FORTY-FIVE YEARS LATER

Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5779 (September 19, 2018)

Where were you on Yom Kippur day 45 years ago? 

Of course, I know that some of you weren’t born yet, but for many of us who are old enough to remember, Yom Kippur day in 1973 was different from all other Yom Kippurs in our lives.  For it was on Yom Kippur 1973, on the holiest day of the Jewish year, that Egyptian and Syrian armies attacked Israeli forces in a surprise attack.  The war lasted for several weeks, amid concerns of escalation since the United States and the Soviet Union were also getting involved and were supporting opposite sides of the fighting.  I was only 12 years old at the time, so I don’t remember it all that well.  But what I do remember is anxiously listening to the news with my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins as we gathered at my grandmother’s house in Queens, New York for the holiday break-the-fast.

Israel suffered major losses in the first few days of the fighting but was soon able to regroup and turn the tide.  However, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War Golda Meir was forced to resign as Prime Minister due to the scandal of Israel’s having been caught up unprepared.

Another major result of the Yom Kippur war was that many Israelis were disabused of any fanciful notion that they might have had that the strategic depth gained by the territorial conquests of the Six-Day War of 1967 would lead to the end of their security concerns.

On the secular calendar, we have just marked two other major anniversaries. Forty years ago this week, on September 17, 1978, the Camp David Accords were signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter.  And twenty-five years ago last week, on September 13, 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn.  Many of us remember that famous tableau of President Bill Clinton standing in between Yitzchak Rabin and Yassir Arafat as the latter two shook hands and vowed no more war.

Those events seem so long ago.  The existential dread of Yom Kippur 1973 and the buoyant hopes in which we still basked on Yom Kippur 1978 and Yom Kippur 1993 have morphed into a pessimistic stasis.   Israel is strong and unlikely to be destroyed.  But Israel is also stuck in an existential crisis to some extent caused by outside forces but also to some extent of its own making.

Last month I spent a couple of days in Washington, DC attending the annual AIPAC National Rabbinic Symposium on August 15th as well as a preliminary conference the previous day for rabbis of Reform congregations at the offices of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (known as the “RAC” for short).  The bulk of the afternoon at the RAC was taken up by listening to Rabbi Eric Yoffie discuss his thoughts on the current situation. He subsequently published an article in Haaretz that repeated much of what he told us in private.

(As you may recall, Rabbi Yoffie was the President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 until he was succeeded by Rabbi Rick Jacobs in 2012.)

When Rabbi Yoffie met with the group of us in Washington last month he emphasized that it is up to Reform Jews and other liberal supporters of Israel “to represent the sensible center, at a time when that center is collapsing.”[1]

He told us of his concern that the American Jewish community has lost the ability to construct a centrist narrative on Israel.  However, he urged that this is a time for us to be thoughtful, creative and astute because otherwise American Jews will increasingly distance themselves from concern for and support of Israel. 

Rabbi Yoffie finds that currently there are three main narratives about Israel that are dominating our discussion and that none of them are helpful.

One narrative, coming from the West Bank settlement movement is that Messianic redemption is at hand and so Israel must therefore resettle the Biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria. 

From the opposite end of the political spectrum, there is what he calls an “End the Occupation Now” narrative from groups like “If Not Now” and “Jewish Voice for Peace.” While these groups are admirable in some respects, the problem with them is that they are open to the possibility of not just the end of the occupation of the West Bank but also of the end of the State of Israel as a Jewish State.   Rabbi Yoffie’s particular critique of these left-wing Jewish groups is that before ending the occupation, Israel needs to have a plan for what comes next.  We should not simply be non-committal on the question of one state or two.

Finally, Rabbi Yoffie observes that there is another current narrative, which he calls the “Peace is Impossible” narrative, which has both a right-wing version and a left-wing version.

The right-wing version is that the Middle East in general is volatile and unstable.  Look at Syria.  Look at Iran.  Look at Egypt.  Look at Libya, etc….  In such a climate, Israel could not possibly ever feel secure enough to make territorial concessions. Thus, as Yoffie writes, “the occupation may be unfortunate, the hawks say, but there is no alternative to the status quo.”[2]

Meanwhile, the left-wing version of the “Peace is Impossible” narrative is that Israel’s relentless expansion of settlements in the West Bank has passed a point of no return and that the “Peace Camp” in the Israeli political scene is too weak to do anything about it.  And, moreover, the Trump administration’s uncritical support of the Netanyahu government has removed any pressure on Netanyahu to pursue peace.

But Rabbi Yoffie sees the Reform movement as being “the voice of the sensible center”.  He says “Our love for Israel is unconditional but not uncritical.”

He says that there is a certain Don Quixote aspect to all of this but nevertheless “we have a dream of peace and we are not going to give up on it.” 

And he reminded those of us who met with him in Washington last month that just six months before Sen. George Mitchell successfully negotiated the 1998 Northern Ireland peace accord Mitchell had described the situation there as hopeless.

So, in other words, things might not be as hopeless as they seem.

From my own perspective, there is a part of me that thinks that if only the Israeli electorate would simply vote out Netanyahu and his allies and vote in a left of center coalition, the peace process would get new life.  It seems so clear to me that there is validity to both the Zionist narrative and the Palestinian nationalist narrative and so therefore we should have territorial compromise and two states living in peace side by side. 

So why don’t the Israelis simply vote for a government that will stop expanding West Bank settlements and that will be more pro-active in negotiating with the Palestinians?  The basic answer appears to be that they trust Netanyahu more than those to his political left regarding security issues.  Indeed, Netanyahu’s major political challenges at the moment appear to be fending off the parties that are further to his right.

***********

Later this afternoon we will have the Avodah Service that describes at length the procedures for purifying the Jerusalem Temple that were to be carried out each year on Yom Kippur.  Of course we haven’t actually carried out those rituals in almost two thousand years.  Instead, the experience of the Avodah liturgy in our machzor is an opportunity each year for us to consider how we can purify our hearts and our world at large.

Nevertheless, there is still something to be gained by retaining our focus on Jerusalem itself, the place, as it says in Psalm 122:

 

שֶׁשָּׁ֨ם עָל֪וּ שְׁבָטִ֡ים שִׁבְטֵי־יָ֭הּ

 

“[…]to which tribes would go up, the tribes of the Eternal, —as was enjoined upon Israel— to praise the name of the Eternal.

There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace.

May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.”

For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being;

for the sake of the house of the Eternal our God, I seek your good.”

Well, it was in Jerusalem where, exactly two months ago today, on July 19th, that the Knesset of the State of Israel passed the so-called “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People.” Or in Hebrew:  “Chok Yisod:  Yisra’el – Medinah HaLe’um Shel Ha’am Hayehudi” 

On Yom Kippur in the periods when the First and Second Temples stood in Jerusalem, the Kohen Gadol would be in charge of purifying it from spiritual contamination.

Today as Jews gather around the world to read of those ancient rituals, we have to be mindful of the danger of spiritual contamination caused by this new law, which was passed by a narrow margin --- 62 to 55, in the middle of the night.

In case you were not familiar with the particular details of the Nation State Law, here is what it says: 

The first section of the law is entitled  “Basic Principles”

A.   The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.

[That sounds good to me.]

B.    The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.

[That sounds good to me as well]

C.    The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

[Now that’s where it gets problematic.  On one level, this is not controversial.  The United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947 spoke of the establishment of a Jewish State.  However, it also spoke of the creation of an Arab state alongside it.  And that Arab state has never yet been established.  So, to put this language in the new law, when there is not yet an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel in which Palestinian Arabs can fulfill their natural, cultural, religious and historical rights to self-determination, turns this new law into an unnecessary irritant.]

[Even more problematic is what is NOT included in this section of the law on “Basic Principles”.  There is no reference to Democracy as a basic principle.  There is no reference to Equality as a basic principle. Israel’s Declaration of Independence had famously declared:  that the new state would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”[3] but we find no mention of those principles among the basic principles listed in the Nation-State Law.]

---------------------

The second section of the law is entitled: “Symbols of the State”

A. The name of the state is “Israel.”

B. The state flag is white with two blue stripes near the edges and a blue Star of David in the center.

C. The state emblem is a seven-branched menorah with olive leaves on both sides and the word “Israel” beneath it.

D. The state anthem is “Hatikvah.”

E. Details regarding state symbols will be determined by the law.

[All of that seems reasonable and straightforward to me, although over the years there has been discussion about how the words of Hatikvah refer only to Jewish identity and how this might make non-Jewish Israeli citizens, who comprise over 20% of the population, feel excluded.]

---------------------

The third section of the law is entitled “Capital of the State”

Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.

[Now this is a deliberately provocative statement.  No rational person can honestly believe that peace with the Palestinians will be achieved without at least part of the Eastern part of the city coming under Palestinian sovereignty.  Even President Trump, who has gotten lots of flak abroad but lots of praise within Israel for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was careful to declare “"We are not taking a position on any of the final status issues including the final boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. Those questions are up to the parties involved. The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides."[4] ]

---------------------

The fourth section of the law is entitled “Language”

A. The state’s language is Hebrew.

B. The Arabic language has a special status in the state; Regulating the use of Arabic in state institutions or by them will be set in law.

C. This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.

[One can easily see how part B causes unnecessary offense to the Arabic speaking portion of the population, even though part C makes clear that the change of Arabic from being an official language to being only a language with a “special status” has no practical effect.]

---------------------

The fifth section of the law is entitled Ingathering of the Exiles

The state will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of exiles.

[This provision goes to the heart of Zionism.  I agree with it wholeheartedly.  Never again must any Jewish person anywhere in the world be at the mercy of anti-semitic persecution without the option to move to our ancient and revived homeland where Jews will always be welcome. This is further spelled out in…]

---------------------

section six which is entitled: “Connection to the Jewish people” ]

A. The state will strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Jewishness or their citizenship.

B. The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.

C. The state shall act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.

[On the one hand, this sixth section of the bill is wonderful, reminding those of us Jews who live outside Israel that Israel will always look out for us all the same.  But what has caused tremendous controversy is that the wording here limits the State of Israel’s concern about the Jewish people to Jews in the Diaspora and not in the State of Israel itself.  That seems crazy, no?  Earlier versions of the bill referred to Jews everywhere not just Jews in the Diaspora.  However, the reason that the final version of the bill was changed so that it referred only to Jews in the Diaspora is because MK Uri Maklev of the Ultra Orthodox Political party United Torah Judaism did not want Israel to help Diaspora Jews advance religious pluralism in Israel in general and at the Western Wall in particular.[5] ]

---------------------

The seventh section of the law is entitled “Jewish Settlement”

A.   The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.

[There are two problems with this section.  First, it could be taken to mean that the State could establish towns and cities that legally bar non-Jewish citizens of Israel from living in them.  Second, it could be taken to refer to the West Bank and not just Israel proper.]

