, we remember – as we will this Sunday night when we remember victims of the Shoah and as we will the following Sunday night as we remember those who died on October 7th along with other victims of terror and Israelis who have died in its wars – but beyond memory is hope.

In our tradition we never lose sight of hope; we never, and I mean never, stop dreaming of peace. 

Judaism teaches that we can always imagine a different tomorrow – one of dialogue over divisiveness, one of conversation over conflict, and one of love over loathing.

One of peace – even during – or especially during war.

Peace can help us bring home the hostages like Hirsh Goldberg-Polin who staffed an Israel trip with Gann Academy. Some of our students got to know the wonderful person he is.

The video that came out last week that shows he is alive – although clearly suffering – is a clarion call to do everything to exert pressure on Israel and Hamas to release him.

* * *

So, this Shabbat, let us recommit ourselves to peace, to understanding, to listening to perspectives we may not be open to.

Let us use the image of clouds – the space where God resides to guide us. A space of nuance, of dialogue where we can hold different narratives.

Let us stand with our people and against the demonstrations of hate and antisemitism, but with open hearts.

That’s where God dwells and where we should as well.

* * *

I hope to be back at my former campus next week for my daughter’s graduation. I hope it will be peaceful. And if there are some people who want to protest respectfully, I support their right to do so in a manner that does not disrupt the proceedings.

Maybe some Divine clouds will appear over us – preferably without rain.

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.