---------------------

The eighth section of the law is entitled “Official Calendar”

The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the state and alongside it the Gregorian calendar will be used as an official calendar. Use of the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian calendar will be determined by law.

[This seems reasonable to me.]

---------------------

Section nine says concerns “Independence Day and Memorial Days”

A. Independence Day is the official national holiday of the state.

B. Memorial Day for the Fallen in Israel’s Wars and Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day are official memorial days of the State.

[No problem]

---------------------

Section 10:  “Days of Rest and Sabbath”

The Sabbath and the festivals of Israel are the established days of rest in the state; Non-Jews have a right to maintain days of rest on their Sabbaths and festivals; Details of this issue will be determined by law.

[Nice!]

---------------------

Finally, section 11 of the Nation-State Law, entitled “Immutability” says:

This Basic Law shall not be amended, unless by another Basic Law passed by a majority of Knesset members.[6]  

--------------------------------------------------------------

All in all, we can see that the law is mostly symbolic.  It mostly spells out aspects of Israeli society that are already in place.  However, in some respects it is polemical and hurtful.

Here’s some of what URJ President Rick Jacob had to say about it:

“This is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy. The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic—and Jewish—nation is enormous.

“We will continue to fight back by promoting the values of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and by forging new ties between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. We will deepen our engagement with Israel, using every means possible to promote a Judaism in Israel that is inclusive and pluralistic and reflective of our values of equality for all. The Israel Reform Movement and the North American Reform Movement passionately oppose this new law because of the harmful effect on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, as well as its negative impact on the balance between the various core founding values of the State of Israel.”[7] [8]

Why was this law passed now?  One prominent commentator who spoke at the AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium I attended suggested that the Nation State Law as it stands is mostly symbolic but, nevertheless, it still has the potential to be a real threat to Israel’s democracy.  How so?  Because if the Israeli political right goes ahead and achieves its goal of having Israel formally annex all or part of the West Bank, then this new Nation State Law would give justification for not extending voting rights to Palestinians who might be absorbed into a Greater Israel.

In the meantime, the law is a big slap in the face to the more than 20% of Israel’s citizens who are not Jewish.  Massive demonstrations were held this summer in Tel Aviv in the aftermath of the passage of the Nation-State Law.  One demonstration was organized by the Druze citizens of Israel.  The other one by the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

They are hurt and frustrated by the tone of the new law, just as many Israeli Jews are. 

As for us, we should all, as Rabbi Yoffie advises, be unconditional but not uncritical lovers of Israel. 

Those of us who don’t live in Israel have, to be sure “less skin in the game.”  But that does not prevent us from criticizing Israel when it needs to be criticized. 

At the same time, I hope that each of you will defend Israel to those who challenge its right to exist. 

We need Israel, and Israel needs us.

Israel is the home of the largest Jewish community in the world.  It is the place where Judaism began and first developed.  It is the place that we look to as a refuge for Jews facing anti-Semitic dangers anywhere in the world.  It is the only place in the world where Jewish culture can flourish as a public, majority, national culture. 

Our congregation, along with Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha, Wisconsin, will be going to Israel in late October of next year.  There’s a discount if you register by October 1st of this year.  Details are in the bulletin and TTW and posted here at Temple.  I hope some of you will be able to join us.

In the meantime, let us wish for one another gmar chatimah tovah, that we and all Israel be sealed for a good year ---  a year of health, happiness and prosperity and a year in which the prospect of peace for Israel and the Palestinians and for the world at large might be achieved.  Im Tirtzu eyn zo agada – If you will it, it is no dream.[9]

Gmar chatima tovah.

 

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg (Yom Kippur 2018/5779)


[1] https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-what-on-earth-can-rabbis-say-about-israel-this-rosh-hashana-1.6433074

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_Declaration_of_Independence

[4] https://www.cnn.com/2017/12/06/politics/president-donald-trump-jerusalem/index.html

[5] http://arza.org/resource/58

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_Law:_Israel_as_the_Nation-State_of_the_Jewish_People#cite_note-TOI-180718-20

[7] https://urj.org/blog/2018/07/18/urj-president-rabbi-rick-jacobs-statement-israels-nation-state-law

[8] For further critique of the Nation-State Bill see https://www.nif.org/news-media/press-releases/backgrounder-jews-nation-state-bill/

[9] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/38474-if-you-will-it-it-is-no-dream

Posted on September 20, 2018 .

COILED SPRINGS

Sermon for Kol Nidre Night 5779

September 18, 2018

I guess it’s not strange that, as a member of the clergy, I am often intrigued and absorbed by artistic portrayals of clergy.  So when the film “First Reformed” came out earlier this year I was primed to see it.  I did so on a Saturday night in June when I was in Milwaukee as the installation speaker for my friend and colleague Rabbi Michal Woll at her new congregation.  The film “First Reformed” had premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival and features the amazingly talented actor Ethan Hawke.  A brief synopsis on the film’s official website describes the plot as follows:

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a solitary parish priest at a small church in upstate New York, which is on the cusp of celebrating its 250th anniversary. Now more of a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation, it has long been eclipsed by its nearby parent church, Abundant Life, with its state-of-the-art facilities. When a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, Toller is plunged into his own tormented past and finds himself questioning his own future and where redemption might lie. With the pressure on him beginning to grow, he must do everything he can to stop events spiraling out of control.[1]

Ethan Hawke’s character in “First Reformed” is basically destroying himself physically and emotionally. He is in a state of existential despair over the fate of the world and of his ability to do anything about it.  And as the film progresses, his actions become more and more extreme and ethically problematic.

“First Reformed” is a somber and disturbing film.  As I wrote afterwards to my Reconstructionist rabbi colleagues on our listserve RRANET:

[…] [B]oy was that an intense piece of cinema!  I found the film very gripping and I came out of there thinking – wow – Ethan Hawke’s character certainly needed some better pastoral supervision and support!  But, without giving too much of the plot away in terms of spoilers, I’d say that the film powerfully reminds us clergy-folk that we are not God, we are not saviors and we cannot single-handedly cure the world’s ills.  And to forget that lesson can lead to tragedy for ourselves and for others whom we would purport to serve.

Then in July, Liam and I were in Chicago on vacation and we saw a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s theater piece entitled “Mass.”   A big part of that piece also involved a clergyperson, identified in the program notes only as “the Celebrant.”  And like Ethan Hawke’s character of Reverend Toller in “First Reformed,” the Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” is also having an emotional and spiritual breakdown over the state of the world and of his ability to do anything about it.

And recently I watched the third and final season of the British television series “Broadchurch” on Netflix.  “Broadchurch” takes place in a fictional small seaside town which over the course of the program’s three seasons has had to deal with communal crises involving murder and rape.  The first role to have been cast when the series was in its initial phases of production was the role of the town’s Anglican priest, Reverend Paul Coates.  It’s played by Arthur Darvill, whom the Doctor Who fans in the house will remember played the character of Rory on that series. 

Although Reverend Coates is a minor character in “Broadchurch” let it be said that whenever his character is on screen he too appears downtrodden, frustrated, pessimistic and anguished.

As we gather together on this most awesome of these Days of Awe, I want to assure all of you -- and I am happy to report -- that that is not how I feel.  I am neither downtrodden, nor frustrated, nor pessimistic nor anguished.  Thank God. 

And I sincerely hope that none of you are feeling downtrodden, frustrated, pessimistic or anguished.

Yes, there is plenty going on in any of our personal lives and in the world at large that could, as my late mother would say, give us conniption fits.  And far be it for any of us to deny that opportunities exist for tikkun ha-olam (the repair of the world) and tikkun ha-nefesh (the repair of our souls.). 

Each of those fictional clergypersons I’ve mentioned   ----  Reverend Ernst Toller in “First Reformed,” the Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” and Reverend Paul Coates in “Broadchurch” could be described as being “tightly wound” and ready to explode. 

I am thankful and feel blessed that, at least at this particular moment in my life, I do not personally feel tightly wound and ready to explode.  Rather, I am grateful for the love in my life, grateful for the adventures I have had thus far in my life, and grateful for the privilege of doing the work I do in this wonderful community.

But I have certainly had times in my life when I DID feel that way.  And I might in the future.  And I am sure that all of you as well have in the past been, or right now are, or might in the future be feeling downtrodden, or frustrated, or pessimistic, or anguished, or tightly wound and ready to explode.

The word “Ya’aleh” means “Let it rise”. 

In the poem “Ya’aleh” that we read a little while ago, I love how the poet Ruth Brin transforms for us the idea of being “tightly wound.” Rather than exploding destructively when we are tightly wound she encourages us to think of Yom Kippur as an opportunity to release our pent-up energies in a positive direction.  She writes:

The day, Yom Kippur, is like a person’s life:

It begins in darkness and ends in darkness:

It has a time to prepare, a time to labor,

And a time to reflect before the closing of the gates.

The years follow one another

Alike as the coils of a tightly wound spring

But on Yom Kippur we think of our power

To release that spring: to soar upward.

I pray that each one of us, despite whatever challenges and crises we have faced in the past or are facing today, or might face in the future is able to find comfort and strength in the support of family, in the support of friends, in the support of one another here in our congregation --- and in the support of the spiritual resources at our disposal, and, in particular, in the gift of this day of Yom Kippur. 

The climax of the piyyut Unetaneh Tokef says that repentance, prayer and charity can ease the harshness of whatever ills may befall us.  Not that they can eliminate them.  For God does not prevent bad things from happening to good people.  But rather, God is with us in both the good and the bad.

As for me on this Yom Kippur 5779, as I said --- I am generally happy and healthy and content. 

However, I always knew that someday it was likely to happen:  Someday, the words of Psalm 27, which we traditionally recite throughout the month of Elul and on through the fall holiday season, would come true for me.  As it says in Psalm 27 verse 10:

כִּֽי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי  וַֽה'  יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

(Ki avi ve’imi azavuni, vadonai ya’asfeyni)

Though my father and mother abandon me, Adonai will gather me in.[2]

With the death of my father, Arvin Steinberg, last December, I have now lost both of my parents.  My mother, Beverly Steinberg, had died a year and a half before that, in June 2016.     

As some of you may know, in Hebrew the word “Torah,” and the word for teacher (moreh or morah), and the word for parents (horim) all are derived from the same Hebrew verbal root yod-resh-hey.  So, I find it striking that the very next verse of Psalm 27 begins with the plea to God -- “Horeni Adonai Darkekha”[3] / “Teach me, Adonai, your ways”.  But in light of that grammatical connection  --- with only the most infinitesimal of poetic license --- we could translate “Horeni” Adonai”  not just as as “Teach me, Adonai” but also as “Parent me, Adonai”

When I profess that I look to God to teach me, guide me, PARENT me --- what I mean to say is that I look to my faith in God to provide a sense of safety and security, and I look for a sense of guidance, clarity and comfort.

As it says in the hymn Adon Olam,


בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי,
בְּעֵת אִישַׁן וְאָעִירָה.
וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי,
יְיָ לִי וְלֹא אִירָא.

B'yado afkid ruchi f
b'et ishan v'airah.

V'im ruchi g'viati
Adonai li v'lo irah.  

Into [God’s] hand I commend my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake;
And with my spirit, my body also: the Lord is with me, and I will not fear.

As I continue to observe the year of mourning for my father, and as I continue to remember my mother   --- indeed, as I continue to do so every single day --- it is a comfort to me that we now have plaques in their memory here on one of our memorial boards, and that their names are in print in the “Roll of Remembrance” that we will distribute at the yizkor service tomorrow afternoon.

It is a comfort to me that a photo of my parents renewing their vows on their 50th wedding anniversary in 2010 is on my desk in my office, and that other photos of them are displayed in my home.

It is a comfort to me that, whatever actually happens to us after we die (and I’m personally agnostic on the details of the afterlife), my parents remain with me in my memories, in my values, and in my outlook on life.

It is a comfort to me that I have received such heartfelt support from many of you in the wake of these losses that I have experienced.

And it is a comfort to me that Judaism provides a framework for life that existed before my parents were born and continues to exist after their deaths and will continue to exist beyond the lifetimes of every one of us gathered here this Kol Nidre night.

But enough of about me.  What about you?

Whatever state you find yourself in on this Kol Nidre night, may you be comforted in your sorrows, may you rejoice in your blessings and may we be forgiving of others as God is forgiving of us.

Gmar chatimah tovah ve-tzom kal/ May we be sealed for a good year and may those who are doing so have an easy fast.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg (2018/5779)


[1] https://www.firstreformed.film/synopsis/

[2] Psalm 27: 10

[3] Psalm 27:11

Posted on September 20, 2018 .

STRANGERS AT THE GATES

(Sermon for First Morning of Rosh Hashanah 5779/ September 10, 2018)

I really liked what our Temple President Josh Widdes wrote in his bulletin article this month.  Josh wrote:

“As we look around our country and the entire world at all of the division and anger towards others that maybe don't see things from your point of view:  Understand that the only way our world will continue to get better is to show respect for others’ opinions and beliefs.  We have to live together no matter the circumstances. “

Josh has it right!  Jewish tradition for centuries – and not just for centuries ---  for millenia -- has distinguished between makhlekot leshem shamayim / arguments for the sake of Heaven --- and makhlekot shelo beshem shamayim --- Arguments not for the sake of heaven.

When we try to put our heads together to seek solutions to common problems, the interplay of conflicting conceptions is a valuable exercise.  But when our policy debates devolve into tribalistic hatefests that deny the integrity of the other --- then we end up worse off than when we began.

Last night we talked about the word “teruah.”  Liturgically speaking, teruah is that rapid fire shofar sound which in the Talmud is compared to the sound of a cry of alarm or distress.   And this holiday is called in the Torah --- Yom Teruah.  And, let it be said, many of us are indeed distressed at the current state of our nation.

However, as I shared with you last night, the medieval commentator Rashi  defined “teruah”   as leshon chibah ve-re’ut/ an expression of love and friendship.[1]

As loving friends we don’t have to agree on everything.  Unanimity of opinion has never been a primary Jewish value. In general, we Jews don’t have schisms – we have arguments for the sake of heaven.  

Or, at least, that’s the ideal.

It is also, I would suggest, the ideal for American society. 

Our national motto may be “E Pluribus Unum”/ “Out of Many, One” but the vigorous competition of ideas has always been a strength of our nation. 

In these United States, can we still be friends in the midst of these heated times? 

One of the most famous stories of friendship in the Talmud, at least among the rabbinic circles in which I have travelled, is a story that teaches us that -- as President Josh has suggested in his bulletin article --  debate can be harmful if done in an atmosphere of condescension but beautiful if done in an atmosphere of mutual respect:

This Talmudic tale is found masechet Bava Metzia, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud which is mostly concerned with matters of civil law.  I won’t repeat the whole story here because it gets a little complicated.  But the upshot is that there was this big muscular guy named Resh Lakish who was a bandit, a thief, a good for nothing scoundrel.  But one day he laid his eyes on Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai  --  and was entranced by how beautiful he was.

(It’s quite a homoerotic account – I’m leaving out some details but you can check out Baba Metzia 84a if you don’t believe me.)

Anyway, the Talmud pulls back from that aspect of the tale and goes on to recount how Rabbi Yochanan took Resh Lakish under his wing and taught him Torah until Resh Lakish become one of the foremost scholars of his generation --- as well as becoming Rabbi Yochanan’s friend, study partner and brother-in-law in the process.

But one day, years later, there was a big academic debate in the study hall of Rabbi Yochanan’s yeshiva.  The sages were arguing obscure halachic questions about at what point in the process of manufacture do various metallic weapons become subject to ritual impurity.  Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan asserted differing views on the matter at which point Rabbi Yochanan lashed out at Resh Lakish in a personal attack and said in front of all the sages who were gathered there:

לסטאה בלסטיותיה ידע  / lista’a belistiyutey yada

“A thief knows about thievery!”

Friends, that’s not the way to argue.

In fact, as the Talmud’s tale continues, Resh Lakish was so embarrassed and hurt by Rabbi Yochanan’s insensitive jibe that words escalated on both sides and the two friends became estranged. 

Here let me pick up the story in the words of the Talmud itself, as translated and interpreted by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:

As a result of the quarrel, Rabbi Yoḥanan was offended, which in turn affected Reish Lakish, who fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan’s sister, who was Reish Lakish’s wife, came crying to Rabbi Yoḥanan, begging that he pray for Reish Lakish’s recovery. She said to him: Do this for the sake of my children, so that they should have a father. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to her the verse: “Leave your fatherless children, I will rear them” (Jeremiah 49:11), i.e., I will take care of them. She said to him: Do so for the sake of my widowhood. He said to her the rest of the verse: “And let your widows trust in Me.”

Ultimately, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, Reish Lakish, died. Rabbi Yoḥanan was sorely pained over losing him. The Rabbis said: Who will go to calm Rabbi Yoḥanan’s mind and comfort him over his loss? They said: Let Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat go, as his statements are sharp, i.e., he is clever and will be able to serve as a substitute for Reish Lakish.

Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat went and sat before Rabbi Yoḥanan. With regard to every matter that Rabbi Yoḥanan would say, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would say to him: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakha by itself would become broadened and clarified. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good? Being rebutted by Reish Lakish served a purpose; your bringing proof to my statements does not.

Rabbi Yoḥanan went around, rending his clothing, weeping and saying: Where are you, son of Lakish? Where are you, son of Lakish? Rabbi Yoḥanan screamed until his mind was taken from him, i.e., he went insane. The Rabbis prayed and requested for God to have mercy on him and take his soul, and Rabbi Yoḥanan died.

End of story.

I am always moved by this story. 

Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan had a falling out because their philosophical debates got sidetracked by personal insults and condescending behavior.

But when mutual friends tried to fix Rabbi Yochanan up with a new friend, with a new study partner – Rabbi Yochanan remained miserable because the new guy was a yes man who would just agree with him all the time and wouldn’t argue with him.

***************

So, my remarks so far in this dvar torah are basically a very long winded way of me saying that I agree with Temple President Josh – and with centuries of Jewish tradition --- that debate is healthy but disrespect and condescension is not.

It gets challenging, however, to keep our debates on a respectful plane when the stakes seem very high and when the underlying assumptions of the different sides seem very far apart.  That is certainly the case in our country today.

One particular area of ideological conflict that has preoccupied our society in recent months is the debate over immigration and asylum law as it affects our border with Mexico. 

My friend Neal Rosendorf is a history professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and a resident of the nearby border city of El Paso, Texas.  He recently published an article about the situation at the El Paso-Juarez border in the journal The American Interest. 

Here’s some of what Dr. Rosendorf has to say on the topic:

Let me be clear: Every state has the right to control its borders and to decide who, how many, and on what schedule they should be admitted. This is as true for the United States as it is for any other country. At the same time, America’s history as a land of opportunity and a haven for refugees puts it on a different moral-historical plane than other states, at least for those of us who still embrace the notion of American exceptionalism and Ronald Reagan’s vision of “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.” But the basic, indeed defining, concept of a viable state having the capacity to maintain secure borders and exercise discretion over entrants is incontrovertible.

“The central question is: How do we decide what constitutes how many, and on what schedule? And then how should we carry out that policy? It is here that things get particularly sticky, given the noxious molasses of racism and xenophobia coursing throughout American history and the difficulty of separating it out, both intellectually and instrumentally, from the necessary task of making and enforcing rational immigration policies.

“I have always maintained, including in classrooms full of Hispanic immigrants and their children at New Mexico State University where I teach, that completely defensible arguments concerning the devising and implementation of immigration quotas—including reducing as necessary the number of legally admitted immigrants per year—can be made on the basis of economics, costs of social service provision, infrastructure and environmental stresses, preservation of respect for the rule of law, and national security. Furthermore, circumstances change so that potential immigrant cohorts who are an asset at one juncture can legitimately be perceived as a liability at another. The devil is in the criteria, the fraught historical context, and, crucially, the tone.

[…]

“President Obama’s immigration and expulsion enforcement policies were vigorous to the point that liberal immigration advocates denounced even him. But even as they did so, no one believed that the President of the United States harbored racial animosity toward [Central Americans or Mexicans][2] or countenanced it in others, much less that he had made it a central plank in his appeal for support. But from the moment Donald Trump rode down the escalator of Trump Tower in June 2015 to vilify Mexicans coming illegally into America as “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he drew a blood-red line between his predecessor’s policy and his own. […][3]

I think Neal Rosendorf does a great job of teasing out the complexities of the topic. 

From my own perspective, however, and I’m sure Neal Rosendorf would agree with me on this, I would suggest that --- as Jews --- we always need to look at the human impact of whatever we do or whatever is done in our name. 

We read this morning in our Torah portion how Hagar and Ishmael were forced to wander through the wilderness under harsh conditions such that Hagar was at one point convinced that Ishmael would die of thirst. 

That’s a story from centuries ago – and, really, who knows how historically factual it is?

But it is nevertheless a story that resonates in today’s world.

Today, in 2018, at the start of the Jewish year 5779, undocumented migrants fleeing gang violence, or fleeing political repression, or simply fleeing poverty, face conditions easily as harsh as those faced by Hagar and Ishmael, as these poor souls wander through the desert regions of the American southwest. 

Let me share with you an account that my colleague Rabbi Margaret Holub posted to RRANET, a listserve for members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.  She posted this early last month, around the same time that Neal Rosendorf was publishing his journal article that I shared with you just now. 

Rabbi Holub writes:

“Hi folks — I’m just back — along with [rabbinical] colleagues Brant Rosen, Ari Lev Fornari, Salem Pearce and Shahar Colt and about 55 other faith leaders — from Faith Floods the Desert, a solidarity action organized by No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths together with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Association.  About sixty clergy-types, including the five of us rabbis, joined the extraordinary, mostly volunteer humanitarian aid workers of No More Deaths and the local Ajo Samaritans to leave water for migrants making the crossing in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, a remote, magnificent and blistering hot area of the Sonora Desert.   Since 2001 the remains of approximately 7,000 people have been recovered in the Arizona desert by volunteer groups like the ones we joined —  including 57 this past year from the desert area where we left water.  Many more people have been reported missing but never found.   

“Since the mid-1990’s folks from No More Deaths and others have been leaving water and other lifesaving supplies in the most remote and inhospitable places in the desert where migrants are known to pass.   In recent days many of the gallon jugs of water have been found slashed or crushed.  Analysis by NMD shows that it is extremely likely that this destruction of lifesaving water is being done by Border Patrol officials.  More recently still, nine NMD activists have been charged with Federal crimes of abandoning property (jugs of water) in a wildlife refuge and similar offenses.  This was the motivation for organizing this more public action by faith leaders — to shine a light on the obstacles being put in front of these humanitarian aid workers to prevent them from doing pikuach nefesh. [saving life]. It was also one more lens onto the particulars of US immigration policy and how these particulars actually affect — and sometimes destroy — the lives of human beings seeking refuge in the United States.  

“It was 110 degrees yesterday when we were in the desert.  The soles literally melted off Brant’s hiking shoes.  We ferried 125 gallons of water out to spots where we hope that they will bring some bit of relief and safety to people who need them.  And hopefully we provided some solidarity to these heroic activists who do this work week after week, year after year.  

“I know that many of you are involved in all kinds of important work supporting immigrants and refugees in these times.  I wanted to let you know about the experience that the five of us just had — just because it was so powerful and also in case any of you would like to know more about No More Deaths or about what we witnessed in the desert.  I’d be happy to share my experiences and thoughts, and I’m sure the other four rabbis (and anyone else who joined us on the delegation) would as well.”

Rabbi Holub added to that post a link to two letters from No More Deaths supporters, one asking the land managers of the various Sonora Desert areas to permit humanitarian aid to migrants, the other to the US Attorney for Arizona to drop the charges against those already charged with violations connected with humanitarian aid in the area.  I have signed on to those letters and I’ll include the link when I upload my High Holiday sermons onto the www.jewishduluth.org  website so that you can also sign on if you choose.[4]  

As we gather today to mark the Jewish New Year, issues surrounding the plight of would-be migrants, refugees and asylum seekers continue to be fought over in a hyper-partisan way.  However, surely there exist legislative and administrative solutions that can address both humanitarian concerns as well as concerns for border security and the rule of law.  

Such issues have been with us from time immemorial.  Today’s Torah reading from the Book of Genesis spoke of the plight of Hagar and Ishmael as they wandered through the wilderness of Beer-Sheva, but of course all four of the remaining books of the Torah are filled with accounts of our ancestor’s wanderings through the wilderness of Sinai in search of a better life.  And, speaking of Genesis --- even its opening saga of Adam and Eve tells of their expulsion from Eden and the trials and tribulations that would follow. 

As we move into this new year 5779, may we be granted the wisdom and the perseverance to advocate for our nation to live up to its highest ideals in offering refuge to those in distress, and the chance for a better life to those who would seek to join our society. 

May we sort out the means for doing so in a spirit of mutual respect – leshem shamayim – for the sake of heaven.

And may all of us ---- friends, neighbors and the strangers at our gates, be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of health, happiness, prosperity and peace.

Amen.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2018/ Tishri 5779)


[1] Rashi on Num. 23:21

[2] In his article Dr. Rosendorf actually uses the term “Mesoamericans” but I felt that that term would not be readily familiar to my audience.  According to Wikipedia, “[t]he Mesoamerican region (often abbreviated MAR) is a trans-national economic region in the Americas that is recognized by the OECD and other economic and developmental organizations, comprising the united economies of the seven countries in Central AmericaBelize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama — plus nine southeastern states of MexicoCampeche, Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Veracruz, and Yucatán.[1] […] Situated within the wider region of Middle America (on the tapering isthmus of southern North America), the geographical region defined by the MAR loosely correlates with that of Mesoamerica, the pre-Columbian culture area defined and identified by archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and ethnohistorians.[3] For several thousand years prior to the European colonization of the Americas beginning in the early 16th century, the diverse cultures and civilizations of Mesoamerica also shared in common a number of broad cultural, historical and linguistic traits. The modern-day indigenous populations who are the descendants of pre-Columbian cultures number roughly over 11 million people (approx. 17.2% of total regional population) spread across the MAR economic territory,[4] and are largely among the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups in the region.[5]

[3] https://www.the-american-interest.com/2018/08/09/suffer-the-little-children-the-view-from-el-paso/

[4] http://forms.nomoredeaths.org/show-your-support/  

Posted on September 20, 2018 .

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE

Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

September 9, 2018

It’s wonderful to see all of you here tonight, but I know what you’re all really waiting for as far as Rosh Hashanah is concerned: The spectacle of the sounding of the shofar tomorrow morning.  Maureen O’Brien will surely do a great job with that important role as she does each year.  And we also look forward to Gerry Wallace doing the honors on Tuesday during our Second Day Rosh Hashanah morning service.

There are many complex thoughts and emotions that arise in us when we observe the mitzvah of “lishmoa kol shofar”/ “hearing the sound of the shofar”.

In the signature verse for the Rosh Hashanah Amidah from Psalm 81 that we sang earlier tonight we declared:

תִּקְע֣וּ בַחֹ֣דֶשׁ שׁוֹפָ֑ר

 

Tik’u vachodesh shofar

From that imperative verb form “tik’u” we get the noun “tekiah,” which is why our machzor translates the phrase “Tik’u vachodesh shofar” into English as “sound teki’ah on the shofar on the New Moon.” The rabbis of old interpreted the verse to refer to the new moon of Tishrei.  And --- fun fact --- the Zohar, the main text of the Jewish mystical tradition, notes that when spelled in Hebrew,  בראשית

(“Bereshit”) --- the first word of the Torah --- meaning “in the beginning” – is an acronym for בא  תִּשׁרִי    (“Ba Tishrei”) --- Tishrei comes….

Well the month of Tishrei is here, and with it, our celebration of Rosh Hashanah on the 1st and 2nd days of Tishrei.

Oddly enough, this holiday is never referred to as “Rosh Hashanah” in the Bible.

And, although we highlight the verse in Psalm 81 that says “sound Tekiah on the shofar on the New Moon” --- this holiday is never referred to as “Yom Tekiah”

But there IS another name for Rosh Hashanah right there in the Torah that refers to the sound of the shofar.

As it says in the Rosh Hashanah maftir Torah reading that we will read from the second of two scrolls tomorrow:

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. It shall be “Yom Teruah” for you.”   (Num. 29:1)

And in Psalm 47, which in some machzorim is included as part of the shofar service, it says:   

עלה אלהים בתרועה ה' בקול שופר

(“alah elohim bitruah, adonai vekol shofar”)

“God ascends with a “teru’ah”; Adonai, to the sound of a shofar.”

What is this “teru’ah” of which Scripture speaks?

The sages debated what a “teru’ah” on the shofar should sound like.  Some said it should sound like sighing --- an interpretation reflected in what we now call “shevarim”  -- three notes whose total length adds up to the length of one “tekiah” blast.  That word “shevarim” means “broken” --- and thus it reminds us of the brokenness of our world and of God’s call to us to work together to heal and repair it.  

Other sages said that “teru’ah” was a crying sound – an interpretation reflected in the series of nine short notes to which we do indeed now give the name “teru’ah”. 

In Tractate Rosh Hashanah of the Talmud we learn that the teruah sounds should remind us of the distressed wailings of Sisera’s mother as she awaited her son’s return from battle. 

Sisera was a bitter Canaanite enemy of the Israelites who was killed in battle by Ya’el, and the image of Sisera’s weeping mother comes from the Song of Deborah in the Book of Judges.  It’s all portrayed very much as a just war.  And yet, in this most charged ritual of Rosh Hashanah we are supposed to remember the tears of the mothers of our enemies.[1] 

What a profound model of empathy and compassion that is for us – the shofar reminding us to remember the human cost of war.

But tonight I’d like to highlight a more joyful understanding of the concept of “teru’ah”.

The new Jewish Publication Society translates the word “Teruah” in Psalm 47 verse 6 as “acclamation” ---

עלה אלהים בתרועה

(“alah elohim bitru’ah”)

“God ascends with acclamation”. 

The word “teru’ah” is derived from the verb להריע (lehari’a),  which, in my dog-eared copy of the Oxford University Press Hebrew-English Dictionary is defined as “to cheer, shout for joy, applaud or acclaim.”[2]

One particularly well-known use of the verb “lehari’a” ----  is found in Psalm 100 – well known in the sense that this Mizmor Letodah/ Psalm of Thanksgiving is part of the traditional weekday morning liturgy throughout the year.

There we find these words of acclaim:

הריעו לה' כל־הארץ

(“Hari’u ladonai kawl ha’aretz”)

The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translates this as: “Raise a shout for the LORD, all the earth.” But we could also translate it as “Make a TERU,AH sound to Adonai all the earth….

If the verb lehari’a means to acclaim – and “teru’ah” (the noun derived from that verb) is an acclamation, a shout for joy, a cheer…

What is it that we are acclaiming? What is it that we are enthusiastically praising when we hear those rapid notes of the “teru’ah” on this Jewish New Year – on this “Yom Teru’ah?”

At the most basic level, we acclaim the simple joy and miracle of being alive --- as it says in Psalm 146:  “Halleluyah – Praise the Eternal O my soul.  I will praise the Eternal all my life, singing hymns to my God while I exist.” 

Or, to put it another way, as we heard in the passage that we read earlier in tonight’s service from the writings of the physician and poet Lewis Thomas ---- “The probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise…. You’d think we’d never stop dancing”[3]

You know, when we go through our Torah reading cycle each year there are always new lessons to learn in each and every go-around.  And a few months ago, in our Shabbat morning Torah study group we encountered another possible definition for “Teru’ah”  -- which I have been thinking about ever since.

It comes in Torah portion Balak.  That’s the parasha in which a Moabite king named Balak hires a pagan prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam finds himself compelled by God to bless the Israelites instead.  The most famous verse in Balaam’s various speeches is the line that we know well from our morning prayers – Mah tovu ohalekha ya’akov, Mishkenotekha yisrael”   ---   which our “On Wings of Awe” machzor translates as “What goodness fills your tents, O Jacob, The Places where you dwell, O Israel.” (Num. 24:5)

The verse in Parashat Balak that mentions the concept of “teru’ah” comes earlier in that Torah portion:  In Numbers 23:21 Bilam blesses the Israelites with these words: 

“No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel; Adonai their God is with them, and the teru’ah of the sovereign is in their midst.”

And what is this “teru’at hamelekh” this “Teruah of the sovereign?”

The Jewish Publication Society translation, consistent with its translation of “teruah” in Psalm 47 as “acclamation,” translates it here in Parashat Balak as “their King’s acclaim”. 

We had previously seen “teru’ah” translated as “acclamation”.  However, the 11th century commentator Rashi , commenting on Numbers 23:21, says teruah is לשון חבה ורעות,  (leshon chibah vere’ut) --- “an expression meaning love and friendship.”

Rashi cites the example of  2 Samuel 15:37, where a character named Chushai is described as “the רעה (re’a) of David’ — “the friend of David.”

It’s all a lovely Hebrew word play.  For my fellow grammar nerds in the hall – the word “teru’ah” is derived from the root letters resh-vav-ayin --- but Rashi wants us to understand it as coming from the root letters resh -ayin – hey.

For my fellow music theory nerds in the hall, I’d suggest he’s treating the word like a pivot chord in a piece of music that is modulating to a new key.

Rashi, through this play on words, is saying that the word “teruah” can be seen as being related to the words “re’a” (friend) and “re’ut” (friendship)

For me this brings to mind a beautiful passage from the Sheva Berachot—the seven blessings of the Jewish wedding ceremony:

“same’ach tesamach re’im ha’ahuvim kesameychakha ytzirkha began eden mikedem”

“May you, O God, bring great joy to these re’im ha’ahuvim/ these loving friends as you brought joy to your creations in the Garden of Eden.”

So, this Rosh Hashanah, each time we hear those teru’ah acclamations on the shofar, or read about them in our machzor, we might think about love, about friendship, about companionship ---- about the miracle of human connection that goes back to the dawn of humanity.

And, amid all of this --- as it says in Psalm 81

עלה אלהים בתרועה

(“alah elohim bitru’ah”)

 

“God ascends with a teru’ah”. 

Meaning – I would suggest – that we experience the infusion of Godliness in the world when we cultivate “teru’ah” --- which stands for friendship – love – companionship and fellowship --- with one another.

That is what enables us to find that sense of gratitude and shalom that we seek, even amid the inevitable challenges and hardships of daily life and even amid the painful evidence all around us of a world still filled with injustices to be rectified and sufferings to be assuaged.  

As we learn in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a)

או חברותא או מתותא

(O chevruta, o mituta)

“Friendship or Death”

which Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explains is an expression meaning that one who has no friends is better off dead.

Indeed, elsewhere in the Talmud, in Tractate Berachot 58b we learn –

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his or her friend after thirty days have passed since last seeing that friend recites:

ברוך שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

(Barukh shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazman hazeh)

Blessed…Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time.

And one who sees his or her friend after twelve months recites:

ברוך מחיה המתים

(Barukh mechayey hametim)

Blessed…Who revives the dead.

Or, as my friend and colleague Rabbi Lina Zerbarini expresses it, “true friendship brings a piece of you alive.”

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this can get challenging as we get older.

Work responsibilities and family responsibilities can have the effect of distancing us from friends.

Social media can create virtual ties with friends old and new, near and far ----  but if we live too much “on line” and not enough “in real life”   --- those computerized interactions will still leave us hungry for more substantial connections.

Our regular Shabbat evening siddur, Mishkan Tefila features a beautiful reading by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg that opens with these words:

May the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship….

Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teru’ah – The Day of Friendship.

May we be blessed in this New Year with good friends who support us and encourage us and care for us – and, even more importantly, may we be blessed with the wherewithal and the generosity of spirit to be able to be a good friend to others.

Getting involved in the life of our congregation is a good way to start!

And so ---

HIney mah tov u mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad – How good it is!  How sweet it is! To be together on this day.

And may this day be the start of shanah tovah u’metukah – a good and sweet year to come for one and all.

Amen.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg (2018/5779)


[1] Rosh Hashanah 33b

[2] Kernerman – Lonnie Kahn Oxford University Press English-Hebrew Hebrew-English Dictionary, Ya’acov Levy, editor, 1995, p. 72 [Hebrew to English section]

[3] Machzor Mishkan HaNefesh for Rosh Hashanah (CCAR Press), p. 127



Posted on September 20, 2018 .

STAYING IN THE LOOP

Thoughts on Shofetim (2018/5778)

(Deut. 16:18 = 21:9)

[Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday 8/17/18] 

Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Shofetim, deals with many aspects of civil governance.  We are probably most familiar with the phrase that appears near the beginning of the parasha, “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof” – “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20) – words that inspire us to concern ourselves with society at large, and not only our own personal needs. 

Many different interpretations have been offered through the centuries regarding why the word “Tzedek/Justice” is repeated  -- Why doesn’t it just say “tzedek tirdof” / “justice you shall pursue”  Why does it instead reiterate TZEDEK TZEDEK. – JUSTICE JUSTICE?  In our own time, when our country is so politically divided, perhaps the most relevant interpretation is the one that suggests that the word “Tzedek”/”Justice” is said more than once  because there is more than a single view of what it means depending upon whom you ask.

This year we are in year two of our triennial cycle of Torah readings.

Our second triennial year readings open with the following passage, which, admittedly, doesn’t immediately jump out at you as being super dramatic or exciting. 

But here it is:

In Deuteronomy 18: 6-8, we read:

6 If a Levite would go, from any of the settlements throughout Israel where he has been residing, to the place that the Eternal has chosen, he may do so whenever he pleases. 7 He may serve in the name of the Eternal his God like all his fellow Levites who are there in attendance before the Eternal. 8 They shall receive equal shares of the dues, without regard to personal gifts or patrimonies.

According to Rashi and other commentators, the Levite referred to here is not just any old Levite but rather a Levite descended from Aaron’s family, i.e. a Kohen or Priest.  We had learned earlier in the book of Deuteronomy that once the Israelites would be settled in the Land of Israel, local sanctuaries would be outlawed and all sacrificial worship would take place only at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Biblical and historical evidence is not totally clear or consistent[1] about what happened after that.  However, the general traditional understanding is that the various priestly families would be divided up into mishmarot –or watches – with each kohen serving at the Jerusalem Temple for a one-week stint twice each year.   

These Levitical Priests were given special portions of the animal and grain offerings that they helped administer.  As it says at the beginning of Deuteronomy 18: 

The levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no territorial portion with Israel. They shall live only off the Eternal’s offerings by fire as their portion, 2 and shall have no portion among their brother tribes: the Eternal is their portion, as [God] promised them. 3 This then shall be the priests' due from the people: Everyone who offers a sacrifice, whether an ox or a sheep, must give the shoulder, the cheeks, and the stomach to the priest. 4 You shall also give him the first fruits of your new grain and wine and oil, and the first shearing of your sheep.

This scenario raises the question:  What if they had no other source of sustenance during the 50 other weeks of the year when it was not their scheduled rotation?

So, Parashat Shofetim comes around and says --- even if it’s not currently his scheduled rotation time of active service, he could still come to Jerusalem and share in the priestly benefits

To be cut off from that source of sustenance would have been unthinkable.

In the URJ Women’s Torah Commentary, it is explained:

Since Deuteronomy outlaws local sanctuaries, the Levites formerly serving at those sanctuaries can no longer earn a livelihood except at the central sanctuary. Those who do not serve ther must depend on communal charity, along with the widow, the fatherless and the stranger.  Our passage seems to try to avoid that situation by providing the option for the unemployed Levite to find employment and allotment from sacrifices at the central sanctuary.  (Women’s Torah Commentary, p. 1149, note to Deut. 18: 6-8)

What possible connection can all of this have to our contemporary concerns?

Well, the continued priestly prerogatives of the Levites even when not currently their time of service reminds me of the continued security clearances of intelligence officials even when not currently their time of service. 

Their continued access to top secret information makes them more marketable as private consultants, just as the retention of priestly prerogatives for off-duty Levites helps assure them of economic security.

But, of course, it’s more than that:  

The 13th century French Torah commentator Chizkuni  explains that the Levites:   “were travelling teachers, leaving the towns set aside for the Levites and visiting small communities in order to teach there.”[2]  Thus it was beneficial to society as a whole that they continue to get their allotments even if they weren’t serving in the current Temple contingent.

Similarly, we could argue that it is important and beneficial to society that folks like CIA and FBI directors   ----  the modern equivalent of the Levites of old if you will --- should retain their security clearances – the modern equivalent of the priestly prerogatives of old if you will.

As CBS News reporter Olivia Gazis explains: “Former intelligence and law enforcement officials commonly retain their security clearances in order to ensure institutional continuity and in the event their expertise proves useful to their successors.” https://www.cbsnews.com/amp/news/top-former-intelligence-bosses-speak-out-in-favor-of-brennan/?__twitter_impression=true

That’s an observation that should seem obvious to us:  After all, right there in Psalm 92, the Psalm for the Sabbath Day,  that we chanted earlier in the service tonight, we said about  righteous people  -- OD YENUVUN BESEYVAH – they continue to be fruitful in old age. 

In other words, it behooves us to keep in the loop those vatikim/ the veterans among us --- whose prior experiences can help us address the complexities of our own day.

Cutting them off from being able to do so hurts not just them but us. 

And, indeed, that is the message that was relayed by a dozen former CIA directors from both Democratic and Republican administrations this week when they issued the following statement[3]

As former senior intelligence officials, we feel compelled to respond in the wake of the

ill-considered and unprecedented remarks and actions by the White House regarding the removal of John Brennan’s security clearances. We know John to be an enormously talented, capable, and patriotic individual who devoted his adult life to the service of this nation. Insinuations and allegations of wrongdoing on the part of Brennan while in office are baseless. Since leaving government service John has chosen to speak out sharply regarding what he sees as threats to our national security. Some of the undersigned have done so as well. Others among us have elected to take a different course and be more circumspect in our public pronouncements. Regardless, we all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances – and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech. You don’t have to agree with what John Brennan says (and, again, not all of us do) to agree with his right to say it, subject to his obligation to protect classified information. We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case. Beyond that, this action is quite clearly a signal to other former and current officials. As individuals who have cherished and helped preserve the right of Americans to free speech – even when that right has been used to criticize us – that signal is inappropriate and deeply regrettable.  Decisions on security clearances should be based on national security concerns and not political views.

So ends the statement that was signed onto by Robert Gates, William Webster, George Tenet, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus and others.

We are fortunate in our fractious era that individuals of good will remain committed to public service even as we continue to debate the proper course our nation should take in pursuit of justice.

We experience blessing when we can be open to considering the wisdom of those who have been there before and who continue to desire to contribute.

Od Yenuvun Beseyvah/ They shall be fruitful even in old age.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg

August 2018/ Elul 5778 

 

 

 

[1] See Encyclopdia Judaica on the subject https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mishmarot-ma-amadot

[2] Chizkuni on Deut. 18:6 as retrieved on www.sefaria.org

[3] https://www.cbsnews.com/amp/news/top-former-intelligence-bosses-speak-out-in-favor-of-brennan/?__twitter_impression=true

Posted on August 21, 2018 .

COLD CALLS

(Thoughts on Bechukotai 5778/2018)

Lev. 26:3 – 27:34

Dvar Torah given on Friday evening 5/11/18

This Shabbat we come to the end of the Book of Leviticus, with Torah portion “Bechukotai.”  

Most of the parasha consists of a short list of blessings followed by a long list of curses that God promises as rewards for obeying or as punishments for disobeying God’s mitzvot.

The blessings and curses run the gamut from military victories and defeats, to agricultural surpluses and shortages, to climatic forecasts, to psychological syndromes.

It can be sort of a slog to read through, let alone study and meditate upon. The conditionality of it is I guess what troubles me.  Why doesn’t Torah just assert that God loves us unconditionally, whether we obey or whether we disobey? 

If we translate this to the sphere of human relationships, who cannot but feel that love should be freely given and received, and not conditioned on performance.

This weekend is Mother’s Day Weekend, and as I remember my mother, who died a little less than two years ago, that’s the one message that stays in my heart always, and that I think about every day --- that she loved me unconditionally and that, in the words she often repeated to me – that she was always “in my corner.”

And yet, when I look closer at Parashat Bechukotai, I find that, yes, there is still a way for finding the heart embedded within its stern language.   The clue first appears midway through the long list of curses and threats, at Leviticus 26:21, where we read:

וְאִם-תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי, וְלֹא תֹאבוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ לִי--וְיָסַפְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַכָּה, שֶׁבַע כְּחַטֹּאתֵיכֶם. 

Ve'im-telchu imi keri velo tovu lishmoa li veyasafti aleychem makah sheva kechat'oteychem.

The Jewish Publication Society translation renders this as: “And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins.”

Yeah, I know that doesn’t immediately stand out as the sort of touchy-feely sentimentality we may be hoping for.  But consider this:  This Hebrew word “keri” – translated here as “hostile” --- has never up until now appeared in the Torah.  It is repeated several times in the remainder of this chapter – but it never again appears anywhere else in the Bible. 

What is it telling us here?

The notion that “keri” should be translated as “hostile” comes from Onkelos, who translated the Torah from Hebrew to Aramaic back in the 2nd century C.E.  He translated “keri” as “hardness” or “obstinancy”[1] because he thought that the word “keri” was connected to the Hebrew root “koof-resh-resh” meaning “coldness.”[2]  (In modern Hebrew, “kar” (קר) means cold, and a “mekarer”   (מקרר) is a refrigerator.) 

In other words, the Torah is saying here that what God, as it were, is so upset about is not so much our disobedience but rather our coldness. 

And, isn’t that true in our personal relationships as well?

None of us are perfect and we all make mistakes and mess up from time to time in our interactions with one another --  But, what is hardest to forgive – what strains our ties to the breaking point – is when we are cold to one another.

Thinking about this notion reminded me of that song from the rock band “Foreigner” that came out in 1977:

You're as cold as ice
You're willing to sacrifice our love
You never take advice
Someday you'll pay the price, I know

I've seen it before
It happens all the time
Closing the door
You leave the world behind

You're digging for gold
Yet throwing away
A fortune in feelings
But someday you'll pay

You're as cold as ice
You're willing to sacrifice our love

An alternative translation favored by various medieval commentators renders the Hebrew word “keri” as “accident” or “happenstance”.  They understand the word as being derived from the Hebrew root koof-resh-hey, like the Hebrew word “mikreh” (מקרה)   —meaning a coincidence or random occurrence.   

So, as Rashi writes: 

וְאִם-תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי   “Our Rabbis said that the word ‘keri’ means ‘irregularly’, ‘by chance’, something occurring only occasionally so here it means “if you follow the mitzvot only occasionally”[3] 

And in a way that can be even worse, right?  If you care about someone and they only think about you occasionally or when you happen to come to mind, that can conceivably be even more painful than if they were hostile towards you but at least thinking about you.

I’m sure I’ve shared many times that one of my earliest memories of Hebrew School when I was a kid in Brooklyn, was my Hebrew School teacher Rabbi Shapiro telling us that it was okay to be angry with God, but that the big sin would be to ignore God.

And, indeed, doesn’t that apply to our own interpersonal relationships as well.  Better to be angry – and express it – than to shunt our loved ones out of our consciousness altogether.

It’s always, always true that what matters is the heart and the warmth that we put into our relationships and not the scorecard of what we do right and wrong.  This message comes through when we search for it.

Even in those passages of the Torah that seem harshest.

And even in those personal interactions in life that seem most fraught with emotion.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 (c) Rabbi David Steinberg 2018/5778

 

[1] וְאִם תְּהָכוּן קֳדָמַי בְּקַשְׁיוּ (retrieved at http://www.mechon-mamre.org/i/t/u/up0310.htm

[2] Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (p.186)

[3] Rashi on Lev. 26:21

Posted on May 13, 2018 .

WHAT'S IT TO YOU?

(Dvar Torah on Parashat Bo [Exodus 10:1 - 13:16] given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 1/19/18)

In our yearly Torah-reading cycle, we’re in the second of the five books of the Torah.  In Hebrew it’s called “Sefer Shemot” (“The Book of Names”) because it starts out with the declaration,  

וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃

These are the names (Hebrew: “shemot”) of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household. (Ex. 1:1)

However, the English titles for the books of the Torah are based on the main subject matter of the book.  In English, we call the second book of the Torah “Exodus” – and this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, is the one in which the exodus that gives the book its English title actually occurs.  As we read in Exodus 12:40-41: 

וּמוֹשַׁב֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָשְׁב֖וּ בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה׃

 וַיְהִ֗י מִקֵּץ֙ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֗י בְּעֶ֙צֶם֙ הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה יָֽצְא֛וּ כָּל־צִבְא֥וֹת יְהוָ֖ה מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

“The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.

And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of the Eternal departed from the land of Egypt.”

And, a few verses later, at the end of the chapter, it reiterates:

וַיְהִ֕י בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה הוֹצִ֨יא יְהוָ֜ה אֶת־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם עַל־צִבְאֹתָֽם׃

“That very day the Eternal freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.“[1]

The weird thing about Exodus chapter 12, however, is that most of the rest of the chapter digresses from the narrative of the Exodus and instead talks about the laws for celebrating Passover in generations to come.

Most of us are familiar with at least some of those laws because they are embodied in the ritual of the Passover Seder, one of the most widely observed Jewish traditions, even among Jews who are not particularly religiously observant.

You may recall a well-known section of the Passover Haggadah – the description of four types of children who are present at the seder: The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who doesn’t even know how to ask a question.  The midrash of the four children grew out of the fact that, in the Torah, it says four different times that one must tell one’s child about the story of the Exodus.  And much of the language of the Haggadah is based on the language in the Torah.

But every year when Parashat Bo comes around I always find myself wondering about one particular section in which the Torah and the Haggadah diverge.

Specifically, in Exodus 12:26 it says:

וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

“And when your children ask you, ‘What is this service to you?’”

This you may recall is the question that, in the Passover Haggadah, is asked by the so-called “rasha” or “wicked child.”  By calling this child “wicked” we already have a sense of what the writers of the Haggadah thought about that kid’s question.  In the Haggadah, we are told that when the wicked child asks that impertinent question we should respond harshly:

“What does the wicked child say? “What is this service to you?!” Saying “to you”—implying that it is not for him. By excluding himself from the community, he denies an essential principle. You should ‘blunt his teeth’ (speak harshly to him) and say to him: “It is because of this that the Eternal acted for me when I left Egypt—for me, but not for him. If he [the wicked child] had been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

But this harsh response in the Haggadah is different from the response given in the Torah.  When we read that same question

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

"What is this service to you?"

in Parashat Bo, at Exodus 12:26, the response given in verse 27 is this:

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל

“You shall say, ‘It is the Passover offering to the Eternal, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’”

So, in the Torah, this child is not labeled wicked or rebellious. 

In the Torah, the parent answers with a description of the miracle of Passover that does not include any reprimand of the questioning child.

In short, the Biblical era parent seems to take the child’s question in stride, to welcome it even.

But the rabbinic era parent in the Haggadah is defensive and reactive and annoyed, and basically scolds and shames the kid.

I find myself imagining that this parent is one particular parent at different times in their life, and I wonder what that parent went through that made them so jaded that they became reactive and accusatory when they had once been open-minded and engaging.

I’m not personally a parent, so, unsurprisingly, I find myself thinking about my myself in the role of the child.  In doing so I think about my own parent -- or, more specifically -- about my own father, Arvin Steinberg, who passed away just a few weeks ago.

My earliest memories of Passover seders were of my grandfather, my father’s father, Boris Steinberg, leading the seder.  Pop-Pop, as we called him, would speed-read through the full traditional Hebrew text of the Haggadah (though we still paused to do all the ritual actions like eating the karpas (parsley) and the charoset and the matzah, and – of course – hiding and later ransoming the afikomen ...)

When Pop Pop died, or more specifically, the last Passover of his life, when he was in the hospital over Passover and we had seder without him, the next in line to lead the seder would have been my father.  But Dad asked me to lead our family seder instead.  He said it was because he didn’t have any patience for impertinent interruptions.  Actually, he wasn’t even talking about me and my siblings.  He was talking about HIS younger brother, my Uncle Joey, who passed away about four or five years ago.  And I do remember Uncle Joey being really impertinent and disrespectful during previous seders.

In any event, I’ve led many a seder since then, both with my family of origin, and for congregational seders after I became a rabbi.

And I think I’m generally a patient guy and I give it my best effort never to disrespect an impertinent kid.  (or grown-up for that matter).

But since Parashat Bo is this week’s Torah portion, I want to think a bit more about that question:

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

“What is this service to you?”

If someone says that to me, whether about the ritual of the Passover seder, or about this Shabbat evening service that we’re at right now, my reflexive inclination is more like the Torah parent   -- sharing the message of God’s beneficent care --- than the Haggadah parent  -- who scolds the questioner as being a sneering punk.

No, I do not find myself wanting to say – Whaddya mean TO YOU?  Don’t you think of yourself as part of the Children of Israel? As part of the Jewish people?  What?  Are you so assimilated and divorced from your Jewish identity that you think it’s something just to sneer at from a distance?

No – Believe me that’s not where I’m at.  After all --- That kid at the seder table is present! He didn’t run off!  He showed up!

And, as for each of us here at this Shabbat service, we all made the effort to be here.  That counts for a lot! That deserves respect and appreciation!

It all comes down to how we understand the question.

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

“What is this service to you?”

Maybe that child just really wants to understand who his parent is as a person deep down.  Maybe that child just really wants to be empathetic when saying “What is this service TO YOU?”.  Maybe that child really is just the opposite of stand-offish and self-centered.

I guess I am, to a certain extent, that “Rasha,” that wicked child.  But it’s not because I asked the impertinent questions.  Rather, it’s because I didn’t ask them!  I never asked my father – or at least I didn’t ask him enough --- the supposedly “wicked” question of  

מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃

 “What is all this to YOU?”

I never really got to know – or at least didn’t get to know enough -- what his feelings were deep down – what his essence was really all about.

I’m not here tonight to scold myself about this --- or to scold any of you about how deep or shallow your relationships are or were with your parents or with other loved ones in your life.

I guess the piece of Torah that’s sticking in my craw on this Shabbat, less than a month after my father’s death, is not so much the explicit commandment about what the parent should answer but rather the unspoken commandment to the child to be outwardly focused enough to ask the question in the first place.

Rest in peace, Dad. I hardly knew you.  I wish I had more often been “wicked” enough to probe more deeply, asking “what is all this to you?”

And Shabbat shalom u’mevorach --- A sabbath of peace and blessing to each one of us, to all of our loved ones, both those who are here with us and those who are not here with us.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg

(January 2018/ Shevat 5778)

 

 

[1] Exodus 12:51

 

Posted on January 23, 2018 .

MIXED BLESSINGS

(Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday, 1/12/18)

Thoughts on Vaera (5778/2018)

(Exodus 6:2 – 9:35)

It has been another one of those frustrating days in our country when we are drained and demoralized by the latest stain on America’s reputation in the world.  One of the top trending search terms on Twitter today is an eight-letter word allegedly spoken by President Trump that I am not going to repeat here.  He reportedly used it in a White House meeting yesterday with congressional leaders to describe countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America from which he would prefer we do not accept immigrants. 

These were countries with majority non-white populations. 

By contrast, he is reported to have wondered aloud why we could not be trying to get more folks from places like Norway.

My reflexive reaction as a way of fortifying myself today was to reach for the 12th century advice of Abraham Ibn Ezra in the poem “Ki Eshmera Shabbat,” which is one of those traditional zemirot sung on Shabbat.  It’s chorus and first verse go like this:

כִּי אֶשְׁמְרָה שַׁבָּת אֵל יִשְׁמְרֵֽנִי,
אוֹת הִיא לְעֽוֹלְמֵי עַד בֵּינוֹ וּבֵינִי.

אָסוּר מְצֹא חֵֽפֶץ עֲשׂוֹת דְּרָכִים,
גַּם מִלְּדַבֵּר בּוֹ דִּבְרֵי צְרָכִים,
דִּבְרֵי סְחוֹרָה אַף (אוֹ) דִּבְרֵי מְלָכִים,
אֶהְגֶּה בְּתוֹרַת אֵל וּתְחַכְּמֵנִי.

Ki Eshm'rah Shabbat El Yishm'reini,
Ot hi lol'mei Ad Beino uveini.

Asur M'tso chefetz, Asot d'rachim,
Gam mil'daber bo divrei ts'rachim,
Divrei s'chora af (o) divrei m'lachim, ehgeheh b'torat Eyl utchakmeini.

 “If I keep the Sabbath, God will keep me. It is a sign for ever between God and me.

"Forbidden are business or practical tasks, Even speaking of the things we need, Or about money or politics; I will ponder God’s Torah and it will make me wise.”

Thus, Ibn Ezra advises us that on Shabbat we should avoid the workaday preoccupations of the rest of the week, not least of which is דִּבְרֵי מְלָכִים “divrei melachim”. 

This expression “divrei melachim” is often translated as “politics” but it can also literally be translated as “words of rulers”.

Well, the words of THIS nation’s head of government that we learned about this week are certainly worthy of being banished from our hearts and minds if we wish to create a nation of brotherhood and sisterhood and a world of Shabbat peace. 

Yes, perhaps we are indeed better off following Ibn Ezra’s example:

אֶהְגֶּה בְּתוֹרַת אֵל וּתְחַכְּמֵנִי / Ehgeh betorat Eyl, utechakmeinu --- “I will ponder God’s Torah and it will make me wise.”

So, let us not focus on the explicit word that President Trump has made famous in this week’s news reports.  Instead let us focus on an ambiguous word found in this week’s Torah portion. 

It’s the word עָרֹב (“arov”) which first appears at Exodus 8:17.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va’era, includes the account of the first seven of the ten plagues that God inflicts upon the Egyptians before they are willing to let the Israelites go forth from slavery to freedom. 

“Arov” is the name of the fourth of the plagues.

As we read in Exodus 8: 16-18:

16 The Eternal said to Moses, "Get up early in the morning and set yourself before Pharaoh as he is coming out to the water, and say to him, 'Thus says the Eternal: Let My people go that they may worship Me. 17 For if you do not let My people go, I will send against you and your servants and your nation and your houses the “arov” – and the “arov” will fill all the houses of the Egyptians, as well as the ground they stand on. 18 But on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no “arov” shall be there, that you may know that I the Eternal am in the midst of the land. 

What does the Torah mean by “arov?”

The sense of the Hebrew name for that fourth plague is somewhat ambiguous.  The word “arov” in Exodus 8:17 literally means “mixture,” without specifying what sort of mixture.  Older Bible translations, following Rashi’s commentary, translate “arov” as a mixture of different kinds of wild animals.  Other translations, including the Jewish Publication Society version used in the Plaut Torah commentary propose that “arov” refers to a swarm – specifically, a swarm of insects.

The same word, with slightly different vowels, also describes the “mixed multitude” עֵרֶב רַב   (erev rav) who ultimately went forth from Egypt along with the ethnic Israelites.[1]

Yet another use of the same word ,“erev,”  brings us the idea of “evening.” 

Erev tov/ good evening.

Erev Shabbat/ Sabbath Eve.

Ma’ariv/’ the evening prayer service.

For what is evening, erev, but a mixture of day just ending and night just beginning? (Remember that traditionally, Kabbalat shabbat services would be beginning just as the sun was setting.).

This plague of “mixture”/ “arov”, like all the other plagues in the Passover story, strikes at the Egyptians but spares the Israelites. 

Looked at in a more symbolic manner, we might say that the phenomena described in our Torah portion harm only those who of their own accord experience “mixture” as a plague:  Those who would cling to a society that seeks to deify itself while enslaving those who are different.

But on the other hand, if we embrace diversity rather than trying to subjugate it, then the mixture is no longer a curse but a blessing.   AROV/MIXTURE becomes not a plague of swarming insects or marauding wild animals, but rather a multicolored panorama of God’s work of creation.

We find a related idea in the wording of the traditional blessing for Torah study.  When we have our Saturday morning Torah study group each week, we usually just recite the first sentence of that blessing, in which we praise God for the mitzvah of “La’asok bedivrei Torah”/ “Occupying ourselves with words of Torah.” However, the longer form of the blessing, continues by quoting language taken from the Talmud (Berachot 11b):

הערב נא ה' אלהינו את דברי תורתך בפינו ובפיפיות עמך בית ישראל

“[M]ake sweet (Hebrew: “ha’arev”), Adonai, our God, the words of Your Torah in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people, the house of Israel,

The word “ha’arev” is a verb form (hifil) that shows causation so “ha’arev” means “cause those words of Torah to be arov --  sweet or pleasant.

Think about this concept:  MIXED = SWEET OR PLEASANT.

“Please, O Adonai our God, “HA’AREV” “make sweet” (or “make pleasant”) the words of your Torah in our mouths.”

Here we understand that the idea of a mixture/ “AROV” can imply sweetness and pleasantness – not just fearful swarms.

It all depends on how we view “mixing” (“Arov”) in general.

And what about EREV/THE MIXTURE OF DAY AND NIGHT/ WHICH WE CALL EVENING…

When we have faith that the protecting embrace of God is with us in the dark of night as well as in the light of day, then this transitional time, moving from day to night, becomes for us a time of blessing, not a time of fear and anxiety.

As we mark the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend we recall that one of the most inspiring aspects of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s was that it brought together an “Erev Rav” / “a mixed multitude” of people of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds in the fight for civil equality for all.

And, similarly, a mixed multitude of people of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds have come to the United States from before its founding to the present day.  They haven’t all come from wealthy countries.  They haven’t all come from majority white countries either.  We can “Make America Great Again” by remembering that our strength as a nation is in our diversity.

We continue to see in the unfolding of history, the transformation of plague to blessing as we “mix things up” in our lives.  As we share our Torah with others and as we take in the Torah that others share with us.  Then “Arov” becomes not a plague but a blessing. Not swarms but sweetness.

Shabbat shalom.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg (January 2018/ Tevet 5778)

 

[1] Exodus 12:38

Posted on January 18, 2018 .

NOT JUST ESAU

(Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday, 11/17/17.  I am very appreciative of the thoughtful insights shared with me by Gayle Held which helped me in crafting this Dvar Torah.)

Thoughts on Toledot  (5778/2017)

(Gen. 25:19 – 28:9)

Early on in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, God addresses Rebecca as she suffers through a rough pregnancy.  God tells her that she will have twins, each of whom will be the leader of a nation.  Moreover, as it says in Genesis 25:33, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר /verav ya’avod tza’ir. The Jewish Publication Society translation found in our Plaut Torah commentary translates this as “the elder shall serve the younger.”  However, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes[1] that the Hebrew ---- וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר / verav ya’avod tza’ir --- is ambiguous. We could just as easily translate it as either ----  “the elder shall serve the younger”  or as “the elder shall the younger serve.” 

When the twins are born, Esau (also known as “Edom” because of his “Admoni” or “reddish” complexion) comes out first. And Jacob (or Ya’akov from the Hebrew word “ekev” meaning “heel”) follows immediately afterward “וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו” / v’eyado ochezet ba’akeiv Eisav (“with his hand grasping Esau’s heel.”) (Gen. 25:26)

Esau is described as a hunter, while Jacob is a tent dweller. 

Esau is associated with the great outdoors, Jacob with the study hall.

Ultimately, these twin brothers become archetypes for alternative conceptions of masculinity.

Esau is course and uncouth.  When he comes in all grimy and smelly from the field and sells his birthright to Jacob in return for the lentil stew that Jacob has prepared, the Torah describes him brusquely: 

וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ; וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה

Vayochal, vayesht, vayakom, vaylekh; vayivez Esav et habechorah.

(“He ate, he drank, he got up and went; so Esau despised his birthright.”)[2]

According to Rashi, the most famous of the Jewish commentators of the medieval period, Esau wasn’t just uncouth, he was also violent.  The Torah reports that Esau got married when he was forty-years old, but Rashi comments:

“For the first forty years of his life, Esau would kidnap wives from their husbands and take them forcibly. When he turned forty he said, Father was forty when he married and I will do likewise.”[3]

Perhaps if they lived today, the women whom we are told that Esau assaulted during his first forty years might come forward and share their stories on Twitter or Facebook.  As it is, they remain nameless to us.

In recent weeks and months reports of sexual harassment and assault have proliferated.   It seems like every day we read of yet another man who has behaved horribly.  

But, in fact, sexual harassment and assault have been a fact of life from time immemorial

We might try to separate ourselves from this sordid tale, telling ourselves that this is a problem of the Esau’s of the world, of the sorts of men whom our tradition has rejected as being “other.” 

By contrast, a quiet, studious, domesticated guy like Jacob, whom our tradition sets up as the role model for later generations, would never be a sexual predator like the ruffian Esau.

However, one of the sad and sobering realizations of recent times has been that sexual assault, rape and molestation have been committed in this world not just by the Esau’s of the world but by the Jacob’s as well.  Not just by the politically conservative but also by the politically liberal.  Not just by the macho men but by the metrosexuals.

Our tradition includes evocations of loving relationships that help us to go beyond ourselves to the level of mystical communion with the divine.  Shabbat itself is compared to a bride.  God is compared to a lover.

And we pray that our own personal relationships share in that quality of holiness.

But, sadly, infuriatingly, we know that so often in the world, this is not the case. 

I’m pretty sure that, if we were to do a survey of the membership of our congregation, or, indeed, a survey of the families on the street where we live, we would find a high percentage of people who have experienced sexually predatory behavior, or who have known someone who did.

But Shabbat is supposed to give us a hint of the better world to come.

There must be some silver lining that we can find in the wake of these disturbing revelations. 

Well, perhaps it is merely just this:

The times are changing.

Behavior that might have been dismissed in the past as “boys just being boys” is no longer acceptable today.  Victims of sexual harassment or assault who in the past might have felt alone and afraid to speak, are now finding supportive community – both in the real world and in the world of cyberspace – so that they now have more of an ability to tell their stories.

May God help us and our society to find a way forward towards a world in which each person’s integrity is respected and protected; towards a world where interpersonal connections are based on love and respect, rather than on violence and oppression.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg (November 2017/ Cheshvan 5778)

 

[1] http://www.rabbisacks.org/jacob-right-take-esaus-blessing-toldot-5775/

[2] Gen. 25:34

[3] Rashi on Gen. 26:34

Posted on December 1, 2017 .

AMONG THE BOUNDARY-CROSSERS

Sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5778

(September 30, 2017)

Last night I spoke a bit about the introductory paragraph before the Kol Nidre prayer, in which we proclaim: “Anu matirin lehitpalel im avaryanim”  -- “We grant permission to pray with transgressors.” 

As I also mentioned last night, the word עברינים  / avaryanim  (“transgressors”) is linguistically related to the word  עברי / ivri – (“Hebrew”).  Both words come from the verbal root ע.ב.ר.  )ayin-vet-resh( – the basic meaning of which is “to cross over” or “to pass.”

I mentioned the midrash about how Abraham was called “Ivri”/ “Hebrew” -- because he was proud to stand up for his beliefs even if that put him mey’ever echad/ on one side of a philosophical divide while the whole world stood mey’ever echad/ across from him on the other side of the philosophical divide.

Another explanation about why Abraham was called “ha-Ivri” (“the Hebrew”), taken from that same midrash passage in Bereshit Rabbah, simply says: 

וְרַבָּנָן אָמְרֵי שֶׁהוּא מֵעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר, וְשֶׁהוּא מֵשִׂיחַ בִּלְשׁוֹן עִבְרִי.

But the Sages say – that he was “mey’ever hanahar” (“from across the river”), and he spoke Hebrew.[1]

(The river being referred to there is the Euphrates River.[2])

Fast forward a few centuries and the latter books of the Torah talk a lot about crossing over the Jordan River as, for example, in Torah portion Nitzavim, where Moses refers to

הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹבֵר אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן, לָבוֹא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ

the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.[3]

All this reminds us that, as Jews, we are boundary crossers – like Abraham and Sarah when they left their native land to go forth to a land that God would show them; and like the generation that grew up in the wilderness of Sinai after their parents had gone forth from Egypt.

If our Jewish identity is bound up with the idea of being boundary crossers, so much more so for our identity as Americans.  If you go back far enough (and for some of us you don’t have to go back very far at all) none of our families originated within the borders of the United States.  And that’s even true for American Indians in the sense that anthropologists tell us that they came to North America across a land bridge from Asia a few thousand years before everyone else came along. 

Speaking of Parashat Nitzavim, many Reform and Reconstructionist congregations read from Parshat Nitzavim (starting in Deuteronomy chapter 29), for their Yom Kippur morning Torah reading, instead of the traditional reading from Parashat Acharei Mot (starting in Leviticus 16) that we read in our own Torah service this morning.

Let’s all turn to page 443 right now and read the English translation of that first paragraph of Parashat Nitzavim out loud together:

You stand today – all of you – before Adonai your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officials, every man, woman, and child in Israel, the stranger in the midst of your camp, form the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, that you may enter into the sworn covenant of Adonai your God which Aodani your God is confirmeing with you this very day, for the purpose of establishing you as the people whose only God is Adonai, as you have been promised, and as God swore to your father, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  But it is not only with you that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before Adonai your God, and with whoever is not here with us today.[4]

From just this first paragraph, we can readily see why the Reform and later the Reconstructionist movements included this passage as an alternative Yom Kippur morning Torah reading.

The reading from Parashat Nitzavim emphasizes the idea of inclusion, of everyone being part of the process, not just an elite few.  While the traditional Torah reading in Leviticus focuses on one High Priest making atonement on behalf of everyone else in the community, this alternative Torah reading has a much more democratic focus.  Look at the way it starts:

“You stand today – all of you – before Adonai your God”

and the passage then goes on to include every single person in society – men, women and children; community leaders and common folk; citizens and resident aliens; present attendees and future generations. All are to be included in the transmission of Torah and in the establishment of a covenant with God.  

This emphasis on democratic inclusion is particularly appropriate for liberal Jewish movements like Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism which reject the continuation of special honors for Kohanim and Levi’im, the descendants of the priestly castes.  Also, this inclusiveness naturally leads to our contemporary advocacy for equal opportunity for all --- without invidious discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, physical disability or other factors. 

But getting back to the idea of boundary crossers – its’ especially noteworthy in the Torah’s language in Parashat Nitzavim that it explicitly includesגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ “gerkha asher bekerev machanekha --  meychoteyv eytzekha ad sho’eyv meymekha”/ .  “the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.” 

The traditional rabbinic interpreters identify these woodchoppers and water carriers as Canaanites who came to the Israelite camp claiming that they wished to convert to Judaism.  Rashi, following the lead of the Talmud, argues that Moses doubted their sincerity, yet agreed to let them stay and assigned them menial labor tasks like chopping wood and drawing water.

It would behoove us not to gloss over the implications of this:  We seem to have here a recognition that mistrust of foreigners has a long pedigree in Jewish tradition.  This is a trait that we ought to combat within ourselves even as we recognize how easily we can succumb to it.  

Let us remember the contemporary counterparts to these ancient woodchoppers and water carriers: The people from Mexico, Salvador, Haiti, Somalia, Syria and elsewhere who struggle for a secure foothold for themselves and their families in a strange new land. 

For many, the Rio Grande crossing to El Norte has become the modern equivalent of the Jordan crossing to Eretz Yisra’el.

And remember:  As Jews and as Americans, whether or not we have United States green cards or passports, we are still all boundary crossers or the descendants of boundary crossers.  We are still all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

Americans of goodwill may, and do, differ on the specifics of how best to construct a fair immigration policy for our country. 

Nevertheless, our tradition calls upon us to remember the strangers in our midst --- the choppers of wood and drawers of water who stood with us in our journey to freedom.  Responding to that call today, we must make sure that our legitimate concern with protecting our borders does not lead to the oppression of resident aliens within our borders who are struggling for existence.  And this is especially true in these times.  For it would be easy to succumb to xenophobia as we continue to be on the defensive against international terrorism even now, sixteen years after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

I know that we’re not serving lunch here at Temple today as we do almost every other Shabbat of the year.  But it’s worth recalling the words with which we begin the Birkat Hamazon or Grace After Meals, those stirring opening words of Psalm 126:

שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב ה' אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים׃

Shir hama’a lot beshuv Adonai et shivat tziyon hayinu ke-cholmim

“A song of ascents. When the Eternal returned the fortunes of Zion —we were like dreamers.”

On this Shabbat Shabbaton – This Sabbath of Sabbaths[5] which is Yom Kippur – we remember today’s cholmim – todays’ “Dreamers” – the undocumented young adults who arrived in this country as children and know no other home but the United States of America.  We hope and pray – and we advocate and lobby – that Congress will rise to the task of setting the DACA program on a firm legislative footing.

And we hope and pray – and we advocate and lobby – on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world who are desperate to reach our shores. 

The United States does not have the capacity to absorb all of the potential immigrants of the world or all of the potential asylum seekers of the world or all of the potential refugees of the world.

But our faith as Jews, and our heritage as Americans, impels us do our part – and to advocate that our country does its part.

That we not sit idly by in the face of discriminatory travel bans, or heartless forced family separations, or miserly refugee limits.

May God be with all of us boundary crossers --- nitzavim hayom lifney Adonai – standing today in the presence of the Divine – today and in the days to come.

Gmar chatimah tovah/ May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health, happiness, prosperity and peace.

And Shabbat Shalom!

© Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2017/ Tishri 5778)

[1] Bereshit Rabbah 42:8 

[2] See Joshua 24: 1-4

[3] Deuteronomy 30:18

[4] Deuteronomy 29: 9-14 as translated by Rabbi Richard N. Levy, in On Wings of Awe (revised edition),  KTAV Publishing House in Association with Hillel: The Foundation of Jewish Campus Life (2011), p. 443

[5] Leviticus 16:31

Posted on October 3, 2017 .